Category Archives: Research

“Spectacular discoveries”: The Ghent Altarpiece makes the news (… again!)

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo's Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo’s Ghent

Readers might remember that the famous Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck was recently in the news. It last hit the headlines in April because of the ongoing puzzle over the whereabouts of the Just Judges panel, which was nicked from St. Bavo’s in Ghent in 1934 and has threatened to show up a several times in recent years; to no avail, unfortunately. You can read about all of that, plus a bit about the altarpiece’s tumultuous history more generally, on my previous post here.

For now at least, the Just Judges puzzle remains still a puzzle, and the altarpiece’s most recent foray into the public eye is in fact nothing to do with the Judges saga. The altarpiece is instead in the news this time for much more positive, if not exciting, reasons.

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Since 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece has been in restoration. The work is being done at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, where visitors can apparently watch conservators at work on panels from the altarpiece through a glazed wall looking into a specially designed room where the restorers are at work (or so Christina Currie told me recently, who is from from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage at Brussels (KIK-IRPA), the organisation responsible for overseeing the treatment). The total restoration of the polyptych has been split into 3 phases:

- Phase 1, underway now and due for completion this October, focuses on the outside shutters

- Phase 2, due to start on completion of phase 1, deals with the upper interior panels (the row commencing with Adam and finishing with Eve)

And…

- Phase 3, scheduled to start in April 2016 and complete the following October, deals with the bottom interior panels, so the Mystic Lamb, the Knights, Hermits and Pilgrims (and presumably they WON’T be doing anything with the Just Judges, which is a replica painted by Jef Van der Veken in 1945 to fill the gap left by the theft of the original)

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 2: Upper interior panels

Phase 2: upper interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

The cost of all this is pretty eye-watering: €1,260,433.20 (I wonder what the .20 is for?). So what do you get for that sort of money? Well, they’re examining and repairing the panels themselves, to allow for unconstrained contraction and expansion of the wood, thus preventing further cracking (i.e. panels have presumably been cradled at some point, which has lessened the “give” of the wood and caused fractures). They’re also removing those familiar yellowed and cracked varnish layers, which should make the whole thing look just that bit more brilliant. And finally, since they’re removing the varnishes anyway, they’re also examining the paint layers themselves, to establish if there are overpaints and restorations that ought to be removed, and whether any new restorations are required to damaged parts. All the while, the observations the restorers make will doubtless enrich our understanding of the van Eycks’ methods, and most probably shed light on the whole “what’s by Hubert and what’s by Jan?” problem.

And things are already getting very interesting indeed. During Phase 1, conservators have realised that much of the outside shutters actually feature extensive overpaints. And following 3D Hirox microscope and MA-XRF analyses (whatever they are), it was realised that the paint layers beneath the overpaints are, surprisingly, in good condition (I say surprisingly because overpaints usually hide nasty stuff). Consequently the decision was made to REMOVE pretty much an entire layer of paint from the surface of the outside shutters in a bid to reveal the van Eycks’ original paintwork. A CODART release (CODART is an international network for curators of Netherlandish art) tells us that this work is ongoing, and that centimeter by centimeter a steady hand(!!), wielding a scalpel (agh! – rather you than me), is removing the overpaint that obscures the van Eycks’ superior work.

And the results are impressive. The 2 images below from the Joos Vijd panel show sections where the overpaints have been removed, thus revealing the subtler, more nuanced brushwork that has hitherto been obscured:

Comparison of Vijd's hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Comparison of Vijd’s hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd's robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd’s robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Other discoveries include a cobweb in the corner of the panel showing Elisabeth Borluut, the wife of Vijd, the altarpiece’s patron; a finding of demonstrable iconographic significance, says the CODART release.

This is all pretty exciting stuff.

But the findings also also beg an obvious question: why were the overpaints done in the first place, if the paint beneath is in such good nick? Who in their right mind would paint over the van Eycks’ brushwork if there was no real cause to do so? From what I gather—and I am by no means especially knowledgable about this—the overpaints are OLD; they certainly have, or had, craqueleur consistent with 15th- or 16th-century paint, and they had, after all, gone undetected by the great connoisseurs of the 20th century (Panofsky, Friedländer and so on never, as far as I know, doubted very much that what they were looking at was the original paintwork–there is a great irony here that much of the scholarship on the altarpiece has been obsessed with discerning Jan’s hand from Hubert’s, whereas it seems, on the outside shutters at least, that up to now we’ve been looking at neither!). When I first heard about the overpaint (again, via Christina Currie), I’d presumed they had been done to conceal fire damage, inflicted on the work in the 16th century–a plausible story, I’d thought. But that can’t be the case, since the paint underneath is superior to the overpaints and well preserved. So it’s all a bit strange. I daresay answers will be forthcoming when the restorations are complete in 2017 and the panels are reunited—less the Just Judges, unless by some miracle it turns up just in time—inside St. Bavo’s, doubtless to great fanfare and accompanied by myriad publications! Watch this space…

 

Jamie

Chicago Archives: Imogen reports on a research trip to the US

A view of Chicago from the Willis Tower, 1,353 feet up

A view of Chicago from the Willis Tower, 1,353 feet up

An aspect of PhD research that I especially enjoy is tracking down and analysing archival material. I’ve recently returned from a five-week research trip to the US (generously funded by an AHRC grant) where I visited 9 different archives that hold documentation relating to the art therapy courses that Bauhaus artist and teacher László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) developed at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1943. In 1933 the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school of art in Germany, and Moholy-Nagy, like many of the institution’s teachers and students, emigrated to the US where he continued to practise and develop Bauhaus concepts and methods.

To find out more about both Moholy-Nagy’s interest in the possibilities of art therapy and the medical professionals with whom he worked, I spent most of my time in Chicago (Birmingham’s twin city), where I visited archives at the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and the Chicago History Museum. I also flew to New York to pursue my lines of enquiry further, spending my mornings at the Archives of American Art and afternoons at The Museum of Modern Art archives. (I would need another blog post entirely to explain why researching at MoMA was so particularly exciting…) The following week, I hotfooted it over on an Amtrak train to Springfield, the capital of Illinois, to view documentation from the slightly bizarrely titled ‘Department of Mental Hygiene’ from the 1940s.

MoMA sculpture garden

MoMA sculpture garden

Archives are rich and exciting sources of information. Unpublished letters, reports, minutes, manuscripts, and diaries, as well as exhibition catalogues, advertisements and newspaper articles all communicate vital empirical information about how people or institutions operated together, and subsequently pave the way for further investigation into what particular art practices might mean. Archival research leads to exciting moments of discovery when you stumble across an illuminating reference. There were moments during my trip, usually towards the end of the day when, tired and hungry, I was jolted sharply from the haze of fatigue by a reference leaping out from a file. On one occasion, this was an unpublished typescript written by Moholy-Nagy, held within the personal papers of a Chicago-based occupational therapist, which contributes to my understanding of how, and with whom the artist operated within the therapeutic field. These small instances of revelation amount collectively to a greater understanding of a subject.

Of course, there are also pitfalls to archival research. Archives raise questions about the possibilities of over-interpretation. How far can you draw conclusions by analysing the language used in letters, which might have been written in haste, for example? Importantly, Michel Foucault argues that archives are a source of power in society and that their storage is never a passive act. Primary source documentation shapes how history is written, and, in light of this, omissions and silences in material can be as significant as what is recorded…

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate (the artist's first public outdoor work installed in the US)

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (the artist’s first public outdoor work installed in the US)

 

'The Bean' at night

‘The Bean’ at night

During my time in the US, I was also fortunate to meet up with archivists, curators and research fellows, which led to thought-provoking discussions about my PhD research and allowed me to consider further the position of my own work within current scholarship.

Alongside my research in the archives, I also had the opportunity to explore the exciting and culturally-rich city of Chicago, experiencing Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, views from the 1,353 foot high Willis Tower ledge, a free open-air Tchaikovsky concert at Millennium Park and fireworks at Navy Pier. Not to mention the incredible collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, outdoor public artworks by Picasso, Miro, Chagall and Dubuffet, Hull-House Museum, the underground Art Deco vaults at the Chicago Board of Traders (normally closed to the public), a river-boat architecture tour, the renowned antique Randolph Street Market, the grand stairs at Union Station from The Untouchables, Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza, and drinks on the 96th floor of the Hancock Center…

 

Picasso's untitled sculpture at Daley Plaza

Picasso’s untitled sculpture at Daley Plaza

Top of the John Hancock Center

Top of the John Hancock Center

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877 at the incredible Art Institute of Chicago

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, at the Art Institute of Chicago

Post-archive ice cream...

Post-archive ice cream…

Professor Lisa Jardine and Excavating Early Modern Women’s History, 18th June

Professor Lisa Jardine

in conversation with IAS Distinguished Visiting Fellow Dr Nadine Akkerman

Challenges for Early Modern Women’s History

 Wednesday 18th June 2014

 Barber Institute of Fine Arts 4.30- 5.30pm

 Jardine

 

The University of Birmingham

Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)

Archival research has dramatically altered women’s studies. It has confirmed the fact that early modern women writers published not chiefly in print, but mostly in manuscript. Since the 1980s English literary scholars have discovered hundreds of manuscripts penned by female authors in widely-dispersed libraries and repositories. Anthologies and digital projects such as PERDITA have made access to these texts easier for researchers and students alike. But while in this way more female authors (letter-writers, poets and playwrights) have been able to capture our attention, the political dealings of Englishwomen, even those of the highest status, have continued to be neglected. Apart from the correspondence of Elizabeth I, for instance, none of the letters of royal Englishwomen, whether queens-consort or regnant, have been collected or edited. Nor have these textual traces been scrutinised for evidence of the writers’ real historical importance. Jardine and Akkerman will offer exciting new research opportunities for excavating early modern women’s history.

There will be opportunities for questions and a reception.

Lisa Jardine CBE is Professor of Renaissance Studies at University College, London, where she is Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities and Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters.

 

The event is free but booking is essential.

Connoisseurship Now? Continued.

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Regular readers might remember that I recently went off to the Paul Mellon Centre to attend a conference devoted to the subject of connoisseurship and its future directions, or lack thereof, perhaps–you can read my thoughts on that here.

Anyway, the Paul Mellon Centre has made the day’s proceedings available online. You can watch all the papers here.

(Thank you also to Bendor Grosvenor for re-blogging my post about the conference on his own blog, which really is worth a read!)

Jamie

Curating Art History Colloquium – Programme

UoB crest

 

There’s still time to buy tickets for this year’s Departmental Colloquium. Tickets can be purchased from the online shop. Students from the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies can confirm their attendance by emailing Faith Trend directly at: FCT357@bham.ac.uk.

The programme has now been finalised and is available below. With a truly international billing–our keynote is coming all the way from Australia–, besides speakers from closer to home, the colloquium promises to be a fascinating exploration into the worlds of museum curating and academic art history, and we hope to see lots of you there!

 

Curating Art History: Dialogues between museum professionals and academics

7th and 8th May 2014

 The Barber Institute of Fine Art, The University of Birmingham 

 

PROGRAMME

 

DAY 1 (7th May)

14:00 – 14:45 Registration and refreshments (Barber Institute Foyer)

14:45 – 15:00 Welcome and Introduction (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Erin Shakespeare (UoB); Nicola Kalinsky (The Barber Institute)

 

PANEL 1: ETHNOGRAPHY AND CURATING NATIVE ART (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Nicola Kalinsky

15:00 – 15:50 KEYNOTE: The Hang and Art History

Catherine De Lorenzo (University of New South Wales, Australia)

15:50 – 16:10 Contemporary Native Perspectives: Dialogue and Exchange in Artistic Practices and Curatorial Methodologies

Helen Shaw (University of York)

16:10 – 16:30 t.b.c.

Bryony Onciul (University of Exeter)

16:30 – 17:00 Response and Questions

 

19:00 – 21:00 Conference dinner (venue to be confirmed)

 

DAY 2 (8th May)

9:30 – 10:00 Registration (second day attendees) (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 2: KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE AND DEVELOPMENT (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Clare Mullet (UoB)

10:00 – 10:20 Art detective: creating collection knowledge through public engagement

Andy Ellis (Public Catalogue Foundation)

10:20 – 10:40 Cross-talking in Engage Journal 

Karen Raney (University of East London)

10:40 – 11:00 Response and Questions

 

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee break (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 3: EXHIBITIONS THAT CHALLENGE CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND ART HISTORY (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Richard Woodfield (Journal of Art Historiography; UoB)

11:30 – 11:50 Post-humanist Desire: Visualising Cyborgs and the Hybridised Body

Ming Turner (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan)

11:50 – 12:10 [Re]Exhibiting Impermanent Art

Vera Carmo (University of Maia, ISMAI, Portugal)

12:10 – 12:30 Between a Rock Drill and a Hard Place: Researching and Curating Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Elin Morgan (UoB; The New Art Gallery Walsall)

12:30 – 13:00 Response and Questions

 

13:00 – 14:30 Lunch (Barber Institute Foyer)

Time to look at the Faith and Fortune exhibition in preparation for the afternoon’s paper (Coin Gallery, Barber Institute)

 

14:30 – 15:00 Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts: Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Chairs: Jamie Edwards and Faith Trend (UoB)

Rebecca Darley (The Warburg Institute) and Daniel Reynolds (UoB)

 

15:00 – 16:00 Roundtable AHRC Iconoclasms Network (Barber Lecture Theatre)

A cross-disciplinary debate and Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain

Chair: Lauren Dudley (UoB)

Richard Clay, Henry Chapman, Leslie Brubaker (UoB); Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh); Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums Trust)

16:00 Closing Remarks

Jutta Vinzent (UoB)

 

16:30 – 17:30 Drinks reception (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

The Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Annual Colloquium: Curating Art History

UoB crest

Tickets are now on sale for this year’s Annual Art History Colloquium, organised in conjunction with the Journal of Art HistoriographyTickets, priced at £10 for students and £20 full price, can be purchased from the Online Shop here.

“Curating Art History: Dialogues between museum professionals and academics” will take place on the 7th and 8th May 2014 at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER:

Catherine De Lorenzo

(University of New South Wales, Australia)

AND:

Helen Shaw (University of York); Andy Ellis (Public Catalogue Foundation); Karen Raney (Engage Journal); Ming Turner (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan; Vera Carmo (University of Coimbra, Portugal); Elin Morgan (The University of Birmingham; The New Art Gallery, Walsall); Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds (The Warburg Institute; The University of Birmingham); Richard Clay, Henry Chapman, Leslie Brubaker (The University of Birmingham); Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh); Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums Trust)

THEMES:

Ethnography and curating native art:
Australian art history and Aboriginal art; curating Native American art

Knowledge exchange and development:
Providing specialist knowledge to public art collections; gallery education and curatorial strategies

Exhibitions that challenge curatorial practice and art history: 
Post-humanist desire: Innovative research and methods of display; Crash Music: re-exhibiting impermanent art; Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill: a creative curatorial opportunity

Case study at the Barber Institute:
Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts: Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage

Round table – International Iconoclasms network:
Cross-disciplinary debate and Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain

The poster is available here: Curating Art History Colloquium 7th and 8th May 2014

When in Rome . . . Ella Kilford on this year’s Art History in the Field trip

Some of the group by the Colosseum

Some of the group in the Colosseum

The long-anticipated second year field trip finally came in reading week this February, and what a trip we had! On our return everyone, from the entire department to our friends and family, enviously asked us how the trip had gone – a question to which we all replied positively. In fact we wished we were still there, not only for the fabulous weather in the high 20s but also for the little routine we had got into. Early starts with a quick breakfast at the hotel and then on to visit amazing museums, galleries and beautiful churches. This would be followed by a delicious lunch of antipasti, fresh pizza or pasta, more art, and then an equally sumptuous dinner with a final leisurely stroll back through Rome by night – heaven! Closer to our time of departure and on our return, the trip became collectively known simply as ‘Rome’, and is still referred to now fondly by all of us. The trip is such a great opportunity to study works of art in situ and a really exciting element for any second year Art History student at Birmingham University.

At Gatwick!

At Gatwick…perhaps before we knew the flight was cancelled!!

Arriving at Gatwick to find our flight cancelled was not a fantastic start. Yet witnessing everyone’s – including our lecturer David’s – faces looking up, baffled, at the departure boards, for me, was one of my fondest memories of the trip: you have to laugh! On a positive note, the cancellation resulted in a complimentary night in London’s “best” Travel Lodge and a flight the next day to Pisa, and then a coach through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to our final destination – Rome. The scenic views and buildings we passed were spectacular and allowed the group to bond.

Rome - walking the cobbles

Rome – Walking the Cobbles

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

Rome - pasta and pizza

Pizza and past in Rome

So, why is a Rome a good location for a study trip, then? Well, where to begin…as second year Art Historian Maysie said, there are simply ‘too many reasons’. All of us agreed that the variety of art available in Italy’s capital city was a massive advantage. From antique ruins, statues and sarcophagi to contemporary installations in the Modern Art Museum, there really is something for everyone’s taste and research interest. There’s even a few Monet’s in the Modern Art Museum.

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri's broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri’s broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

As part of our studies in the second year, we take a Research Techniques module which is designed, though a literature review, to complement the Study Trip, by encouraging us to choose and research an object that we will study in situ in advance of the trip. This exercise is also great preparation for our final year dissertation which is also on a single art object. This early preparation for our final year is, for me and my colleagues, one of the many attractions of studying art history at Birmingham University.

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Students in the statue gallery in the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna

Seeing the actual objects or art works that we had selected to research for our summer term presentation – the assessment for this module – was a real highlight and pleasure. People in the group have chosen a range of items, ranging from a contemporary photograph by Gabriele Basilico to Bernini’s famous David sculpture, and the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano. The rich diversity of our research interests and objects rendered the trip really interesting, as on multiple occasions we would go and see each other’s object, just out of the desire to learn more from our peers.

Another selfie...this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing. Vatican Museums

Another selfie…this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing in the famous sculpture in the Vatican Museums

10782_10152262869622177_2025976075_n

Group shot in St Peter’s

One of my highlights of Rome was the day that we spent with one of the PhD students, Jamie, who accompanied us on the trip (read what else Jamie got up to here). We spent the day walking through Rome and visited the object of Sophie’s research, the Villa Farnesina. This villa built by Agostino Chigi, a rich banker and treasurer of Pope Julius II, contains some spectacular frescos by Raphael and his workshop. All of us enjoyed learning about the Chigi’s exciting and extravagant parties which were hosted in the villa in the summer months. There would have been music, dancing, food, and plenty of wine.

Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Raphael’s Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Although we had an itinerary drawn up by our lecturers, Liz and David, including some of Rome’s main attractions, we also had some free time to explore the city. Thus on some mornings and afternoons we visited other areas of interest and soaked up our cultural surroundings. As the hotel we stayed in was central to all areas of Rome, we could walk to pretty much everything on foot. The metro offered a quick and cheap alternative if we were feeling tired, but walking is so much more rewarding as treasures can be uncovered around every corner. The Trevi Fountain takes you by surprise, appearing amongst shops and cafes when turning around a corner, and it is astonishing when illuminated by night.

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

Although the aim of the study trip was obviously for academic purposes, and we all learnt so much, we still had plenty of fun. Rome will definitely be a highlight of my time here at Birmingham University studying Art History.

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

On the trail of Pieter Bruegel. . . (again)

Doria Pamphilj

Gallery inside the Doria Pamphilj

Researching Pieter Bruegel for my PhD has taken me all over Europe – I know, lucky me (as a colleague and friend of mine joked, it’s a tough old life being an art historian). My most recent jaunt in the name of research took me to Italy. Rome and Naples, to be specific.

We know that Bruegel spent a significant period of time in Italy from at least 1552 to ’55. His southern “wanderjahr” is shrouded in mystery, and we don’t know a great deal about what he got up to whilst in Italy. We can be fairly sure that he had arrived in Southern Italy by 1552, that he was in Rome in 1555 working with Giulio Clovio, and that he headed back to Antwerp, going via the Alps, shortly thereafter. My trip, though, wasn’t motivated by a gratuitous wish to walk in Bruegel’s footsteps. Instead, I wanted to study a couple of Bruegels that are in Italian collections and I’ve never got round to seeing.

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

The first was Bruegel’s Bay of Naples, which hangs in the delightful, if not slightly mad, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Whenever I’ve been in Rome before, I’ve never managed to squeeze this in, so it was right at the top of my list of priorities. (I was also in Rome to lend a pair of hands with the 2nd year Undergraduates’ study trip, and since they’d got waylaid at Heathrow because of a flight cancellation–post about the trip to follow soon, but here’s last year’s!–I took the opportunity to go straight to the Pamphilj.)

The Doria Pamphilj has a pretty old fashioned way of doing things. The walls are stacked high with pictures (it reminded me of those old engravings that show how how less-good artwork was “skied” at exhibitions put on by the European Academies), and the gold leaf frames usually feature just a handwritten artist’s name, done with a Sharpie, I expect. Anyway, after much squinting to make sure I didn’t miss the Bruegel 7 feet above my head, I saw it, down low, at eye level, inscribed in an elegant hand “Bruegel”. (If you’re interested, the Bruegel is the ninth picture along on the bottom row from the left in the heading photo.)

It’s really a rather staggering picture. It’s fairly small but absolutely crammed full with detail. We know it’s Naples, despite the jetty being circular, which is wrong because it is square, because we can make out certain topographical features on the bay such as the Castel Nuovo. The picture must have been painted from memory by Bruegel, usually, it is said, about 1560, but with the aid of drawings Bruegel made in situ during his Italian sojourn. Scholars have in the past been reluctant to accept this picture’s authenticity, mostly, I think, because it isn’t signed. However seeing it has allayed any suspicions I might have had. So much of the picture is characteristically Bruegel and for me it has a particular significance in relation to Bruegel’s activities as a miniaturist. We know Bruegel did miniatures, and the Bay of Naples is clearly the work of an artist who was comfortable working in miniature; the rigging of the ships is especially remarkable and diligently executed, as are the ships’ crews, clambering about on deck, which, although tiny, are really quite impressively rendered. Exactly why Bruegel should have produced a pretty much accurate, topographical, view of the bay of Naples in the first place is something I’m now curious to explore a bit more: did other people do topographical sea/landscapes in the mid-16th century? And who would want one on their walls?

Museo di Capodimonte

Museo di Capodimonte

Bruegel's Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Having looked at Bruegel’s depiction of the Bay of Naples, which is now in Rome, the next day I jumped onto a train from Rome for Naples to see two other Bruegels that are housed in that city’s Capodimonte Museum. Now, I can’t say that Naples is somewhere I’d rush back to for a week’s holiday, but the Capodimonte is a real gem. Perched high up on a hill away from the hustle and bustle, not to mention dangers(!), of the frantic city centre, the Capodimonte is a real haven and full of stellar works of art. It was also practically deserted, probably because of Naples’s bad rep. Masaccio’s really wonderful Crucifixion from the dismantled Pisa Polyptych is there, as is Titian’s Danaë and Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. Particularly wonderful also are some cartoons by Michelangelo (some figures for the Pauline Chapel frescoes and the cartoon for Venus and Cupid composition, which is positioned alongside a roughly contemporary painting after that design). But the real treat was Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope, both from 1568. I’ve written about the Blind Leading the Blind at length before in my MPhil thesis, and seeing it was just great. I learned loads from looking at the picture in real life that you just can’t get from poring over reproductions in books – there are all kinds of details in the picture that just don’t come across in a book. Meanwhile, I was surprised by the Misanthrope‘s size, which, I’d imagined, would’ve been much smaller than it is. Standing in front of it, you can just picture that painting up on some well-to-do bloke’s or woman’s wall, where it was doubtless gathered around as an object of discussion. All this just goes to show, as I’ve said before on this blog, that you really do stand to gain so much more from seeing all this stuff in real life…

Jamie

Making music from asses in Hell

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Just a short post this time. I’ve just noticed a rather fascinating little article in today’s Guardian. A keen American blogger (and apparently self-confessed nerd), has discovered some hitherto unknown sheet music on the ass of one the damned in the right wing of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych (detail pic. below). I say hitherto unknown, what I really mean is sheet music nobody else has ever bothered to transcribe. What’s more, not only has she transcribed it, she’s also converted it into modern notation and made a recording of the sound, which, if you’re interested, there’s a clip of here.

Bosch Earthly delights detail

This triptych, which has long been a fascination of mine, was probably painted in the 1480s (most books say post-1500… but that’s another story) and was probably commissioned from Bosch by a member of the Nassau family (… again, another story, not for here). The triptych was copied numerously in the 16th century, in paint, in print and in tapestry. Although the picture is mired in controversy, I do think that it was in all likelihood supposed to represent, and warn against,  moral and sinful transgressions such as lust and gluttony; there is, after all, and in keeping with convention for triptychs at the time, a depiction of Hell on the right wing, which we must presume illustrates the fate of the protagonists who are leaping around and fornicating on the middle panel. But this isn’t to say that Bosch wasn’t willing to have fun with it. Musical instruments feature to a great deal in the Hell wing, probably as a playful, but still meaningful, indictment of mankind that continues to succumb to pleasure even though they have been cast headlong into fiery Hell, for punishment of their mortal sins. Links between music and depraved behavior, specifically lust, were not rare in Bosch’s world. And the representation of a disorganized and motley crew–an orchestra of sorts, conducted by a demonic creature in pink –, who are shown gleefully reading the ass music, fits in perfectly with this theme of folly and is testament to Bosch’s sardonic nature.

Jamie

Sometimes research can be a matter of chance…one of our lecturers shares a moment of serendipity

As I often find myself explaining to students, quite a lot of the time research consists of a great deal of trawling through library catalogues, books, articles and archives looking for that small clue that will help you to craft a focused argument. I admit, it can be a painful process and sometimes your carefully-collected list of sources to consult turns up a disappointing dearth of information: that book with the exciting-sounding title is in fact on a period two hundred years later than your own, or the article you thought would be key is disappointingly bad. It can, sometimes, be easy to lose heart as the piles of photocopies grow but the Holy Grail that will clinch your argument apparently lies on the other side of an abyss worthy of an Indiana Jones movie…

VGA capture

…and this is where you need to take a leaf out of Indie’s book and believe, because, apart from hard slog, one of the other features of research is serendipity. And this can occur in all sorts of ways and places. Never, for instance, underestimate the importance of the parents who brought you into the world, tenderly nurtured you, sent you off to university with boxes of tea bags and became slowly bemused by what it is you actually do while you’re there…Yet your attempt to engage your parents in the finer details of your dissertation might just pay off. Two weeks ago, for instance, I got an email from my father with a link to Christie’s auction house. ‘I spotted this in the Guardian and wondered if you’d seen it?’ The link was to a tiny manuscript, measuring just 95 x 60mm and illuminated by the Master of Claude of France, so-called for his other jewel-like prayer books created for Claude, Queen of France, in the early sixteenth century. My dad has clearly learnt something from his daughter’s obsession with medieval women and their manuscripts.

Lot 56, Christie's Rare Books and Manuscripts Sale, 20 November 2013

Lot 56, Christie’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Sale, 20 November 2013

Queen Claude (1499-1524) and her younger sister Renée (1510-1575) were themselves the daughters of the French king and queen, Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. Anne seemingly had a penchant for miniscule books, one of which is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (BnF, NAL, 3120). The Très Petites Heures (65 x 40 mm) is a book of hours, that most popular of medieval books which consists of a series of daily prayers and accompanying illustrations. The Très Petites Heures includes Anne’s emblems at what might be considered strategic places in a manuscript made for a queen and mother of the heirs to the French kingdom: the Visitation, for instance, and the Virgin’s Coronation.

Visitation, Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany (BnF, nal 3120)

Visitation, Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany (BnF, nal 3120)

This penchant for small books she passed on to her daughter Claude, whose own prayer book, now in the Pierpont Morgan library in New York is similarly petit (69 x 49 mm), as is its companion book of hours, now in a private collection (84 x 55mm). Claude’s books are lavishly illuminated and chock-full of her symbols, like the cordelière, the knotted cord motif that she inherited from her mother. The prayer book’s miniatures of the Annunciation and the Virgin and Child include Claude’s coat of arms in the bas-de-page which, as with the Visitation and Coronation scenes in her mother’s Très Petites Heures, surely drew attention to Claude’s role as queen and mother.

Annunciation, Prayer book of Claude of France (Pierpont Morgan Library, MS. 1166)

Annunciation, Prayer book of Claude of France (Pierpont Morgan Library, MS. 1166)

Claude’s short life was spent fulfilling her maternal duty. She gave birth to seven children, only two of whom survived beyond their teens, before dying at just 24 years of age. Her sister Renée, who lived until she was 65, fared somewhat better, although her marriage to Ercolo d’Este, son of the duke of Ferrara, was a political arrangement by Francis I to aid his cause against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Renée’s books, however, were less long-lived: victims of her sympathy for religious reform, many of them were destroyed or burnt during the Inquisition before which she herself had to appear.

One of her books did survive, her Petites Prières (though not quite as small as her mother’s and sister’s volumes at relatively large 122 x 88 mm), and in one of the miniatures it shows Renée in direct communion with Christ, an important theme of the Reformation.

Renée of France in prayer before Christ, Petites Prières (formerly Bibliotheca Estensa, Modena)

Renée of France in prayer before Christ, Petites Prières (formerly Bibliotheca Estensa, Modena)

Yet this manuscript was stolen from the Bibliotheca Estensa in Modena in the mid-nineties, though not before a facsimile was made, thankfully. So, when my father’s email popped into my inbox and I began perusing the catalogue description, I was particularly excited to see that the manuscript up for sale was not only by Claude’s favourite illuminator but that it was also being associated with Renée. Furthermore, it was completely unknown to manuscript aficionados: it was put on the market by a noble Scottish family, in whose possession it had been since it had been given to them as a gift by Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV, in early nineteenth century. This information was enough reason to do some last-minute rearranging so that I could squeeze in a day-return to Christie’s before it went under the hammer with an estimate of £500,000-£800,000.

At Christie’s in King Street, in the rare books and manuscripts viewing room, the manuscript was removed from its glass case and simply handed over to me and my colleague (whose day-return from Paris was slightly more expensive than, though just as quick as, my ticket from Birmingham) to peruse, photograph, and marvel over. Apart from the royal associations of the artist and the manuscript’s size, the evidence for a connection with Renée was perhaps compelling rather than definitive. A prayer in the female voice and the inclusion of the Hours of the Conception of the Virgin would imply a secular woman owner and the facing-page prayers to St Louis and St Anne, patron saints of Renée’s parents in the suffrages, as well as the inclusion of St Renatus (aka René) certainly bring Renée to mind.

Lot 56 (25)

St Anne

Lot 56 (21)

St Louis of France

There are also cordelière line fillers scattered throughout the manuscript. These are less evident than in Claude’s prayer book where they frame every page but are perhaps another indication of an association with Renée. Either way, this manuscript is clearly an important new find which will no doubt prove an important factor in the research that my colleague and I are currently conducting into manuscripts and books owned by Claude and the women in her entourage.

On Wednesday 20 November, this tiny book went under the auctioneer’s hammer and met its estimate, selling for £500,000. Often such gems emerge from one private collection to be bought by another private collector, meaning that their appearance in public and thus opportunities for study are relatively brief. Thus it can often feel like serendipity when a manuscript surfaces and you find yourself in the right place at the right time…okay, so I had to engineer being in the right place by drawing on the good will of a colleague who took my first year class while I raced off to London and on the good will of those first year students who, I hope, will indulge me when I show them the pictures…but still…

Sometimes things just come together and as my colleague and I walked from Christie’s down towards Trafalgar Square, a statue of George III wrapped up in hat and scarf for the cold weather gave us an additional reason to smile…as did the enormous blue chicken currently gracing the fourth plinth.

George III by Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1836), Cockspur Street

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch, 2013

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch, 2013

And then, as we looped back and mooched through Horse Guards Parade and under the Arch onto Whitehall, we came across a group of tourists literally getting under the feet of members of the Household Cavalry as the mounted sentries changed over. Not quite the Trooping of the Colour but despite growing up in London I’m not sure I’d ever seen the red-caped and shiny-helmeted soldiers on anything other than postcards.

The Household Cavalry

The Household Cavalry

I wouldn’t call myself a royalist but then I had spent the day pouring over a manuscript with British, and supposedly French, royal connections so happening upon such a typically royal custom in action seemed like a fittingly serendipitous end to the day.

So if you are struggling with a research topic my advice is to hang in there, as you never know what will turn up. And, like us, you may find that your Holy Grail is a lot more interesting to look at than the one Indiana Jones chose so wisely!

Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange is the author of Holy Motherhood: Gender, Dynasty and Visual Culture in the Later Middle Ages and is currently working on a study of one of Queen Claude’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne de Graville. You can find out more about her obsession with medieval manuscripts here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 194 other followers

%d bloggers like this: