Arts and Sciences

Secrets of 16th c. boxwood miniatures revealed

History Blog - Thu, 2016-12-22 23:38

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum, is hosting a groundbreaking exhibition that explores the mysterious beauty of 16th century miniature boxwood carvings. The AGO is home to the Thomson Collection of European Art which includes 12 boxwood carvings (10 prayer beads and two altarpieces), the largest collection in one place. There are only 135 known miniature boxwood carvings known to survive, so the AGO has almost 10 percent of the world’s total. Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures brings together the Thomson Collection pieces with another 50 loaned by other museums and private collections.

The miniature boxwood carvings were made during a very brief window, between 1500 and 1530, in Flanders or the Netherlands. It’s possible that only a single workshop, perhaps two, carved them all. The rise of a new moneyed merchant class with money to spend on expensive and showy objects created a market for high-end, portable religious carvings. Come the Reformation, rosaries, altarpieces and beads would go most decidedly out of fashion in Northern Europe and the window shut.

The prayer beads, also known as prayer nuts because their exteriors resemble a very symmetrical walnut shell, were devotional objects worn on a belt or on the end of rosary. About the size of golf balls, the beads open to reveal intricate, deeply layered Biblical scenes and inscriptions from the Vulgate. Their rich imagery and detail were meant to inspire contemplation and prayer. They had the ancillary benefit of being a religiously correct way to show off one’s wealth. A dense wood like boxwood holds its shape well and gives carvers the opportunity to create tiny details, but it also takes a huge amount of work and time. That makes it expensive. Features like copper or silver cases, often themselves engraved with elaborate scenes, added to the display of riches.

The space the carvers had to work in was so small and the wood so hard, that it seems almost impossible they were able to achieve such complex scenes, many with dozens of figures, human, heavenly and demonic, architectural elements, trees, symbols, all in the space of a single inch. They used specialized tools two inches long to dig deep into the wood, creating tiers of characters and landscape.

How exactly the craftsmen were able to create these elaborate compositions has been a mystery for 500 years. They must have used magnification because you can’t see how they’re put together with the naked eye. The curators and conservators of the AGO, Met and Rijksmuseum sought to break new ground in the study of the miniature marvels. X-rays weren’t enough to show how the sausage was made because the parts were too tiny. The AGO experts turned to micro-CT scanning to find the answers. The beads were carved from one piece of boxwood. The layers of the scene were carved in sections and then the discs set into the sphere with boxwood pins smaller than a seed of grass. The overlapping discs added depth and complexity to the miniatures.

Some of the carvings in the exhibition have never been seen before in North America. One of the ones making its North American debut in Toronto is the Chatsworth Rosary (ca. 1509–1526), an astounding masterwork of miniature carving which was originally owned by King Henry VIII and his devout Catholic wife Catherine of Aragon. The eleven beads are each carved on all sides with prompts for prayers, and the largest bead features Henry and Catherine at mass barely visible behind a pillar. It may have been a wedding present, and it seems Catherine kept it in the divorce. All for the best given that Henry outlawed rosaries in 1534.

The exhibition runs at the AGO through January 22nd, 2017. It opens at the Met Cloisters on February 21st, 2017, and moves to its last stop, the Rijksmuseum on June 15th, 2017. If you can’t make it to the shows, or even if you can but want to have your mind blown by the details in these pieces, the AGO has created a dedicated page with the whole collection available to peruse in extreme closeup. The zoom tool gives you an amazing view of every last nook and cranny. If that isn’t enough to slake your thirst, check out the wonderful videos below from the AGO.

Deciphering how the miniatures were made:

Micro CT scan of prayer bead:

3D Animation compiled from the Micro CT scans of the St. Jerome Boxwood Prayer Bead:

3D Animation of the Last Judgement Prayer Bead:

3D Animation of the Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Celtic harness fitting converted into Viking brooch

History Blog - Wed, 2016-12-21 23:12

This summer, a metal detectorist scanning a field at Agdenes farm on Norway’s Trondheim Fjord unearthed a piece of bronze jewelry. The well preserved object is a bird-like figure with intricate designs representing fish or dolphins on each wing. The decoration identifies it as being of Celtic origin, probably Irish, made in the 8th or 9th century. The Irish craftsmen made it as a fitting for a horse harness, but at some point it was converted into a brooch, as attested by a hole at the bottom and rust from where the pin was attached to the back. This second stage was the work of Vikings who often converted loot from their raids into jewelry for their loved ones.

It was almost certainly buried with a woman. Similar pieces have been found before, almost all of them in women’s graves from the first half of the 800s, the early years of the Viking incursions on the British Isles. Unfortunately the grave itself was not found. The object was ploughed up and scattered in the 1200 years since it was buried, and the grave in all likelihood has been destroyed.

Experts at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum analyzed the brooch and found traces of gilding, so the green bronze was once shiny gold, a coveted prize for a raider, and a very fine present for any raider’s lover or family member.

Being part of the early Viking raids brought status and prestige to the individuals who participated, but also to their families. The men who returned alive from the dangerous journeys gave the objects they had stolen as gifts to female family members who waited for them at home. The fittings were then turned into jewellery, and were worn on traditional Norse clothing as brooches, pendants or belt fittings.

“As a result, it became clear to everyone that those women had family members who had taken part in successful expeditions far away. There are traces of gold on the surface of the jewellery, so it was originally covered in gold. That made it appear more valuable than it actually was. In addition, each piece of jewellery was unique, so the owner did not risk having the housewife next door turn up with the same piece of jewellery,” [NTNU doctoral student Aina Margrethe] Heen Pettersen says.

Jewellery of this kind has typically been found in women’s graves with relatively few other burial gifts. This suggests that many of the Vikings who took part in raids far away did not represent the top layer of the social hierarchy. Instead, they were “nouveau riche” farmers and fishermen who got the opportunity to climb the social ladder by taking part in Viking raids.

The area where the brooch was found is mentioned in some of the sagas as a rallying point for ships and raiders setting out from the south end of the mouth of the Trondheim Fjord for the British Isles. The remains of a 12th century harbour built by King Øystein have been found next to Agdenes farm, so the location was of signficant strategic importance by then. The discovery of the brooch confirms that the site was populated and benefitted from raiding wealth centuries before Øystein’s harbour was built in the dawn of Viking engagement with the British Isles.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Getty acquires beautiful, storied intaglio

History Blog - Tue, 2016-12-20 23:42

I sometimes daydream about what it would be like to be the Getty with its wondrously Midas-like resources. Imagine going to an auction looking to buy an object estimated to sell for $10,000-15,000 and being able to walk out with it even though the final hammer price with buyer’s premium is $508,765. The J. Paul Getty Museum did just that with an exquisite 1st century A.D. Roman intaglio gemstone sold earlier this month at Sotheby’s London.

The gem—made of sard, a reddish-brown translucent quartz—is exquisitely engraved. The identity of the artist is uncertain, although the scholar Marie-Louis Vollenweider has suggested it is the work of Aulos, one of the finest engravers working in the circle of the imperial court of Emperor Augustus in the late first century B.C., who signed several other gems of related style. The beautiful gilt mount dates from the eighteenth century.

“The gem’s superb quality, impressive size, and excellent condition will enhance our holdings of engraved gems, one of the strengths of the Museum’s antiquities collection,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “It will go on view in the Villa’s reinstalled galleries alongside other engraved gems, including our amethyst Apollo attributed to the engraver Solon and the engraved gem of the head of Demosthenes signed by Apelles.”

The figures have been identified as pretty much every couple in Greco-Roman mythology at various times — Paris and Oenone, Phaon and Sappho, a muse and comic poet. The Getty is leaning towards Aphrodite and her handsome lover Adonis. Sotheby’s stayed on the safe side describing it simply as a “Standing youth conversing with a seated maiden.”

This piece has an illustrious and adventurous history, which at least in part explains the crazy price. Its first documented owner was Pierre-Jean Mariette, an 18th century Parisian art dealer who wrote the first modern sale catalogue. From Mariette it passed into the fabled collection of cameos and intaglios assembled by Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, and his son, also named Charles, who enlarged the collection. One of the George Spencers, it’s not known which one, bought this particular intaglio. The collection of engraved gems and cameos was so important that the 4th Duke of Marlborough gave them pride of place in a monumental family portrait by Joshua Reynolds on display in the Red Drawing Room of Blenheim Palace. The Duke holds a large cameo in his hand, while his son, standing to his left, carries a red morocco leather case under his arm, one of ten such cases that held the gem collection.

The Marlborough Gems remained in the Spencer-Churchill family until 1875 when money troubles compelled the 7th Duke to sell the entire collection, more than 800 pieces, to wealthy colliery owner David Bromilow. After his death, Bromilow’s daughter Julia Harriet Mary Jary sold the collection piecemeal at a Christie’s auction in 1899. The great collection was dispersed so widely that scholars are still trying to track down more than 500 of the pieces.

This one could so easily have disappeared too, but its ownership history is remarkably well preserved. It was acquired by Frankfurt industrialist and art collector Friedrich von Gans. He died in 1920 and by that time the intaglio was in The Hague in the newly established art gallery of Kurt Walter Bachstitz, a Jewish German-Austrian dealer. Bachstitz’s business was very successful, with offices in New York and Berlin. He and his wife moved from Germany to The Hague in 1938 fleeing Nazi persecution.

It wasn’t a long reprieve. Come the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Bachstitz was quickly targeted by Hans Posse, director of the Sondernauftrag Linz, the organization in charge of stealing/coercing art and antiquities for Hitler’s Barbie Dreamhouse museum in Linz. Posse bought the intaglio in 1941 for far less than its market value. It was stashed in the salt mines of Altaussee, Austria, along with thousands of other priceless pieces including Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. The intaglio was found there by the Monuments Men who, in accordance with Allied policy, returned it to the Netherlands Art Property Collection even though it was privately owned when the Nazis snatched it.

Kurt Walter Bachsitz petitioned the Dutch government for restitution of his property, but except for one painting Jan Steen, the government kept everything. Their position was that Bachsitz was well-connected (his Protestant wife’s brother was Hermann Göring’s art buyer) and was not subject to Nazi coercion in 1940-1, so all the stuff Posse bought at bargain-basement prices was just normal business. Bachsitz’s heirs are still fighting to find and reclaim his lost artworks today. The intaglio was restituted to his heirs this year and they put it on the auction block. The hammer price must have been a pleasant surprise for them.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Crappy original of epic botched restoration found

History Blog - Mon, 2016-12-19 23:42

It feels like an eternity has passed since the halcyon days when octogenarian Cecilia Giménez took a poorly executed, flaking wall painting of Christ with the crown of thorns and transformed it into the global phenomenon that is Ecce Mono, aka Monkey Jesus. It was August 2012 when the painting by Elias García Martinez in the Sanctuary of Mercy in the town of Borja, outside Zaragoza in northeastern Spain, was found altered beyond all recognition. At first it was thought to be the work of vandals. The Martinez family lodged a complaint and conservators bemoaned the terrible fate of the 1895 work. There was even talk that the 81-year-old church volunteer and amateur painter might be criminally charged.

The possibility that there might be some attempt to restore the painting was bandied about, but there was so much paint loss before Ms. Giménez brought her simian vision to life that any restoration would have been more like a recreation. The root of the problem Elias García Martinez didn’t make a fresco. He just applied oil paints directly on the wall of the church instead of using water-soluble pigments on a layer of wet plaster. The oil paint doesn’t adhere and the moisture problems of the old church exacerbated the paint loss.

Then the news, and most importantly the picture, of the reconceived Ecce Homo hit the Internet. The story went viral; Monkey Jesus became a beloved meme; petitions were started demanding that Cecilia Giménez’s version remain untouched. The painting quickly became so popular, that sleepy, economically depressed Borja boomed into an overnight tourist attraction. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Sanctuary of Mercy to pay their respects to the glorious botched restoration. It has graced t-shirts, mousepads and local wine labels. The story was made into an opera that debuted in the town this August, four years after Giménez picked up her paintbrush and had a date with destiny. Instead of getting arrested, Giménez got a cut of the merchandising revenue.

The town’s good fortune doubtless blunted the sting of the loss of the wall painting for the locals. Perhaps the Martinez family may find some solace now because an oil-on-canvas Ecce Homo painted by Elias García Martinez the year before he made the mural has been discovered. Zaragozan antique dealers Ostalé and David Ricardo Maturén found it in an Aragonese private collection.

It’s the same size as the church painting — 55 by 45 centimeters — and is believed to be the same in all other aspects as well. Since Martinez is known to have spent a mere two hours painting the one in Borja, perhaps he copied from his own canvas. Or maybe he didn’t even need it with him. The subject was a common one, a clothed version of Baroque master Guido Reni’s 1630 copper panel painting Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns. By the late 19th century it was so widely used an image, mass-produced on every medium from souvenir plates to postcards, that most any artist would have known how to crank it out given a couple of spare hours.

For now the canvas is being kept in an art gallery out of public view. The plan is to have a grand opening where the painting can be viewed alongside its more evolved primate cousin. Naturally the guest of honor will be Cecilia Giménez.

The art dealers insist the painting is not for sale but has already attracted interest from art collectors around the world.

“The painting should stay in Borja,” explained Ostalé. “It could be exhibited in the sanctuary next to that of Cecilia Giménez. At the moment, Borja’s Ecce Homo is one of the most visited paintings in the world and, in that sense, it is one of the most genuinely popular works we have in Spain.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest copy of Silent Night found in Vienna

History Blog - Sun, 2016-12-18 23:37

The oldest known copy of the Austrian Christmas carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night in English) has been discovered in an antique shop in Vienna. The pamphlet entitled Four Beautiful New Christmas Songs was printed by one Joseph Greis in the small Upper Austrian town of Steyr in the early 19th century. The full lyrics of Silent Night, the six original verses, are printed on pages seven and eight of the pamphlet. It was found by an antiquities dealer in June of 2015. Experts from the University of Vienna and the Silent Night Society in Salzburg examined it and confirmed it was the oldest known printed edition of the blockbuster.

The song began as a poem written by Josephus Franciscus Mohr in 1816. Mohr was born in Salzburg the illegitimate son of an embroiderer and an army deserter who abandoned his pregnant girlfriend before Joseph was born. The poverty of his early childhood was given a reprieve when Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, the vicar and musical director at Salzburg Cathedral, recognized the boy’s talent and sponsored his education. Mohr entered the seminary (he had to secure a special dispensation because of his illegitimate birth) and was ordained a priest in 1815.

These were turbulent times. With the end of the Napoleonic wars and the new boundaries established by the Congress of Vienna, the former ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg was divided into two sections, one given to Bavaria, the other Austria. Trade was disrupted and the associated industries — transportation, ship building, heavy lifting — suffered. Mohr witnessed this widespread economic uncertainty, political upheaval, troop withdrawals and the fallout from years of war in his first job as assistant priest at Mariapfarr in the Lungau region of Salzburg where he wrote Silent Night.

It didn’t become a song until two years later. Mohr was then assistant priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. Legend has it mice had eaten through the church organ making it impossible to play, so on Christmas Eve, 1818, Mohr gave choirmaster, organist and schoolteacher Franz Xaver Gruber his two-year-old poem and has him to write a melody suitable for two solo voices, a choir and a guitar. A few hours later, Gruber was finished and Stille Nacht was performed for the first time. Mohr played the guitar and sang the tenor role; Gruber sang bass.

The parishioners loved the simple song, and very soon the rest of the world would too. Just a year later it was already being performed in Tyrol by the popular Rainer Family Singers. In 1822 they performed it in front of Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tzar Alexander I of Russia. The Rainer Singers brought the song Stateside in 1839 and performed it for the first time on American soil in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in the cemetery of Trinity Church in New York City. An English translation was written in 1859 and by the turn of the century there were translations on every inhabited continent.

Today Silent Night is sung in more than 300 languages and dialects all over the world. It is by far the most popular Christmas carol ever, with 733 copyrighted recordings since 1978. Bing Crosby’s 1935 version of the song is the third best-selling single of all-time. (His White Christmas is number one).

Despite its almost immediate local and regional prominence, there is no original manuscript of the poem or of the composition. The printed version previously believed to be the oldest extant was published by A. R. Friese in Dresden in 1833, part of pamphlet entitled Four genuine Tyrolean songs. The recently discovered pamphlet is not dated, but Silent Night Society researchers believe it significantly predates the Friese publication because Joseph Greis, the publisher, ran a printing business in the early 1800s. He opened a bookstore in 1827 and died in 1835. There are no Greis printings after 1832, so even if Four Beautiful New Christmas Songs was one of the last things he did, it still beats the Dresden edition.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tycho Brahe was gilded

History Blog - Sat, 2016-12-17 23:04

In 2010, the astronomer’s coffin was exhumed from his tomb in Our Lady Before Tyn Church in Prague. Several samples of hair, teeth, bone and textile were taken and the remains were reburied four days later. Researchers from Aarhus University, the University of Southern Denmark and the Nuclear Physics Institute in Prague have been analyzing the samples ever since. In 2012 they confirmed that Brahe did not die from Mercury poisoning, an idea that had been floating about since a 1901 exhumation found elevated levels of mercury in his remains. It turns out, they weren’t particularly elevated at all right before his death or in the years leading up to it.

But it was another element that was found in surprising abundance: gold. The latest analyses have found that Tycho Brahe had gold in hair and lots of it. Tests of three different hair samples had gold content 20 to 100 times higher than the norm today.

There are no natural sources that could explain this high level of exposure to gold, such as soil or water, which means that Brahe must have been regularly exposed to gold in his everyday life.

“It may have been the cutlery and plates of gold, or maybe the wine he drank contained gold leaf. It’s also possible that he concocted and consumed elixirs containing gold, or that he worked with alchemy,” [University of Southern Denmark professor Kaare Lund] Rasmussen said.

Diane de Poitier, mistress of King Henry II of France, took a daily dose of gold for years. The theory was that gold’s purity and incorruptibility would be conveyed to Diane, keeping her young and beautiful. Instead it made her bones and hair brittle. When she died in 1566, 35 years before Tycho Brahe, the concentration of gold in her remains was 500 times greater than in a lock of her hair cut when she was a young woman. It may well be what killed her.

Brahe probably wasn’t taking gold to capture eternal youth. His exposure was more likely scientific. Samples from his hair, beard, eyebrows and bones were tested for another 14 elements and the results also showed higher-than-average concentrations of iron, cobalt, arsenic and silver. All of those would have been commonly used in alchemical experiments and in the preparation of medicines.

The concentration of metals is lower in the younger parts of the hairs, which allows the researchers to conclude that he was not exposed to these metals approximately the last 2 months before his death. The reason for that may be that he was too weak to work in his laboratory in his final weeks and months.

“What this tells us is that he did not suffer from an acute and fatal poisoning. This is not a particularly unusual cause of death in a period where the toxicity of metals was still unknown. Sir Isaac Newton, for instance, was subjected to mercury and lead poisoning,” Rasmussen explained.

So we still don’t know Tycho Brahe’s cause of death, but we can cross poisoning off the list. Researchers also found no evidence of metabolic diseases. The study has been published in the journal Archaeometry and can be read in its entirety here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Art historian donates unpublished Velázquez to Prado

History Blog - Fri, 2016-12-16 23:45

A previously unpublished painting by Diego Velázques has been donated to the American Friends of the Prado Museum by art historian William B. Jordan and is now going on display at the Prado Museum in Madrid as a renewable long-term deposit. Jordan bought it in 1988 but only recently submitted it to the Prado experts for extensive testing and authentication.

Mr. Jordan acquired the painting in London at an auction of Phillips, where it was mistakenly labeled, both in terms of its subject matter and author. While the work ostensibly represented Don Rodrigo Calderón, “it was very obvious to me that it was” King Philip III, Mr. Jordan said. The work was also wrongly auctioned as painted by somebody from the circle of Justus Sustermans, a Flemish painter. Mr. Jordan also initially made a wrong assumption that the portrait was a fragment of a larger painting rather than a preparatory oil sketch.

The portrait is a preparatory painting for The Expulsion of the Moriscos, a large-scale historical work Velázquez made for a contest in 1627. According to Jusepe Martínez, a painter and friend of Velázquez’s, when some artists dismissed Velázquez as someone who can “do nothing but paint heads,” King Philip IV proposed a pictorial competition to settle the matter. His four court painters, Carducho, Caxesi, Nardi, and Velázquez, would create a monumental work on a historical theme. As a subject Philip IV chose the Expulsion of the Moriscos.

On April 9th, 1609, King Philip III decreed the expulsion of the Moriscos, the descendants of Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity in the early 16th century, from Spain. Five years and one entirely predictable financial collapse later, hundreds of thousands of Moriscos had been expelled, mainly to North Africa. The Church and nobility saw it as a heroic act of Christian kingship, and it became a popular subject for painters.

The theme did give Velázquez the opportunity to paint some heads, most notably that of Philip III, but unlike the portraiture that he was already famous for, this portrait was of someone he had never seen who was dressed in period clothing. The sea-side setting was also unfamiliar to the Madrid-based painter. He overcame all obstacles of theme, setting and format. The judges, Dominican friar Maino of Toledo and Italian painter Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, ruled that Velázquez was the winner. His winning painting was found a place on the walls of the Royal Alcázar palace in Madrid.

References to it appear in the palace Inventory of 1686, in the will of Charles II (1701), and in the third volume of Antonio Palomino’s compendium of Spanish artists in 1724. There is no extant record that mentions the work. It was destroyed in the fire that reduced the palace to rubble in 1734. Velázquez’s groundbreaking and endlessly influential Las Meninas came close to sharing The Expulsion of the Moriscos‘ fate. It was saved only by being taken out of its frame and thrown out the window.

In the century between its creation and destruction, no copies of it were made that have survived. There aren’t even any sketches or drawings known. All we know about the painting is from written descriptions. The preparatory painting does seem to fit with the descriptions, which is one of the reasons Jordan became convinced of its identity and attribution. There are other reasons as well.

Philip III appears to be aged around 40 in the painting, his age in 1609 when the moriscos were expelled from Spain.

Stylistically, the work necessarily dates from later than 1609. It must have been produced between 1623, when Velázquez arrived at court and introduced a new style of royal portrait that corresponds to that of this work, and 1631, when he returned from Italy and adopted a notably different portrait style.

The fact that Philip III is in profile and looking up indicates that this is not a portrait (in which the sitter normally looks straight ahead) but an image to be included in a narrative scene.

The fact that the work’s characteristics are not comparable to the styles of the other portraitists working at the court in the 1620s, such as Van der Hamen, Maíno, Diricksen, etc.

A study of written descriptions of The Expulsion of the Moriscos suggest that the portrait of Philip III in that scene had a similar expression to this one and was looking in the same direction.

The Prado’s technical study of the work confirmed that the canvas, preparation and construction are all comparable to the those used by Velázquez in paintings from around 1627 and before his first trip to Italy in 1629. The modelling of the faces and is also similar in method and style to royal portraits Velázquez made in the late 1620s.

The addition of this work to the Museum’s collections as a long-term deposit will contribute to completing its representation of Velázquez as a royal portraitist, given that it is a work of outstanding quality and previously unpublished in the scholarly literature. As such, it will help to cast light on one of the key works of the artist’s early period at court.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Poland in talks to buy The Lady with Ermine

History Blog - Thu, 2016-12-15 23:24

Things were looking up for the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1790. After having been reduced to little more than a Russian protectorate in the late 17th century and less than two decades after the First Partition of Poland had divvied up much of it territory between Austria, Prussia and Russia, the Commonwealth was headed towards more independence than it had been in centuries. King Stanislaus II August supported liberal reforms and with Austria and Russia busy fighting the Ottomans, the Constitution of 3 May, 1791, was passed, creating in Poland a constitutional monarchy along the same lines as the British system.

A great patron and lover of the arts and well aware of how effectively culture can stimulate national pride, King Stanislaus commissioned English art dealers Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noël Desenfans to buy high-end artworks and create a royal collection of fine art worthy of a new Polish national gallery. The partners worked for five years towards that lofty goal, and then it all fell apart. Polish nobles opposed to the new constitution asked Queen Catherine the Great of Russia to send troops, which she was all too glad to do.

A war (lost), the Second Partition of Poland (Russia and Prussia took almost everything, leaving only a feeble rump state) and a reformist revolt led by Tadeusz Kościuszko ensued. The revolt failed due to the overwhelmingly superior numbers of Russian and Prussian forces and in 1795, the Third Partition destroyed the last sad vestige of the Polish state. Stanislaus abdicated and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth died. The dream of a Polish national gallery to rival those of the great European powers died with it. The works collected by Desenfans and Bourgeois became the core of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first public art gallery in the UK.

Into the devastating breach stepped one Princess Izabela Czartoryska. A writer and collector who hobnobbed with the cream of Enlightenment society — Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire — and advocated progressive reformist politics, Princess Izabela together with her husband Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski made the Czartoryski Palace Pulawy a center of Polish art, philosophy and politics in the 1780s. Pulawy earned the moniker the Polish Athens thanks to the flouring of intellectual life at the Czartoryski Palace.

After the Third Partition annihilated what was left of Polish independence, Izabela had the palace, burned and looted by Russian troops in retaliation for the Czartoryskis support of the Kościuszko Uprising in 1794, rebuilt by architect Chrystian Piotr Aigner and installed a museum of Polish royal and national memorabilia. The nascent collection included Turkish trophies captured by King Jan III Sobieski at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, heirlooms purchased from and donated by Poland’s greatest noble families.

In 1801, Izabela opened the Temple of the Sibyl, also known as the Temple of Memory, on the Czartoryski Palace estate. The Temple, designed by Chrystian Piotr Aigner after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, held the collection of Polish historical and cultural artifacts salvaged from royal castles, a growing collection of books, historic archives (including King Stanislaus II’s) and art. It was the first museum in Poland. Izabela’s son Adam Jerzy Czartoryski expanded the art historical significance of the collection geometrically during a 1798 trip to Italy when he purchased The Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci and Portrait of A Young Man by Raphael.

The collection was endangered by the November Uprising of 1830. The Russian army suppressed the uprising and the Czartoryski Palace holdings. Princess Izabela successfully hustled many of the museum’s treasures, including the Leonardo, out of danger before the Russians came. The family was forced into exile in Paris and Izabela’s son Adam installed the collection at the Hôtel Lambert. The Czartoryski collection returned to Poland in 1878 where it reopened in a new Czartoryski Museum in Kraków.

The Nazi depredations of World War II did a number on the Czartoryski museum. The Lady with an Ermine and Portrait of A Young Man were stolen practically the minute Germany invaded Poland. The Leonardo was brought back to Poland in 1940 because the Governor General Hans Frank wanted to hang it in his office. Allied troops found it at the end of the war and returned it to Poland. Many other works stolen by the Nazis from the Czartoryski collection were eventually rediscovered and returned. The Raphael is still missing to this day.

The Czartoryski Museum was nationalized after the war and administered by the Communist government. The museum and library collections were officially returned to Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski as the rightful owner in 1991. Since then, the Czartoryski Museum has been one of the most visited institutions in Poland, thanks largely to the enduring charm of Leonardo’s beautiful Lady and her muscular ermine.

It’s still privately owned, however, which means in theory The Lady with Ermine and everything else in the collection could leave the country. Poland most assuredly does not want that to happen. The Polish Culture Ministry announced Wednesday that they are in talks to buy the Czartoryski collection for the state.

“The Polish state and thus the Polish nation will own one of the world’s most valuable art collections, including this work, which many art historians deem superior to the ‘Mona Lisa’,” Selin said, quoted by the PAP agency. [...]

The ministry told AFP on Wednesday that Minister Piotr Glinski had “announced steps to finally set the status of the collection,” which requires a deal with the president of the foundation, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, who lives in Madrid.

This would bring together King Stanislaus II August’s long-thwarted vision and Princess Izabela’s dogged determination to keep Poland’s history and cultural prominence alive. Whether it can actually happen remains to be seen. The deal would be in the billions of dollars — the Leonardo alone is insured for $350 million — and there is a question whether the terms of the Czartoryski Foundation allow it to be sold in whole or in part.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oscar Wilde portrait returns to UK after a century

History Blog - Wed, 2016-12-14 23:41

The introduction of photography in the mid-19th century had democratized portraiture, giving people who couldn’t afford to commission painters and miniaturists to immortalize them on canvas the opportunity to capture their image for a tiny fraction of the cost. Portraits could now be handed out like calling cards; in fact, they often were calling cards, as in the cartes de visite and later cabinet cards.

Oscar Wilde was an enthusiastic proponent of photographic portraits. Even before he made his literary bones with the plays and stories that would make him famous, he was already cutting a fine figure in society as a raconteur, wit and dandy, and his portraits emphasized his esthetic. He was captured in a variety of outfits and posed by some of the most famous photographers of the period, most notably a series of albumen prints taken by Napoleon Sarony of New York in 1882. Photos from the Sarony series have become iconic representations of Oscar Wilde.

Around the same time, Wilde commissioned an oil-on-canvas portrait from US artist Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington. The life-sized, full-length portrait depicts Wilde in a classic elite power pose often seen in royal portraiture like Anthony van Dyck’s 1635 painting of Charles I at hunt, now in the Louvre. He stands with elegant nonchalance, one hand on his cane, the other, holding his gloves, on his hip. Pennington gave the portrait to Wilde and his new bride Constance as a wedding present in 1884.

Oscar Wilde loved the portrait, hanging it above the fireplace in his home in London. He published The Picture of Dorian Gray just a few years later in 1890. Perhaps his own experience standing for the Pennington portrait — Dorian’s was also a life-sized, full-length portrait — informed his writing. “It is horribly dull standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant,” Dorian complains to the artist Basil Hallward, the tedium of it driving Dorian to engage the corrupting influence of Lord Henry Wotton.

The came the disastrous libel suit. In 1895, Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry, father of his impetuous lover Lord Alfred Douglas, for leaving a calling card with a note calling Wilde a “posing sodomite.” Evidence of Oscar’s sexual liaisons with Douglas and other men was presented at trial, and instead of just losing the libel suit, Wilde was himself tried for “gross indecency” and was condemned to serve two years in solitary confinement with hard labour. The trial and conviction ruined Wilde’s reputation, his career and his life. Broke, shunned by his wife and children and a social pariah where he had once been toast of the town, Wilde died in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46.

The scandal quickly led to financial ruin. Wilde was declared bankrupt while awaiting trial and all his belongings were sold at auction to pay off creditors. The portrait was bought by his good friends Ernest and Ada Leverson (he had stayed at their house when the trial and scandal drove him into hiding). In a letter written less than a month after his release from Reading Gaol, Wilde connected the portrait to the blackened reputation of its subject: “I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views.” He still loved it though, and got it back from the Leversons when he was released. He kept it in a room in Kensington, but died in exile never having seen the portrait again.

After Wilde’s death, the portrait was kept by his literary executor, former lover and loyal friend Robert Ross. Robert Ross’ collection of books, manuscripts and assorted Wildeana including the Pennington portrait was sold in 1928, nine years after Ross’ death, to US collector William Andrews Clark. Clark acquired three other major collections of Wilde’s works and possessions, creating the largest Oscar Wilde collection in the world. That collection is now housed at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.

For the first time in almost a century, the portrait will be returning the UK next year for the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art at the Tate Britain. This will be the first time the portrait that after his trial Oscar Wilde described as a “social incubus” will be on public display in Britain. It will be displayed next to the door of his prison cell in Reading Gaol.

Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson said the painting showed Wilde on the verge of success.

“It’s an extraordinary image of Wilde on the brink of fame, before imprisonment destroyed his health and reputation,” he said. “Viewing it next to the door of his jail cell will be a powerful experience that captures the triumph and tragedy of his career.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare ancient gold Odin amulet found on Lolland

History Blog - Tue, 2016-12-13 23:12

A rare ancient gold amulet decorated with the face of Odin has been discovered in Magletving on the Danish island of Lolland. Local metal detectorist Carsten Helm and his two young sons, Lauritz (10) and Luke (12), were scanning a field when they unearthed a small gold disk about two centimeters (.8 inches) in diameter, a type of medallion known as a bracteate. It has a loop at the top for hanging from a chain and is bordered with gold thread. The Helms continued to scan the field and within 130 square meters (1400 square feet) discovered another gold pendant, three gold pieces probably broken off of a necklace and several chunks of silver, likely fragments of jewelry that could be broken into smaller weights and used as currency.

They reported their finds to the Museum Lolland-Falster. Museum experts tentatively dated the treasure to around the 6th century. That was a turbulent, dangerous time when people had good reason to bury their most precious belongings for their safety. There were also extreme weather events in the year 536 A.D., referred to in ancient sources as a gelid year without sun. Likely caused by a massive volcanic eruption or a meteor strike throwing up so much ash it darkened the skies, the year of darkness devastated crops and caused widespread famine, especially in the north. Such a calamity might inspire terrifying comparisons to the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the destruction of the world in which the sun turns black and the “Mighty Winter” descends. The treasure could have been an offering to the gods, perhaps even by a single person, to ask for their protection from marauders or the end of the world.

It’s the gold amulet that is the most exciting piece to archaeologist. On the front of the disk the large face of a man takes up most of the space. Beneath it is a horse and to the side is a left-facing swastika, believed to be a solar symbol in pre-Christian northern Europe. The face is identified as Odin’s because the iconography has been found on other bracteates accompanied by the runic phrase “The High One,” one of the nicknames for the Norse god of war and king of Asgard.

What makes it particularly compelling is that it is an extremely early depiction of a subject from Norse religion. It may be presenting Odin in his role as a shaman. The shaman’s soul journeys through the world of the spirits, represented by animals like birds, fish and horses. Odin’s face hovering over the horse could therefore be a representation of Odin’s soul traveling to the spirit world. Another possible interpretation is that this is Odin represented as a horse doctor. One of his magical attributes was the ability to heal sick horses. In more detailed scenes with this iconography, Odin touches the horse with his hand and foot, a laying on of limbs, as it were, to convey healing magic.

This kind of Odin amulet is rare, with a total of about 1,000 having been found in northern Europe and only two others on Lolland. The last such amulet found on Lolland was discovered in 1906.

The treasure is on display at the Maribo County Museum until December 20th. After that brief exhibition, the artifacts will be sent to the National Museum for further study and valuation as treasure trove. Once it is declared treasure trove, Carsten Helm and his sons will receive a finder’s fee that is at least the equivalent of the gold value.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Previously unknown ancient city found in Greece

History Blog - Mon, 2016-12-12 23:54

A team of archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg and University of Bournemouth has discovered the ruins of a previously unknown ancient city near the village of Vlochós, about 200 miles north of Athens. A smattering of ancient remains were known to be on Strongilovoúni hill on the plains of Western Thessaly, but they were believed to belong to a small rural settlement. Fortifications, more than eight feet high in some places, are visible on the hill, as are the remains of towers and city gates. The new discoveries lower on the hill were obscured by layers of silt and sediment deposited by the river Enipeas.

This year archaeologists launched the first major systematic exploration of the hill, which has also been virtually ignored by scholarly research other than a few tangential descriptions of the archaeological remains. The Vlochós Archaeological Project (VLAP) is remedying this oversight starting with a non-invasive investigation of the site using technology like Network Real Time Kinematic GPS for precise measurements, drone photogrammetry and ground-penetrating radar.

During a mere two weeks in September, the VLAP team discovered that this supposedly sleepy backwater was actually a thriving polis.

“We found a town square and a street grid that indicate that we are dealing with quite a large city. The area inside the city wall measures over 40 hectares. We also found ancient pottery and coins that can help to date the city. Our oldest finds are from around 500 BC, but the city seems to have flourished mainly from the fourth to the third century BC before it was abandoned for some reason, maybe in connection with the Roman conquest of the area.”

[University of Gothenburg PhD student and fieldwork leader Robin] Rönnlund believes that the Swedish-Greek project can provide important clues as to what happened during this violent period in Greek history.

“Very little is known about ancient cities in the region, and many researchers have previously believed that western Thessaly was somewhat of a backwater during Antiquity. Our project therefore fills an important gap in the knowledge about the area and shows that a lot remains to be discovered in the Greek soil.”

The fortifications on the hill were built in the late Archaic to the Hellenistic periods (ca. 500-200 B.C.), but there is evidence of repairs done in the Late Roman/Early Byzantine eras, so if it was entirely abandoned for a stretch after the Roman conquest, it was reoccupied, or at least strengthened by the end of the Roman period.

The exploration of the site will continue next August during the second season of the project. Archaeologists hope a thorough ground-penetrating radar study will answer some of the questions about the development of the city.

Here is some picturesque drone footage of the remains on the hill taken from 1500 feet above ground level.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient necropolis found in Bordeaux city center

History Blog - Sun, 2016-12-11 23:58

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptionally large and diverse ancient necropolis in the center of Bordeaux. The site, known as Castéja, hosted the first school for deaf girls in France (the main building built in 1862 is a historic monument). More recently it was the city’s central police station. The police station was closed in 2003 and in 2014 the property was sold to developers for an ambitious mixed incoming housing project. An archaeological survey was commissioned in advance of new construction.

So far around 40 graves containing the skeletal remains of about 300 people have been unearthed. Archaeologist and excavation director Xavier Perrot thinks the number of burials will increase as the excavation proceeds, perhaps even doubling. The burials begin in late antiquity (the 4th century) and continue through the early Middle Ages. There are a variety of tombs: ancient tile graves, amphora burials for babies, inhumations with traces of wooden coffins, brick-lined burial pits. Archaeologists also found two Merovingian-era sarcophagi and some very rare medieval coins.

The contents of the graves are unusually diverse for the period. Some are individual burials, while others contain multiple bodies piled on top of each other in a haphazard fashion. They appear to have been tossed in the grave hastily, which suggests they have been victims of mass violence, or more likely, of an epidemic. The Plague of Justinian, a pandemic that swept through the Byzantine Empire before spreading to the Mediterranean port cities and the rest of Europe in the mid-6th century, is a possible culprit. The remains will be subjected to a battery of laboratory tests to determine the dates of those burials and identify the epidemic, should there be one to identify.

Very few burial grounds this densely packed with remains are extant from antiquity. There are maybe three or four comparable sites in France and one in Bavaria, and none of those are as large as the Bordeaux find.

“This is an important operation. We see the evolution of the urban fabric and changes in burial arrangements with inhumations in the ground, in coffins, sarcophagi, a funerary space that evolves with a pit, multiple burials”, said Nathalie Fourment, regional curator of archeology at the regional Direction of Cultural Affairs (DRAC).

Excavations began early last month and were originally scheduled to end on January 20th, but because of the importance of the find, DRAC is negotiating an extension with property owner Gironde Habitat.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

V&A acquires watercolor of Henry VIII’s lost Nonsuch Palace

History Blog - Sat, 2016-12-10 22:03


The Victoria and Albert museum has acquired a unique watercolor of Nonsuch Palace painted from life by Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. He signed and dated it 1568, which makes it the earliest surviving depiction of the grand palace and one of the earliest surviving English landscape watercolors. Only six contemporary depictions of Nonsuch are known, and this one is the most detailed and accurate. They are all the more precious because the palace was destroyed 150 years after it was built. The watercolor was sold at auction to a foreign buyer, but a temporary export ban gave British institutions the change to keep this rare glimpse into a lost Renaissance architectural masterpiece. The price tag was a steep £1 million ($1,257,450). The V&A was able to raise the money with help from grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the Art Fund.

Construction on the palace began in April of 1538, six months after the birth of Henry VIII’s obsessively desired son and heir, Edward. Unlike his other 13 palaces around London, this one was built from scratch, not an addition to a previous structure. Henry picked the location near Ewell in Surrey because it was next to his favorite hunting grounds. The fact that a village and church stood there was no deterrent. He paid compensation and demolished the structures to make room for a great Franco-Italianate palace whose splendour would outdo any other monarch’s (especially Henry’s archrival Francis I of France) grandest residence.

Covered in hundreds of elaborate stucco high reliefs bordered with carved and gilded slate, the palace was dubbed Nonsuch because it was sui generis, one of a kind. There was no other such palace in Europe. The reliefs in the inner courtyard depicted figures from Classical mythology and history. They were organized in three levels. On the top were Roman emperors, in the middle gods and goddesses, and on the bottom the Labours of Hercules on the west side of the courtyard and the Liberal Arts and Virtues on the east. On the south side was a relief of Henry VIII with his son Edward, a celebration of the Tudor dynasty as the culmination (at least in the king’s mind), of all those emperors, deities and muses.

The palace was unfinished when Henry VIII died in 1547 (all the important bits were done and it was entirely livable). Queen Mary I sold the palace to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, in 1557 and he finally finished it. He’s the one who probably commissioned Joris Hoefnagel to paint the palace. Nonsuch returned to the crown in 1592, purchased by Elizabeth I who loved it and used it extensively. It remained a royal property until the Civil War. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, it was confiscated along with the rest of the crown’s property and sold.

With the restoration of the monarch in 1660, Nonsuch was returned to the crown. Charles II had little interest in the Renaissance masterpiece, and 10 years later he deeded it to his mistress, the tempestuous and profligate Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine. In 1682, Barbara took it upon herself to demolish the palace and sell it off piecemeal to pay off her enormous gambling debts. It took years to take the whole thing apart, at least until 1688. As late as 1702, one of the turreted gate houses still stood.

Just to give you an idea of high on the “because people are crazy” scale the Duchess of Cleveland was, she didn’t even sell the stucco panels! They were busted up to bits and an estimated 100,000 fragments carted off somewhere. The first archaeological exploration of the site of the demolished palace in 1959 recovered more than 1,500 fragments with visible decoration and many more plain stucco fragments. Out of all those fragments a single panel was able to be partially reconstructed, that of a Roman soldier sitting next to his shield (now in the Museum of London). You can actually see a soldier and his shield on Hoefnagel’s watercolor, and it is located just above the spot where the fragments were discovered. This is a perfect example of why this one watercolor is so historically and culturally significant.

Mark Evans, Senior Curator of Word and Image at the V&A, said: “Painted in 1568 by the last of the great Flemish illuminators and a foremost topographical artist of the day, this is a rare and beautiful work of outstanding importance. Among the earliest surviving English landscape watercolours, it brings to life one of the greatest monuments of the English Renaissance, now lost to us. We are delighted to acquire a picture of such quality and historical importance for our visitors to enjoy.”

The Joris Hoefnagel watercolor of Nonsuch Palace is now on display in the V&A’a British Galleries.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost 1924 Austrian film about anti-Semitism rescued

History Blog - Fri, 2016-12-09 23:38

While anti-Semitism was common in Austrian politics at the turn of the century, particularly in Vienna where the vast majority of Austria’s Jews lived, the 1867 constitution had eliminated all remaining laws discriminating against Jews. The end of World War I, the fall of Habsburg monarchy and the subsequent political and economic turmoil in the former empire ushered in a new, more violent, more organized form of anti-Semitism. The Antisemitenbund (Anti-Semites League) was founded in September 1919. That same month eight speakers stood in front of Vienna’s city hall advocating the expulsion of all Jews from the city before a rapt crowd of 5,000 people. When the Antisemitenbund organized a congress of anti-Semites in 1921, 40,000 people attended.

It wasn’t just talk. Prominent Jews — writers, intellectuals, publishers — were beaten on the streets. The courts provided little justice to the victims of these hate crimes, no matter how brutal the perpetrators. Best-selling novelist Hugo Bettauer became a target of anti-Semitic parties including the Nazi Party, the Christian Social Party and the Greater German People’s Party because of his writing. Born in 1872 the son of prosperous Jewish stockbroker, Bettauer converted to the Evangelical denomination of Christianity when he joined the army at the age of 18. It was a formality, not a genuine conversion, done because it was well known that Jews were denied advancement and promotion in the military. In the end Bettauer was too much of a free spirit for the army and the career he’d converted for ended after a few months.

He made his name writing satirical fiction. His most famous novel was Die Stadt ohne Juden: Ein Roman von Übermorgen (The City Without Jews: A Novel from the Day After Tomorrow), published in 1922. Set in Vienna, the book satirizes the growing anti-Semitism in politics and culture. A politician named Dr. Karl Schwertfeger, modelled after former mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger who Hitler would write about in glowing terms in Mein Kampf for his anti-Jewish beliefs, orders that all Jews be expelled from Vienna. In a chilling preview of future events, Schwertfeger borrows 30 stock car trains to pack the 200,000 Jews of Vienna (out of 220,000 total in Austria) off to the east. In short order, the city completely falls apart and the politicians beg for the Jews to come back. The novel sold more than 250,000 copies and was translated into multiple languages.

The response from the anti-Semitic parties was immediate and vocal. He was accused of Communism and, in what one hopes is a classical allusion but was probably unironic pomposity, of being a “corruptor of the youth.” Bettauer was even put on trial for these so-called offenses. He was charged with 16 counts of harming public morality. Surprisingly, he was acquitted of all them.

A year later, the novel was being made into a movie by director Hans Karl Breslauer. Keen to avoid some of the controversy around the book, Breslauer changed the setting from Vienna to a fictional city named Utopia and obscured other recognizable real world details. He also emphasized comedic aspects of the story. It didn’t help at all. The film premiered in Vienna on July 25th, 1924, and even though it wasn’t the blockbuster the novel had been, Nazis still protested, causing a ruckus at showings of the film and ramping up their criticisms of Bettauer in the press. Austrian Nazi Kaspar Hellering wrote screeds exhorting the lynching of “polluters of our people” like Bettauer. On March 10th, 1925, Otto Rothstock stepped up to do just that. He shot Bettauer in his office. Two weeks later, Bettauer died of his wounds.

Rothstock claimed he was motivated by Bettauer’s immorality (he advocated free love, wrote and published an erotic lifestyle weekly), but it was no coincidence that he was a former member of the National Socialist party. His financial supporters and legal defenders were either Nazis or had strong ties to the party. Even though he never admitted it, the murder was motivated by anti-Semitism, both against the author’s own Jewishness and the mockery he’d made of anti-Semitism in the book and movie. Rothstock was tried by a sympathetic court and sent to a psychiatric facility. He was released in 18 months.

The movie suffered greatly from state and local censorship. A severely edited and incomplete version of it managed to survive in a Dutch film museum archive (it was rediscovered there in 1991), a miracle in and of itself given the volatility of nitrate film and the toll the war took on Austrian films. Die Stadt ohne Juden is one very few Austrian expressionist films still extant. In October of 2015, a French film collector contacted the Austrian Film Archive to tell them he’d found a film relevant to their interests at a Paris flea market. When the Austrian experts examined the footage, they found it was a version of Die Stadt ohne Juden complete with missing footage and original ending.

It includes the hitherto lost ending of the film, while the other sequences found reveal an obviously dramaturgically staged parallel narrative. Previously unknown images show Jewish life in Vienna with a clear anti-Semitic connotation. The famous expressionist scene featuring Hans Moser in the role of a ruthless anti-Semite is available in its entirety for the first time. All in all, the political message of the film and the depiction of murderous anti-Semitism in Vienna in the wake of World War I are now significantly more sharply articulated. Upon completion of the restoration work, it may be possible to present DIE STADT OHNE JUDEN, more than 90 years after its premiere, in an almost complete and authentic version once again.

To bring this culturally and historically significant movie back to modern audiences, the Austrian Film Archive needed funding, first to copy it from highly explosive nitrate film to a stable medium and then convert it to digital. They started a crowdfounding campaign to raise the 75,500 euros necessary to conserve the film. The campaign exceeded its goal and currently stands at 85,159 euros with hours left to go.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Is this Robert the Bruce which you see before you?

History Blog - Thu, 2016-12-08 23:32

Robert the Bruce, hero of Bannockburn and King of Scots (r. 1306-1329) He died comparatively young, a month before 55th birthday, of an unknown ailment. His body was buried in Dunfermline Abbey where a passel of Scottish kings and queens were laid to rest. The abbey was sacked in 1560 during the Scottish Reformation. The parts of it that survived the sacking fell into ruin. The nave was repaired and used as a parish church until the early 19th century when a new church was built on the site of the Benedictine abbey. Construction workers building the new parish church in 1818 unearthed the bones of Robert the Bruce in a vault underneath what was once the high altar. His remains were sealed in pitch and reburied with great pomp and circumstance, but a cast was made of the skull before the reburial.

There are no reliable contemporary written or artistic depictions of Robert the Bruce’s appearance. He had suffered multiple bouts of serious illness during his lifetime, and some English chroniclers intimated he was afflicted with leprosy. No Scottish reports mention any such affliction. Modern technology could answer many questions about Bruce if his bones were available for research, but they are not. All we have is the cast of the skull of which there are several copies.

University of Glasgow professor of Scottish history Dr. Martin MacGregor had a brainwave when he saw a documentary featuring the facial reconstruction of Richard III. He realized the technology was advanced enough now that it might work on the cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull in the University’s Hunterian Museum. He reached out to Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Director of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU)’s Face Lab, an expert in craniofacial identification who created the facial reconstruction of Richard III.

A careful examination of the cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull does show signs of what could be leprosy. There are osteological changes to his upper jaw and nose consistent with Hansen’s Disease, but the evidence is not conclusive. Dr. Wilkinson therefore took a two-pronged approach to the reconstruction: a younger man in full health, and an older one with scarring from leprosy.


Professor Wilkinson said: “Using the skull cast, we could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face. But what the reconstruction cannot show is the colour of his eyes, his skin tones and the colour of his hair. We produced two versions – one without leprosy and one with a mild representation of leprosy. He may have had leprosy, but if he did it is likely that it did not manifest strongly on his face, as this is not documented.” [...]

Professor Wilkinson added: “In the absence of any DNA, we relied on statistical evaluation of the probability of certain hair and eye colours, conducted by Dr MacGregor and his team, to determine that Robert the Bruce most likely had brown hair and light brown eyes.”

“There have also been a number of advances in facial reconstruction techniques since previous depictions of this Scottish hero, including better facial feature prediction and more advanced CGI.”

“This is the most realistic appearance of Robert the Bruce to-date, based on all the skeletal and historical material available.”

This video walks through the facial reconstruction:

This one reconstructs his long-lost tomb, destroyed during the reformation.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dutch return head of Julia Domna to Italy

History Blog - Wed, 2016-12-07 23:42

The head of a statue of Roman Empress Julia Domna that almost wound up on the auction block in Amsterdam has been returned to Italy after the Carabinieri Art Squad determined it had been recently stolen. In May of 2015, a man and a woman attempted to sell statue head through Christie’s Amstersdam office. The appraisers and experts were immediately suspicious, as they well should have been, and Christie’s lawyer called the Art Squad.

The piece, one foot high and dating to the 2nd century A.D., wasn’t on the Art Squad’s list of stolen and looted artworks, but their experts were able to trace its origins to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, the imperial country retreat/enormous palace built by the Emperor Hadrian in second and third decades of the 2nd century. A number of Severan dynasty portrait busts were unearthed at the villa during excavations in the 1950s, evidence that it was used by the imperial family well into the 3rd century. It was last on display in 2012 at an exhibition held in the Museum of the Canopus. Someone apparently stole the head after that, possibly from storage.

The auction house cooperated with the investigation, suspending the sale so the Art Squad and the Dutch police could work together to research the head. In addition to confirming the true origin of the object, the joint investigation identified two Dutch citizens who were illegally in possession of the statue head. Armed with all the evidence, the police confiscated the portrait and returned it to representatives of the Carabinieri Art Squad. It will be kept with authorities in Rome while the legal case proceeds. When it’s all over, Julia Domna will go back to Hadrian’s Villa with all her family members.

Born in what is today Homs, Syria, to a wealthy family of senatorial rank, Julia Domna was the second wife of Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 A.D.). He chose her because she had been prophesied to marry a king, and Severus was a rising political and military star with ambitions for the imperial throne. They married in around 186 A.D. Their union was by all accounts a happy one. She was intelligent, highly educated, a patron of philosophers and politically astute. Severus relied on her counsel and very unusually for the time, took her with him on military campaigns.

Julia Domna bore him two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who hated each other bitterly. She tried to smooth things over between them and their father — Caracalla co-ruled with his father from 198 until his death — to ensure a smooth succession, never a simple thing at the best of times, and certainly not when a new dynasty was in play. When Severus died in Eboracum (modern-day York), he left the empire to both Caracalla and Geta. His last words to them, reported by Cassius Dio, “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.”

This was not advice the young men chose to follow to the letter. Caracalla had his brother killed by members of the Praetorian Guard before the year was out. He did follow his father’s dictum when it came to soldier pay, showering them with bonuses so generous that he soon had to debase the currency. It didn’t buy him security, though. In 217, he was killed by a disgruntled soldier egged on by the Praetorian Guard Prefect Macrinus, that same Macrinus who would just happened to become the next emperor.

During Caracalla’s six years of solo rule, his mother did all the grunt work of being emperor. Caracalla was on campaign most of the time, so it was Julia Domna who took on the onerous duties of administering a vast territory where every single legal dispute, no matter how picayune, was adjudicated by the emperor. The amount of paperwork the imperial administration had to deal with was staggering, hence the staff of thousands of slaves, freedmen, clerks, translators, etc. necessary to keep the wheels turning. Caracalla showed a mark disinterest in this aspect of the job, while his mother proved willing and able. After she heard of his assassination, Julia Domna committed suicide.

Her distinctive style, evident in her portraiture, and her great power and influence during the reings of her husband and son, make her busts among the most recognizable. The one, the only forensic hairdresser Janet Stephens covers Julia Domna’s styling in videos on her YouTube Channel.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Yet another artwork stolen by Nazis restituted to Mosse heirs

History Blog - Tue, 2016-12-06 21:32

The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin has restituted a statue stolen by Nazis to the heirs of Felicia Lachmann-Mosse. You might recall Felicia, daughter of German Jewish publisher, philanthropist and collector of art and antiquities Rudolf Mosse, and the foundation representing her heirs from the recent article about the beautiful mummy portraits restituted to the family by the University of Zurich. Rudolf Mosse had been dead for more than a decade when the Nazis came to power in 1933, but his flagship newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt was still very much in print and very much opposed to National Socialism. Felicia and her husband Hans Lachmann Mosse tried to accomodate the new overlords by flipping the newspaper’s political orientation to the far right, but they soon realized that would not appease the Nazis. They fled to France through Switzerland and eventually made it to the United States.

The great Mosse collection had to be left behind. The Nazi government confiscated the Mosse publishing company, all of its newspapers, the Mosse family’s real estate and the collection. Nazi officials helped themselves to what they wanted and put the rest up for auction. Records of the art and artifacts stolen from the collection before the public auction are sketchy to non-existent. The Mosse Art Restitution Project was set up by the family in 2012 to track down and document the objects stolen from the Mosse collection and scattered during World War II and its aftermath.

A significant number of Mosse artworks made their way to the Staatliche Museen. In 2015 alone, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation restituted eight works — including a Roman sarcophagus, a 1903 Reclining Lion sculpted by August Gaul, two ancient Egyptian vessels, two 19th century Chinese lions — from the Staatliche to the heirs of Felicia Lachmann-Mosse after a systematic review of their holdings and a request for information on two of the pieces from the Mosse Art Restitution Project. This year, the restituted work is a sculpture of Susanna by Reinhold Begas, made between 1869-72.

Born in 1831 the son of painter Carl Joseph Begas, Reinhold Begas began to study sculpture when he was a boy. He’d already had extensive training when he at the age of 15 he became a student of Christian Daniel Rauch at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. Two years later Rauch hired him to sculpt in his workshop. Four years after that he had his first notable success with a plaster Hagar and Ishmael group in the 1852 Academy exhibition. This garnered him a scholarship and the opportunity to study in Rome.

Over the next decade he taught art in Weimar, had extended stays in Berlin, Rome and Paris, developing a naturalistic style with realistic emotion that would come to characterize the neo-baroque Berlin school of sculpture. He received many commissions for portrait busts, mythological scenes, memorials, tombs, national monuments and fountains and became a favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

How Begas’ Susanna got to the Staatliche is unclear. When it was published in a 1999 catalogue of artworks lost during the war, the only information available was that it had presumably been pillaged from Berlin by the Soviets in 1946 and was returned to Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig in 1956 or 1958. It was given to the Old National Gallery of the Staatliche Museen in 1994 and went on permanent display there when the gallery reopened in 2001.

For the time being, it will remain on display with other paintings and sculptures from prominent 19th century artists on the first floor of the Old National Gallery. Its ownership status has changed, but for now the Mosse heirs have agreed to loan it back to the museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman-era pet cemetery found in Egypt

History Blog - Mon, 2016-12-05 23:06

Egypt is replete with animal burials. From crocodiles to baboons to falcons to dogs and cats, literally millions of mummified animals have been found in ancient Egyptian tomb complexes from the pre-Dynastic era through the Roman period. These were not companion animals, but sacred animals bred and raised for sacrifice, which is why they have been found in such industrial quantities. They were sold to pilgrims and buried as offerings in religious rituals.

An excavation in the ancient Red Sea port town of Berenike has unearthed a unique assemblage of animal burials that is not a religious deposit, but rather an actual pet cemetery. The burials have been excavated since 2011 under the direction of Steven Sidebotham in cooperation with the Polish Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology, Warsaw University. Almost 100 intact animal skeletons have been discovered since then on the outskirts of the Early Roman town. Artifacts discovered and the stratigraphy of the site date the pet cemetery to between the late 1st century the first half of the 2nd century A.D.

Berenike was in its heyday then. First founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283-246 B.C.) as a military outpost to protect the trade in African elephants from Ethiopia, by the Early Roman period in the 1st century, it was a key pivot in multiple trade routes connecting India, the Arabian Peninsula and Upper Egypt. The port in the Ptolemaic fort area bustled even harder under the Roman Empire, eventually becoming its own district with its own dedicated prefect.

When animal burials began at the site in the 1st century, the area was an undeveloped ground between the town and the Ptolemaic fort. It’s part of a large zone dubbed by archaeologists the “Early Roman trash dump.” The garbage proved helpful because the most recent burials had to be dug into the trash which dated them to the 2nd century.

The vast majority of the animals buried — 86 complete skeletons — were cats. Three of them were double burials and all of those double cat burials contained one adult and one juvenile feline. The next most popular burial subject was the dog, with nine skeletons unearthed. Monkeys — three grivets, one vervet monkey, one olive baboon — came third. Few grave goods have been found, although some of the animals were buried with accessories like iron collars found on three cats and a vervet monkey, and two cats found with an ostrich eggshell bead by their necks.

Study author Marta Osypińska writes in the journal Antiquity:

Most of the well-preserved, complete animal skeletons are free of any pathologies. Particular attention has been paid to any evidence for the intentional killing of the animals — a practice known from the Nile Valley animal mummies — but there is no indication of this in the Berenike assemblage.

On the basis of the type of burial, the absence of mummification, the diverse species list and the absence of human inhumations, it is suggested that the Berenike cemetery reflects different intentions and cultural practices compared to the Nile Valley animal deposits. In my opinion, the described features suggest that the Berenike finds should be interpreted as a cemetery of house pets rather than deposits related to sacred or magical rites.

Romans were known to be deeply bonded to their dogs. Tombstones dedicated to a beloved pup have been found all over the Empire. One of the dogs buried at Berenike burials, a young moolosser-type dog that is so much larger and more massive than the local dogs that it was probably imported from Rome or Greece, died of osteosarcoma, the earliest known example of the cancer in dogs. Its last meal was fish and goat meat. The owner placed its body in a basket and covered it with broken pottery to create a sort of homemade sarcophagus effect.

The tenderness and thoughtfulness evinced in these burials argues against the animals having been dumped on the trash heap, nor do they have the typical twisted necks of the animals killed for mummification and sacrifice.

Another specific feature of the Berenike cemetery is the very high percentage of cats. These animals were deeply respected throughout the pre-Roman periods, but such practices were never adopted by other societies. In Roman Europe, the cat initially became popular in the first century AD and its spread was aided by the Roman army (Toynbee 1973). Thus, could we suspect that the eclectic evidence (both Egyptian and Roman) from Berenike reflects the adoption of the cat as a pet in this multicultural community? Naturally, there are plenty of reasons for keeping cats in a port-town, but the general segregation of the kitten and adult inhumations suggests a more complex relationship than pragmatic coexistence.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Together again at last, Master Mateo at the Prado

History Blog - Sun, 2016-12-04 23:16

In 814 A.D., a hermit named Pelagius saw a single star of great brilliance and a shower of stars around it over the Libredón forest near Iria Flavia (modern-day Padrón), seat of the main bishopric in Galicia. Pelagius, other brother hermits and some shepherds approached the site and heard a choir of heavenly hosts singing. Bishop Theodomirus in Iria was told of this portent. He had the underbrush cleared to reveal an arch over an altar with a sarcophagus at its feet. Either from divine revelation or from a papyrus found in the sarcophagus, Theodomirus realized this was the tomb of St. James, son of Zebedee, brother of John and one of the Twelve Apostles. According to local legend, James, who was decapitated by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, had preached in what is now Spain and after his death his body was miraculously transported in a rudderless boat from Jaffa to Iria Flavia and thence inland for burial.

When the miraculous find was reported to King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia, he ordered a chapel built on the site, a modest structure of stone and mud. He added a baptistery, another church and a small monastery and built a defensive wall around the small settlement called Compostela (ostensibly a corruption of the Latin “campus stellae” or field of stars in reference to the miracle Pelagius had witnessed). The legend of St. James’ burial in Spain had spread widely in the 8th century, a cultural rallying cry against the Umayyad conquest of the Iberian peninsula, so the discovery of his relics made a huge splash. It was considered a divine sign that Iberia would be Christian again, that retaking it was a holy crusade. Alfonso notified Pope Leo III and Charlemagne of the find, and they spread the world all over Christendom. Pope Leo had lost Corsica and Sardinia to Muslim raiders from Al-Andalus in 809-810, so he was very much on board with the St. James messaging.

Soon the pilgrims were flocking in thousands to Santiago de Compostela, first from the peninsula and then from all over Europe. The Way of Saint James became the most important pilgrim destination after Rome and Jerusalem. Alfonso II’s humble chapel was replaced in 899 by a stone basilica ordered by King Alfonso III. Built in the Asturian style with three naves and a rectangular head, this church was razed to the ground a century later by Al-Mansur, defacto ruler of Al-Andalus when the Caliph Hisham was but a boy, although he made a point not to damage the holy tomb of St. James.

In 1075, Alfonso VI, King of Castile and Leon, began constructing a new church. This one was to be a grand Romanesque cathedral that could accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims following the Way of St. James without disrupting the quotidian services of the church. The new church would have a round head for traffic flow, a gallery above the aisles for crowd management and side doors to allow pilgrims access to the crypt underneath the altar without having the stomp through the nave during regular worship.

Construction stopped and started over the next century and in 1168, Master Mateo, an architect and sculptor of French origin, was engaged by King Ferdinand II of León to create a new main façade worthy of one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The old façade was demolished and in its place rose a massive two-story portico with three arches matching the three naves. Wide piers supported the arches and Mateo decorated them with an incredibly rich density of high relief sculptures. Around the base were fantastical animals. The middle of the piers featured pilasters with sculptures of the apostles and prophets. The sculptures at the top of the piers are symbols from the Old Testament and Book of Revelation. St. James gets central placement on the mullion of the central column, and at its foot facing in towards the altar instead of out at the pilgrims is Master Mateo himself, holding a sign identifying himself as the Architectus.

The overall theme was the salvation granted by God after the Final Judgment. Each of the three entrance arches represent different aspects of the theme. The left entrance focused on the Old Testament prophets, the right on punishments of the damned, the center of Christ the savior.
In the central tympanum Christ displays his wounds surrounded by the four Evangelists and their symbols. Angels carry the instruments of the passion — the cross, crown of thorns, nails and spear — while above them are a great throng of the blessed.

The 3D carving and individual detail of the more than 200 figures were great innovations in Romanesque art, and Master Mateo worked on his magnum opus, known as the Portico of Glory, until 1211. He and his workshop also created a sculpted stone choir which was replaced by a wooden one in the 17th century.

In the 16th century, the western façade of the Portico of Glory was taken down and the figures removed. Some were installed in other locations in the cathedral. Others went to museums or private collections. Because people are crazy, some of these precious sculptures were even treated like trash, used as fill in various construction projects at the cathedral. Thankfully the crazy abated and in the 18th century the Portico of Glory was encased by a new Baroque façade for its own protection. Exposure to the elements for 500 years had damaged the sculptures. They still managed to retain some of their polychrome painted elements, although most of the surviving color is from later restorations rather than the original.

Work at the cathedral over the years has unearthed some of those discarded Master Mateo works. Now the Museo Nacional del Prado is exhibiting 14 sculptures from the Portico of Glory and the dismantled choir, some of them together again for the first time 500 years.

The present exhibition includes fourteen works, opening with the document in which Ferdinand II grants a lifetime pension to [Master] Mateo, a text that constitutes the first reference to his activities at the cathedral.

Horses from the Retinue of the Three Kings – reused as infill material for the Obradoiro staircase and recovered in 1978 still with traces of its original polychromy – and Saint Matthew came from the retro-choir and exterior façades, respectively, of the granite choir constructed by Mateo and his workshop around the year 1200.

The other works on display are from the lost west façade, including the sculptures of David and Solomon which, following the dismantling of that façade, were reinstalled on the parapet of the Obradoiro loggia where they remained until they were recently restored on site prior to their inclusion in this exhibition; and the Statue-column of a male figure with a cartouche, a damaged figure that was rediscovered this October inside the cathedral’s bell tower where it had been used as infill material and is now being presented to the public for the first time. Also on display are other architectural elements that were part of the façade such as the large Rose window which crowned the central doorway and was reconstructed from fragments found in 1961; and two Keystones with the punishment of Lust, possibly from the arch on the south side, which had the same iconographic theme as the corresponding arch of the Portico of Glory, devoted to the Last Judgment.

A custom app created for the exhibit will allow visitors to virtually tour the Portico of Glory and the stone choir as Master Mateo designed them. The exhibition opened on November 28th and will run through March 26th, 2017.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen Dachau “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate found in Norway

History Blog - Sat, 2016-12-03 23:56

The wrought iron gate with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” stolen from the entrance to the Dachau Concentration Camp on the night of November 1-2, 2014, has been found in Norway. After receiving an anonymous tip, police found the gate in a parking lot near a shooting range in Ytre Arna outside Bergen. It was hidden under a tarp with assorted trash and has apparently been outside in the elements for some time. One anonymous witness told a newspaper that he had seen the gate in a trench in Ytre Arna several months ago.

The police could not confirm the length of time the gate had spent outside. Their forensic examination of the door yielded no clues to the identities of the thieves, no DNA, no magical trace evidence to send through an exotic piece of equipment. The Bergen police are continuing to investigate, as is the Bavarian police.

Police in the southern German state of Bavaria, where Dachau is located, confirmed the gate had been found.

“From the picture transmitted, police believe it is highly likely that this is the iron gate that was stolen from Dachau,” it said in a statement.

Bergen authorities will return the gate “as soon as possible.” As the investigation is ongoing, the evidence of the crime is subject to judicial review before it can leave the country. It’s likely the judgement will be in favor of immediate restoration given the historical significance of the object.

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site staff is heaving a sigh of collective relief.

The President of the Comité International de Dachau, General Jean-Michel Thomas, took note of this news with great satisfaction, stating, “Even though we still do not know what was behind this outrage, I offer thanks in the name of the survivors’ association for the discovery of this crime and the international concern that was shown following its perpetration.”

Dr. Gabriele Hammermann, Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, was also very relieved and offered thanks to the police in Norway and Germany for their meticulous investigations. “Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, along with the survivors and their relatives, is delighted that the background to this act is now being cleared up and that this particularly symbolic relict of the concentration camp will once again be returned to the memorial following a judicial review. Of course, it will be presented to the public again once the restoration work is completed. A decision will be made together with the Stiftung Bayerische Gedenkstätten (Bavarian Memorial Foundation) regarding the placement of the gate, whether at its former location or as part of the permanent exhibition.”

The Director of the Bavarian Memorial Foundation, Karl Freller, was overjoyed at this news, and responded by saying, “It is a great relief to me that this piece of original evidence of the Nazis’ cynicism and contempt for humankind has been recovered. I congratulate the security authorities on their transnational success.”

Not quite original, actually. The original iron gate was made by Communist political prisoner Karl Röder in 1936 by order of the SS. It was removed after the war and a historically accurate replica created from photos of the original was installed when the Memorial Site was created in 1965. After the theft in 2014, another replica was made and put in place so it would be for solemnities marking the anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division on April 29th, 1945.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History