Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curiosities

December 9, 2011

By Mary Jo Gibson

Alexandre du Sommerard

The first entry of this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a true collector.  Alexandre du Sommerard volunteered to serve in the army at the age of 14 and participated in the French Revolutionary wars.  Upon returning to civilian life, he spent his leisure time and modest fortune searching out medieval and Renaissance art projects.  His valiant efforts spared furniture, vases, utensils, intimate objects and decorative pieces from destruction, gaining notoriety for his collection of antiquities, and giving lessons in practical archaeology.

Sommerard devoted himself to art from the Middle Ages through the 17th century, paying particular attention to French connections.  A great influence on his choices came from Alexandre Lenoir (1761-1839), who rescued medieval treasures and monuments from destruction during the French Revolution, later setting up the Musee des Monuments Francais.

Accumulating this large collection, Sommerard purchased the 15th century Hotel des Abbes de Cluny to house the antiquities.  In each room, he arranged furniture, objects, and textiles according to their function or symbolic values in an attempt to replicate the interior spaces of the past.  He published a multi-volume work, Les Arts du Moyen Age, beginning in 1838, as a study of French medieval art.  He felt that history should not rely solely on written sources and that the public needed to comprehend the history of art as well.  The illustrated atlas and album were issued serially, 10 installments in all, each with a beautiful and unique title page.  Inside each installment were large illustrations of medieval buildings and objects.

Upon his death, his collection and building were bequeathed to the state.  His son, Alexandre oversaw the collection while his other son Edmond, became the museum’s first curator.  Subsequently he was responsible for the museum’s acquisition of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, a treasure beyond compare, still housed at the Hotel des Abbess de Cluny, now known as the Cluny Museum.


Prosper Merimee

French dramatist, historian, lawyer and archaeologist; friend of Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo and Charles Nodier; author of the story ‘Carmen’, the famous opera by Bizet; his writings were a renewal of Classicism in a Romantic age.  However, these are not the achievements that brought him to this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, Prosper Merimee discovered the famous ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries at the Chateau de Boussac in 1841.

Appointed to the post of inspector general of historical monuments in 1834, his job was to catalog the treasures of France.  Previous attempts to document and protect the country’s architectural history were either compromised or half-hearted.  The revolution, plagued by vengeful destruction, even while introducing the idea of officially conserving works of art and architecture; this surge of enthusiasm came from several sources, but foremost was the panicked realization that parts of France were being demolished, carted away or broken up.  The hostility of revolutionaries to the property of the aristocracy and church gave way to pragmatic recycling by builders who treated ancient monuments as quarries with antiquarians looting the artistic treasures within for sale abroad.


Merimee discovered during his rounds that much of France’s monumental patrimony verged on collapse.  The roof of the Chartres cathedral groaned with age threatening those below; the wall paintings at Saint-Savin were crudely obliterated with whitewash, and inspecting the vice-regent’s tower caused it to simply fall down.  The great abbey church at Vezelay is symbolic of what Prosper Merimee found.  The left tower was toppled by Protestants in 1569; revolutionaries had hacked off offending base-reliefs; the Army Corps of Engineers, engaged in mapping the country, built an octagonal observatory on top of the remaining tower.  Theft, vandalism and self-interested development occurred without thought.  The famous Roman mausoleum outside St. Remy was 18m high, but shortly after inspection ‘an Englishman managed to scale it in the middle of the night and make off with the head of the two draped figures from the very top’.  In Avignon, Corsican soldiers supplemented their pay by chipping off medieval frescoes and selling them.

Inside Avignon

Inside Avignon

In 1840, Merimee wrote that “the job of an inspector of historic monuments is to be a voice crying in the wilderness”; his voice resounded through that century and beyond.  A French critic of the 1920s noted the paradoxical turns of Prosper Merimee’s life, describing him as “a young man who had put everything into trying to write like Voltaire and dress like Beau Brummell, yet who became the most diligent of bureaucrats and the most zealous of archaeologists.  Thanks to him the cathedrals of Laon and Vezelay and then the Abbey of Saint-Savin are still standing, and towns such as Caen, Avignon, Cunault, Saulie and Narbonne are still dressed in their finery of great monuments.”



Royal Manuscripts

The British Library features an online exhibition sharing their archive of illuminated manuscripts, “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.”  Collected by English kings and queens between the ninth and 16th centuries, these illustrations show how the aristocracy looked and behaved during that period.  Details of domestic lives, how they fought battles, the weapons they fought with and the amour they wore are illustrated in meticulous detail on full color illuminated pages.

Heroes of the day, such as Hector of Troy; Charlemagne; and King David are shown with inspirational stories.  The monks and consummately skilled artists painting these miniatures reflected the kingly ideals and military prowess of their patrons unconstrained by historical accuracy.  The pages depict ideals and individuals across the centuries, emphasizing the connection to figures of the past worthy of emulation.

Edward IV is considered the founder of what is now the Old Royal Library, containing the first collection of sumptuous illuminated historical and literary manuscripts.   Many of these items commissioned especially for him, a material record of his intent to create an English court in a golden age of national prosperity.  Books served as expensive status symbols and required the luxury of vellum to provide a smooth surface for the application of paint, gold leaf and color fit for royal consumption.  An investment of six months to a year by artists and scribes allowed several sheets to be worked on consecutively before the pages were beautifully bound together.

Closed away in their bindings from the harmful effects of light, the brilliance of the paintings and the vibrancy of color appear to make the images leap from the page as they did when first created centuries ago.  A statement from an artist of the times, “The beauty of this book displays my genius.” Share the luminosity of these rarely viewed pages at the British Library.  Perhaps having all these archived images available for viewing on line will be their next highlight.


Uncle Jacob’s statue is here and its lifesize… Wherever shall we put it?

The Getty Museum recently purchased a near life size limewood (Tilia) sculpture of St. John the Baptist by the Master of the Harburger Altar, c. 1515.  Previously a collection piece at the Stuttgart Wurttemberg Landesmuseum, research and documentation proved it to be part of a Nazi era forced sale.

The documented forced sale of September 30, 1937 shows the statue eventually going to a private Swiss collection before sale to the Wurttemberg Landesmuseum, Stuttgart in 1985, restituted to the heirs of Jacob and Rosa Oppenheimer in 2011.  The subsequent auction to the Getty was facilitated by Sotheby’s.

Limewood being a preferred wood for sculpture from the Middle Ages, it is soft and easily worked, very little grain is evident, and the density is 560 kg per cubic meter.  The carved saint is shown with his feet planted firmly on a circular, grassy mound.  His long curled hair and beard frame a face with articulated cheekbones, a furrowed brow and an intense gaze.  The carving of the draped clothing compares to the great limewood sculptors Hans Leinberger and Veit Stoss.

Only a few medieval statues are in the Getty Museum collection, with nothing of this size or notoriety.  The museum says the St. John will be on view early next year, and I hope with a suitable exhibition to compliment the debut.


Pope Julius II and Raphael

BIG art news from Germany, the Staedel Museum has purchased a painting of Pope Julius II by Raphael and his workshop, dating from 1511-1512.  Two other versions exist in famous museums, the Uffizi in Florence, and the National Portrait Gallery in London.  The new acquisition has been out of public view, with ownership traced to the 1905 auction at the Hotel Drouot in Paris, a part of the Bercioux collection.  Purchased by Arthur Dawson in 1909, who stated his belief in its authenticity.  Sold to another collector in 1914, it was sent to Europe to be compared with the other two paintings. Delayed by the outbreak of WWI it stayed in Europe until being donated to a Viennese banker.

Julius II, Uffizi Gallery

The painting sold after auction in 2007, purported to be the work of an imitator of Raphael, possibly Sebastiano del Piombo.  Purchased by a private collector from Switzerland identified as Ellermann, the selling price has not been released but the Staedel admitted it was well below the auction catalog estimates.  The conjectured provenance of the painting before this thread leads back to the family of Julius II himself.  The historical record is murky at best regarding attribution on this piece.  But the Staedel says it will research the pre-1905 record in time for an exhibition entitled “Raphael and the Portrait of Julius II: Pictorial Propaganda of a Renaissance Pope” scheduled for November 2012-February 2013.

Julius II, National Portrait Gallery

This Staedel version, unlike the Uffizi or National Gallery image, shows “extensive creative changes carried out in the course of the painting’s execution” and “exceedingly free underdrawing” suggesting it was an early version, according to the museum’s statement.  The painting underwent rigorous investigation, including x-ray, infrared reflectography, and microscopic analysis.  The tests showed that the armchair on which Julius sits was initially in another position and that the rendering of his nose and mouth changed during sketching.

According to an archived story in the New York Times from 1910, no less than nine copies of this painting were produced by Raphael and his workshop.  Click the links to read the stories from the NY Times archive, see a picture of Arthur Dawson, and read more of the convoluted ownership of this fabulous ‘discovery’.

Authorship – towards a unifying framework” from Three Pipe Problem gives an excellent, in-depth explanation on the establishment of provenance through scientific research and hard evidence including all methods that need to be applied to ‘new’ masterwork discoveries.


Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  I hope you have enjoyed the stories I have chosen from history and the current art world.  Look for Museum Monday, when I will focus on one of the museums from this week’s Cabinet. As always, your comments and suggestions are appreciated.





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2 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. There are so many awesome things in this post I almost don’t know where to start. We should be thanking Sommerard and Merimee for preserving the antiquity of France from thieves and those with no vision for the future. It is good to know that there are a few visionary champions out there protecting the heritage of our great cultures. The halls of Avignon are gorgeous, one can’t imagine the beauty being chipped away for ale money.

    Illustrated manuscripts are always a fantastic find. Beyond preserving the art by their very nature they provide multi-sensual information for future generations and historians. The St. John carving is an interesting example of antique photography. While a person can be captured on a painting the three dimensional aspect of a carving or statue adds layers of understanding.

    While it is always possible that the Pope Julius II painting is indeed by Raphael’s hand I think that in recent days the art community has been too fast to espouse the provenance of items found during this unexplainable burst of treasure. Which in and of itself is suspect. I think that if the community is going to continue to praise these pieces as carrying such great value they should hold themselves accountable to fully prove the veracity of their claims before proclaiming them to the heavens (or sale or paid exhibition). It will be interesting to see what Three Pipe suggests as I know he is always masterful in his analysis.

    Thanks so much for sharing these exquisite items with us Mary Jo.

  2. Pingback: Blog Treasures 12-10 « Gene Lempp's Blog

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