Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curiosities

December 16, 2011

By Mary Jo Gibson

Johann Zoffany

The Tribuna of the Uffizi

Johann Zoffany, a German born painter who found success in London, and chosen by Queen Charlotte to paint the Tribuna of the Uffizi.  Agreeing to the price of 300 pounds to paint the monumental collection of the Medici, he left London in the summer of 1772, and did not return until 1779.

All the connoisseurs, diplomats and visitors to Florence portrayed in this painting are identifiable, making it the equivalent of a eighteenth century conversation piece of the informal group portrait.  The inclusion of so many recognizable people led to criticism at the time by Zoffany’s royal patrons, and by Horace Walpole, who called it ‘a flock of traveling boys, and one does not know nor care whom’.


Wine of Saint Martin's Day

Provenance and Attribution

The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day by Peter Brueghel the Elder, 1565-68

Attribution and scientific analysis seem prevalent in recent months with discoveries of new Raphael’s, Michelangelo’s and even Caravaggio’s have increased interest in old masters hidden away in the dusty corridors of museums.  The Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain has its own story of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day by Peter Brueghel the Elder.

This work, long presumed lost until discovery in 2010, when the painting came to the museum for restoration.  A study of the surface using x-rays revealed fragments of Brueghel’s signature, confirming the authorship.

The record of this painting begins in the inventoried collection of the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua during the 17th century.  The earliest documentary evidence relates to the work being the possession of the Spanish aristocrat Luis Francisco de la Cerda, the ninth duke of Medinaceli.  Assumption being that the duke acquired the painting in Italy around the end of the 17th century.

The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day celebrates the drinking of the first wine of the season.   This painting is the largest surviving work by Brueghel, one of several paintings executed in tempera on linen.  The museum purchased this painting to compliment “Triumph of Death”, the only other work by the master in the collection at the Museo del Prado.

Triumph of Death


Advent Calendar of Museums

Museum 140 devised a unique advent calendar to bring virtual tourists to museums around the world.  Revealing a new museum each day in December opens a world of possibilities for inspiration.  My favorite thus far is the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna at Schonbrunn Palace.  This handcrafted set of chess pieces belonged to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.

Using the 24 days before the December holiday, take a leisurely tour of museums around the world and see some new collections.  Museum 140 has the right idea with this blog entry, and I hope they will continue it through the coming year.  Museums, particularly smaller ones, don’t get enough publicity and each week I somehow manage to find an astounding example which I share on Museum Monday.


Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte still influencing society

This miniature book measuring 1.4 inches by 2.4 inches contains over 4,000 words.  The tiny edition is from a set of six unpublished works known as the Young Men’s magazine, written by Charlotte Bronte; the famous author created these handwritten pages at the age of 14 as part of the imaginary world she built with her siblings while living at the parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire.

The contents include stories set in Glass Town, a fantasy world created by the sisters and their brother Bramwell.  Andrew McCarthy, director of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, says it is ‘the most significant manuscript to come to light in decades’.  The museum owns four of the magazines and is fundraising to buy the second edition.  The current location of the sixth magazine – if it still exists – is unknown.

One story in the issue is a precursor to the famous passage in Jane Eyre, where Mr. Rochester’s insane wife, forced to live in the attic, seeks revenge by setting fire to his bed curtains.

The tiny manuscript was sold at Sotheby’s this week to the La Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris for more than twice the pre-sale estimate.  La Musee intends to place the manuscript on display in January.  Sarah Laycock, Library and Collections Officer of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, says they will be requesting a transcript so Bronte scholars will be able to make use of the pamphlet, and perhaps a future arrangement for a loan of the piece.


“Again I entered my smithy to work and forge something from the noble material of the past.” Froissart

Miniatures Flamandes

The hand written account of Jean Froissart dating between 1361-1369, chronicles the medieval events he witnessed.  One of the main narrative sources of the western world in the fourteenth century is now online at the Biblioteque Nationale.  The events of the Hundred Years War occupy much of the narrative, but Froissart also describes daily domestic life, harvests, and the economic difficulties that mark this period of the Middle Ages.

Froissart worked as a merchant but soon gave that up to become a clerk, where he gained significant distinction, receiving a letter of recommendation from the King of Bohemia.   He traveled to England, Scotland, Wales, France, Flanders and Spain gathering material and firsthand accounts.  Froissart attended the wedding of Lionel, Duke of Clarence to the daughter of Galeazzo Visconti, where two other writers of the age, Chaucer and Petrarch were present.

After the death of his patron, he came into the patronage of Joanna, Duchess of Brabant.  He received the benefice of Estinnes, later becoming the canon of Chimay, positions that financed further travel and additional material for his work.  Returning to England in 1395, he viewed the societal changes that occurred during his absence as the end of chivalry. Eventually, Froissart returned to Chimay, his final resting place.

The most lavish copy of Froissart’s chronicles was commissioned in the 1470s by the Flemish nobleman Louis of Gruuthuse, the pages contain 112 miniatures painted by the artists of the day, among them Loiset Lyedet.  Each page turn reveals intricate art works and meticulous text with highlighted passage and notes.  Truly one of the treasures at the Biblioteque, and to have it available on line makes the virtual experience truly one-of-a-kind.


St. Christopher’s Chapel

Hospitals have a quiet place for reflection, tucked away from the main flow of daily events.  The Great Ormond Street Hospital has a chapel that would delight any visitor who searches out historic buildings, with a chapel that dates from 1875 designed in the high Victorian style by Edward Middleton Barry.

The chapel is dedicated to Caroline, wife of William Henry Barry, who gave 40,000 pounds for the building of the chapel and a stipend for the chaplain.  Conditions attached to the endowment are that at least one service takes place every week, conducted in accordance with the Church of England Book of Common Prayer.  A small quiet room with four rows of seats on either side of the main aisle, the terrazzo floor is by the Italian mosaicist Antonio Salviati, modeled on the pavement at St. Mark’s, Venice.  The stained glass windows depict the nativity, the childhood of Christ and biblical scenes connected with children.  Great Ormond Street Hospital specializes in children’s care and stuffed animals, known as the Teddy Bear Choir, are perched around the windowsills and behind the altar.

A ‘tour de force’ of Victorian style, and likely the most sumptuous hospital chapel in England; Oscar Wilde even commented that it is “the most delightful private chapel in London.”

My thanks to Ian Visits for these fantastic photos.


The extinction of the stately home

Britain constantly awes me with ancient castles, palaces and museums, but destruction of the country homes in the past century is a phenomenon brought about by the changing social conditions; collectively termed ‘the lost houses’, the final chapter of these once storied places can only be considered a cultural tragedy.

Since 1900, England has demolished over 1,200 country homes.  In rural areas of Britain, the loss of the country home and their estates was devastating to local economies.  It was commonplace for the local squire to provide large-scale employment, housing and patronage to the local school, church and cottage hospital.  The ‘big house’ was the bedrock of rural society.  The contents of these magnificent homes dispersed in several manners, commonly scattered through auction and their structures demolished.  The 1950s were years of crisis for country homes, with 48 demolished in 1950 alone.  Some found an institutional use, but great piles created by wealthy Victorian industrialists suffered demolition without impunity.

During the 1960s, historians and local parishes began to realize the loss from this destruction.  The process of change was long in coming, and not until 1984, with the preservation of Calke Abbey did opinion change on a national level.   The only hope for these buildings has been the National Trust.  The battle to save these homes focuses on abandoned and empty houses, particularly those that have fallen into decay.  It is now legally impossible to demolish a country house of any significance.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  May the Holidays be a joyous time with friends and family for each of you.  I will return on Museum Monday with the oldest public museum in the United States, the Wadsworth Atheneum.  If you have any suggestions of museums to visit for virtual tours or perhaps something unique for the Cabinet, please include in the comments below.





Filed under December

4 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Pingback: Blog Treasures 12-17 « Gene Lempp's Blog

  2. Pingback: Blog Treasures 12-17 « Gene Lempp's Blog

  3. The Charlotte Bronte book is amazing. Four thousand words jammed into such a tiny space boggles the mind. Also, love the Froissart illumination. Beautiful work. Great cabinet, Mary Jo, thanks for sharing these treasures with us!

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