Category Archives: Art News

Whodunit? The Fitzwilliam’s “New Michelangelos”. Continued.

Rider, detail

Following my earlier post about the Bronze Panther Riders, sensationally revealed to the world as Michelangelos the other week by the Fitzwilliam Museum, the acclaimed Michelangelo scholar Prof. Frank Zöllner has waded into the debate and made his thoughts on the attribution known. Unfortunately for the Fitzwilliam (not to mention the owner of the bronzes, who must’ve been pretty chuffed with the Museum’s findings), Zöllner isn’t convinced.

Writing for Die Welt (available here, with a summary in English here), Zöllner raises a number of serious objections to the attribution, a number of which had already come up in my interview with David Hemsoll about the Panther Riders.

Like Hemsoll, Zöllner doubts whether Michelangelo could have gone off and turned these large and complicated bronzes out without leaving some indication of them behind in the contemporary documents. Vasari and Condivi acknowledge that Michelangelo designed bronzes, including the Julius statue for Bologna, but nowhere do either of them mention a pair of monumental panther riders. Nobody else from the 16th century mentions them either.

Zöllner also points out, as Hemsoll had, that the execution of the bronzes, if they are by Michelangelo, must have involved some sort of collaboration; it is simply impossible that Michelangelo will have produced them single-handedly, and in secret. We should want to know, then, about what that collaboration might have looked like and who it could have involved, in order to determine Michelangelo’s role in it.

Finally, Zöllner also criticised the weight given by the Fitzwilliam to the drawing in Montpellier, which forms the basis of their re-attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo and is, according to them, exactly the same as the bronzes. However as Hemsoll had pointed out and now Zöllner as well, the drawing in Montpellier is not identical with the sculptures. They in fact differ in a number of important respects, including the relative proportions of the panthers and their riders and the twisted position of the riders’ bodies. There’s also the problem that the drawing is thought to be a copy of a Michelangelo drawing, but can we say for sure that it is?

Michelangelo fabre drawing Panther

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Zöllner signed off by criticising both the British press and the Fitzwilliam’s experts for the way in which the proposed attribution was reported, as though it was a done deal and that they had, indeed, “discovered new Michelangelos”. In reality, it seems as though we have a far way to go before we can claim, with any certainty, that the Panther Riders really are by Michelangelo.

Jamie

View Festival of Art History, Institut français, London

Exciting news! Following on from a successful first year, View Festival of Art History is back in 2015 with a fantastic programme of events from 27th February – 1st March!

View is an incredibly student-friendly festival, with many free events on offer, and £5 student tickets are available for several talks and tours across London venues. The festival has been organised by the Institut Français, where many of the events are taking place, including a presentation by University of Birmingham postgraduate Lauren Dudley who won first prize in the Student Papers competition! Lauren will be giving her paper, ‘Sublime Ruins’, which looks at Hubert Robert, La démolition de l’église Saint-Jean-en-Grève, c.1797–1800 (France) and John Piper, Coventry Cathedral, 15 November, 1940, 1940 (UK), on Saturday 28 February.

The festival presents an exciting opportunity for anyone interested not only in art history, but conservation, heritage, languages and the makings of civilisation and culture as a whole.
Look out for an article from our View student representative Emily Robins, second-year History of Art student, who will be reporting back about the festival, or why not check it out yourself?
Details about the festival and its programme are available here:
http://viewfestival.co.uk/ – hope to see you there!
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Whodunit? Jamie Edwards talks to David Hemsoll about the Fitzwilliam’s “new Michelangelos”.

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Last week, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge revealed to the world that they have “discovered” not one but two statues that they believe can be attributed, fairly confidently, to Michelangelo (1475 – 1564). Each of the sculptures, which are made of bronze and are roughly a meter tall, shows a naked, muscular man riding triumphantly on the back of a ferocious-looking panther. And, if the Fitzwilliam’s findings are correct, it makes the Panther Riders the only works in bronze by Michelangelo to have survived; a medium in which he is known to have worked—or intended to work—on at least three separate occasions.

Rider, detail

The Riders have, to be sure, been associated with Michelangelo before. In the 19th century, when the Riders were in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild (from where they get their alternative name “The Rothschild Bronzes”) they were considered authentic Michelangelos (on what basis, I wonder?). However, when Rotschild’s bronzes were exhibited in Paris in 1878, several connoisseurs voiced their doubts about the attribution, and over the course of the subsequent 130-or-so years the association of the bronzes to Michelangelo has been pretty well put to bed. Since then the bronzes have been given to a whole bunch of other artists, including Willem Danielsz Van Tetrode (1505 – 87), and, according to Sotheby’s in 2002, the circle of Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporary Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 71).

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Now experts brought together by the Fitzwilliam reckon they have gathered ‘compelling evidence’ in favour of attributing the Panther Riders firmly to Michelangelo once and for all, thus resolving an artistic whodunit that has limped on for over a century. The tide began to turn in favour of Michelangelo’s authorship in 2002, when Prof. Paul Joannides, who has played an instrumental role in the latest re-attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo, got the chance to study the Riders for the first time at Sotheby’s. Exactly what Joannides made of them in 2002 is hard to say, but, perhaps tellingly, the statues were labeled as “circle of Michelangelo” when they were shown in the Royal Academy’s bronze exhibition in 2012. What is clear is that the bronzes grabbed Joannides’s attention, and last autumn he made a discovery that galvanised serious interest in the status of the bronze Riders. In Montpellier’s Musée Fabre there is a sheet of studies, the largest of which is a Virgin embracing the Christ Child, which is thought to be a copy of drawings made by Michelangelo done by one of his pupils at some point in the first decade of the 1500s, more precisely, at about 1508. And the Montpellier sheet of studies is important because there is, in the lower right corner, a study for a nude riding on the back of a panther, which is to say, precisely the same subject that we encounter in the Rothschild bronzes.

Michelangelo fabre drawing Panther

If the Montpellier sheet of studies really does preserve now-lost designs by Michelangelo then we can say, on the basis of this evidence, that the subject matter, at least, of the bronze Panther Riders can be traced back to Michelangelo. The Fitzwilliam have done exactly this, with Victoria Avery going one step further, declaring in a video for the BBC (below) that the Montpellier drawing shows the composition of the Rotschild bronzes ‘precisely’. And taking this as their point of departure, the Fitzwilliam has subsequently gathered a range of experts—from Joannides to Prof. Peter Abrahams, a clinical anatomist—, who have compiled a dossier of evidence to show that the Panther Riders really are the only surviving bronzes by Michelangelo.

With this in mind, I met with my supervisor David Hemsoll, whose interests lie in 15th- and 16th-century Italian art and architecture and who has published on Michelangelo, to get his thoughts on the Fitzwilliam’s findings, and to consider their evidence. Here’s our conversation:

 

First question, had you ever come across these statues before?

No [laughs].

I ask because this isn’t, or so I read, the first time that the Panther Riders have been associated with Michelangelo. Apparently they were thought to be by Michelangelo in the 19th century, but were then removed from his oeuvre in the 20th, and they’ve since been attributed to a number of other sculptors, including Cellini. So you’ve never encountered them?

No . . . Well, there are a lot of things that are associated with Michelangelo. That’s the trouble. I haven’t come across these in the sense that I felt I should be paying them much attention . . . So, [laughing] I guess, I don’t know if I’ve come across them.

No well I think that most people had shelved them. But the first bit of new evidence there is and that has led to the latest re-attribution to Michelangelo is this drawing in Montpellier, which, they say, is a faithful copy of lost Michelangelo drawings done by a student of his. And one of them shows a nude riding a panther. By drawing a comparison between the sculptures and the drawing on that sheet in Montpellier, they say there’s conclusive evidence to establish a link between the bronzes and Michelangelo. What do you make of that comparison? Because Avery says they’re exactly the same but they’re not, are they?

Well, no. The drawing isn’t exactly the same as the sculptures. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

The thing is the usual way people have made clamorous attributions in the past—and those include the Crucifixion in Sta. Spirito, Florence, the two panel paintings [the Entombment and the “Manchester Madonna“] in the National Gallery, the Cupid in New York, as well as the recently-acquired Torment of St. Anthony by the Kimbell Museum in Texas—well, the usual way of determining an attribution, is that you see something in the primary sources, the biographies of Vasari and Condivi, and you produce something which seems to match them, and then you build your case on the basis of that. Some people will then either agree or they’ll disagree about the similarities. Now, so what you’re doing here is that you are immediately highlighting the first problem with all this, and that is that these works [the Panther Riders] are not mentioned in any primary source. And this is quite surprising, given their size, their quality of execution, and their striking and unusual subject matter. So the problem is that you would have expected works like this produced by Michelangelo to have been recorded or mentioned, however inaccurately, in the literature. So that, that’s the problem. So you’re right that the drawing produced provides some basis for a proposed attribution . . . Are you going to ask me about the other factors . . . ?

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Yes, I’m going to ask you about the other evidence.

Well perhaps we want to treat them all together. There is a drawing. And that could be said to support this attribution.

Well, on the basis of that, because it’s the drawing that got them going with this, the Fitzwilliam wheeled in a clinical anatomist, who said, and this is a quote apparently, that the anatomy is “textbook Michelangelo” so, you know, the abdomens and the bellybuttons and all the rest of it. The anatomist concluded that the artist responsible for these sculptures obviously had a command of human anatomy–he even found a tendon in the arch of a foot. So this is grist to their mill, that an anatomist is impressed with the bodies of the panther riders, since everybody knows that Michelangelo was all about human anatomy, and that he dissected cadavers etc. And then there’s the other bit of evidence. They’ve done some science and x-rayed the statues and found that the cast is thick and heavy, which is a telltale sign, they say, of 15th- or 16th-century manufacture.

Yes, well, that’s their evidence. And, as evidence, it looks, well I wouldn’t quite say convincing . . . but it’s quite powerful.

Yes, they obviously think so. Those are their three bits of evidence.

Yes, that’s it. Those are the three bits of evidence. And taken together it’s quite a powerful case although you could point to slight problems with all those pieces of evidence. As far as the drawing’s concerned, it’s by a follower of Michelangelo and not by Michelangelo, and it doesn’t show the same composition as the bronzes, insofar as the nude figure on the back of the panther is much smaller in the drawing than it is in the sculptures. Then the business about the anatomy, well that does seem to suggest that the sculptures have got something to do with Michelangelo. The other way to think about this is to compare the sculptures to other known works by Michelangelo from this period, especially the David and especially the Dying Slave, in the Louvre, and there are some apparent similarities which are quite great. Then the question about the bronze casting, well that’s very interesting and the Fitzwilliam have got great expertise on this, so their conclusions that the bronze casting, and the thickness of the bronze, point to a date of around the early 1500s, is, again, powerful evidence. So I agree that the case is, in some respects, powerful . . .

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

So they’ve made a fair case.

Yes, well, it’s quite powerful in some respects, and less powerful in others.

Such as?

Well some people could have said, and maybe they have but I haven’t noticed, that the subject matter is comparable to sculptural ideas from the late 15th century and into the 16th, in particular the idea of the suggestive naked body of a man. That’s an idea that was almost an obsession of Michelangelo’s tutor, his de facto tutor in sculptor, Bertoldo di Giovanni, who produced all sorts of sculptures of this kind. And one particular point of similarity is that the possible Michelangelos show one figure who is clean-shaven, and one who is bearded, and there’s a pair of sculptures by Bertoldo, which make up a kind of pair, which have again one figure that is clean-shaven and one figure that wears a beard. All this could be put into an argument that would link the bronzes to Michelangelo.

The problem, the main problem, as I see it, is the fact that they’re made of bronze and they’re very big. The difficulty is that it might be conceivable that Michelangelo could, almost secretly or in an unnoticed way, make a pair of sculptures out of bronze by doing it in his back garden or kitchen, with nobody else noticing that it was going on, and then perhaps giving it away to someone, but the trouble is that works made out of bronze imply a collaboration with somebody. And once that idea is brought out into the open, the nature of the collaboration needs to be qualified and Michelangelo’s role in it would then have to be established. What we might be saying is that Michelangelo did some studies for a sculpture that was then made in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo produced full-scale models, which were then cast in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo just told a few people that you could make sculptures in such a way, and gave them some pointers, and they were duly cast in bronze by another person. What’s absolutely impossible is that Michelangelo would have, as it were, gone away by himself and made these large bronze sculptures, all by himself, without any assistance—that’s just not possible. So if we are going to believe that they’re by Michelangelo then we have to understand better the circumstances of their making, and we need to have a better understanding of a possible context for the making of bronze figures of such scale, because they are a meter tall in height, in order to really substantiate the kind of claim that is being made, which has to have been in the form of some sort of collaboration. So that’s the difficulty I have.

So it’s impossible? To suppose that Michelangelo just knocked them up, by himself, in his kitchen or wherever? Is that just not how it was done?

No. You need a workshop of people to make these things. And they’re very difficult to produce alone.

Is that what will have happened with, say, the over life-size Julius II sculpture, which, as Vasari and Condivi say, was made in bronze by Michelangelo and put up in Bologna in 1506?

Yeah. The Julius sculpture presumably was made by people who were good at casting in bronze, and they worked in collaboration with Michelangelo who helped them produce a sculpture, or model, which then could have been cast in bronze. I mean he could have done a lot of work on it but what he didn’t do was create the molds and everything, and pour the molten bronze into the molds, and then take the bronze out of the molds and then do all the immensely laborious finishing off on the sculpture. So that has to have been a collaboration. And other, early works, done in bronze by Michelangelo—there’s a documented bronze David, again described by Vasari—must likewise have involved some sort of collaboration. So if we were able to understand better how these collaborations came about then we would be in a better position to understand possible circumstances that would support the attribution of the Panther Riders to Michelangelo. So that’s the problem I have . . .

Well, that seems to be a reasonable concern.

What is clear is that it’s untrue to say that Michelangelo was entirely restricted to sculpting in marble because there are quite a lot of things, or references in the early sources, to Michelangelo’s involvement in the design, or the making of, sculptures in bronze. The statue of Julius II, for the city of Bologna, is a conspicuous example because it must have been very big, but he did also intend, for example, to make bronze reliefs for the Julius tomb. And he wouldn’t have been making all those things by himself.

 

In short then, at this stage the attribution seems plausible but there are unanswered questions. Perhaps answers to those questions will be forthcoming when the Fitzwilliam hosts its international conference on Monday 6 July 2015, when they will present the full findings. In the meantime, the Panther Riders, which are privately owned, are on public display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 9 August 2015.

Jamie

To fringe or not to fringe? And other dilemmas for fashionistas in art . . .

A silly, but harmless, video here by Sotheby’s Jonquil O’Reilly ahead of their Old Master sale in New York on 29 January. It’s about fashion and style in pictures: what does, say, a certain hairstyle tell us about the date of a picture, or what does a toga tell us about who’s who in a Carpaccio? And what’s the deal with the chaps in tights? Watch the video to find out . . .

Jamie

Laughing with Mary Beard. And a (not so) Laughing Cavalier.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Last night I went to hear Prof. Mary Beard–esteemed Cambridge don, TV presenter and keen blogger–deliver a lecture at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the topic of laughter in ancient Rome, which is also the subject of Beard’s latest book: Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up.

The lecture, as we’d expect, was brilliant. Mary exhibited a masterful, and often playful, combination of overwhelming intelligence and an endearing ability to deal with complex ideas in an accessible way, without coming across as at all patronising. (As a non-Classicist, I followed the whole thing and didn’t feel inadequate at any point.) The talk essentially asked: what did Romans laugh at? when did they laugh? and what does this tell us about society, politics, and power relations in ancient Rome?

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

For instance, let us consider–as we did with Mary–the story related by the Roman historian and politician Cassius Dio in his enormous eighty-volume history of Rome from the the 3rd century CE. The story takes us back to the Colosseum in the year 192 CE. Dio is sat in the front row (where the important people sat, with women and slaves packed in at the back, 100ft above the Colosseum’s arena floor) watching (squinting if you’re a woman or slave) the emperor Commodus parading himself about in an elaborate display of Imperial might that dragged on for 14 whole days; on one day, Commodus slew 100 bears, on another he participated in scripted gladiatorial combat, etc. Word had got out before this spectacle that Commodus had intended to masquerade as Hercules (as he was apparently prone to doing–see the above bust of Commodus-as-Hercules from the Capitoline museum) and fire deadly arrows into the assembled crowd, and this provides the backdrop to the episode that caused Dio’s laughter. In Dio’s words:

[The emperor] killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head… and the bloody sword. He said absolutely nothing, but with a grin he shook his own head, making it clear that he would do the same to us. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot by the sword for laughing at [the emperor]… if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others [to do the same]… so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.

So it’s basically an ancient instance of biting your lip. And it’s interestIng, as Mary explained, because it gives us a sense that we are experiencing Roman life, and laughter, at first hand, and it provokes the modern scholar to address what it is in this episode that Dio found funny, what the episode tells us about the relationships between emperor and his subjects in ancient Rome, and gets us to think about the social function of laughter: Is Dio’s laughter an act of insubordination, a mocking of, via the medium of laughter, the pumped-up pretensions of the emperor; or is it (what we’d call these days) nervous laughter? And, for that matter, what kinds of problems, methodological and empirical, does such a question pose for the modern historian?

All this was dead interesting. But what struck me was the resonance that all this has with my own work on Pieter Bruegel. I was lucky enough to get to chat to Mary afterwards, and I mentioned how her interest in laughter in the ancient world mirrored by interest in laughter in the 16th century in the Netherlands, and, in particular, the question of whether people laughed at Bruegel’s pictures of peasants or not, which, as I’ve said before, has been the subject of great controversy since the 1970s. Did people really laugh at Bruegel’s representations of the rural poor? And was this laughter, if there ever was any, condescending? Or was it democratising–a Rebelaisian carnivalesque form of laughter that acts a social leveller (according to Bakhtin’s classic study)? And, what’s more, what evidence is there that can support our view either way? Can we ever really know what people laughed at in their lounges and dining rooms in the 1550s and ’60s (just like can we ever know what Dio found funny sitting in front of an ostrich-head-wielding Commodus in the Colosseum in 192?)?

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

This is where the (not) Laughing Cavalier comes in. We all know Frans Hals’s picture of a Cavalier because the sitter is laughing; its fame rests, by and large, on the fact that the sitter is a jolly chap, enjoying a giggle at this or that. But, as Mary pointed out (and perhaps this is in the literature on Hals already, but I am no expert), the portrait of the cavalier only earned its title of “Laughing Cavalier” about a century ago. Before then, the picture was notable (if written descriptions of it are anything to go by) because of the curly moustache that the sitter is sporting. In other words, modern sensibilities find that the portrait shows a laughing man, whereas this was lost on, or else wasn’t considered to be the most striking aspect of the picture for, earlier viewers. This was one of Mary’s chief points. That although the sound of laughter, and for that matter the rendering of that sound in print–“hahahae” in Terence’s 161 BCE Eunuch–is remarkably universal, what rouses that laughter is not universal, and has changed over the course of history as  sensibilities and cultural conventions likewise adapt.

Frans Hals, "Laughing" Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

Frans Hals, “Laughing” Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

This is all germane to my work and is certainly food for thought. Can we ever reconstruct what Bruegel’s audience found funny? Did people really laugh at peasants? Peasants in art, for that matter? On the face of it Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Feast isn’t funny, but is this a bit like Hals’s Cavalier, which is to say that do we struggle to see what was funny in Bruegel’s picture because we are no longer socially predisposed to find the poor intrinsically funny? Is it the case that mockery of the poor is nowadays considered taboo, morally reprehensible, and that this is quite different to the situation in the 16th century, which scarcely batted an eyelid at serfdom?

Finally, in case you’re wondering, are Roman jokes from Antiquity funny? Did we indeed laugh along with Mary? Well, none of the jokes related by Mary in her lecture roused genuinely raucous laughter (indeed this was part of her point about the socio-historical contingency of laughter, and not a criticism) but one of them, which only came out during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture, was a gem, and, what’s more, is a joke told by a woman (women otherwise frequently being the butt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes!). It’s preserved in Macrobius’s Saturnalia and the comic is Julia, daughter of the emperor Augustus, who was, on all accounts, infamously promiscuous. The joke goes:

When those who knew of [Julia’s] disgraceful behaviour were amazed how her sons looked like her husband Agrippa even though she gave her body to any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enjoy, she said, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship’s hold is full.”

Simply, hilarious. Surely as funny now as it must’ve been in Antiquity! As for why it’s funny? Perhaps Mary’s book sheds light . . .

Jamie Edwards

Probing Leonardo.

Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Yesterday, we had a Leonardo being cleaned. Today, it’s a Leonardo painting being photographed, with a mega good camera.

Pascal Cotte, of Paris’s Lumiere Technology, has spent 3 years subjecting Leonardo’s hugely famous portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an Ermine to a technique called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), and has apparently discovered that poor old Cecilia once LACKED her posh, furry companion.

LAM works by firing a series of powerful lights at paintings, and a computer then registers the differences in the amounts of light that is reflected, thus revealing insights into what paintings look like beneath their uppermost layer. It is this procedure that has yielded the discovery that Leonardo’s portrait once showed Cecilia without the ermine, then showed her with a regular ermine, and then, finally, with the steroid-pumped ermine we see in the picture today.

Leonardo Ermine

The portrait, which is dated to about 1490, shows Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s chief Milanese maecenas. It has always been thought that the portrait was originally conceived with the ermine, as a signifier of Cecilia’s love for Ludovico, who was supposedly nicknamed “the white ermine”. That explanation still stands. But the real significance of all this is that it sheds light on Leonardo’s practices who, clearly, continued to play around with ideas even once a painting was well underway, as well as the specific circumstances surrounding the execution of the portrait. Why did Leonardo add an ermine to what otherwise seems to have been a finished portrait of Cecilia? Perhaps Cecilia requested it herself. Or Ludovico. So he added one. Thus portrait version #2. But then the portrait underwent another change, with the ermine becoming curiously bulky and sporting lion’s paws. Thus portrait version #3, the final one. Why modify the ermine? Perhaps this bit’s Leonardo’s invention, who, rather than choosing to represent Ludovico with a scrawny ermine (version #2), tried to flatter the Duke by envisioning him in the guise of a bodybuilding ermine. All interesting stuff . . .

 

Jamie Edwards

 

 

Cleaning Leonardo.

Leonardo's 1481 Adoration (pre-restoration). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Leonardo’s 1481 Adoration (pre-restoration). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

As if the promise of a brilliantly restored Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t enough, then we can also now look forward to seeing Leonardo’s remarkable Adoration of the Magi of 1481 (above) looking a lot less, well, murky.

Leonardo was commissioned to produce the Adoration by monks from Florence’s San Donato a Scopeto. Leonardo abandoned the work, however, when he left Florence for Milan in 1481. In his stead, Filippino Lippi was asked produce an Adoration of the Magi, which he delivered in 1496. Both works–Leonardo’s incomplete and Lippi’s complete Adorations–are housed inside the Uffizi.

Leonardo conference. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Leonardo conference. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

In the early 2000s, the idea was mooted that Leonardo’s unfinished painting might benefit from restorations, and these restorations are now underway, being done by Florence’s Opficio delle Pietre Dure, which is one of the foremost institutions for the conservation of pictures in all the world. Recently they put on a conference (of sorts–typically Italian in its rusticity, as you can see above!) to show some of what they’ve managed to achieve. The restorations aren’t complete, but even in its partial state, what they have achieved looks pretty damn good.

For a start, we can make out more of Leonardo’s unusual and daring composition, which now appears sharper, less cloudy and has more depth to it than we’d hitherto realised. Clusters of figures are now more legible, ditto trees, the battle in the background, and, in particular, the odd arches and staircase etc. In addition, we can also now make out that the sky was executed in a pale blue wash. One of the features of Leonardo’s picture that has been consistently noted up to now is how murky it is and unusually limited in its colour. Turns out, of course, that the overwhelmingly browny-yellowish colour that made the whole thing look so dull is misleading, deriving from centuries’ worth of dirt and varnish accumulations rather than Leonardo’s original intentions. Here’s a selection of pictures:

Adoration (restorations underway). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Adoration (restorations underway). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Restored area flanking the Virgin and Child. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Restored area flanking the Virgin and Child. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

I think we’d all agree that they’ve done a sterling job so far, and we can look forward to seeing the finished product. In the meantime, find out a bit more about the cleaning and see more images here.

Jamie Edwards

 

Are computers sending art historians straight to the dole queue? Not likely . . .

Dole queue

‘Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists’, reported Matthew Sparkes in yesterday’s Telegraph. The article was reporting on a paper put together by a bunch of computer scientists from the Computer Science department at Rutgers, State Uni. of New Jersey, and is available online here.

The gist of the article is this: the identification of similarities between works of art has long been the prerogative of art historians, but now computers, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, are ready to take their place, being capable of identifying instances of formal similarities between given works of art that have hitherto elided the experts.

‘One important task for art historians is to find influences and connections between artists’ say, quite rightly, Babak Saleh, Kanako Abe, Ravneet Singh Arora, and Ahmed Elgammal — the paper’s authors. We’re off to a good start.

But things quickly go awry . . .

‘It must be mentioned that determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’ This is mad as far as I’m concerned. Michelangelo never declares that his conception of God from the Sistine Ceiling was inspired by Ghiberti’s similar airborne God from the Gates of Paradise, but on the basis of formal and circumstantial evidence, which is to say it looks a damn lot like it and Michelangelo will have seen Ghiberti’s sculptures daily in his youth, I think we can say that it’s probably the case. But this isn’t my real issue with the paper; the article does after all acknowledge that instances of artistic influence proposed by art historians are usually demonstrably right, even if there is no “proof”. For example, we might not know FOR CERTAIN that Francis Bacon ever saw Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (do we? Raphael’s Julius II makes for just as neat a comparison?), but since the former’s picture of a seated, grand, albeit tormented, bloke really does look like the latter’s Papal portrait, then there most likely IS a relationship. Hence the comparison has found its way into the mainstream literature on Bacon.

Velzquez, Innocent X

Bacon, after Velzquez, Innocent X

My problem instead is with some of the previously undiscovered, but for my money far-fetched, relationships between works of art that the computers have apparently managed to unearth, as well as some of the frankly flippant, if not wholly misguided, claims the authors make along the way. (An important caveat here: the authors do admit that ‘We are not asserting truths but instead suggesting a possible path towards a difficult task of measuring influence.’) Let’s look at some of them.

‘Although the meaning of a painting is unique to each artist and is completely subjective, it can somewhat be measured by the symbols and objects in the painting.’ Art historians will nowadays wince at those words, and Roland Barthes will probably have had chickens . . .

‘The earliest style is the Renaissance period with artists like Titian and Michelangelo during the 14th to 17th century.’ Notwithstanding the arbitrariness of the period style classifications that the article leans on more generally (Renaissance, Romanticism, Baroque, Pop, Abstract Contemporary, American Modernism, Post-Impressionism…etc.), this statement is a bit worrying… Pedantry, perhaps, but Michelangelo and Titian weren’t about in the 14th century or the 17th, and if we’re being picky, traditional narratives of art history don’t usually include 17th-century art under the rubric of the Renaissance.

And the most major problem, I think, is this clanger:

‘Paintings do not necessarily have to look alike, but if they do, or have reoccurring objects (high-level semantics), then they might be considered similar.’

My issue here is that they’re effectively saying that even if pictures don’t look alike to the eye, computers, with all their mathematical wizardry and algorithms, can nevertheless spot relationships that otherwise defy human perception. Problem here, of course, is that people make artworks, not computers, and so if two artworks by two artists don’t look alike to the eye, then it is really doubtful whether there ever was a meaningful relationship between them. Common sense, which computers don’t possess, dictates as much.

See: Frédéric Bazille’s Studio 9 Rue de la Condamine (1870) and Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barber Shop (1950). The computers threw this up as a match, and ‘After browsing through many publications and websites, we concluded, to the best of our knowledge, that this comparison has not been made by an art historian before.’ The authors’ faith in the technology is thus vindicated. But, hang on, there’s probably a very good reason why art historians have never spotted a relationship between Bazille’s Studio and Rockwell’s Barber Shop, which is that they simply don’t look sufficiently alike to warrant the positing of anything more than a coincidental relationship between them. Which is precisely what the next sentence says: ”The painting might not look similar at the first glance, however, a closer look reveals striking similarity in composition and subject matter, that is detected by our automated methodology . . . [emph. mine]’ I don’t buy it. And what the authors neglect to mention is what we, that is to say art historians, call iconographic conventions. Bazille’s picture belongs to a rich tradition for showing artists working in their studios, and perhaps Rockwell did, either knowingly or inadvertently, look to that that tradition for his Barber Shop. That’s a sound art historical judgement. But it doesn’t mean that Rockwell was influenced by Bazille. The authors also fail to mention whether there is any inkling whatsoever that Rockwell knew Bazille’s work(s)? These are the kinds of questions art historians ask, whereas computers, it seems, do not. Or perhaps can’t ask?

Bazille and Rockwell

Similarly, the paper heralds the similarity between Georges Braque’s Man with a Violin and Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Still Life as a “discovery”. Nah, not really. Braque and Picasso were immediate contemporaries, they knew one another(!!) and were pioneers of a movement retroactively called Cubism. A perusal of any monograph on cubism will generate Braque’s and Picasso’s names alongside one another and show ample similarities between their art. So, not a discovery after all. . .

Picasso and Braque

If you read the paper, you’ll quickly find that there’s loads of technical jargon, equations and mind-boggling graphs which apparently bestow scientific robustness on the findings:

Classme

Long equation

Erm…. I’m struggling. The tables and charts don’t exactly shed any more light, either:

Diagram

And what on earth is this?

Mingboggling

. . . answers on a postcard, please.

I can’t help but think that all this is a case of all fur coat and no knickers, and that the jargon simply conceals the fact that the computer’s supposed discoveries don’t stand up to the scrutiny of art historians. It’s nonsence masquerading as scientific art history. I really don’t think, for example, that Bazille’s and Rockwell’s pictures look sufficiently alike to warrant the claim that there IS a relationship. And this is where art historians differ from computers: art historians, or else, the good ones, weigh-up their proposals against a balance of probabilities, and posit relationships between artists and their works only where there is a demonstrable formal relationship that is meaningful, and, moreover, can be substantiated by consideration of the likelihood that X artist had seen Y’s Picture. That’s what art historians do, and, on the basis of this article, are capable of doing infinitely better than a machine.

Suffice it to say that I don’t think we can expect to see queues of bereft-looking art historians at the Job Centre any time soon . . .

Jamie Edwards

From religious toleration to local regeneration: why a series of Zurbarán paintings is at the heart of Auckland Castle’s past and future by Lauren Dudley

Growing up in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, I have spent many hours exploring the beautiful and mysterious palace grounds in the town centre, but I had never really wondered what was inside the house attached to them, which has been home to the Prince Bishops of Durham for the last 900 years. A few years ago, the palace’s art collection, notably its remarkable series of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), came under scrutiny when they were at risk of being sold. Thanks to philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer the collection was saved and the palace has been granted charitable status as Auckland Castle Trust. With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, it is now open to the public and is part of a considerable investment project led by Ruffer in the regeneration of the town. So, during a visit home I took the opportunity to have a look around…

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My tour began in the impressive St Peter’s Chapel, the largest private chapel in Europe and formerly the Castle’s Banqueting Hall. The original chapel was demolished following the Civil War. In the 1660s Bishop John Cosin (1594-1672) began the renovation of the Castle, including the conversion of the hall into the present-day chapel. Much of the decoration dates from the 19th century – notably the beautiful stained glass windows.

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Upstairs, in the Throne Room a gallery of Prince Bishops is shown through a striking collection of portraits, which includes paintings by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) representing Bishops Shute Barrington (1734-1826) and William Van Mildert (1765-1836), one of the founders of the University of Durham. Barrington employed the renowned architect and Lunar Society member, James Wyatt (1746-1813), to make alterations to the Castle as shown through its neo-Gothic features.

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Entering the Throne Room, a portrait of Bishop John Cosin hangs above the chair

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Lawrence’s portraits can be seen on the top row, above the fireplace

From the Throne Room I went into the much anticipated Long Dining Room, which was specifically re-designed to house the series of Zurbarán paintings that have been the cause of so much talk in the town for the last few years. While some might find the paintings quite unusual, shocked that they were bought for £15 million, it is clear to everyone that they are rather special. Few Zurbarán paintings can be seen in the UK – the National Gallery houses some of the Spanish artist’s work and you can read more about it on their website here. The Barber Institute owns a painting attributed to the studio of Zurbarán, Saint Marina, c.1630s, which is an interesting comparison to the Auckland Castle series.

Dan VII

Dan VII, © Auckland Castle Trust

Zurbarán’s series at Auckland Castle is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It depicts larger-than-life individual paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The figures’ dress are somewhat theatrical and they are depicted in striking poses, almost like actors, and they tower over the landscape behind them. In fact, the artist depicted the figures in the dress worn during contemporary religious processions in his home town of Seville. The expressive gestures of the biblical figures is perhaps evidence of Caravaggio’s influence on Zurbarán. The interpretation in the gallery also highlighted the fact that his figures were based on Albrecht Dürer’s engravings.

Levi III

Levi III, © Auckland Castle Trust

The early provenance of the paintings is mysterious – with one story suggesting that they were destined for a wealthy Catholic buyer in the New World but that the ship carrying them was capsized by pirates! In any case, the paintings, dated c.1640-44, ended up at an auction house in London in 1756 and Bishop Richard Trevor (1707-1771) bought them for £124 (of his own money, in fact) to hang in Auckland Castle. He purchased the series as a deliberate political gesture – while the paintings can be considered as Counter-Reformation in style, produced in a Catholic culture, their reception in Britain was intended as a gesture of support for the toleration of the Jewish faith. In 1753 the government had passed the Naturalisation of Jews Act, but it caused outcry, and it was not until the following century that Jews were granted full civic liberties. In this context, the 12 Tribes of Israel depicted by Zurbarán represented the foundations of the Jewish faith and, indeed, its shared heritage with Christianity, which would have been a bold gesture in eighteenth-century Britain – showing the power of art patronage on the political stage.

Simeon II

Simeon II, © Auckland Castle Trust

Fittingly, an interesting temporary exhibition is currently on show in the room adjacent to the Long Dining Room, entitled, The Power and the Glory: How Religious Art made Tudor England and the objects on display are presented as ‘survivors’ of the destruction that would follow during the Reformation. The recent exhibition at Tate Britain, Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, showed objects that had been damaged during the Reformation (see my post about the exhibition here), whereas The Power and the Glory presents beautifully preserved, intact objects such as Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours and Elizabeth of York’s signed prayer book. The exhibition highlights how the political and religious landscape in Britain changed significantly as a result of the Tudor reign. Future plans for Auckland Castle include the establishment of a museum dedicated to the history of religious faith in Britain and extending its collection of Counter-Reformation paintings (find out more about the castle’s regeneration on their website). It would be an apt site for such a museum given the link with nearby Durham Cathedral and a little further away, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The Castle reminded me of the Palais des Papes in Avignon and a much smaller version of the Vatican, so it will be exciting to see what becomes of Auckland Castle in the coming years.

 

 

“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 Edwards

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