Cabinet of Curiosities

March 10, 2012

Mary Jo Gibson

This cabinet comes from the Nottingham Gallery.  Museums have taken new steps with objects such as this, by inserting items into the drawers, inviting visitors to take a closer look at the contents.  These drawers contain images of Russian criminals and their tattoos.  The Chazen Museum has a similar cabinet that contains many items from a family farm, one drawer containing the decomposed body of a cat; quite a surprise to my 17 year old museum scavenger assistant.

There are many items in this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, so let’s start opening the drawers…

A New Medusa?

Medusa by Caravaggio

An older version of this famous work by Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, has been verified by Maurizio Saracini of the University of San Diego and Mina Gregori, specialist on Caravaggio.  The painting is called the Murtola Medusa because the poet Gaspara Murtola recorded his thoughts on the image in his writings during Caravaggio’s lifetime.  Once thought to be the work of an imitator, x-rays revealed it to be “a creation, not a copy,” according to Gregori.
The painter captured the expression on Medusa’s face, deformed at the horror of having been beheaded, while her mane of serpents writhes in all directions, the passing moment between life and death; a recurring theme in Caravaggio’s work.  His known catalog includes many images of severed heads, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” “,” and “David with the Head of Goliath”; these last two paintings with the artist’s own likeness depicted on the decapitated head.

David with the head of Goliath, Caravaggio

The Murtola Medusa is smaller than the Medusa of the Uffizi.  This version is dated from 1597-8, slightly earlier than the Uffizi version, which dates 1598-9.  Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio’s patron, commissioned the Uffizi version to give to Ferdinand I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.   The Murtola Medusa was acquired by Ermanno Zoffili, a private collector, who died just three days before the announcement of the discovery.
Caravaggio is one painter whose life and work continues to fascinate.  Four hundred years after his death, new information from the historical record shines from the dark corner of an archive due to the diligence of persistent historians.  Andrew Graham-Dixon’s “Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane”, contains the most definitive collection of facts to date.  His meticulous research over a ten year period has brought Caravaggio from the dark fringe of history.  I am eagerly reading the last chapters of this book and look forward to an interview with the author in the coming weeks.

This image of Medusa, from the Uffizi gallery, is not signed.  But Medici records place it in their collection before 1630, noting the gift from del Monte, crediting the artist as Caravaggio.  It can be viewed in high resolution at the Google Art Project.

Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum announced this week that Gary Vikan, director of the museum, will be stepping down in 2013.  His tenure at the museum led to several strategic initiatives, most notably, the elimination of the Walter’s general admission fee, which resulted in an increase in attendance by 45 percent.  His vision led to the digital future of the Walters, expanding the museum’s open source art offerings, resulting in a five-fold increase of online visitors to 1.8 million.  I count myself as just one who has enjoyed the many treasures to be found at the Walters through their digital initiatives.  Mr. Vikan’s podcasts from his weekly radio show on WYPR in Baltimore are available here.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

This image from the Walters digital archive, Oedipus and the Sphinx, was painted by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).  The Sphinx, part lion, part woman, grimaces in horror as Oedipus solves her riddle: “What is that which has one voice, and yet becomes four footed, two footed and then one footed?”  Any takers on the answer?  The Observations space below is waiting to find out what the Sphinx was inferring.  I will give away “Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles” by Francine Prose, to the first correct post.

The Hermitage at the Museo del Prado

Hermitage at the Prado

The Museo del Prado currently has an exhibition from the Hermitage Museum in Russia.  Their video of the online museum experience offers English subtitles, and showcases the unique pieces shared between these institutions, including objects from the first Russian archaeological collection, known as the “Siberian Collection of Peter the Great”.  The exhibition moves through the fine arts with paintings from the Renaissance to the 20th century, Titian through Kandinsky.  Caravaggio’s “The Lute Player” is shown, painted for the Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani, and acquired in Paris in 1808.

The Lute Player, Caravaggio

Encompassing 47 paintings, various pieces of sculpture and numerous pieces of fine objects, the Hermitage is just beginning to share their treasure trove of art with the world.  And as you can see at the beginning of the video, the size alone of this immense institution makes one wonder what is hidden away in their vast storage areas.

Van Dyck in Sicily at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Anthony Van Dyck

This self-portrait of Anthony Van Dyck shows the artist in his early twenties.  His master was Peter Paul Rubens, and the young Flemish apprentice was soon to follow the great painter’s training by traveling to Italy.  Visiting Rome, Genoa and Palermo, he accepted the invitation of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy to visit Sicily.  During Van Dyck’s stay at the capital, he was fortunate to survive the epidemic of bubonic plague that struck the city shortly after his arrival in 1624.  The exhibition brings together all the works he is known to have painted there.

St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Van Dyck

Van Dyck painted portraits when he first arrived in Sicily, but soon he was in demand for religious pictures.  The brooding “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” suggests  the influence of Caravaggio.  But the artist’s paintings of the obscure 12th century saint Rosalia, reflect the tenor of Sicily during his residence.  Van Dyck painted at least five pictures devoted to the saint; long venerated in Palermo, her remains miraculously discovered in a cave near Monte Pellegrino during the summer of 1624, just as the plague broke out.  The archbishop of the city had them housed in a grand reliquary and processed through the town in hopes of warding off the disease; these altarpieces convey the sense of spiritual urgency and superstition of the age, compounded by the deaths of 20,000 people, the majority of Palermo’s population.

Unknown Portraits from History

The National Portrait Gallery currently showcases a display of portraits of unknown people.  Dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, these were once thought to depict famous sitters such as Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Arabella Stuart.  Their identities have long been disputed, and new research from students is presented alongside the portraits.
This portrait of an unknown woman, formerly thought to be Mary Queen of Scots, was originally acquired by the Gallery from a private owner.  The picture includes many symbols connected with Mary, but examination has revealed large amounts of repainting.  By 1888, it was thought to be of Mary’s mother, Mary of Lorraine, but the costume has discounted this identification.  The unusual landscape includes a distant view of the mountains, a castle and a hilltop town.  Certainly this was a woman of some wealth, reflected in the opulence of her gown and accessories, but whose name has faded from the page of history.

The Loss of Great Country Estates

Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed

The popularity of Downton Abbey has brought the Great Country Estate into the nomenclature again.  Many have been preserved through the National Trust, but the scale and their variety have vanished.  Replaced by caravan parks, office centers, urban sprawl and golf courses; some of these were inherited by foolish spendthrifts, but the scale of the estate allowed for one irresponsible heir to destroy the work of generations.

Cassiobury House in Hertfordshire was the seat of the Earl of Essex.  A Tudor house converted from a monastery, the first Earl was an ambitious courtier of Charles II, and he built the house with ornate carvings and staterooms to impress the King, who never visited.
The 5th Early added a Gothic exterior, an orangery, and a Swiss cottage to house the ‘under butler’.  A Chinese bridge and medieval water mill completed what could be considered the ideal setting for a Constable painting.  The Essexes were not members of the elite monied class, but a cash crisis was averted at the turn of the 20th century when the 7th Earl married a rich American wife.  Some land was sold to build the suburbs around Watford in 1908, but after the Earl died, his widow sold the house to pay the death duties and it was demolished for materials in 1927.  Today the stable is a retirement home and the remainder of the land was developed in the 1930s for housing.
Beaudesert Estate was once a romantic Tudor house with a wild and ancient park setting.  Owned by the Paget family, who made their money through coal, Beaudesert fell into disrepair with the 5th Marquess.  Known as the “Dancing Marquess of Anglesey”, he died in Monte Carlo in 1904 with debts of 544,000 pounds.  He left behind a wardrobe that featured 260 pairs of kid gloves, 200 scarf pins and 100 dressing gowns.
All that remains are these ruins and 123 acres of land, currently in use as a campground.
Costessy Hall of Norwich was a grandiose Gothic house, with a huge private chapel.  The owners were the medieval Jerningham family, later the Lords of Stafford.  A fortunate inheritance enabled a later Jerningham to add a model farm, a stable designed by Sir John Soane and a folly.  Another injection of heiress cash built towers and new Tudor-Gothic wings were added.
A succession of elderly, childless heirs followed, including the 10th Lord of Stafford, who was certified as insane.  Requisitioned in WWI, the hall was badly damaged by the regiments who trained there, and it was demolished in 1925.  The belfry block remains, but most of the estate is now a suburb of Norwich and a golf course.
I hope you have enjoyed this week Cabinet.  On Monday I will share a great app with you from Museum Planet, showcasing Venice and the wonders of Venetian art and history.  This virtual experience is everything I could wish for, without the price of plane tickets, hotel, and time constraints of an expensive vacation.  Please join me as I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

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