Visitors to southeast Turkey will be familiar with the ‘Gipsy Girl’, the portrait of a young lady (actually a maenad, one of the frenzied followers of Dionysus) exhibited amid tight security at the Gaziantep Museum. The image—featured on the cover of Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey—is now so ubiquitous (second only to the Nemrut Dağ) that it has become the logo for ‘Archaeology in Turkey’; unfortunately in the process the archaeological context of the find has been overlooked. The image was uncovered in 1998–9 during the tail end of rescue excavations when work on the dam was completed and water levels were rising. We know that it came from a villa, one of the many in Zeugma, and on stylistic grounds it is dated to the 2nd century AD. Soon, however, visitors will be able to admire the piece in a context of sorts.
Back in the early 1960s, the villa floor had been unofficially excavated, at which time the mosaic floor was hacked into twelve convenient, portable sections and sold on the international art market. The items found a new home at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which paid $35,000 for them. Fifty years on, an agreement has been reached and the pieces will be repatriated.
Included among them is another female figure, a young lady with a frightening—or firghtened—look on her plump face and a lot of foliage in her hair. In this case the mosaicist did not reach the heights of the haunted look that has made the ‘Gipsy Girl’ so famous. On the other hand the birds are delightful and the theatre masks (if they are theatre masks) may offer a clue to understanding the composition.
In due course the pieces will be displayed at the Gaziantep Museum and one hopes that all 13 of them will be exhibited together on the floor, not hanging incongruously on the wall, in an atmosphere of less intrusive security and together with a plan of the villa.
This Advent we’ve chosen twelve different depictions of the Nativity, which we have discovered in the course of Blue Guides research trips around Italy—plus one final one from our latest title in preparation.
1. The ox and the ass and the baby in the manger from an early Christian sarcophagus (4th century) on display in Palazzo Massimo in Rome.
2. Mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi (5th/6th century) in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The mosaics date from the reign of the Arian king Theodoric. Note the opulent dress and the Phrygian (eastern) caps of the Magi. The Madonna and Child are represented not in a stable but regally enthroned.
3. Sculpted relief of the Adoration of the Magi from the Lombard Altar of Ratchis (8th century) in the Museo Cristiano in Cividale. For a review of the current exhibition on the Lombards, running in Pavia, see here.
4. Mosaic of the Nativity, probably by Constantinopolitan craftsmen (12th century) from the cupola of La Martorana in Palermo. The bathing of the newborn infant is shown below right. Below left is Joseph, asleep and slightly apart from the others, as traditionally depicted in early renditions of this scene. Above him is a parallel scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.
5. Fresco of the Nativity by an anonymous Lombard artist (14th century) in the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, Como. The washing of the infant is again shown as a separate scene, and once again, Joseph is withdrawn to one side. Note the friendly ass, licking the baby’s face.
6. Nativity scene from the predella of the famous Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (1423) in the Uffizi. Once again, Joseph is shown asleep, somewhat apart from the group. In a separate, parallel scene, the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in a brilliant glow from out of a sky spangled with lovely stars.
7. Fresco of the Nativity by Pinturicchio (late 15th century) in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The red brick and the breeze blocks of the dilapidated stable are particularly well done and Pinturicchio’s love of a detailed background is given full reign here: on the rugged hilltop ledge on the left are the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Below them the Magi are seen coming round the mountain at full tilt. And just behind the Madonna’s head is a delightful scene of a crowd crossing a bridge.
8. Detail of an early 17th-century terracotta tableau of the Nativity from the Sacro Monte of Orta San Giulio, Lago d’Orta. The scene seems identical to any other Nativity, but there is a twist: the infant here is not Jesus but St Francis of Assisi (and if you look carefully at the entire tableau, in situ, you will notice that it is not an ox and an ass that shares the stable with the Holy Family, but an ass and a mule). The idea that Christ’s life and the life of St Francis shared more than 40 parallels was dreamt up by a Franciscan Friar of the Counter-Reformation.
9. Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi by Federico Zuccari (1564) in the Grimani Chapel, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice. The altarpiece is badly damaged (the head of one of the Magi is missing) but the colours are beautiful.
10 and 11. Not paintings, frescoes or sculptures, but live installations. The first is from Manarola in the Cinque Terre, where every year from 8th December the hillside above the village is covered with hundreds of illuminated figures, creating a sort of electric crib scene. The second is from Genga in the Marche, where every year from Boxing Day until Epiphany, people form a living crib in the Frasassi Caves.
12. The Three Kings by József Koszta (1906–7). Koszta was a member of the plein-air artists’ colony known as the Nagybánya School. This work, which belongs to the Hungarian National Gallery, is a superb example of the colony’s style: the use of light and shade, of texture and colour, and involving the transposition of grand themes to a Hungarian peasant setting.
Together again under a single roof. In July 2017, the Hungarian government revealed that it had acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.
The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display in the Hungarian National Museum.
The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Seuso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:
1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).
2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.
3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.
6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.
7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.
Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.
One of the Uffizi’s masterpieces, the unfinished Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci, has been absent from the gallery since 2011 undergoing a meticulous but complicated restoration in Florence’s famous state restoration laboratory. It has just been returned and is currently on view in a special exhibition on the first floor (it will remain there until 24th Sept, when it will once again take its place in the gallery, but in a new room specially designed for it). Centuries of surface dirt have been removed as well as the varnishes added over the years, and a microscopic restoration of the paint has been completed. The result is outstanding: the work is now thought to be as Leonardo left it, an unfinished painting, with some areas more complete and others just sketched, some with paint, others with charcoal.
The room which leads into the exhibition has been newly arranged with just two works superbly lit: the famous Annunciation by Leonardo, and his master Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, on which it is known that Leonardo worked (it is traditionally thought he painted the angel in profile, and it is now suggested he intervened also on the figure of Christ himself, and part of the landscape). We know that the Annunciation was painted while Leonardo was still in Verrocchio’s workshop but strangely we know nothing about who commissioned it or where it was to be placed. It is a truly wonderful painting, with every detail highly finished, from the landscape to the flowery meadow, from the classical sarcophagus to the transparent white veil of the Madonna. So it is all the more fascinating to be confronted in the next room with the Adorationof the Magi where one feels one can experience Leonardo’s moods and whims as he experiments with placing a horse here or there; inserting a strange classical building under construction (with its architect observing the work); deciding whether to include a camel, an elephant, a group of dogs; inserting some dark trees in certain places, as the entire scene begins to take shape.
The Madonna herself seems isolated in the middle of all this action, in her beautiful calm serenity, even though her cloak seems to have been caught up in a bizarre fold beneath her thigh. And the Child (with some of his curls still to be completed by the artist) has been given a superior air as he blesses the genuflecting king before him, but amusingly decides to ‘receive’ his gift by playfully just taking off its lid and leaving the heavy vessel in the old man’s hands. (One wonders if that is why Joseph in the background is seen holding just the lid of one of the other king’s gifts and why Leonardo decided to alter this detail from the drawing in which the Child takes the entire vessel from the king, resulting in the Virgin having to hold on tight to him because of its weight). The Three Kings are interpreted by Leonardo as rather terrifying old men, and the thoughtful figure conspicuous on the extreme left, painted in shades of dark brown, remains a mysterious onlooker (just one of the many enigmatic figures present). The numerous horses, one shown perfectly head-on to us and others only just taking form, are amongst the most fascinating details. Leonardo left the work at this stage since he was called away to Milan in 1482.
The exhibition also includes photographic reproductions of two of Leonardo’s drawings (one from the Louvre and one from the Uffizi’s prints and drawings collection) related to the Adoration, blown up so that one can see the various details. The former is interesting above all to show not how it relates to the ‘finished’ work but how it differs from it, and also shows just where Leonardo thought at first to place the kings, which he left sketched in the nude. Seeing these one does feel this would have been the occasion to have shown the originals of some of the other preparatory drawings by Leonardo (if only from the Uffizi’s own collection).
The exhibition also includes Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi because it was the work that the Augstinians commissioned in 1496 for their church, San Donato a Scopeto, outside the city walls (destroyed a few years later in the 1529 siege of Florence) when it became clear to them that Leonardo would never return from Milan to complete the Adoration they had originally commissioned. Filippino’s Adoration (which is exhibited beside three very mediocre panels of its predella, two now in the North Carolina Art Museum and one from a private collection) comes as a shock after Leonardo’s work as it is in such a completely different world, with an atmosphere totally diverse. The decision to include it here, to illustrate the history of the commission, was correct but this work, although Filippino was one of the great artists of his time, simply cannot be appreciated next to the Leonardo.
We now know that Leonardo’s work was never consigned to the monks of San Donato. According to Vasari it remained in the house of Amerigo Benci so was probably seen there by other artists of the time. By 1670 it had entered the Medici collection.
In the last room there is a reproduction of Leonardo’s work to scale which, using reflectography, revealed that there was a “faint, freehand drawing beneath the brushwork”. The other details of the restoration are well documented in a film. At one stage the carabinieri were called in to prove that certain marks found on the surface were indeed the fingerprints of the master, as well as, in one area, the impression of the palm of his hand.
by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, where this masterpiece is described on p. 134 of the new edition, just out.
Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he was about to go back to the Uffizi with a grandchild and would be showing him just five paintings there. A method of ensuring not only his full attention but also his appreciation. I can only imagine what a memorable occasion that will be for the child.
Returning myself to the gallery the other day, I took the lift up to the first floor, and on the stair landing, outside the entrance to the Prints and Drawings Room, a little room exhibits just one work owned by the Uffizi, (and it will be kept there until 30th April). This is a large triptych signed and dated 1461 by Nicolas Froment, a little-known artist from Picardy, much influenced by the Flemish school. It came to Italy because it was commissioned by Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Terni, probably while he was in Flanders. Born in Prato, Coppini had a distinguished early career as a lawyer and diplomat, and Leon Battista Alberti dedicated his De Iure to him in 1437. He was sent to northern Europe by Pope Pius II and when in England, as papal legate, he attempted to interfere in the War of the Roses. When he sided with Edward of York, who was crowned king in 1461, against the House of Lancaster, the pope promptly disowned him and he was defrocked when he returned to Rome.
Meanwhile the painting seems to have reached Pisa by 1465, but just what happened to it afterwards is not known: we next have news of it in the Franciscan monastery of Bosco ai Frati in the Mugello (apparently a gift from a Medici). When the monastery was suppressed by Napoleon it came to Florence, joining the Uffizi collection in the early 19th century, attributed to an anonymous German painter. It is only since 1878 that Froment has been identified as the French master of this triptych as well as that of the Burning Bush painted for René of Anjou in 1478 (and now in the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence).
Today it has been wonderfully restored and is especially interesting for its subject matter, since it shows not just the central Raising of Lazarus, but also, on the left, the scene before the miracle, when Martha informs the Saviour that her brother is dead (the figure of Martha is the most memorable of all the figure studies in the painting) and, on the right, the Saviour seated at table after performing the miracle, having his feet anointed by Mary Magdalene. Lazarus (still with his beard and moustache, but now looking much better, dressed in blue) is sharing the meal. In this panel the fascinating details include a formal garden outside the window, and, on the table, a succulent roast chicken flavoured with herbs, a segment of pear with a fly settled on it, and a salt cellar. Judas (with a little fluffy dog at his feet) is the ugly disciple pointing at Mary, and Peter is the one cutting a slice from a loaf of bread by holding it and drawing his sharp knife towards himself (a gesture still sometimes to be seen at an Italian picnic). The central panel, with its lovely Gothic gilded fretwork, includes a self-portrait of the artist looking at us, and an amusing ‘courtier’ elaborately dressed trying to survive the stench coming from the decomposing body of Lazarus (who certainly looks as if he has indeed ‘returned from the dead’).
The triptych of three oak panels was made so that it could be closed, and on the panels of the door Coppini kneels before the Virgin.
On the wall of the room, a video illustrates details from the under-drawing, which was found through reflectography during restoration, and shows where the artist had second thoughts and altered his original design. The presentation is accompanied by an excellent little catalogue in Italian and English.
To learn about a painting’s history, and the technique used in producing it, apart from the name of the author and the subject matter, adds so much to its interest and increases one’s appreciation. It seems a very good idea to provide visitors with an in-depth study of one painting in this way, and hopefully it will encourage people to become more selective in what they choose to see among so many masterpieces in the gallery.