Cabinet of Curiosities

This week’s cabinet is the final example from the Rijksmuseum, made at the Parisian court between 1670 and 1680 by Andre Charles Boulle who worked for Louis XIV.  The richly decorated marquetry is made from pieces of fine veneer in contrasting woods and other materials, cut into tiny pieces and arranged to form a pattern.

Leaves and branches created from these materials hide birds, butterflies and insects.  The markings of the wood are used to depict the bodies, sometimes using one piece of the veneer.   Only the closest of inspection can reveal the intricacy of craftsmanship, overwhelming the senses with the artistry.


The Pastrana Tapestries at the National Gallery, Washington, DC

Stored for centuries in a parish church in Pastrana, Spain, these four large-scale pieces celebrate the exploits of 15th century Portugal.  The beautiful tapestries depict the conquest of two strategically located cities in Morocco by the King of Portugal, Afonso V, 1432-81.  Woven in the 1400s, these monumental works of art are among the rarest and earliest examples to celebrate what were then contemporary events, instead of the usual allegorical or religious subjects.  The designer minimized the misery of warfare, reinventing the event with the heroic image of Afonso with the ideals of chivalry in mind.

It is likely that Passchier Grenier, the outstanding tapestry merchant of the day, carried out the commission in Belgium.  His illustrious clients included crowned heads of Europe and the dukes of Burgundy, for whom workshops in Tournai produced tapestries in the same style and techniques as those made for Afonso V.  Exquisitely rendered in wool and silk threads by the Flemish weavers in Tournai, Belgium, the tapestries teem with vivid and colorful images of knights, ships, and military paraphernalia set against the backdrop of maritime and urban landscapes.

The conquest of Asilah cost the Muslim defenders 2,000 dead and 5,000 captured.  The people of Tangier abandoned their city to the Portuguese, and over the ramparts of the city, a lone Portuguese soldier raises the victor’s flag, documenting the moment when forces unleashed by the burgeoning trade and cultural ambition of Europe were turning outward.  In 1452, Portugal struggled to establish a foothold in Muslim North Africa; Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull encouraging Spain and Portugal to “invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be,”  including the right to “reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”  Beginning one of the ugliest chapters in human history, discovery and exploration would march hand in hand with conquest, murder and enslavement, all sanctioned by the church with consequences still unresolved to this day.

The capture of Tangier on August 24, 1471, secured Portuguese control over the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar and the maritime traffic between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.  Tangier remained a Portuguese enclave until 1661, when it was gained by Charles II of England as part of the dowry of his bride, the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganca.  The Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, reclaimed the city in 1684 when he blockaded the port and forced the British to withdraw.

Portugal lost a majority of their artistic legacy after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, subsequent tsunami and devastating fires.  The survival of these four tapestries, more valuable than paintings, were whisked to safety during the Spanish Civil War, and now are the property of the Collegiate Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Pastrana, Spain.


“Great anger is the power of the soul …”
The man who broke Michelangelo’s nose

Michelangelo Self Portrait

While looking over some research this week, I stumbled across the name of Pietro Torrigiano, 1472-1528.  Once a student of art under the patronage of Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence, he developed into a talented sculptor.

According to Benvenuto Cellini, chronicler of the times, Torrigiano was an associate of Michelangelo.  While both young men were copying the frescoes in the Carmine chapel, a slighting remark made by Michelangelo enraged Torrigiano bringing about a physical retribution by striking him on the nose, causing the disfigurement so conspicuous in all the portraits of the master.  Soon after this event Torrigiano went to Rome where he was employed by Pinturicchio in modeling the elaborate stucco decorations in the Borgia Apartment for Alexander VI.

After some wandering time as a hired mercenary in the service of different states, Torrigiano was invited to England to execute an effigial monument for Henry VII and his Queen, which still exists in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey.  As these royal works were progressing, the artist returned to Florence in order to hire skilled assistants.  His attempt at recruiting Cellini for work in England was rebuffed, partly due to his dislike of the swaggering and brutal Torrigiano, but also because he did not wish to live among “such beasts as the English.”

Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Westminster Abbey

The latter part of Pietro’s life was spent in Spain around Seville where some of his terracotta sculptures still exist, but his violent temper proved his undoing.  The Duke of Arcus promised the artist a great deal of money for a copy of a sculpture of the Madonna and child, which he duly completed, but was paid with a vast amount of virtually worthless coin.  When he discovered he had been tricked, Torrigiano visited the Spaniard and in a rage destroyed the sculpture.  The Duke, believing himself compromised, denounced the artist as a heretic and arranged for the sculptor to be arrested and thrown to the Inquisition.  Never executed, Pietro Torrigiano decided his own fate by refusing to eat, avoiding the shame that the final sentence would bring to his name.

Saint Jerome, Torrigiano


Atkinson Grimshaw, Painter of Moonlight

If there was ever a name that evoked a literary character, it would be Atkinson Grimshaw, 1836-1893.  A painter of nightscapes evoking the city and suburbs in moonlit views from London to Glasgow, his careful painting and skill in lighting effects meant that he captured both the appearance and mood of a scene in minute detail.  His pictures of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene.

Grimshaw painted mostly for private art patrons and exhibited only five works at the Royal Academy between 1874 and 1886.   Around 1880 he suffered some unknown financial crisis and retrenched, boosting his output to around fifty paintings a year.  Elements of social realism come into his paintings, night being a particularly good time to record the less respectable aspects of life.  He also tried fairy painting, producing the various versions of Iris that are popular on posters today.

Unlike his contemporaries, Vincent Van Gogh and James Smetham, he left no letters or other forms of documentation of his life; scholars and critics alike have little material on which to base their understanding of his life and career.  It is difficult to know what this innovative artist may have tried next, had he not died of cancer at the age of 57.  The legacy of paintings left behind has sparked a revival of interest with a new exhibition at the Guildhall Gallery, London.  The London Telegraph has sixteen images from Grimshaw’s career available at their site.


Beddington Royal Female Orphanage

Beddington Royal Female Orphanage

This orphanage was established in 1762 at historic Carew Manor in the beautiful setting of Beddington Park.  The buildings of the orphanage had particular relevance during the time of the Tudors, with direct links to Henry VIII, and Queen Elizabeth visiting the Manor on a number of occasions during her reign.  The second half of the 18th century found the Carew family had moved from the manor and the house converted to a different purpose; to house, school and train girls with no parents, or parents unable to look after them.

The Sutton Archives has many records related to the orphanage.  To encourage the girls to stay in domestic service they were given a monetary award after two consecutive years of service.  This continued a tradition of prize giving events for good behavior and merits in schooling while at Carew Manor.  The location and size of the house the girls were sent to work in varied greatly.  Domestic service was not the only option for the girls, since some were not strong enough for service.  Florence Louisa Crago was sent to work for Lady Walpole at Hampton Court Palace, and Annie Elliot Bowe, sent into an apprenticeship as a dressmaker.  Keeping in contact with the girls after they left the orphanage, the staff sent out regular letters attempting to maintain an almost paternal relationship.  Alice Maria Robinson, raised at the institution, left at 16 going into service with Lady Margaret Lashington in Lyndhurst.  Two years later she received her additional reward and went into service for Lady Rothschild.  In July 1898, Alice came back to the Beddington Orphanage to attend the Prize Distribution event for the girls, having since married Mr. Charles Pratt.  These recorded histories show the perceived importance of the orphanage, and embodied the pride and achievement of the individual.  The final entry for Alice in the records is sometime later and of a sadder note, “July 1920, died of heart failure,” ending her long relationship with the orphanage.


The Roman Villa at La Olmeda

The antique Roman Villa at La Olmeda is located in Pedrosa de la Vega in the Province of Palencia, Spain.  Long known as the provenance of chance finds, it was not until the summer of 1968 this palatial ruin was discovered by Javier Alvarez de Miranda Cortes, owner of the land.  Donating the villa to the Provincial Council of Palencia, he dedicated his life to the study and preservation of the archaeological site, working until the last of his life.  The villa was built in several stages, beginning in the second quarter of the fourth century and extending in use at least to the end of the fifth century.  The complex center has twenty-seven rooms, twelve with mosaic floors, surrounded with mosaic paths in geometric patterns and linked around the parameter by a wide peristyle.  The main body of the villa led to baths by a grand passageway, the reception area containing the particularly resplendent floor.  Now entirely enclosed in a state of the art building, visitors can view the site from overlooking walkways built above the ruins.  For intricacy and appreciation of the art, the virtual site allows for the highest degree of scrutiny.  I was disappointed there was very little historical information on the villa, but the preservation of the site is top notch.  Take a virtual tour of this incredible site from ancient times, with 360 degree visibility.  The intricacy of the mosaics is breath taking.


Gardens and Park at the Chateau Versailles

Louis XIV commissioned Andre Le Notre to design the gardens of Versailles in 1661, which in the King’s view, were just as important as the Chateau.  The construction began during the same time as the palace, but took forty years to complete.  Excruciating attention to detail and final approval of all designs came from Louis, the final executions of construction requiring enormous work.  Vast amounts of earth were shifted to lay out flower beds, the Orangerie, the fountains and the canal, where previously only woods, grasslands and marshes stood.  The earth was transported in wheelbarrows, trees were conveyed by cart from all the provinces of France and thousands of men took part in the vast enterprise.

At the Chateau’s Facebook page, take in the fountains and fireworks from a bygone era with the Nocturnal Light Shows reliving the flamboyant days of the reign of Louis XIV.  These photos barely contain the majesty of the program, set to the accompaniment of French baroque music from Reinhard Goebel and his orchestra.  As night falls on the Royal Garden, the land becomes a sensation of astonishing sights and sounds.  The colorfully illuminated groves and playing fountains serve as backdrop to spectacular fireworks.  View the ghostly wreck of Louis XIV’s flagship, the Soleil Royal, re-emerging from the waves, laser beams streaking the night sky, and the spectacular crushing of Encelade, one of the Giants from Greek mythology.

After viewing the outdoor spectacle, take an indoor tour of the Chateau at their new interactive map to complete the museum experience.   The various salons named for Greek gods, the King and Queen’s ‘private’ bedchambers and the Hall of Mirrors.  Even the Queen’s guardroom, still preserved in the 17th century décor; it was here that on October 6, 1789, the mob came to demand bread from the King, attempting to reach the Queen’s apartments before a chambermaid bolted the door and advised the Queen to run away.


May these virtual museum visits give your imagination new and fertile ground as you peruse their images while recovering from the feasting of Thanksgiving.  On Monday, I will take a virtual tour of the Cloisters, a special museum that is part of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The collections, the architecture and the history are devoted to medieval Europe.
Mary Jo



Filed under November

2 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. I love Grimshaw’s work. It evokes strong emotions that inspire stories to blossom. Thanks for sharing these wonderful curiosities with us Mary Jo 🙂

  2. Pingback: Blog Treasures 11-26 « Gene Lempp's Blog

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