Ventnor artifacts seek owner

September 3rd, 2015

On October 27th, 1902, the steamer SS Ventnor left Wellington, New Zealand, carrying the mortal remains of 499 Chinese miners. It was taking them to Hong Kong where they would be transported to China’s southern Guangdong province, the birthplace of the 499 dead, so the remains could be reburied in their native soil in accordance with Chinese custom. New Zealand had recruited Chinese labourers to extract gold from mines that Europeans had already worked to near exhaustion, and despite the passage of draconian exclusion laws, the Chinese community grew. Choie Sew Hoy, a wealthy Dunedin merchant and leader of the Cheong Sing Tong, arranged for the repatriation of the bodies and when he died suddenly a year before the ship’s departure, his remains joined the others on board the SS Ventnor.

A day after its departure, the ship struck the shoals near the coast of Taranaki and was damaged but seemed to be capable of limping its way to Auckland. It was not. The Ventnor took on water and sank on October 29th. The crew and a half-dozen Chinese passengers tending to the remains managed to scramble onto four life boats. One of the four capsized killing all 13 people on board, including the captain and third officer.

The tragedy caused great distress in the Chinese community of New Zealand and in Guangdong. Choie Sew Hoy’s family offered a reward of $25,000 for the recovery of his remains, but the heavy coffins held in the cargo of the ship could not be retrieved. The Tong hired another steamer that searched for remains without success. A few coffins stored on deck did float ashore where the remains were buried with respect by the Maori of the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes.

While the general area of the wreck was known, the precise location of the ship wasn’t discovered until 110 years after it sank. The Ventnor Project Group (VPG) found the wreck 15 kilometers (nine miles) off the Hokianga Coast with sonar in 2012 and later divers confirmed its identity. In April of 2014, divers returned to the wreck and recovered a few artifacts: a ceramic plate, the ship’s bell, a lamp holder, a porthole and the ship’s telegraph. At the time, the organization thought the artifacts could be given to a museum in Guangzhou, but the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) was vocally opposed to the idea because of how significant they were to the Chinese community in New Zealand.

The NZCA was also concerned that the wreck site was in danger from looters, so it worked with New Zealand Heritage to fast-track protection of the site. All sites from before 1900 are automatically accorded protected status, but the Ventnor was just outside that dividing line. New Zealand Heritage quickly gazetted the site, protecting it under the provisions of the Historic Places Act 1993, making it illegal for anyone to interfere with the wreck in any way.

Now the question is what to do with the artifacts removed from the shipwreck before it was protected. On Monday New Zealand’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage published a notice on their website and in newspapers asking that claims of ownership be submitted to the ministry.

New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage invites submissions of claims for ownership and/or possession from parties who may have an interest in some or all of the objects. We also invite submissions from parties who are not claiming ownership and/or possession but who wish to make submissions for consideration regarding the future care of the objects whether by them or by another party. Submissions should be received by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage by 23 November 2015.

It seems to me that the only people with a legitimate ownership claim to pieces of the Ventnor would be the owners of the ship, but as far as I could find, the Glasgow-based shipping company is no longer in business. Perhaps it has legal corporate descendants. Even so, I doubt they’d want to take an old porthole out of the context where it has such profound meaning. The NZCA plans to make a submission to the ministry with the goal of creating a traveling exhibition. The government reserves the right to make a claim as well. Once the claims have been submitted and the deadline expires, the Chief Executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage will decide who gets custody of the artifacts.

Share

Scottish soldiers found in Durham mass grave

September 2nd, 2015

In November of 2013, construction crews building a new coffee shop for Durham University’s Palace Green Library came across human skeletal remains. Construction was halted immediately and an archaeological excavation ensued. Under an internal courtyard at the south end of the site, archaeologists unearthed a jumble of bones, the remains of more than a dozen people who had been buried in two pits. The mass graves extend north, south and east past the excavated area under buildings and walls and only the area directly impacted by construction was excavated so there are likely many more human remains still underground. The bones in the path of construction were removed for study before reburial.

University researchers found that there were at least 17 individuals and as many as 29 buried in the pits. Because they had been buried with little care, the skeletons were disarticulated and it wasn’t possible to identify the exact number. Most of them ranged in age from 13 to 25 with a few older individuals. All the adults were male and the adolescents probably were as well but their sex could not be conclusively determined. The sex and age indicate these individuals were soldiers. If they had been general population struck by plague, say, there would have been a representative proportion of men, women, children and elderly. (They also probably wouldn’t have been buried in the city center on the castle grounds.)

Stable isotope analysis from tooth enamel revealed that six of the deceased were likely from Scotland, four from Scotland or Northern England, one more likely to be Scottish than English and three who were not from the British Isles. They grew up further east, in a cooler climate or a higher altitude; they may have been German or Dutch. Two of the men had crescent-shaped notches in the teeth called “pipe facets” caused by habitual biting on the stems of clay pipes.

That’s a key date marker because clay pipe smoking became popular in Britain in the early 17th century, so the bodies can’t have been buried before 1620. A building was constructed over some of the mass grave in 1754 which narrows the date further. Radiocarbon testing dates the remains to 1625-1660. That range is mighty suggestive. There was a civil war going on in Britain in the middle of those dates, after all.

Durham University experts believe all the evidence points to the men buried in these mass graves being soldiers in the Scottish army who were on the losing side of the Battle of Dunbar, fought on the southeast coast of Scotland exactly 365 years ago today on September 3rd, 1650. It was a short but brutal fight in which Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army crushed the Royalist Scottish Covenanter army in less than an hour. According to contemporary sources, up to 5,000 men lost their lives on the battlefield. Modern historians estimate that 4,000 Scottish soldiers were captured by Cromwell and marched through Newcastle upon Tyne 100 miles south to Durham. Approximately 1,000 of them died on the way, mainly from starvation, exhausting and dysentery.

When the 3,000 or so survivors reached Durham, they were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral which at the time was no longer functioning as a church since Cromwell had kicked out the Dean and Chapter. Conditions were appalling. It was cold and there was little food or water to be had. The Scottish prisoners stripped the cathedral’s wood to burn for heat, sparing only Prior Castell’s Clock out of deference for the Scottish thistle carved on it. (That’s the romantic story. The more practical version is that the clock was dismantled and removed when the cathedral was converted into a prison.) An estimate 1,700 of the prisoners died in captivity.

As for the survivors, some of them were forced to work in salt and coal mined in northeast England or to drain the Fens in Norfolk. About 500 were conscripted to fight in the Parliamentarian army in Ireland. Others were sold as indentured servants to the tobacco plantations of Virginia and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. About 150 of them were sent to New England where they were sold as indentured servants to sawmills and ironworks for £20 a head. The term of indenture was limited and if they raised sufficient funds they could buy themselves free before the term was up.

There is no evidence of cause of death in the bones exhumed from the mass grave, nor are there extensive healed wounds or perimortem wounds as you might expect to find on soldiers’ remains. Counterintuitively, that supports a Dunbar connection because the Scottish soldiers who fought there are known to have been largely inexperienced fighters and the ones who suffered severe injuries either died on the field or were released back to their side right after battle. Only the soldiers who had made it out of the fight relatively intact were taken prisoner and marched down south where they eventually died of starvation or disease.

The presence of non-Scots is also in keeping with what we know about the Scottish army. Contemporary sources note the presence of Dutch and German soldiers in the Scottish army just weeks after the Battle of Dunbar. It seems likely they were at the battle too.

Richard Annis, senior archaeologist at Archaeological Services Durham University, said: “This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died.

“Their burial was a military operation. The bodies were tipped into two pits, possibly over a period of days. They were at the far end of what would have been the Durham Castle grounds, as far as possible from the castle itself – they were out of sight, out of mind.

“It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now university buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-17th Century.”

The remains will be reinterred as required by the terms of the exhumation license. Durham University and Durham Cathedral are working together with other interested parties (the Church of Scotland, for instance) to determine the most respectful approach. Certainly burial in the cathedral is out given that most of the dead were probably Presbyterians and even if they weren’t the last place in the world they’d want to be buried is in the prison where they experienced so much death and misery.

Share

New technology reveals Rembrandt hidden portrait

September 1st, 2015

Like many artists, Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt van Rijn was known to have reused materials, especially in his younger days. Instead of discarding a canvas or wood panel after a false start, it’s a lot cheaper and faster to just flip it and start over again. The figure underneath An Old Man in Military Costume (1630-31) has been known to scholars since 1968 when the Rembrandt Research Project X-rayed the painting, then in the collection of Sir Brian Mountain, and found a young man’s face upside down to the right of the Old Man’s face. While the figure was visible, it was indistinct.

The painting was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1978 and it’s been studied with different imaging techniques repeatedly since then. Improvements in X-ray technology provided slightly clearer views of the man under the Man in 1978 and 2008. In 1996, neutron activation autoradiography (NAAR) was able to provide a cleaner image of the figure and, most importantly, the distribution of some of the chemical elements in the paint. If you know the chemical composition of the paint, you may be able to accurately extrapolate color, but the NAAR data was insufficient.

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning can generate a detailed map of single-element distribution, but until recently required bulky instruments only found in select laboratories and could only scan small sections of a painting or objects small enough to fit into a cabinet unit. When the Getty first attempted an XRF scan on an area near the lips of the underlying figure, they only caught a glimpse of it. Macro-XRF (MA-XRF) technology, possible at synchrotron radiation laboratories, could scan the entire painting, but the Getty wasn’t keen to move its precious Rembrandt around the country. Just as they were exploring sending Old Man to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, the development of a mobile MA-XRF scanner that could scan the painting in place made concerns about the danger and inconvenience of transporting the delicate artwork moot.

Now a new study combines the new mobile MA-XRF scanning technology with data from the early NAAR scans to reveal the most complete image of the young man yet.

The general shape of the face of the figure underlying An Old Man in Military Costume was revealed by X-radiography: NAAR imaging provided more details about the shape of the face and the cloak worn by the figure along with indications of the chemical composition of some of the pigments Rembrandt used. MA-XRF scanning significantly added to the understanding of the hidden painting by providing detailed images of the distribution of individual chemical elements, from which the specific pigment(s) – and colors – Rembrandt used to paint the first figure could be inferred. For example, the underlying figure’s face is rich in the element mercury, indicative of the presence of the red pigment vermilion, one of the components used to create flesh tones. The MA-XRF map of mercury provided a nearly complete, detailed image of the face of the underlying figure; similarly, the map of copper, typically associated with blue or green pigments, provided an image of the cloak.

Together, the information from the NAAR and MA-XRF scans was used to create a tentative digital color reconstruction of the hidden image: a young man, seen in three-quarter view wearing a voluminous cloak around his shoulders. The full significance of the hidden painting within Rembrandt’s oeuvre will continue to be the subject of ongoing research.

One possibility that will be studied further is that the underlying image is a self-portrait. Rembrandt often used his own face in his early character studies and it’s likely this young man is the artist as a young man. The study has been published in the journal Applied Physics A and can be read in its entirety for free here.

Share

DVR alert: Drunk History is back tonight!

August 31st, 2015

The new season of Drunk History premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30 EST. I’ve been a loyal viewer since it was on YouTube and while the transition to television was a little awkward — a sketch on the short-lived Funny or Die HBO show — it has found its footing on Comedy Central and is now heading into its third season.

In the first two seasons of the Comedy Central show, each episode revolved around a city as a unifying theme. Three comedians told a story each about, say, Detroit or New York City of Nashville, and it worked because hometown yarns are always good fun, and anyway history is so dense and rich that there’s no chance of so broad a range as an entire city feeling limited. Still, I missed the theme shows of the olden days, so I was delighted to see a few of them in season two (First Ladies, American Music) and they’re back this season. The first episode has a theme, in fact, the history of science, one of my favorite subtopics.

If you haven’t seen it before, I envy you, because you can watch every episode of the first two seasons on Comedy Central’s website with enthralled new eyes. The episodes are just over 20 minutes long, so you can totally marathon through all 18 of them in less than seven hours. I’m not saying you should call in sick, but you should probably call in sick. Priorities, man.

Drunk History co-creators Derek Waters and Jeremy Connor, were on a panel at this year’ Comic-Con. Waters talks about the inception of the show — Otis Redding was involved — and how it took off, the processes of narration and reenactment, topics they thought would work but turned out to be buzzkills, ie, the Donner Party and serial killer H.H. Holmes. Fun fact: the first season they made narrators tell two stories which means they were drunk non-stop from 3:00 in the afternoon until after the wee hours of the next morning. Oh, and the narrators have to blow in a breathalyzer regularly throughout filming to ensure they are efficiently but not dangerously wasted. Guest stars this season include Octavia Spenser, Parker Posey, Will Ferrel, Josh Hartnett and Maya Rudolph.

If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll wish the panel video were longer. More showing how the sausage is made!

** Embed removed due to stupid autoplay. Have a nice, quiet link instead. **

The follow-up Q&A is, alas, very brief, but it still manages to cover a couple of key questions I’ve been curious about, most significantly how are the stories chosen and by whom.

** Second embed also removed due to stupid autoplay. Link. **

Share

Retired electrician found guilty of holding stolen Picassos

August 30th, 2015

Retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle have been convicted of possessing stolen goods, namely 271 drawings, collages and paintings by Pablo Picasso. The trove of previously unknown works came to light in September of 2010 when Pierre Le Guennec carried a suitcase full of them to the Picasso Administration to have them authenticated. His story was that either Picasso himself or his wife Jacqueline gave the art to Pierre as a gift for having installed a security system and done some other work around the Côte d’Azur estate.

Picasso’s son Claude found this account unbelievable because while the artist was generous with his prolific work, he routinely signed and dated a piece before giving it to someone. There was certainly no precedent for Picasso handing over hundreds of random, unsigned pieces at one time. Claude pressed charges against the Le Guennecs for receipt of stolen goods.

Pierre and Danielle gave different accounts of how they had acquired this multi-million dollar treasure.

[On the stand Pierre] recalled that one day, in a corridor, Jacqueline Picasso had handed him a closed box containing the works, saying: “Here, it’s for you. Take it home.” He said: “Thank you, madame” and they never discussed it again. During the inquiry, Danielle Le Guennec had separately recalled a different version: that her husband came home with a stuffed rubbish bag, and told her Picasso had given the works to him when tidying his studio.

Both stories strained credulity, as far as the Picasso heirs were concerned, and no clear answers were forthcoming in court. They do suspect that third parties may be involved.

The Picasso heirs’ lawyer had suggested in court that the couple might have been manipulated by an art smuggling ring. Pierre Le Guennec had claimed that, despite knowing nothing about art, he had personally used books about Picasso to draw up an inventory that was found with the cache of 180 lithographs, collages and paintings and 91 drawings. But in court, lawyers cast doubt over whether he wrote the inventory himself. It contained a note about a similarity to a Picasso work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But in court, Pierre Le Guennec seemed not to have ever heard of MoMA.

The couple are in the 70s now and won’t be going to jail. They were given a two-year suspended sentence and the collection will be returned to Picasso’s heirs. The court made no determination as to who was responsible for the theft.

Share

Herbert Hoover’s World War I laces

August 29th, 2015

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has a collection of beautiful Belgian laces made during World War I at the behest of future President of the United States Herbert Hoover. Hoover’s name is nowadays most commonly associated with the lack of relief for the destitute of the Great Depression — the notorious tent cities of the homeless and poverty-stricken were famously called Hoovervilles — but before he was president Herbert Hoover was actively involved in relief efforts. As head of the Food Administration under Woodrow Wilson, Hoover was in charge of the administration’s food and fuel conservation programs during the war, but before that, when war first broke out in 1914, Hoover ran the Committee for Relief in Belgium (CRB) which organized the distribution of food supplies to ten million people in occupied Belgium.

Hoover wasn’t in government at the time. He wasn’t even in the United States. He was living in London, a wealthy mining engineer and investor who translated Renaissance mining tracts with his wife Lou in his spare time. That translation is considered the standard for its clarity of language and extensive scholarly footnotes and is still in print today. He was drawn into relief work after World War I broke out and tens of thousands of American citizens suddenly found themselves stranded in London. Hoover organized a committee to get them back home and was so effective that in October of 1914 the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James asked Hoover to take on a far more onerous job: keep all of Belgium from starving to death.

Belgium had been invaded by Germany at the start of the war and famine immediately became a very real prospect. The small country only produced enough food to supply 20-25% of the population, but whatever food was available was requisitioned by the occupiers to supply the troops. Britain put Germany and the occupied countries under blockade making food imports nigh on impossible.

That was the Gordian knot Hoover had to cut through. He was able to arrange for the relief supplies to be shipped to Belgium where the CRB monitored their distribution by the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CNSA), the Belgian organization dedicated to famine relief. The CRB personnel weren’t just passing the time of the day. They had to be involved in every step of the distribution process because as occupied Belgians, CNSA personnel were legally bound to follow German orders. The primarily British and American CRB staff was under no such obligation. Their job was to ensure the food made it to Belgian plates and they did it well. The CRB raised funds, shipped 5.7 million tons of donated food past Germany’s unrestricted U-boat warfare and then literally fed Belgium from 1914 through 1919.

Hoover’s concern wasn’t just to keep Belgians from mass starvation. He also arranged for thread to be distributed to Belgian lace makers and for the sale of their finished lace to buyers in Allied countries. Belgium had been famous for its delicate handmade laces since the 17th century, and while industrialization and mass-production had hobbled the traditional craft, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium instituted promotional and improvement programs had helped spur a revival of interest in handmade lace just before World War I.

The Belgian lace committees worked closely with the “Commission for Relief of Belgium” as the work on behalf of the lace makers became even more important during World War One. Several famous Belgian artists were enlisted to make new designs. Among them were Isidore de Rudder, his sister Maria de Rudder, Charles Michel, and Juliette Wytsman, who designed some of the War Laces that are now part of the collection at the National Museum of American History.

World War One laces often included names of people, places, inscriptions, and dates; a characteristic not usually found in other lace work. The lace often incorporates the coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations as well as the nine Belgian provinces in recognition of the help received. It was hoped that these distinguishing elements would appeal to generous people around the world who might buy these laces in support of the Belgian people.

Sometimes the appeal was even more direct. This exquisite banner panel features a pair of cupids holding a banner inscribed “Augusta-Virginia,” the name of the mother of the Vicomtesse de Beughem. The Vicomtesse, an American married to a Belgian aristocrat, was one of four women in charge of the Lace Committee. It is believed she commissioned the banner in honor of her mother, Augusta Virginia Mitchell. One of the other three women, Mrs. Brand Whitlock, wife of the US ambassador to Belgium, commissioned this table cloth with the seals of the United States, Belgium and the Whitlock family crest.

The program ultimately kept 50,000 lace makers in Belgium working from 1914 through 1919.

The war laces in the Smithsonian collection are not on public display, but they have been digitized and can be viewed online. It’s a gasp-generating browse, even though I dearly wish the pictures were larger. I know, I know… I always wish the pictures were larger, but the minute details of this lace just beg to be viewed in extreme closeup. It’s a little awkward to navigate, but you can feast your eyes on the minutiae by clicking on the name of the object. This takes you the catalogue entry. Scroll down to the bottom for additional images. Those are detail images, so while you can’t see the whole piece zoomed all the way in to the stitching, you can explore the a section of the lacework in satisfying detail.

One of my favorites is Table Mat With English Scene which has an unbelievable allegorical depiction of the coronation of British King George V in 1911. The image started out as a cartoon by Bernard Partridge published in Punch Magazine which was the converted into lace using the Point de Gaze technique. The Isidore de Rudder Designed Pillow Top goes in a completely different direction, commemorating the battle at the Yzer River with a glorious sea creature design in Point de Venise needle lace. I love the Monogrammed Fan Leaf with Designer’s Name because while it has the monograms of Belgian King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth writ large on either side of the Belgian Lion, it also has the names of designer Juliette Wytsman and the manufacturer Maison Daimeries-Petitjean in very petite cursive under the monogrammed initials. It’s incredible to me that it’s even possible to write your name so small and clear in Point de Gaze needle lace. Oh, and here’s one for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Collar with Peace Doves.

Share

Small but sweet Viking hoard declared treasure

August 28th, 2015

A hoard of Viking-era silver ingots and coins discovered in Wales has been officially declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The hoard was found in March by metal detectorist Walter Hanks in a field in Llandwrog, north-west Wales. Consisting of fewer than 20 coins and coin fragments, three complete ingots and one partial, it’s a small trove of outsized historical significance because of its age and rarity.

Fourteen of the coins are silver pennies minted in Dublin under the reign of the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin Sihtric Anlafsson, aka Sigtrygg Silkbeard (r. 989-1036). Eight of them date to 995 A.D.; the other six, three of which are fragments, were minted in 1018 A.D. Sihtric’s coins are very rare discoveries on the British mainland. There are also fragments of three or four silver pennies from the reign of Cnut the Great, the Danish King of England who reigned from 985 or 995 through 1035. The Cnut coins were probably produced in the mint at Chester.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was lost or buried between 1020 and 1030. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard, unearthed in 1979 near Llandudno in Conwy, north Wales, was buried around that time — after 1024 — and it too contains coins minted by Cnut and Sihtric: 203 Cnut silver pennies and just two Sihtric silver pennies. The Bryn Maelgwyn coins are thought to have been Viking booty rather than a savings account, however, unlike the Llandwrog hoard. The weight of the ingots is 115.09 grams out of a total hoard weight of 127.77 grams. That means fully 90% of the weight of the hoard is in the ingots which suggests the hoard’s main role was silver storage.

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the Department of History and Archaeology at the National Museum Wales said the find will help historians to form a picture of the eleventh century Gwynedd economy.

He said: “There are three complete finger-shaped ingots and one fragmentary finger-shaped metal ingot. Nicking on the sides of the ingots is an intervention sometimes undertaken in ancient times to test purity, and evidence that they had been used in commercial transactions before burial.

“At least four hoards on the Isle of Man indicate that bullion retained an active role in the Manx economy from the 1030s to 1060s, and the mixed nature of the Llandwrog hoard falls into the same category. As such it amplifies the picture we are building up of the wealth and economy operating in the kingdom of Gwynedd in the eleventh century.”

The National Museum Wales is hoping to secure the hoard. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard is at the Cardiff branch of the Nation Museum, so it would be in excellent company. First the valuation committee must decide the fair market value of the hoard. The museum will then try to raise the price, ideally through a Lottery Fund grant, which will be divided between the finder and the landowner.

Share

Rossetti didn’t paint Botticelli lady’s hair red

August 27th, 2015

A new restoration of Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470-5) by Sandro Botticelli has redeemed the reputation of a much later artist, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Lucille Ball hue of Smeralda’s hair was long thought to be an alteration done by Rossetti after he bought the painting in 1867. Experts at the V&A conserving the work for next year’s
Botticelli Reimagined exhibition have discovered that the flaming red hair is original.

It was Rossetti’s own words which placed him under scrutiny. In a letter dated three days after he bought the painting, Rossetti told his secretary “I have been restoring the headdress, but don’t mean to tell.” The hair was thought to have suffered the brunt of Rossetti’s sneaky intervention, but when V&A conservators removed the top layer of discolored varnish, they saw that there were fewer layers of paint than they expected to find. Analysis of the paint confirmed it was tempera and that the red pigment of the hair was applied by Botticelli’s hand. The only areas Rossetti appears to have retouched were some areas of the face and the cap.

Infrared reflectography revealed interesting details about Botticelli’s process. He drew incised lines on architectural features like the pillars, window framing and door which add depth and precision and help ensure the perspective looks accurate. For Smeralda’s garment, Botticelli first used liquid sketching to rough out the clothing before covering it in a wash of paint with high carbon content to enhance the shading.

When Rossetti acquired the painting from a Christie’s auction, Botticelli’s genius wasn’t as widely recognized as it had been during his lifetime. The 19th century saw a gradual revival of appreciation for the Renaissance master, and the pre-Raphaelites played an important role in the reevaluation of Botticelli’s significance. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones collected Botticelli paintings and drawings, which goes to show how different the market was for his work back then. Rossetti paid £20 for Smeralda Bandinelli (plus £4 to have it professionally cleaned). When he sold it to collector Constantine Alexander Ionides just 15 years later, the sale price had leapt to £315. It hasn’t been sold since and isn’t likely to be ever again — Ionides included it in his bequest of 82 paintings to the V&A in 1901 — but Botticelli’s Rockefeller Madonna set a record for the artist when it sold at auction for $10,442,500 in 2013.

The upcoming exhibition looks at Botticelli’s work, how it was seen in his time and how, after three long centuries of obscurity, it came back to prominence through the work of artists influenced by him. There are more than 50 original works by Botticelli in the exhibition. Pre-Raphaelite reimaginings of Botticelli like Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata and Burne-Jones’ The Mill: Girls Dancing to Music by a River will be on display alongside works by Botticelli-inspired artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte, and designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

It’s a joint exhibition with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin which has eight paintings and 86 drawings by the Renaissance master in its permanent collection. The show opens in Berlin on September 24th of this year and closes on January 24th. It opens at the V&A on March 5th, 2016.

Share

Roman water law inscription found in Laodicea

August 26th, 2015

A marble slab inscribed with Roman-era water laws has been unearthed in the ancient city of Laodicea in western Turkey. The highly detailed law law was written by the Laodicea Assembly in 114 A.D. and approved by Aulus Vicirius Martialis, proconsul of the Roman Asia province, in the provincial capital at Ephesus. It was carved on a slab and erected in the city to put fear in the heart of all water scofflaws.

The Roman affinity for practical engineering ensured cities had access to public water. Aqueducts carried enormous quantities of water from nearby sources to the urbs where it was split up into lead pipes and reservoirs supplying the fountains, baths and drinking water throughout the city. Keeping people from illegally tapping into the pipes to supply their own homes was a constant struggle. If too many people helped themselves, not only would the water flow be disrupted for their neighbors, but the sewer system tied into the water system suffered as well since it required regular flushing. Backed up sewers and low water supply make for uncomfortable and dangerously unsanitary conditions in any city.

Water management was thus an essential aspect of city administration and violators of the common water good were subject to heavy penalties. In Laodicea, anyone caught polluting the water, damaging the pipes and channels, opening sealed pipes or stealing the city water for private use would have to pay fines as high as 12,500 denarii. A legionary was paid 300 denarii a year in the early second century A.D., so fines in the thousands would be complete disasters for regular people. Many of the most egregious public water thieves were quite wealthy since they had homes into which city water could be easily and discretely diverted, so it was important that the fines be large if they were to act as any kind of deterrent.

[Excavations head Professor Celal Şimşek of Pamukkale University] said the 1,900-year-old rules to prevent water pollution had a very special place, adding, “The fine for damaging the water channel or polluting the water is 5,000 denarius, nearly 50,000 Turkish Liras. The fine is the same for those who break the seal and attempt illegal use. Also, there are penalties for senior staff that overlook the illegal use of water. They pay 12,500 denarius. Those who denounce the polluters are given one-eighth of the penalty as a reward, according to the rules.”

A translation from the Greek of one section of the inscription:

“Those who divide the water for his personal use, should pay 5,000 denarius to the imperial treasury; it is forbidden to use the city water for free or grant it to private individuals; those who buy the water cannot violate the Vespasian Edict; those who damage water pipes should pay 5,000 denarius; protective roofs should be established for the water depots and water pipes in the city; the governor’s office [will] appoint two citizens as curators every year to ensure the safety of the water resource; nobody who has farms close to the water channels can use this water for agriculture.”

Founded in the 3rd century B.C., Laodicea was part of the Kingdom of Pergamon when its last king Attalus III bequeathed it to Rome in 133 B.C. Laodicea was hard hit during the two decades of war between Rome and Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, and it was only after the end of the last Mithraditic War (75-63 B.C.) that the sleepy town grew into prosperous city under Roman rule. Strabo, who was himself a native of Amasya, Pontus, (now Turkey) and whose family held important positions under Mithridates VI, describes the rise Laodicea in Book XII, Chapter 8.16 of his Geography:

Laodiceia, though formerly small, grew large in our time and in that of our fathers, even though it had been damaged by siege in the time of Mithridates Eupator. However, it was the fertility of its territory and the prosperity of certain of its citizens that made it great: at first Hieron, who left to the people an inheritance of more than two thousand talents and adorned the city with many dedicated offerings, and later Zeno the rhetorician and his son Polemon, the latter of whom, because of his bravery and honesty, was thought worthy even of a kingdom, at first by Antony and later by Augustus. The country round Laodiceia produces sheep that are excellent, not only for the softness of their wool, in which they surpass even the Milesian wool, but also for its raven-black colour, so that the Laodiceians derive splendid revenue from it[.]

Share

Heads roll in Slovakia over sale of Bernini bust

August 25th, 2015

The bust of Pope Paul V by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year has left a trail of criminal investigations and fired civil servants in its wake. When the museum announced the rediscovery and acquisition of the long-lost sculpture this June, the only details released about the purchase where that it belonged to an unnamed private collector who arranged a private sale via Sotheby’s London. The last time before then that it appeared on the historical record was when it was sold to a Viennese collector at an 1893 Borghese family estate sale.

Last month, details started to leak about the acquisition. The Getty was reported to have paid a jaw-dropping $33 million to buy the bust from a still-unnamed Slovakian art dealer who had bought it unattributed and then found out it was the real thing, not a copy after Bernini’s original. Somehow, the work had migrated from Vienna at the end of the 19th century to modern-day Bratislava, Slovakia. where it was in the collection of Slovakian painter Ernest Zmeták. In 2013, Zmeták’s heirs put some of this collection, including the bust of Pope Paul V, up for auction.

The bust, then attributed solely to an “unknown Italian sculptor,” was put up for auction twice, once in December of 2013 for 47,000 euro, and when it failed to sell, again almost a year later for 24,000 euro. Shortly after the bust couldn’t find a buyer even at the 50% off fire sale, the auction house sold the bust privately for the reserve price of 24,000 euro to one Clément Guenebeaud, a French collector living in Bratislava.

It was Guenebeaud who realized the bust was made by Bernini himself. He tried to sell it on his own but the large hole in its ownership history made potential buyers wary. A famous work of art that mysteriously traveled from Vienna to Slovakia over the course of the 20th century runs the risk of being Nazi loot which could mire the current owner in a messy and expensive restitution battle. Sotheby’s was game, though, and through them Guenebeaud was able to sell the bust to the Getty. The Baroque masterpiece left Slovakia without incident.

After the Getty announced their new treasure with a splash, the fact that a small country with limited resources that could really use a tourism boost had somehow let a 17th century bust by one of the greatest sculptors in the world slip through its fingers did not go unnoticed back in Bratislava. Culture Minister Marek Maďarič ordered an investigation into the bust debacle and filed a criminal complaint against an unknown offender involved in the sale on suspicion that someone involved in the appraisal and sale knew its true value but deliberately and fraudulently obscured it.

As of now, there is no evidence of deliberate deception. The auction house in Bratislava is a local outfit without the depth of expertise necessary to confidently attribute a sculpture to Bernini. Ernest Zmeták apparently had no idea the bust was original, nor did his heirs. The only person who had any idea, Guenebeaud, didn’t hide the fact that he thought it was a genuine Bernini in his application for an export license. He wrote that it was probably by Bernini and estimated its value at around €7 million, but the ministry employee in charge or arranging the permits changed the description from “bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini” to “bust after Bernini.” Apparently she decided to go with the auction house’s assessment rather than Guenebeaud’s, and the commission that reviews permanent export applications accepted it without ordering an expert examination to confirm or deny the disputed authorship. Minister Maďarič fired her and the director of the department in charge of issuing export permits.

The timeline of all these events is foggy. It’s not clear who determined the bust was original. It could be Alexander Kader, head of the department of European sculpture at Sotheby’s London, but usually the top experts in the field are consulted for works of this importance. Presumably the Getty wouldn’t have shelled out $33 million without being satisfied the bust was by Bernini.

If the special commission tasked with investigating irregularities in the export license find it to have been granted improperly, it’s possible the license will be revoked and the Slovakian government will request that the Getty return the bust. The museum does not seem concerned.

In an email to artnet News Ron Hartwig, the Getty Museum’s vice-president of communications assured that the bust “will remain on view to the public at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”

He explained “The Bust of Pope Paul V (1621) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was legally exported from Slovakia, legally sold in the United Kingdom and legally imported into the United States. Whatever the nature of the Slovakian government’s inquiry, it has no impact whatsoever on the Getty’s ownership of the bust.”

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

September 2015
S M T W T F S
« Aug    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication