Leicester Roman mosaics go on display

July 17th, 2018

The large sections of a Roman mosaic floor discovered at the old Stibbe factory site in Leicester the winter of 2016/2017 is now on public display. This is the first time the public has had a chance to see the cleaned and conserved mosaics.

The University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) was contracted to excavate the site before construction of new apartments in late 2016. They discovered most of a Roman block, including the remains of two townhouses with sections of mosaic floors in several of their rooms. The largest surviving section in one of the homes was about seven by ten feet in area, an estimated quarter of the size of the original. The design and style of the mosaic suggest it dated to the late 3rd century or early 4th.

That was exciting enough, but the largest mosaic pavement in the other home spanked its neighbor soundly with a stretch just shy of 33 feet long. It is the largest and highest quality Roman mosaic floor found in Leicester in 150 years.

Because the apartment building was going to go up Roman insula or no Roman insula, the ULAS team had to raise the mosaics in a meticulous and complex salvage operation. The mortar sealing the mosaics had long since degraded so archaeologists had to use glue and fabric to keep the tesserae together.

The public was invited to see the mosaics in situ on one weekend of May 2017, but since then the priceless pieces have been treated behind closed doors. Their return to public view will be brief (for now). The exhibition opened on Monday at BBC Radio’s studio in Leicester and runs until Friday, July 27th. Admission is free and visitors can see it Monday through Friday from 9AM to 5PM.

Those of us who can’t Uber our way to Leicester in a timely fashion will have to make do with not inconsiderable consolation of Sketchfab.


New megalithic passage tomb found at Irish heritage site

July 16th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a new megalithic passage tomb at the prehistoric site of Brú na Bóinne about 25 miles north of Dublin. Brú na Bóinne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is renown for its three large Neolithic passage tombs dating to around 5,000 years ago, and a profusion of at least 90 smaller tombs. Many of them are marked by megalithic stones with elaborate abstract carvings, making Brú na Bóinne the largest collection of megalithic art in Western Europe.

To this vast archaeological wealth we can now add one main passage tomb with satellite tombs. Two burial chambers have been unearthed on the western side of the main tomb. A large stone cairn more than 130 feet in diameter was built on top of the tomb.

The six kerbstones that have been identified so far would have formed part of a ring of stones that followed the cairn perimeter. One kerbstone is heavily decorated with Neolithic carvings and represents one of the most impressive discoveries of megalithic art in Ireland for decades.

A further two possible satellite tombs were also found.

The find site is not actually on public land. It’s on 430 acres of Brú na Bóinne owned by agri-technology company Devenish Nutrition which acquired the Dowth Hall estate in 2013 and established a research farm on the property. County heritage authorities and Devenish worked together to coordinate the excavation led by a team from University College Dublin School of Archaeology.

“For the archaeologists involved in this discovery, it is truly the find of a lifetime,” Dr Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, Devenish’s lead archaeologist for the project said.

Meanwhile, Dr Steve Davis of the UCD School of Archaeology said it is “the most significant megalithic find” in half a century in Ireland.

Devenish, thankfully, has no intention of hiding this internationally significant find. As a science research company, they consider preservation and protection of this archaeological material in keeping with their purview. The company has contracted Mullarkey and Pedersen Architects to preserve the passage tomb and make it accessible to the public. The first public visits will take place in a month. August 18-26 is Heritage Week in Ireland, and Devenish has already invited people to celebrate Irish heritage by visiting the megalithic passage tomb.


Basel papyrus deciphered at long last

July 15th, 2018

An ancient papyrus in the collection of the University of Basel has been deciphered 500 years after it made its way to Switzerland. Basel was the first university in German-speaking Switzerland one of the first German-language universities to acquire a papyrus collection. It was 1900 and large groups of papyri had only recently begun to be found preserved in the arid heat of the Egyptian desert. The 65 papyrus fragments bought by the university were written in five languages (Greek, Latin, Coptic Egyptian and hieratic) in the Late Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic eras. They consist of everyday documents including contracts, loans, tax receipts, letters and petitions.

This was probably a disappointment to scholars exploring the nascent field of papyrology when the collection was acquired because the impetus that drove the papyrus fever of the late 19th century was the prospect of new sources for momentous historical events like the dawn of Christianity and finding the lost books of classical antiquity. A contract to transport a confiscated camel was not exactly the dream document. The collection was stashed away and forgotten until the papyri were rediscovered in two manuscript drawers in the University of Basel’s library in 2015.

Because of their long lapse into obscurity, the papyrus texts were all but unknown in the scholarly community and had never been properly recorded, researched and published. Over the past three years, an interdisciplinary team has worked in the University of Basel’s Digital Humanities Lab to analyze the papyri with imaging technology as the texts are transcribed, translated, annotated and digitized.

Part of the Basel collection are two papyri that were not purchased in 1900. They weren’t purchased in 1800. Or 1700. They were acquired in the second half of the 16th century by lawyer and avid collector Basilius Amerbach for his spectacular cabinet of curiosities. The Amerbach collection was started by his father Bonifacius. The son inherited it in 1562 and he was even more extravagant than his father in both reach and grasp. How he got his hands on papyri is not clear, but researchers think he probably bought them in Italy 300 years before the first major papyrus finds in Egypt were snapped up by the antiquities magpies in Europe. They were so rare at that time that many Western scholars saw their first papyrus in the Amerbach collection.

After Basilius’ death, the papyri went to the University of Basel where he had been a professor for many years. One of the two has been confounding experts ever since. It has mirror writing on both sides that nobody has been able to decipher. As part of the university’s papyrus recording and digitization project, the mystery papyrus was photographed with ultraviolet and infrared light. This revealed that the papyrus was not technically A papyrus, but rather a multi-layer composite made from several papyrus fragments that had been glued together, likely by a bookbinder during the Middle Ages, to use the thickened linen piece as a cover.

The Basel team didn’t have the chance to use a particle accelerator to read through the layers, so they turned to good ol’ fashioned human expertise and patience. They called in a specialist in papyrus restoration and he painstakingly separated the sheets with tools like a scalpel and Q-Tips. Once the sheets were singletons again, the Greek could be read for the first time in centuries.

“This is a sensational discovery,” says Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel. “The majority of papyri are documents such as letters, contracts and receipts. This is a literary text, however, and they are vastly more valuable.”

What’s more, it contains a previously unknown text from antiquity. “We can now say that it’s a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of ‘hysterical apnea’,” says Huebner. “We therefore assume that it is either a text from the Roman physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work.” After Hippocrates, Galen is regarded as the most important physician of antiquity.

Last year, the full Basel papyrus collection got its long-awaited moment in the sun when the project team presented their research in the form an exhibition at the library. The final results of the project’s work will be published in early 2019.

With the end of the editing project, the research on the Basel papyri will enter into a new phase. Huebner hopes to provide additional impetus to papyrus research, particularly through sharing the digitalized collection with international databases. As papyri frequently only survive in fragments or pieces, exchanges with other papyrus collections are essential. “The papyri are all part of a larger context. People mentioned in a Basel papyrus text may appear again in other papyri, housed for example in Strasbourg, London, Berlin or other locations. It is digital opportunities that enable us to put these mosaic pieces together again to form a larger picture.”


There 93 penises on the Bayeux Tapestry

July 14th, 2018

Oxford medieval history professor George Garnett has counted 93 penises, human and equine, on the Bayeux Tapestry. The vast majority of them, 88 to be precise, are horse penises from the central panel where all the historic action takes place. The five human penises (plus one possible one) are only found in the top and bottom borders.

It makes sense that the equine genitalia would be so distinct and prolific. The embroiderers who created the tapestry (a misnomer, by the way, because it’s wool thread embroidered on linen panels, not a woven textile) were far more precise in their depiction of horses than of people. There are about 200 horses on the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered with realistic color, tack, wooden saddles and stirrups. Some are destriers, some palfreys, some packhorses, all of them clearly distinguishable. Even the gaits can be identified in battle scenes.

The penises of the horses convey rather obvious meaning about their riders. The bigger the phallus, the greater the power.

The penises depicted on certain stallions might be thought to demonstrate no more than the designer’s scrupulous anatomical accuracy. But it cannot be simply a coincidence that Earl Harold is first shown mounted on an exceptionally well-endowed steed. And the largest equine penis by far is that protruding from the horse presented by a groom to a figure who must be Duke William, just prior to the battle of Hastings.

This, the viewer is meant to infer, was the charger on which the duke fought. The clear implications are that the virility of the two leading protagonists is reflected in that of their respective mounts, and that William was in this respect much the more impressive of the two, as the denouement of what survives of the tapestry showed to be the case. Odo of Bayeux, the duke’s half-brother, plays a very important role in the action, but although he is depicted in the thick of the fray, cockily rallying the Norman forces at a critical juncture, the genitalia of his very large horse are modest indeed by comparison.

That might be thought only appropriate in a senior man of the cloth, sworn to celibacy, but it is also true of all other mounted participants in the battle, who appear to be laymen. Duke William had to be the outstanding individual in every respect, including his horse’s penis

“Cockily rallying,” eh? I see what you did there, Professor Garnett. It’s worth noting that Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, is the person who commissioned the tapestry so his horse’s modest endowment compared to his half-brother’s steed’s impressive one could have been a form of genuflection or currying favor.

The exposed human genitals are less obvious and therefore more intriguing in their meaning. There’s a naked man with an erect phallus reaching out towards a nude woman covering her face and crotch with her hands. Emory University professor emeritus of medieval history Stephen White has posited that this could be a scene from Phaedrus’s Latin versions of Aesop’s fables, namely a tale of a father who raped his daughter. It’s at the beginning of the tapestry under the scene where Earl Harold (Edward the Confessor is still alive at this point) is taken prisoner in France and taken to Duke William. The bottom frieze designs from this scene forward feature several animals stories from the fables — the Fox and the Crow, the Wolf and the Lamb, the Bitch and her Puppies, etc. — so it’s reasonable to think the dramatic human postures were inspired the tales as well.

In the top frieze while the main panel is depicting the Normans ride to battle there are two sets of naked figures. One is a man whose penis is obscured by a large axe he’s holding, but his testicles are clearly visible behind him. He’s holding out something unidentifiable to a nude woman. A few inches to the right of them are a naked man and a woman. The first could refer to a fable in which a widow has a sexual relationship with the man guarding the cemetery where her husband’s body is buried. To cover up his negligence after a body is stolen when they’re having sex, the widow gives him her husband’s body to substitute for the stolen one. The second couple might be from a story in which a prostitute claims to be in love with her client and he doesn’t believe her.

The last two naked men are individuals in the bottom border. One is bent over pulling an axe out of a container or off a cloth. The other is squatting and just letting it all hang out. The first could be referring to the fable in which an axe-maker persuades trees to let him use their wood to make a handle and then chops them down once he’s made his axe. The second has no Aesopian explanation.

(The sixth possible penis belongs to a dead soldier, stripped of his mail and clothes after falling on the battlefield of Hastings. It’s sort of a single curved line in the crotchal region that doesn’t connect to anything else, so while it looks like a side view of a flopped over penis, it’s difficult to confirm or deny. Please appreciate that I said “difficult,” not “hard.” Because I’m classy.)

As with all of Aesop’s fables, they come with moral lessons, ones that educated viewers would have recognized. The ones depicted in the borders of the tapestry revolve around betrayal, deceit, untrustworthiness, and were probably meant to be visual allegorical comments on the action in the main panel. With penises.


French farmer finds first Pyrenean mastodon skull

July 13th, 2018

A farmer in the Haute-Garonne department of southwestern France has discovered the first-ever skull of a Pyrenean mastodon. He partially unearthed the fossil in 2014 while digging on his farm near the village of L’Isle-en-Dodon, about 40 miles southwest of Toulouse and 50 miles north of the Pyranees mountains. All he could tell was that it was a large, hard mass with teeth four inches long. Concerned that his fields would be overrun by would-be paleontologists looking for fossils, the farmer didn’t tell anyone about his find until 2016 when he reported it to the Natural History Museum of Toulouse.

In September of 2017, a team from the museum began excavating the skull. When the museum experts first saw the exposed sections, they recognized the fossil as a gomphotherium, an extinct ancestor of the elephant from the Miocene epoch (ca. 23-5 million years ago). It had four large tusks, two on the upper jaw, two on the lower, a powerful jaw, short trunk and small brain cavity. They probably lived in swampy areas, wetlands and lakes where they used their tusks to dig through the muddy terrain for vegetation.

As the museum experts exposed more of the skull, they realized it wasn’t from a more commonly found species of gomphotherium. It bore the distinctive characteristics of the gomphoterium pyrenaicum, a create so rare that its existence is only known from four molars discovered in 1857. Their large size and simple structure identified them as belonging to a separate species from other gomphoteria found in Europe, but that was the extent of the information that could be derived from such limited material.

“Now we have a full skull which will allow us to get a clearer picture of the anatomy of this species,” Duranthon said.

“We’re putting a face on a species which had become almost mythical,” the museum’s curator Pierre Dalous added.

The landowner allowed the team to remove the skull from the rock it was embedded in and donated it to the museum. They cut out a block of the stone surrounding the skull and transported it to the Natural History Museum where it is now being excavated in laboratory conditions, the stone chiseled away from the embedded fossil one centimeter at a time with extreme care to preserve every surviving part of it. (The tusks were damaged by the earth mover before it was discovered.) About half of the job has been completed thus far. They expect to be done and the skull to be fully revealed in six to nine months.


Wood knight found in Lincoln Cathedral tower

July 12th, 2018

A wooden knight has been discovered secreted away in one of Lincoln Cathedral’s towers. The three-foot statue, found during an audit of the cathedral’s historic artifacts, is a clock Jack, a figure that would strike the clock tower bell so it would chime at regular times. He once must have had a hammer to hit the bell, but that tool is long gone. There are no identifying marks on the carving. His features are worn and it’s not clear which clock he was attached to, one inside the cathedral or in the tower.

Initial research suggested the knight might have struck the hours in the north vestibule clock, parts of which date to around 1380, but further investigation pointed to it being part of a later clock across the south aisle. Fern Dawson, collections and engagement officer at Lincoln Cathedral who found the knight during the audit, discovered a reference in an old cathedral publication to an 18th century sketch of a “Clock Jack or striking man believed to be from a clock in Lincoln Cathedral.”

She pursued the lead and found the sketch by engraver Samuel Buck in the archives of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The sketch is a rough drawing of a mechanized clock but does not clearly depict the knight and indeed opens up more questions than it answers. There are three clock Jacks, on top of the clock face left and right and above a representation of the sorrowful Christ. The center panel bears the inscription: “The Glas doth run y’Globe doth goe. Awake from sin. Why sleep you so.” Nobody has of yet determined what that first sentence means exactly. There’s also an unidentified coat of arms in the sketch and a series of symbols along the top that are some kind of code of shorthand that hasn’t been deciphered.

Fern added: “This is an incredibly exciting find. While I originally thought it was possible the clock jack could have been a part of the earlier clock, it has been suggested by the Wallace Collection’s curator of arms and armour, Tobias Capwell that ‘stylistic particulars’ – including the clock jack’s beard, rounded skirt and basic shape of the solid, one-piece back plate – point to a mid-to-late sixteenth-century date.

“Further adding to the mystery are symbols which appear to be a form of short hand on the top right-hand corner of the sketch by Samuel Buck. These markings have yet to be identified.

“The clock jack is an amazing discovery, allowing us, the future generation, a glimpse into a different time.”

Jack the Knight will go on display with out treasures from the Lincoln Cathedral collection in a new visitor’s center scheduled to open in 2020.


Syncroton recovers daguerreotype lost to tarnish

July 11th, 2018

The intense radiation and light of the particle accelerator has done it again. We’ve already seen synchrotron X-rays read a long-erased Galen text, map the molecular composition of cannon balls from the Mary Rose and virtually open a heavily corroded 17th century box to reveal the medallions within in jaw-dropping detail. Now we can add daguerreotypes tarnished beyond recognition to the synchrotron’s ever-expanding abilities to resuscitate the fatalities of time.

The daguerreotypes in question belong to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa, Ontario. Taken in the 19th century, they were so corroded and marred that all that was visible of one of them was a ghostly outline while the other was a hacked up Kandinsky abstract with not even the ghost of the sitter remaining. Their terrible condition made them ideal subjects for a new study on the chemical changes that cause daguerreotype degradation.

Daguerreotypes were made by exposing silver plates to iodine vapour and waiting for minutes until the vapour had made the plate light-sensitive enough to capture the image. The photographer would then develop the picture by exposing the plate to mercury vapour. A solution of sodium thiosulfate cleaned the plate of excess iodine leaving a stable image on the plate.

Pinpointing the smallest trace of chemical residue is what synchrotron technology does best. Over the past three years, researchers from Western University in London, Canada, analyzed damaged daguerreotypes at the Canadian Light Source (CLS). Findings published last year and earlier this year revealed the chemical compositions of different manifestations of tarnish, but the most recent report takes a great leap forward to reveal the people underneath.

This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s paper and the images [lead study author and Western University phD candidate Madalena] Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.

Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide, and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10×10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.

“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong (T.K.) Sham, Western’s Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation. He also is a co-author of the research and Kozachuk’s supervisor.

This research will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to seeing what’s below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.

The identity of the two people whose images have been recovered is unknown. One is a woman, the other a man, and both daguerreotypes are early examples, perhaps dating as early as 1850. The plate of the woman was bought at a garage sale and that’s all the NGC knows about it. There’s no information at all about the fella.

The full study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read free of charge online.


Ancient tablet of Odyssey found in Olympia

July 10th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a clay tablet inscribed with verses from The Odyssey in Olympia, Greece. Found next to the Temple of Zeus with Roman-era artifacts, the slab is engraved with 13 verses from Odysseus’ speech to Eumaeus. Preliminary analysis suggests it dates to the Roman era, probably before the 3rd century.

Olympia, the venue of the ancient Olympic Games, was a religious center from long before Homer was a twinkle in his mamma’s eye. There is archaeological evidence of burned offerings made at the site in the 4th millennium B.C. The first known temple was constructed in the early 7th century B.C. and was dedicated to Hera. Her husband overtook her in the mid-5th century B.C. when the Sanctuary of Zeus was built on a grander scale than any of the previous religious structures. The monumental gold and ivory statue of Zeus sculpted by Phidias (who had a workshop at Olympia) was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Olympia remained a cultural and religious beacon in the classical world even after it became part of the Roman Empire. Olympic games were still held and the faithful still flocked to the sanctuaries. It suffered from earthquakes and barbarian invasions in the 3rd century, but it wasn’t until the 5th century when it really came tumbling down. Literally. Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II ordered the Temple of Zeus destroyed in 426 A.D. and a series of earthquakes in the 6th century finished the job.

The tablet was discovered during geoarchaeological survey of the site as part of the Multidimensional Space of Olympia program, a project which explores the relationships between the sanctuary and surrounding areas. During three years of fieldwork (2015-2017), a multidisciplinary team of researchers did an intensive grid survey of ancient Olympia, its immediate surroundings and the nearby villages of Epitalio and Salmone. They made several important discoveries in the process — Mycenaean chamber graves, Bronze Age terracing, the remains of an ancient polygonal wall and one very special clay tablet.

The tablet’s likely age places it at the end of Olympia’s long history of Panhellenic prominence. It’s of enormous significance because even at so late a date it is likely the oldest written extract of the Homeric epic known to survive. It is now undergoing conservation and detailed epigraphic study which will confirm or deny the preliminary dating and hopefully narrow it down further.


Victoria’s controversial chocolate gift for sale

July 9th, 2018

Quakers were prohibited from getting academic degrees, so some of the traditional routes to respectable careers — medicine, law — were blocked off. The courses of study weren’t in keeping with Quaker religious standards anyway (“pagan” philosophy, “lascivious” poetry), and as Quakers increasingly engaged in wider English society and “worldly” activities like banking, commerce and retail in the 18th and 19th century, integrating their religious and ethical precepts into their business practices.

Chocolate was considered an “innocent trade,” as it was believed to have medicinal purposes and didn’t lead people into evil. Selling chocolate brought enjoyment and good health through the gifts of God’s nature. There was no moral corruption in making a nice cup of cocoa as there was in manufacturing weapons. Quakers went into the chocolate business when it was purely a beverage, developing it into the bar and candy empire that it is today. By the early 20th century, the three top chocolate and confectionary companies in England were Quaker owned and operated.

J. S. Fry & Sons was a Quaker family business. Founded in 1759, Fry’s bears numerous historic distinctions. It was the first company to use industrial equipment the chocolate-making process, the first to mass-produce a chocolate bar and the inventor of the chocolate Easter egg.

Cadbury’s was founded by Quaker John Cadbury. John started selling coffee, tea and chocolate beverages in 1824 and built it into a successful company. It too was a family business, first John’s brother Benjamin joined him as a partner in 1848. They worked together 12 years. By the time Benjamin withdrew from the partnership in 1860, the company’s fortunes were in decline and John retired in 1861 after his wife’s death. John’s sons Richard and George took over and brought the business back from the brink to a whole new prosperity, expanding the product line from chocolate beverage to bars like the iconic Cadbury Dairy Milk which popularized milk chocolate.

Fry’s and Cadbury’s largest competitor, Rowntree’s, followed in the same Quaker footsteps. Founded by Henry Isaac Rowntree in 1862, the company was run according to Quaker principles of loving virtue. All the top three chocolatiers paid well and provided education, housing, recreational facilities and health care resources for their employees. Cadbury’s was the first company to establish the five-day work week.

So when in 1899 Queen Victoria turned to Cadbury’s, holders of the Royal Warrant as suppliers of chocolate products, to make a bar as a New Year’s present for the English troops fighting in the Boer War, the Queen’s command clashed at the most fundamental level with the pacifist principles of the “innocent trade.” The Cadbury brothers could not profit from war, but neither could they tell Queen Victoria to go suck a lemon.

To resolve their dilemma Richard and George Cadbury formed a temporary alliance with Joseph Fry and Joseph Rowntree: The three firms agreed to work together to fulfil the order. They would donate the chocolate free of charge and there would be no branding on either the chocolate or the tins.

Queen Victoria was not amused by all this. She wanted her soldiers and sailors to know that she was sending them the best British chocolate. In the face of the Royal ire, the firms took the sensible course of action. They caved in. Sort of. The tins remained unbranded but some of the chocolate and some of the interior wrapping sometimes did bear a company name.

The final product was a colorful tin painted red, gold and blue and embossed with a portrait of the Queen. It was inscribed “I wish you a Happy New Year Victoria R.I” and “South Africa 1900.”

One of those Queen Victoria South Africa tins has come up for auction. It’s in fine condition and still contains the original chocolate bar, foil wrapping and paper covering. Small differences between the tins produced by the three manufacturers identify this one as having been made by Cadbury’s.

The auction closes July 10th at noon EST, and online bidding is open. Only seven bids have been submitted so far, the top one is £84, enough to cover the reserve. The high estimate is just £120, so unless a bidding war breaks out (I think metaphoric wars are okay, Quaker-wise), this stale, faded, beige chocolate in a fabulous tin is something of a bargain.


Buon Compleanno, Artemisia!

July 8th, 2018

Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi would have been 425 years old today. The first woman granted membership to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno, she was famous in her time and counted the crowned heads of Europe among her clientele. Her striking works, often featuring illustrious women from history and the Bible, have become icons of female representation during a time when women were largely excluded from the painterly ranks.

Her private life has been inextricably woven into her oeuvre. She used herself as a model frequently — a number of self-portraits of her as saints, artists and allegories, particularly from her Florentine period, have survived — and her powerful female protagonists have been adopted as symbols of empowerment in the wake of her rape and the subsequent trial of the perpetrator, her art teacher Agostino Tassi. We know from the incredible survival of the transcripts that she stood up for herself at the 1611 trial even under torture. (Rape accusers in the Papal States were subjected to the thumbscrews, among other torture techniques, to ensure their veracity.) For many years she was treated by art historians something of a curiosity, a successful woman artist with a tragic personal history that seemed to be reflected in works like Judith Slaying Holofernes.

The worm has turned for Artemisia, and the understanding of her art on its own terms rather than as mere Caravaggista works or as fodder for five-cent psychological interpretations has led to a massive uptake in interest and demand from museums and collectors. In 2014, a rediscovered Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy broke the sale record for an Artemisia Gentileschi painting when it sold for €865,500 (ca. $1,175,000). In December of 2017, another rediscovered work, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 1615-1617), went up for auction in Paris. It broke the new record even more dramatically than the 2014 sale had broken the 1998 record, selling for €2,360,600 ($2,775,000).

Well, we can kiss that record goodbye too, because less than a year later, the dealer who acquired Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria has sold it to London’s National Gallery for £3.6 million ($4,784,000). Paying this eye-watering price was made possible by donations from the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust, Art Fund, Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, Hannah Rothschild CBE, and others who prefer to remain anonymous.

It is the first work by a female artist bought by the National Gallery in almost 30 years, and is only the 21st painting by a woman to join the 2,300 works in the NG’s permanent collection. It’s also just the third easel painting by Artemisia Gentileschi in England.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria depicts the saint turned toward the viewer. The figure is identifiable as the saint because of the spiked wheel on which she rests her left hand, the means by which Saint Catherine was supposed to be martyred in the 4th century by order of the Emperor Maxentius only for it to break the moment she touched it. He ordered her beheaded instead and that one did the trick. Unique for her time, Artemisia crops the scene very tightly around the upper body of the saint. This is something you see repeatedly in her portraits of herself as other people.

Letizia Treves, The James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century paintings at the National Gallery say:

“Artemisia is without question one of the most celebrated painters of her time, and we have long wished to acquire a painting by her for the national collection. The fact that this is a self-portrait adds enormously to the painting’s appeal and art historical significance. We are fortunate to have one of the strongest collections of Italian Baroque paintings but, with the exception of Caravaggio, no Italian artist of the 17th century surpasses Artemisia in terms of fame and popular appeal. Following conservation treatment and reframing Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will find a natural home alongside other works by Italian Baroque painters, including Caravaggio and Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi.”





July 2018
« Jun    


Add to Technorati Favorites