Arts and Sciences
Archaeologists surveying the site of highway construction in Warcq, a town in the Ardennes department of northeastern France, have unearthed a rare Gallic chariot tomb from the first to mid-second century B.C. Inside the tomb is an aristocrat of Remi tribe, one of the first Celtic tribes to have settled Gaul. They buried their aristocrats in pits, resting on top of their chariots, since the 6th century B.C. and several hundred of them have been unearthed in the region.
This one is unique, however, for several reasons. It is exceptionally large at five square meters (54 square feet), dwarfing the other known tombs of this type. It was also found intact, untouched by tomb robbers, and in an exceptional state of preservation. The waterlogged clay soil has preserved most of the timber framing, including the roof which has collapsed on the tomb contents. The late date of the burial is also exceptionally rare. Most Remi chariot tombs date to the start of the second Iron Age (5th-4th century B.C.).
The team has not yet been able to determine if the human remains belonged to a man or a woman. A man, a chieftain and military leader, is the likelier candidate, but women have been found in chariot tombs as well. Forensic anthropologists will attempt to determine sex from the skull and pelvic bones, but if they’ve sustained too much damage to be identifiable, the grave goods will help pinpoint whether a woman or a man was buried there. Military artifacts will point to a man’s burial, household goods to a woman’s. To the left of the skeleton archaeologists found some beads, but they were probably part of the deceased’s coat rather than grave goods in their own right.
The metal strapping from the two wheels of the chariot has survived, and amazingly enough, so have fragments of gold leaf that archaeologists believe once coated the inner wheel. The hubs are decorated with bronze features inlaid with glass paste. These precious elements strongly indicate this was a ceremonial chariot rather than a utilitarian piece.
Buried with the deceased were four horses. They were quite petite, 4’3″ at the withers, and were sacrificed specifically to accompany their master on his or her journey to the afterlife. Their skeletons appear to be intact at this point. The skull of one of them was lodged under one of the wheels of the chariot, but the bones of two horses buried along the western wall are still articulated. Four horses are another unusual feature in a Remi chariot tomb. The common find is a simple pair of horses. The remains of a fifth smaller animal (possibly a pig) have also been unearthed.
This survey was only scheduled to last three weeks before highway construction began, so the archaeologists are battling against time to get everything out of the grave with proper deliberation. Officially they have three days left, but they have far more to do than can be done in such a short window. In order to excavate the full site, they have to remove the collapsed ceiling planks. They can’t just yank them out, though, because they’re incredibly rare artifacts in their own right. Instead, each plank has to be coated in plaster strips to ensure they maintain structural integrity before being moved very slowly to keep them intact.
The President of the General Council of the Ardennes, Senator Benedict Huré, has assured the archaeologists that they will have all the time they need to properly excavate the tomb, “a week or more if necessary.” That’s not exactly a reassuringly generous offer, but the alternative is to rebury everything and pave it over, so here’s hoping they get the time they need to do a thorough job of extracting the archaeological remains.
A large bronze ritual wine vessel from the Late Shang dynasty (12th/11th century B.C.) that is the greatest example of its kind has been donated to the Hunan Provincial Museum where it was reunited with its lid after almost 100 years of separation. It was slated to be the star lot at a Christie’s Asian art auction on March 20th, but a group of Chinese collectors came together to buy the artifact for the museum. The private sale went through on March 19th, one day before the auction. The sum paid is undisclosed, but the scuttlebutt is that it was around $30 million.
At more than two feet high, the Min Fanglei (Min is the name of its maker inscribed inside the vessel’s neck, fanglei is the word for “wine vessel”) is the largest archaic bronze of its kind, taller even without its lid than any other known example with lids.
The vessel’s massive size distinguishes this extraordinary work as one of the foremost examples of its kind. The surface is intricately cast with stylized animals and mysterious monster masks that provide a fascinating insight into early Chinese culture and beliefs. The crisp, precise casting of this complex design vividly illustrates why bronze vessels created during the Shang and Zhou dynasties rank among the finest examples of bronze casting the world has ever seen.
When it last passed through Christie’s hands in 2001, the vessel sold for $9,246,000, then a world auction record for any piece Asian art. It remains a record price for an archaic Chinese bronze sold at auction.
It was certain to blow right through that figure had it gone under the hammer in March. The Hunan Provincial Museum would have found it very expensive to go head-to-head against the deep-pocketed collectors that have driven prices for Asian art into the stratosphere over the past decade or so. It declared its intention to bid, but odds are slim it would have won. Wanting the masterpiece rejoined with its lid in the museum inspired Taiwan collector Robert Tsao to contact his fellow collectors abroad, in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland and call for a united front: nobody bids to give the museum a chance to win. The private purchase ensured nobody else could kill the reunion plan.
The Min Fanglei was unearthed by peasants in Taoyuan County, Hunan province, in 1922. The son of the peasant brought the lid to his school in the hope that the schoolmaster could identify it. The schoolmaster immediately recognized what a treasure it was and bought the lid for 800 hundred silver dollars. Meanwhile, a businessman from Hubei province (Hunan’s neighbor to the north) got wind of the find and bought the body of the vessel for 400 silver dollars. That’s how the two parts got separated.
The lid was sold to a military officer who gave it to the Hunan government in 1952. In 1956 it became part of the permanent collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum. The body was sold to the city of Shanghai in 1924 and then purchased at auction by foreign collectors. While the lid stayed in China, the vessel traveled the world, jumping from collector to collector in the US, the UK, Japan and France. It was a French collector who bought it at the 2001 Christie’s auction. He died earlier this year, which is why the Min Fanglei was on the market again.
The Min Fanglei arrived in Changsha, Hunan’s capital on June 21st. On June 28th at a ceremony at the museum, officials placed the lid on the vessel for the first time in a century. It will go on permanent display at the Hunan Provincial Museum in 2015 when it reopens after a three-year renovation.
The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.
X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.
It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.
Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.
Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.
Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.
Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.
Watch this video to see her in action:
Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.
Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.
This spring, metal detectorist Torben Christjansen found a small amulet in Købelev on the Danish island of Lolland. Just one inch long and wide, the piece is in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a design thought to invoke the protective power of Thor and his dwarf-forged hammer Mjolnir. About 1,000 of these Viking-era amulets have been discovered in Scandinavia, the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries, often unearthed in women’s graves. There has been some debate, however, on whether they were representations of Thor’s hammer, even stylized versions. Skeptics point out that the shaft is disproportionately short to be a hammer, and the head too symmetrical.
Christjansen reported the find as treasure trove to the local Museum Lolland-Falster where curators dated it to the 10th century. The amulet was cast in bronze and has traces of the silver or tin plating and gold plating that once adorned it. One side of the hammer’s head is decorated with interlacing pattern, the other side with a runic inscription seven characters long. This is the first Thor’s hammer amulet ever found inscribed with runes.
Because the runes were so small — three to seven millimeters high — and the surface corroded from the centuries it spent in the ground, the Museum Lolland-Falster curators sent the amulet to the National Museum of Denmark for their experts to decipher. Examining it under a microscope, museum runologist Lisbeth Imer was able to translate the inscription and it resolves the hammer question in the bluntest terms possible: the runes read “Hmar is x,” or in modern Danish “Hammer is” (the x isn’t a letter but a delimiter between two words). Translated into English the inscription simply says “This is a hammer.”
There are two mistakes in the runes. The author left out the first a in “hammer” and flipped the S-rune backwards à la Toys-R-Us. These could have been errors of literacy or a function of the tiny space the writer had to inscribe. Even if his or her spelling was spotty, the rune carver would have derived status and prestige from being literate in a society that prized writing.
The hammer wasn’t the only artifact Christjansen found on the site. He discovered pieces of silver needles and a matrix used to make brooches. These finds could indicate there was a jewelry-making workshop in the area. If so, the hammer could have been made locally. There are no plans currently for an archaeological investigation of the site. Christjansen will keep surveying the area with his metal detector, however, and Museum Lolland-Falster curators will be working with him going forward.
Archaeologists excavating the 15th century Inca archaeological site of Incahuasi, about 90 miles southeast of Lima and 20 miles inland from the coast of central Peru, have found 25 quipu, groups of knotted and dyed strings tied together that were used by the Inca for keeping records. The quipu are in various shapes, sizes and configurations. The longest is two groups of strings tied together to form a row three feet wide, with an additional tail in the center where the two strands meet. The smallest is just a few inches wide, the size of a small notepad.
Quipu (also called “khipus” or “talking knots”) typically consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. They aided in data collection and record-keeping, including the monitoring of tax obligations, census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded on knots in a base-10 positional system. Some quipu had as many as 2,000 cords.
In widespread use for 800 years or so in cultures that had no written language, the quipu were targeted for destruction by the Spanish conquistadors. They were collected and burned. Today only a few hundred have survived because they were used as grave goods. The Incahuasi quipu, on the other hand, were not found in a funerary context but rather unearthed in the city’s warehouses where they were used in the management of whatever was stored there, most likely agricultural products. Ceramic pots recovered from the warehouses are marked with symbols for maize and other crops.
Incahuasi was founded in 1450 by King Túpac Yupanqui who expanded the Inca empire south along the coast and established the city as an administrative and military center for the ongoing campaign against the local Huarcos people who resisted the Inca invaders. He called it New Cusco, after the Inca capital, and planned the city to be a smaller scale replica of the original. The architecture was therefore deliberately grand, meant to convey imperial power. Structures found so far include 64 circular columns, ushnu (terraced pyramids) temples, forts, soldier’s barracks, ceremonial courtyards, warehouses, grain stores on a plan of streets and squares similar to the northern capital. It’s the most important Inca archaeological site in coastal Peru.
The climate is dry, a sub-tropical desert, which required the construction of canals and irrigation systems to enable agriculture. It also preserves organic material like knotted cotton strings. Their condition is so good that conservators have actually been able to iron them, believe it or not. The strings of the longest one were crimped and tangled, so curator Patricia Landa Cragg placed a damn paper towel on top of them and passed an iron over it. The treatment works like a charm, as you can see in the photograph left where the strings on the left side have been ironed while the ones on the right have not. There’s video of Patricia explaining the process on this page (which is currently down but was working fine earlier). The video also shows some of the other quipu found at the site and the recovered ceramic pottery.
For more about this fascinating and complex system of 3D language (there’s some evidence quipu weren’t just used for accounting purposes, but also to record literature and mythology), see Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.
A rediscovered painting by Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi sold for a world record €865,500 ($1,175,211) at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris on Thursday. The final price including buyer’s premium was far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of €200,000-300,000 ($271,568-407,352), driven up by seven bidders competing against each other.
The previous auction record for a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was £419,500 (about $715,000 at today’s exchange rate) set at 1998 Sotheby’s sale in London. It was the same Self-Portrait as a Lute Player that failed to sell at auction due to an overly-optimistic reserve in the millions of dollars last January. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford acquired it in a private sale for an undisclosed sum in March.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was thought lost, its existent only known from an early 20th century black and white photograph in the library of an Italian art dealer. Sotheby’s experts rediscovered it in a private collection in the south of France where it had been secreted away for 80 years. The old picture is thought to have been taken when the painting was acquired by the family of the current seller for their collection.
It’s no wonder that Mary Magdalene was subject to a bidding war. It is a particularly striking example of Artemisia’s Caravaggio-influenced play of light and dark. A large canvas at 32 by 41 1/3 inches, the piece depicts the Magdalene is the throes of religious ecstasy. The conventional wisdom is that it was painted between 1613 and 1620, the period during which Gentileschi became a highly sought after and respected artist in Florence. Some scholars believe it’s an even earlier work because they see her father’s influence in the color palette while her Florentine work saw her move away from that and develop her own signature style. Her Florentine period also featured more luxurious elements, while this painting is downright Spartan. Sotheby’s Old Masters experts think she painted it shortly after the devastating rape trial in 1611 when she was still in Rome. They believe she may even have used herself as a model, since she wouldn’t have had a great deal of access to paid models as a young woman artist still in her teens.
The abandoned, blissful pose and the way the figure fills the frame is unusual. Artemisia’s father Orazio set his subjects farther back. This composition is all Artemisia, an early glimpse into her burgeoning creative vision. The religious theme illustrated by a figure bathed in a single strong beam of divine light was popular at the time (Caravaggio was a master of the form) but Artemisia’s treatment — the tight framing, Mary pictured as a regular woman without overtly religious iconography, the sheer ecstasy — takes a highly personal approach to the subject. Compare it to two other ecstatic women from her oeuvre, Cleopatra at the moment of her death and Danaë at the moment of her impregnation by Zeus as a shower of gold. Magdalene seems so much more naturalistic and unbridled rather than posed and conventional.
The LEGO construction geniuses of VirtuaLUG have outdone themselves this year, building a vast world that follows the journeys of Odysseus. The LEGO Odyssey was made for Brickworld Chicago 2014, a convention where LEGO artists come together to share knowledge and show their work. VirtuaLUG is known for its large, complex world-building, usually representations of famous literature like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.
They outdid themselves this year with The Odyssey. It’s the largest model yet at nearly 300 square feet. The gorgeous Aegean ocean required 400,000-500,000 dots to make. There are just shy of a million in the entire piece. There are moving parts, flashing lights, even a fully functional water feature. The level of detail, the textures of ocean, island, animal and giant, the diverse color palettes and architecture all combine to lend each section its own distinct character. Then there are the whimsical touches, references to the LEGO movie, the inclusion of the VirtuaLUG builders as a ship’s crew and best of all, the trireme crewed entirely by Wookies.
The LEGO version of the Homeric saga starts with Troy and the devious horse that broke the decade-long siege. The sides of the horse are open so you can see the treacherous Greeks waiting within to deliver destruction unto Ilium. From there the model follows Odysseus’ ships as they travel to the Island of the Lotus Eaters, Polyphemus’ Island where the sheep are large and adorable, Aeolus’ Island with the neatest mechanics, the Isle of the Laestrygonians, with amazingly dynamic articulated giant cannibals and Odysseus’ destroyed ships in the harbour, Circe’s Island complete with a finely laid out table and formerly human swine, the strikingly black, red and white Hades guarded by Cerebus, the Island of the Sirens, freaky Scylla and churning Charybdis, the Isle of Helios with the god’s adorably sacred cattle, the soaring white highrise temple of Olympus, the craggy white and blue Island of Calypso, and finally Ithaca, crammed with surly suitors and Odysseus’ son and wife fending them off.
There are great pictures on VirtuaLUG’s Flickr page, each with a brief description of the part of the story being represented. To get a real sense of the impressive size and scope of the piece, however, you must view the full tour of the installation guided by VirtualLUG’s Chris Phipson in the video below. It’s long at 22 minutes, but it’s essential viewing because you get to see extremely important details including the swirly multi-colored portal of Hades (8:50), the working fountain in Troy (11:35), the light-up lightning bolt Zeus sent to destroy Odysseus’ ship after his men ate Helios’ sacred cattle (14:08), the unbelievably complex underwater scene with swimming sharks or dolphins chasing a Nereid (15:02) and my personal favorite, the phenomenal moving wind features of the Isle of Aeolus (5:00).
Note: around 16:20 he refers to the Isle of Circe, when in fact it’s the Isle of Calypso. He just mispoke. Earlier in the tour at 5:50 he covers the real Circe bit where Odysseus’ men were turned into swine.
The Ghent Altarpiece, the 18-panel polyptych masterpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, has had a tough life since it was completed in 1432. It’s been taken apart, stolen, split, burned, vandalized, cropped, pawned, hidden and shipped cross-continent. Even its permanent home in Saint Bavo, a glass enclosure built to protect the altarpiece from vandalism and theft, has proven inimical to the painting because of its inability to control temperature and humidity.
In 2008, a committee was convened to address the urgent conservation needs of one of the greatest and most influential works of medieval art ever made. After an in-depth study of each panel in situ, a grant from the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative and the creation of a fantastic website of high resolution scans and photographs, in October of 2012 the first eight panels — the outside wings — were removed from the polyptych and brought to a custom-built studio in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. There the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) began a campaign of conservation and restoration.
The first cleaning phase saw the removal of yellowed and cracked varnish, much of it a synthetic ketone variety added in the 1950s. Older varnish and overpainting underneath the top layer were targeted next. Conservators also used cleaning windows to investigate the original frames which the van Eyck brothers considered an integral part of the polyptych. The cleaning windows revealed that the polychrome paint layer — a faux stone effect — isn’t all overpaint as was originally thought. There is later overpaint, however, and the cleaning revealed that the quatrains painted on the frames underneath the retouching and overpainting are actually different from the historical transcripts of them, a highly significant discovery.
To those early finds we can now add new information uncovered as the conservation project continues. As the KIK-IRPA conservators worked to clean the outer panels, they discovered that a surprisingly large part of the visible paint layer is actually overpaint. Previous analysis had failed to recognize this because the overpaint follows the age cracks of the original layer. The clothing of almost all the figures, the architectural elements in the background, the sculptures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the highlights on the faces and hands are all overpainted.
This find is of major art historical import, because while the overpainting follows the original closely, those early restorations were workmanlike. They can’t compare to the van Eyck brothers’ gifts for conveying the texture of fabric and the light and shadow. The 3D effect of a fold of clothing that the van Eycks were able to produce was flattened by the subsequent interventions. The overpaint also cut corners, painting over details the restorers weren’t capable of duplicating. When conservators removed the black overpaint from sections of the panel depicting donor Elisabeth Borluut, for example, they found cast shadows and cobwebs hidden underneath.
Paint samples analyzed with a 3D Hirox microscope by Ghent University scientists and by Macro X-Ray Fluorescence at the University of Antwerp confirmed the conservators’ observations. Cleaning tests on the panels determined that the original paint layer is in good condition, with little paint loss or abrasion from the overpaint. The conservation committee thus decided to go ahead and remove the overpaint. The painstaking process involves lifting the top paint layer bit by bit with a scalpel viewed under a binocular microscope.
The next phase of the conservation program will bring the new discoveries and analytical techniques to the interior panels that are still on site at Saint Bavo’s. They too will be studied using 3D Hirox microscope and Macro X-Ray Fluorescence, cleaning windows will reveal the extent of the overpainting and if conditions allow, we may soon see a whole new Ghent Altarpiece that hasn’t been seen in 500 years or so.
Meanwhile, thanks to financing from the Flemish government, the micro climate of the altarpiece’s glass enclosure has been stabilized. New LED lights thermic isolation liners now keep the temperature and relative humidity steady, protecting the wood and paint of the polyptych from dangerous fluctuations in heat and moisture. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will keep the altarpiece safe for the medium long-term.
Once this conservation project is complete, the Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece website which currently hosts the beautiful high resolution images of the altarpiece, will be expanded to cover the new discoveries and analyses. It will also feature a documentary on the current conservation program.
I love playing cards and I love history. Put them together and my heart grows three sizes that day. Since I’m not likely to get my grubby hands on, say, a gilt silver deck from 1616 that sold at auction for more than a half million dollars four years ago, I have to make do with more modest targets to assuage my covetousness.
Limited edition gold and silver packs of Hundred Years’ War cards printed by the United States Playing Card Company, makers of the classic Bicycle® brand of playing cards, would step very nicely unto the breach, dear friends. SPAAAADE&Co. has launched a Kickstarter project to fund the production of these cards. Their fundraising goal is $20,000. With eight days to go, they’ve raised $14,862. It would be an intense bummer if they got so close but failed to meet the goal, so go pledge now and book your set. One deck of each color is the reward for the $24 level, which you could easily pay for a couple of decks of far less awesome playing cards. Then there are fancier collector’s box sets and bricks with multiple decks and posters and uncut sheets and all kinds of neat rewards at the higher levels.
The art work was designed in collaboration with award-winning illustrator Hanuku and it is as beautiful as it is nerdy. Each color is represented by one of the sides in the Hundred Years’ War. The black suits are the French and the red suits the English. The number card designs are fairly standard, but the face cards, aces and card backs and packs are rich with historical references.
Ace cards are delicately designed using symbols and medieval motifs that represent each dynasty involved in the war.
Court Cards feature the major historic figures of the war. We’ve put real efforts to create a modern interpretation of the medieval costume designs and combine them with traditional court card elements. Court cards depict exceptional details with modern classic features. [...]
The back of the deck symbolizes the confrontation of two dynasties.
The Valois fleurs de lys crest faces off against the quartered crest of Edward III where the Plantagenet lions split the shield with the French fleurs de lys. Between them lie two crossed swords.
The face cards are the best. The Queen of Spades is Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI; the Queen of Clubs is none other than Joan of Arc. Okay, so technically she wasn’t a queen, but as a peasant fighter who turned the war around for France and probably the single most recognizable figure of the conflict, she is the perfect icon for the card. On the English side, the Queen of Diamonds is Catherine of Valois, Henry V’s wife, and the Queen of Hearts is Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III.
The Kings aren’t identified yet on the Kickstarter page, but if I were to hazard a guess based solely on the design, I’d say the King of Hearts is Edward III and the King of Diamonds Henry V, which would make sense with the Queen pairings as well. If the pairings hold for the Valois side as well, that would make the King of Spades Charles VI and the King of Clubs Charles VII, but they don’t really look like any images of those kings I know of.
The Jacks are badass too. The Jack of Spades is, to my utter delight, Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc’s comrade in arms, Marshal of France, and convicted serial killer of hundreds of boys. The Jack of Clubs is Étienne de Vignolles, another of Joan’s closest comrades and a fighter of great skill who is the traditional face of the Jack of Hearts in French playing cards. The Jack of Diamonds is Edward, the Black Prince, the hugely successful military leader son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The Jack of Hearts is Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster, one of Edward III’s most trusted lieutenants.
Irresistible, is it not? Spread the word and let’s get this thing funded.
The University of Sheffield is returning an 18th century tapestry to the French château whence it was looted by Nazis during World War II. The University bought the 12-foot-high tapestry from an art dealer in 1959 for around £1,300, not realizing its ugly history, and put it on display in a meeting room in Firth Court which subsequently became known as The Tapestry Room. In 2013, they decided to sell the work. That’s when they found out that it was Nazi loot and began working with the Art Loss Register to trace its legitimate owner.
The tapestry was made around 1720 by the Beauvais Tapestry Manufacture, a privately owned workshop contracted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister of Louis XIV, for royal production in the second half of the 17th century. It depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of a number of Beauvais tapestries to cover Ovid’s classic mythological tales.
This tapestry, along with two others still missing, was looted from the Château de Versainville in the northwestern province of Basse-Normandie in 1943 or 1944, at that time owned by the Comte Bernard de la Rochefoucauld. Bernard was the third son of the Comte Pierre de La Rochefoucauld, Duke of La Roche-Guyon. He was raised at Versainville and inherited the villa from his maternal grandmother in 1936. Dedicated to the management of his estate and deeply involved in the community, Bernard was mayor of the city of Versainville before the war. During the German occupation, he joined the Resistance and was part of the Prosper Network, a resistance network created and supported by the British Special Operations Executive. The Count was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in the summer of 1943 and interned at Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. He died there on June 4th, 1944, when he was just 43 years old. His wife was also arrested and interned, but she survived until liberation and went on to live a very long life, dying in 1999 three weeks shy of her 97th birthday.
After the war, the château was acquired by the Ford Motor Company for use as a summer camp for the children of its employees. It continued to be used as such until the late 1990s when it was sold to another car company, Peugeot Citroën. In 2002, the Château de Versainville was bought back for the family by the Comte Jacques de la Rochefoucauld, Bernard’s grand-nephew, who has worked hard to restore the property to its former splendor. The University of Sheffield’s return of one of the looted tapestries is a meaningful step towards this goal.
In response to the donation of the tapestry, Comte Jacques de la Rochefoucauld commented that: “I am delighted by this news and touched by the generosity of the University of Sheffield in making so kind a gesture. The example that the University has set is one which I hope others will follow in due course, and demonstrates their respect for those who have suffered in the past from the ravages of war. In the year marking the 70th anniversary of the death of Comte Bernard de la Rochefoucauld this donation brings us great happiness.”
Comte Jacques plans to put the tapestry on display at Versainville with a plaque detailing its vicissitudes, including the 50 years it spent at Sheffield.
This isn’t the La Rochefoucauld family’s only encounter with tapestry looting. They once owned some of the most famous tapestries in the world: the seven Unicorn Tapestries that are now the greatest stars of the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval art branch, The Cloisters. The series was made between 1495 and 1505 and first appeared in the 1728 inventory of the La Rouchefoucauld family seat the Chateau La Roche-Guyon in northern France, although they may not have been originally made for the family (another candidate for the original commissioner of the tapestries is the inimitable Anne of Brittany). They were looted during the French Revolution and used to cover potatoes. The La Rochefoucauld family eventually got the Unicorn Tapestries back in the 1880s only to sell them 40 years later to John D. Rockefeller. He donated them to the Met in 1938.
The silver ID bracelet of World War I Lieutenant Oscar L. Erickson was returned to his son Don almost a hundred years after it was lost on the Western Front. The bracelet, inscribed “Lt. O. L. Erickson, C of E, 78th Batt. Canadians,” was discovered by military historian Peter Czink who found it in a box of junk silver slated to be melted down. Czink put the bracelet aside and a few months later decided to research the bracelet’s owner. He discovered that Oscar Erickson was the father of famous Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson.
Arthur Erickson had died in 2009, but with such a prominent figure in the family, Czink realized that finding surviving relatives would be a relatively simple matter. Indeed, Arthur’s younger brother Don is still alive. He’s 85 years old now and was genuinely moved to have this precious memento of his father.
After the Battle of the Somme (July 1st – November 18th, 1916) claimed more than 24,000 Canadian casualties, Canada ramped up its recruiting program. It wasn’t terribly effective. The Military Service Act was passed at the end of August, 1917, to allow conscription. Oscar Erickson didn’t wait to be drafted. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 8th, 1917, when he was two months shy of his 27th birthday.
Erickson was sent to the Western Front as a Lieutenant in the 78th Canadian Infantry Battalion (also known as the Winnipeg Grenadiers). As part of the 4th Canadian Division, the 78th Battalion fought in a crucial turning point of the war: the Battle of Amiens. Launched on August 8th, 1918, the offensive would finally see Allied forces actually advancing into enemy territory and end the stalemate of trench warfare. The CEF had a great first day of the battle, claiming 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), more than 5,000 prisoners of war and all but destroying two German divisions.
The next day, August 9th, the Germans reinforced their position with eight divisions. The CEF still advanced another five kilometers, but Lieutenant Oscar Erickson would pay a heavy price. He was wounded in both legs so severely that they had to be amputated. His actions on that day earned him the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry.
I doubt that was much consolation to him. He wrote to his fiancée Myrtle Chatterson that they could no longer get married upon his return. Don Erickson tells the story:
“He said, ‘We are engaged to be married but it’s impossible for us to go through with this, I’m only half a man’,” said Erickson.
“She wrote back and said, ‘You promised me you would marry me and you’re going to live up to it.’”
And he did. If he hadn’t, Don and his brother Arthur would never have been born. Oscar wore prosthetic metal legs the rest of his life. He remained involved in veterans’ affairs, writing a monograph in 1944 that doubtless drew from his own war experience: Rehabilitation of the Personnel of Canada’s Fighting Forces. I think he may have been awarded an OBE, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire medal, for his efforts in World War II, but I couldn’t confirm this is the same Oscar L. Erickson.
The sweet moment Czink gave the bracelet to Don is captured in this news story:
Two metal detector enthusiasts searching in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province have discovered 47 gold coins from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The treasure consists of gold solidi minted in Constantinople, Rome, Ravenna and Laon, in northern France. Most of the coins, 38 of them, are Byzantine and depict the emperor Justinian. The most recent coin dates to 541 A.D. It’s rare to find loose gold coins from this period in the northern Netherlands; a coin hoard is unique. The last time gold treasure was unearthed in Drenthe was 1955.
The gold solidi each weigh more than four grams for a total of more than 200 grams, making the find the greatest amount of 6th century currency by weight ever found in the Netherlands. One coin is the only example of its kind discovered on Dutch soil. It’s a Frankish coin minted by the Merovingian King Theudebert (534-548), the first king to issue characteristic Merovingian coinage bearing his own image rather than the Byzantine emperor’s.
To prevent treasure hunters flocking to the site, no information is being divulged about the exact find area. We thus don’t know much about the context, but whoever buried the coins is likely to have been a high ranking personage in the local ruling elite.
That there was such a huge amount of money in circulation, according to an archaeologist involved means that Drenthe was an important political factor. [...]
The money may have been a diplomatic payment, probably a pay-off to keep the Drenthe people away from the boundaries of the Merovingian kingdom. That kingdom then was from the South of France to the major rivers in the [central] Netherlands.
Very little is known about the Netherlands of the 6th century and few archaeological remains from the period have been unearthed, so this find would be nationally significant even if it weren’t a flashy stash of gold solidi.
The discovery was made this spring, and the finders reported it promptly to the province’s government archaeologists. The find was announced to the public on Friday. The treasure was acquired by the Drenthe Museum which put the coins on public display starting Saturday. The hoard now takes its place as one of the most important exhibitions in the museum. Museum director Annabelle Birnie, as quoted in the Drenthe province’s press release:
“We are very pleased with our newest addition. It’s a great addition, and of great importance to our archaeological collection. In addition to the gold treasure of Tomahawk from the 5th century and the coin treasure Nietap from the 7th century, we now have a masterpiece in the 6th century, a period about which relatively little is known. This acquisition, combined with further research can give us new insights into this period of the Early Middle Ages.”
Infrared imaging confirmed what experts have long suspected about Pablo Picasso’s 1901 work The Blue Room: there’s a whole other painting underneath, a portrait of a bearded man in a bow tie. A conservator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which has owned the painting since 1927, first noted that the brushwork was atypical in 1954. X-rays in the 1990s confirmed that there appeared to be something underneath The Blue Room, but it wasn’t until 2008 that infrared imaging revealed a clear picture of a bearded man in a bow tie and jacket resting his head on his hand, and the revelation wasn’t announced until now.
“It’s really one of those moments that really makes what you do special,” said Patricia Favero, the conservator at The Phillips Collection who pieced together the best infrared image yet of the man’s face.
“The second reaction was, ‘Well, who is it?’ We’re still working on answering that question.”
Scholars have ruled out the possibility that it was a self-portrait. One possible figure is the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who hosted Picasso’s first show in 1901. But there’s no documentation and no clues left on the canvas, so the research continues.
Picasso made several portraits of Vollard, a highly influential figure in the art world of late 19th, early 20th century Paris. He was a great supporter of the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, and the young Picasso was eager to join the dealer’s roster of talent. Vollard loved to sit for his artists, and Picasso knew it would behoove him to flatter his vanity. He would pursue a contract with Vollard for decades, but although Vollard was glad to buy and sell individual pieces, Picasso never did secure his services as his primary dealer.
In 1901 when Picasso had his first show at Vollard’s gallery on rue Lafitte, the artist was just 19 years old. That show was full of color and vibrant themes, for instance Crazy Woman with Cats. Vollard considered the showing a failure with many works left unsold. Picasso’s art took a drastic turn that year as he launched into his now-famous Blue Period. Influenced by Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec and his own depression after the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas, Picasso chose subjects that emphasized human misery — the elderly, infirm, prostitutes, beggars, drunks — with the color blue dominating the works. The Parisian critics and buyers weren’t fans at first. Vollard himself didn’t start buying Blue Period paintings until 1906, two years after the period’s end, and then only because influential collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein had begun to collect them.
Another possible candidate for the sitter of the hidden portrait is Spanish writer Pío Baroja. He published his first novel in 1900, and Picasso is known to have drawn him for an issue of Arte Joven (Young Art), a magazine Picasso co-founded with his friend Francisco de Asís Soler in Madrid in early 1901 which published only five issues before folding in June.
Based solely on the timing and the beard, I’d propose fellow artist Jaume Andreu Bonsons as a possible subject. There’s a drawing of the two of them Picasso did upon his return to Paris in late winter, early spring of 1901 (nobody is quite sure when he returned to Paris from Spain that year). Tenuous, I know, but what the hell, right? You can tweet any ideas you have to the Phillips Collection, #BlueRoom, or comment on their blog.
The Blue Room is on tour in South Korea through early 2015, but research proceeds apace. Conservators plan to employ additional imaging technology to attempt to identify the colors used in the portrait. In 2017, the painting will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit that will cover both The Blue Room and the bearded gent beneath it.
Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, is a huge motherlode of archaeological discoveries, with its nine rebuilds, related civilian communities and near continuous use from 85 A.D. until the 9th century. Most famously, the anoxic waterlogged ground has preserved an unprecedented collection of correspondence written in ink on thin postcard-sized pieces of wood in a cursive Latin. More than 700 have been recovered and transcribed (see the full collection including high resolution pictures on the Vindolanda Tablets Online database). The Vindolanda tablets are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and a remarkable primary source of information about life at the northern border Roman Britain before and after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
The site has been excavated regularly since 1970. The first tablets were found in 1973 and every year new discoveries are made. The Vindolanda fort has produced the greatest collection of Roman footwear anywhere in the Roman Empire, delicate textiles, altars, brooches, rings, gaming pieces, extensive structures including two bathhouses, one before Hadrian, one after, temples, a granary, officer’s houses and soldier barracks. Thousands of coins have been unearthed by professional archaeologists and by the more than 6,400 volunteers who have dug alongside them since 1970. None of them, however, have been gold.
Until now. On June 3rd, 2014, the first gold coin at Vindolanda was found by a French volunteer.
Volunteer Marcel Albert, from Nantes, France, who has been taking part at the Vindolanda dig since 2008, described his discovery simply as “magnifique,” and with the knowledge that although 1000’s of coins had already been discovered at Vindolanda but none of them were gold he said “I thought it can’t be true, it was just sitting there as I scrapped back the soil, shining, as if someone had just dropped it.”
The well worn coin was soon confirmed by the archaeologists as an aureus (gold coin) which although found in the late 4th century level at Vindolanda bears the image of the Emperor Nero which dates the coin to AD 64-65. This precious currency, equating to over half a years’ salary for a serving soldier, had been in circulation for more than 300 years before being lost on this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.
The coin features the laureate head of Nero in right profile with the inscription “NERO CAESAR” on the obverse. On the reverse is an image of Nero standing radiate, holding a branch and a globe on which stands a small figure of Victory. It bears the legend “AVGVSTVS GERMANICVS.” Nero had these aurei issued in the wake of his monetary reform of 64 A.D. To make a dollar out of fifteen cents, Nero reduced the weight of the gold in the coins so he could mint more with less. Silver coins fared worse, being not just shortweighted but also less pure. Bronze, copper and brass coins he cranked out in vast quantities. Nero was the first emperor to debase the coinage, but he wouldn’t be the last.
You can tell from its condition that the aureus went through a great many hands in its long life as legal tender. It was unearthed at the fort itself, not in the village that grew next to it. Gold coins are very rare in Roman military sites. They were just far beyond the level of currency exchanged in military outposts. Chances are, this is the only aureus that will ever be found at Vindolanda.
The coin will be studied in greater detail, along with the panoply of other artifacts discovered during this season’s dig (April 7th – September 19th). Once it has been researched and documented, the aureus will likely go on display at the site’s Roman Army Museum.
The rarest stamp in the world, the only known surviving example of the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, sold for a record $9,480,000 (including buyer’s premium) at a Sotheby’s auction in Manhattan on Tuesday. The pre-sale estimate was $10 – $20 million, so they were expecting the new bar to be set significantly higher, but still leaves the previous record-holder — the Swedish Treskilling Yellow sold in 2010 for an undisclosed amount that was at least as much as the $2.3 million record it set in 1996 — in the dust. At one-thousandth of an ounce and 1 5/32 x 1 1/32 inches, the stamp is now the most valuable object in the world by weight, volume and size.
This rather plain stamp printed in black ink on magenta paper was an emergency issue by the postmaster of British Guiana when an expected shipment of English postage failed to arrive on time. The printers of the Royal Gazette newspaper in Georgetown ran a small contingency supply of stamps: one-cent magentas, four-cent magentas and four-cent blues. They were printed with a simple outline design of a three-masted ship and the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return).
About 200 of the four-cent stamps have survived, but the only one-cent known to exist was rescued by a 12-year-old boy who found it among his uncle’s papers in 1873. He collected stamps, so when he saw this one that he didn’t have in his collection, he cut it off the envelope and put it in his album. Because it wasn’t a pristine copy (the original issue was square; this one has cut corners), young L. Vernon Vaughan sold it another collector, Neil McKinnon, to buy some newer, prettier issues. The One-Cent Magenta left British Guiana in 1878 when McKinnon sent it to Scotland for appraisal.
The stamp passed through several hands after that, including those of Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary of Paris, a legendary philatelist, and textile magnate Arthur Hind of Utica, N.Y. Hind bought it in 1922 at auction for $35,250, a record at that time, and reportedly outbid avid stamp collector King George V for the little red stamp.
“Arthur Hind had never intended to even bid on the British Guiana,” the Sotheby’s catalog said.
But an encounter with a stamp dealer in London changed his mind, and owning the stamp changed his life. Mr. Hind later acknowledged that the stamp “had caused him to be ridiculed,” the Sotheby’s catalog said. “A London journalist described the 1856 British Guiana as ‘cut square and magenta in colour’ and himself as ‘cut round and rather paler magenta.’”
Hind was also rumored to have secured a second One-Cent Magenta only to light his cigar and the stamp with the same match, ostensibly to ensure the value and rarity of the one survivor would remain untarnished. The source for this story was an anonymous letter writer, so who knows if it’s true.
The last time the stamp was sold was 1980. The buyer was du Pont chemical fortune heir John E. du Pont who spent a then-record $935,000 for it. In 1997, du Pont was convicted of murdering Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz and was sentenced to a term of 13 to 30 years in prison. He died in prison in 2010. It’s his estate that sold the stamp.
For more details on the incredible journey of this wee stamp and the history of British Guiana, see the Sotheby’s catalogue multi-part exploration.
As there has been no appeal lodged to contest the ruling of the High Court that the remains of King Richard III are to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, plans for the reburial have been finalized. The Cathedral Fabrics Commission for England have approved the tomb design of architects van Heningen and Haward. There’s no inlaid marble white rose of York underneath the raised platform in this version. Instead, a plinth made of black Kilkenny marble will seal the tomb beneath the Cathedral floor. Richard’s name, dates and motto will be engraved into the sides of the plinth — the nature of the marble will make the lettering appear white in contrast with the dark color of the smooth surface — while his coat of arms is inlaid in marble and semi-precious hard stones at the top foot of the plinth.
On top of the plinth will be a large rectangular block of Swaledale fossil stone, quarried in North Yorkshire, deeply incised with a cross along its full length and breadth. The fossil stone is so called because it is peppered with visible fossils, once-living beings long dead whose remains have been brought to light and immortalized in stone, a metaphorically significant analogy to Richard’s fate.
Underneath the plinth, Richard’s remains will be laid to rest in a lead ossuary which will be placed in an oak coffin which in turn be placed in a brick lined vault under the Cathedral floor. The precise design of the wooden coffin is still being worked out and will be announced at a later date, but the carpenter who will make the coffin has been selected already. It’s Michael Ibsen, Richard’s sixteenth grand-nephew, a direct descendant down the maternal line of Richard’s sister Anne of York whose mitochondrial DNA helped identify the King’s remains. He’s a cabinet and furniture maker by trade, so it’s a fitting commission in every way. Ibsen accepted the work offer with alacrity, calling it “a very appropriate gift to offer to [his] royal ancestor.”
The oak coffin will play an important role in the reburial ceremony. The ossuary will be placed in the coffin at the University of Leicester and the coffin will then be transported to the Cathedral along a public route that will follow what we know of King Richard’s movements on the last days of his life. It will be received formally by Cathedral officials accompanied by the medieval service of Compline. The coffin will then lie in state covered with a pall that will feature scenes from Richard’s life and death. The public will be invited to pay their respects at this time.
The reburial service will not be a funeral as Richard had one of those already. Instead it will be a special service designed according to detailed research of medieval reinterment rites (reburials were quite common back then, and there are extant sources describing the services). The service will conclude with the coffin being lowered into the brick vault. The tomb will be sealed overnight with the stone plinth and the sarcophagus-like Swaledale fossil stone marker.
The tomb and marker will be installed in an ambulatory (an open walking space) between the new Chapel of Christ the King and the sanctuary under the tower, the most holy place in the Cathedral where the main altar stands. It will be a peaceful, quiet spot, separated from the main worship area of the Cathedral by the relocated Nicholson screen, an ornately carved screen created in the 1920s by ecclesiastical architect and baronet Sir Charles Nicholson to separate the nave from the chancel.
Cathedral officials hope to start the construction work this summer so the building can be finished by early 2015 in time for a Spring reburial. The total budget for this project is £2,500,000 ($4,240,000). The Diocese of Leicester will contribute £500,000 ($848,000) and £100,000 ($170,000) has already been collected in donations. Much of the rest will come from large grants from trusts, foundations and private donors. There will be a fundraising appeal later this year targeted to the Leicester community, giving local residents the opportunity to fund a specific element of the reburial project. Meanwhile, donations are open. If you’d like to contribute, you can do so online here or you can print out this pdf form for sending in a donation by mail.
During an archaeological survey before construction of a new hotel at 50 Bowery in New York City, archaeologists unearthed a trove of 19th century bottles from when the space was occupied by a German beer garden. Atlantic Gardens offered beer and live entertainment from 1858 until it closed in 1916, leaving behind all kinds of dishes and bottles. Among the latter were bottles of patent medicine, nostrums made from combinations of herbs and alcohol or even narcotics like opium, that claimed to cure a wide variety of ailments.
One of the bottles was a small green glass cylinder labeled “Elixir of Long Life.” Two bottles of Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters were also discovered at the site. With the empty vessels in hand, the experts of contractor Chrysalis Archaeology decided to seek out recipes and recreate the products that once sold briskly at taverns as well as at apothecary shops and from street vendors.
After researching the brands in German, the team found that The Elixir of Long Life is a fairly straight-forward collection of ingredients from the herbalist handbook — aloe, an anti-inflammatory, gentian root, a digestive aid — combined with lots of alcohol. Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters went a bit further afield:
The Hostetters recipe is a bit more complex, containing Peruvian bark, also known as cinchona, which is used for its malaria-fighting properties and is still used to make bitters for cocktails, and gum kino, a kind of tree sap that is antibacterial. It also contains more common ingredients, including cinnamon and cardamom seeds, which are known to help prevent gas.
But it too was proportionally dominated by grain alcohol, so even if the herbs didn’t cure what ailed you, the rest of it would make you forget about how sick you were. In fact, although Dr. Hostetters bitters may not be sold as medicines anymore, its cousins like Angostura and Aperol are popular ingredients in cocktails and are often consumed before or after meals because they’re still considered digestive boosts, a hangover from their days of being sold at taverns to quell the stomach demons.
But why should the archaeologists have all the fun? Here are the recipes to make your own Elixir of Long Life and Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters in the comfort of your own home.
Elixir of Long Life:
Aloes – 13 grams
Squeeze out the liquid from the aloe and set aside. Crush the rhubarb, gentian, zedoary and Spanish saffron (for a modern twist, use a blender for this part), and mix them with the aloe liquid, water and alcohol. Let the mixture sit for three days, shaking frequently. Then filter it using a cheesecloth or coffee filter, and serve. Be careful with the liquid — the saffron can dye your hands or other kitchen items.
Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters:
Gentian root – 1 1/2 ounces
Mash together the gentian, orange peel, cinnamon, anise, coriander, cardamom and Peruvian bark. Mix the crushed ingredients with the gum kino and the alcohol. Let the mixture sit in a closed container for two weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain the mixture, add the sugar and water to the strained liquid and serve.
The biggest Picasso in the United States will be leaving its home on a wall at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York for what one hopes will be greener pastures at the New York Historical Society. RFR Holding, owner of the historic Seagram Building where the Four Seasons and the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain have lived together in harmony since 1957, planned to remove the work last year. It claimed the wall on which it hung was structurally unsound due to a leaking steam pipe and informed the New York Landmarks Conservancy, owner of the painting since it was donated to it by Vivendi Universal, then owner of the Seagram Building, in 2005, that the curtain would be coming down immediately.
The Conservancy challenged the plan in court. They said the curtain was far too fragile to be moved, especially by rolling the canvas up “one click at a time” and transporting it in a rental van. At the last minute, the court sided with the Conservancy and issued a temporary restraining order. Since then, RFR Holding and the Landmarks Conservancy have been locked in a struggle over the fate of the historical curtain. The discussions have now apparently borne fruit, and the front cloth painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 for a production of the Ballets Russes’ Le Tricorne will be moved to the New York Historical Society, conserved and put on display, all at RFR’s expense.
To move the Picasso, workers will mount hydraulic lifts to detach the top of the curtain from the wall. It will then be wrapped around a wide roller, starting at the bottom. The curtain will first go to a conservator, for cleaning and restoration work. The historical society plans to have it installed for an exhibition in May.
That process sounds a lot like the original “one click at a time” plan which the Conservancy deemed far too dangerous. The art mover agreed that the painting could “crack like a potato chip” under the strain. The Conservancy isn’t too thrilled about it, judging from their press release, but they will have conservators on the ground during the removal and transport stages.
The impetus for this compromise is the looming defeat in court the Conservancy expected. The donation was made on the condition that the curtain remain where it was at the Four Seasons, but that wasn’t going to be able to trump RFR’s solid legal position. From the Landmarks Conservancy press release:
We did our best to maintain it in place. But our only leverage was that the Curtain is specifically included in the current restaurant lease. It was made clear to us that the Curtain would not be included in whatever new lease is negotiated. So, if we had prevailed in Court, the most a judge could grant is that the Curtain stay until the end of the current lease.
Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, purchased and installed the curtain in 1957. She’s not in favor of this plan.
“It sort of breaks my heart,” she said.
Vivendi bought the Seagram company, including its large art collection, in 2000, around the time Mr. Rosen bought the Seagram Building. Later, the financially ailing Vivendi moved to sell the entire Seagram art collection, but Ms. Lambert persuaded Vivendi to bequeath the Picasso to the conservancy.
Lambert has every reason to be bummed. The curtain is an iconic part of what has become a beloved and famous interior. However, the Conservancy had few options here, and it’s undoubtedly better for its long-term prospects for the painting to be in the hands of a museum instead of a company owned by a man who once called the curtain a “schmatte” (Yiddish for “rag”) and who appears to be keen to install works from his own modern art collection in the space. The pressing issue is how to ensure the least possible trauma in the removal and transportation.
The New York Historical Society is thrilled to have it. They plan to make Le Tricorne the centerpiece of the second-floor gallery.
Archaeologists have discovered a 700-year-old council house, a space dedicated to political and religious purposes, in the ancient site of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Petén, Guatemala. The house is a square about 164 feet by 164 feet. The interior has two collonaded halls that were once decorated with animal sculptures — the carved heads of a reptile (snake or crocodile) and a parrot were found in the home — built next to each other, and two altars.
“Basically almost every political and religious ritual would have been held there,” [Queens College professor Timothy] Pugh told Live Science in an interview. The leaders who gathered there would have held power in the community and perhaps the broader region. Among the artifacts is an incense burner showing the head of Itzamna, who was the “shaman of the gods,” Pugh said.
The house was devoted to its role between 1300 and 1500, after which it was deliberately destroyed by the Chakan Itza and the seat of power moved. This was part of the process of transition from one calendar period to the next. The ritual required that the altars be demolished and the house covered with a thin layer of ceremonial dirt representing burial.
The city of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ was a thriving metropolis when the council house was built. Its importance was confirmed by the discovery of a vast Mayan ball court, the second largest ever found. The first largest is at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The Chakan Itza people claimed the Chichen Itza builders as their ancestors (hence the name), that they had migrated from what is today Mexico and settled in Guatemala.
They only had a few centuries to enjoy their new surroundings. In the 17th century, the Spanish conquered Petén, bringing death from war and disease to the Chakan Itza who were close to extermination. There are still Itza people today, but their language is almost extinct. Only a handful of surviving people still speak it. The rest speak Spanish.
Timothy Shriver, son of Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother of journalist and former California First Lady Maria Shriver, attended a memorial service Wednesday for relatives he didn’t know he had. They were prominent people in their day, but over time their final resting place in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery had fallen into disrepair and was in dire need of restoration. Since the brick vault could not be repaired while the remains were still inside, in 2009 Douglas Owsley, head of the Natural History museum’s Physical Anthropology Department, was asked to excavate it and identify the remains for future reburial. After years of research and restoration, the skeletal remains of 16 people were reinterred in the tomb attended by a small group of Shriver relatives.
The Causten Vault was built in 1835 by lawyer and international diplomat James H. Causten after the tragic death of his first son, Charles Isaac, who passed away just days short of his second birthday. According to his obituary, little Charles “was a child of uncommon intelligence and excited the admiration and affectionate regard of all that knew him. His family have much cause to regret the early fall of one so interesting and promising.”
James Causten would outlive all but one of his children, and his daughter Josephine only outlived him by four years. His eldest daughter Henrietta Jane was the Shriver connection. She married Joseph Shriver, scion of an important Baltimore family that included a signer of the 1776 Maryland Constitution. Henrietta died in 1863 of a sudden heart attack when she was 52, “leaving both families overwhelmed in grief at this loss of their richest jewels.” She was buried in the vault, joining her daughter Josephine Shriver who had died 14 years before her mother at the age of four.
After his death in 1874 at the age of 86, Causten was buried in the family vault, which was already so sadly well-populated by then. It would eventually hold the remains of 22 members of the extended family, and that’s not counting the eight temporary residents who were placed in the vault while arrangements were made for permanent burials elsewhere. One of them was First Lady Dolley Madison. Her niece and adopted daughter was Annie Payne Causten, wife of Dr. James H. Causten Jr., the founder’s son. After Dolley died in July of 1849, she was buried in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery ostensibly just until arrangements could be made to bury her by her husband’s side at his Virginia estate Montpelier. Unfortunately her gambling, alcoholic wastrel son, whose endless debts were a major reason for her poverty in old age, set aside no money for her burial. When he died of typhoid fever less than three years after his mother, she was still in the Public Vault. A month later, Annie Payne Causten had Dolley’s remains moved to the Causten Vault. Unfortunately she died a few months later aged just 33, so Dolley’s remains stayed in the vault for another six years. Finally the Caustens saw to it that she was buried in Montpelier.
The last burials in the Causten Vault were at the end of the 19th century. After that, the fate of the vault matched the fate of the Congressional Cemetery. It stopped being a fashionable place for Washington politicos and society figures to be buried and gradually fell into neglectful decay. Vaults crumbled, headstones broke, drug dealers and prostitutes plied their trades amidst the historical dead. In 1976 the non-profit Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery took over management of the cemetery, but it wasn’t until the '90s when volunteers and innovative programs began to boost restoration projects. Its inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1997 brought it fresh attention, including, finally, some maintenance funding from Congress.
Restoration is an ongoing process. The Causten Vault became a priority in 2009 because its mortar was crumbling and the barrel roof was on the verge of collapse. When Douglas Owsley and his team opened the tomb, they found that the interior was in even more dire condition. Over the years the shelves that held coffins had fallen apart, pancaking caskets and human remains in a chaotic pile several feet thick. The remains were carefully removed and transported to Owsley’s lab at the National Museum of Natural History.
Over the past five years, a team of archaeologists and anthropologists analyzed the skeletons taken from the vault, the hardware on the coffins (which helps date the caskets) and personal artifacts found inside. Bones provide all sorts of information, Owsley said, from gender and age to lifestyle (years of heavy labor, for example, take a toll), diet and probable cause of death.
In the final tally, the remains of 16 people were found. The six people known to have been buried in the vault whose remains were not found are thought to have been buried near the bottom of the vault where the damp conditions caused brushite to form on the bones and eventually disintegrate them. The remains of the 16 were identified and placed either in white boxes or in their original cast iron coffins, several of which survived in usable condition. They have all now been reinterred, with their family in attendance, in the Causten Vault.