March 31, 2012
By Mary Jo Gibson
Welcome to my Cabinet of Curiosities, where I share some of the interesting and unique places I have discovered on the internet as I research history and art.
My latest discovery comes from the Victorian era; the resurgence of this influence is reflected in the Steampunk genre of writing and art, most predominately seen in the latest Sherlock Holmes movies. Victorian Crime and Punishment offers a true compendium of the justice of the day based on real case histories. Photographs of the criminals are linked to case studies with stories of the crimes taken from the archive. A narrative section with animated features accompanies the photograph by clicking on the tab ‘View the Case.’ Each story is moving and eye opening, describing the daily struggles of these individuals, and the lot life has cast for them. Guides for teachers are an added bonus, making this a great resource for educators and novices alike.
Digitized manuscripts are coming from great institutions everywhere; these long hidden works of art that once were only viewed by their privileged owners are available online from several sources. The British Library’s archive covers over 500 years of these impressive, handmade books. A first draft of Handel’s Messiah, a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci sketches, Alice’s Adventures Underground, written and illustrated by Lewis Carroll, and the Bedford Hours, a 15th century treasure owned by Henry V’s brother, the Regent of France. I chose the Sforza Hours because of their connection to the Borgias, one of my favorite historical subjects. These images are some of the finest surviving Renaissance manuscripts. The lavish decoration of the book was painted in two stages; the first around 1490 for Bona Sforza, widow of Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan; the second for her nephew’s widow, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, who inherited the manuscript in 1504.
Giovan Pietro Birago, Bona Sforza’s miniaturist, had completed and delivered part of the book when a substantial section of the remainder was stolen, never to be returned. Thirty years later, between 1517 and 1520, Margaret of Austria commissioned Gerard Horenbout to paint 16 additional miniatures to fill the gaps caused by the theft, to complement Birago’s work.
Looted Cultural Masterpieces
The past few weeks, new reports about Nazi looted art have been appearing in the press, hopefully to ignite a new wave of support. The New York Times shares the story of Monet’s “Torrent de la Creuse,” and the twisted tale of powerful French families fighting over its rumored existence. One particular fact in this long running affair struck me, “new clues could come when archives from a 1949 war-crimes trial of a German diplomat who organized the looting are unsealed in 2024.” 2024? What kind of justice is this? I have written to the Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany for further information and look forward to their response. I plan to share this in a future Museum Monday devoted to looted cultural property.
Another story making the rounds is the upcoming expedition to the Erzgebirge Mountains. Artinfo.com had the most complete story, balancing all the facts against the sensationalism of this possible discovery. Pieces by Monet, Cezanne and Manet may be secreted in an old silver mine in the Erzgebirge Mountains near the Czech-German border. These works would be from the collection of Baron Ferenc Hatvany, missing over 60 years. The twists and turns of the story are worthy of John le Carre, but one thing is certain, art stolen during this era tends to trickle out into the mainstream eventually, given the economic turmoil of the day. Whatever the true intentions of the parties involved if any art is found, the return of the cultural masterpieces will close a chapter, but the story will never be complete.
Another English country estate has crossed my path of research, Wentworth Woodhouse; truly massive, with 365 rooms, 1,000 windows, five miles of underground passages and a front façade twice the size of Buckingham Palace. Marble floors, 150 acres of park land, and so many winding corridors guests were once presented with caskets of colored confetti to sprinkle in order to find their way back to their rooms; the very definition of opulence.
Built between 1725 and 1750 for Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the Marquess of Rockingham, prime ministers, earls and millionaires have made it their home. The death of the last Earl of Fitzwilliam in 1948 left no direct heir, leading to a sale of the contents and a split in the ownership. The true tragedy being that the house was never opened to the public after WWII as were most of the stately homes. A series of private owners and institutions over the remaining years left it languishing in South Yorkshire.
The property was rescued through a purchase in 1999 by the Newbold family for a paltry sum; plans to restore the magnificent structure and bring the palatial pile to prominence in the local community once again has catalyzed interest on an international scale. Plans include a museum, 70 bed luxury hotel, spa, conference facilities and office space, the goal is to secure the future of the house and place it in a charitable trust for new generations to enjoy.
The Wiki page describing the architectural history of the house is somewhat cumbersome, but worth the look to discover more about the history of this estate.
A veteran of the Boer War sits outside sketching, while his young, imaginative daughter plays in the garden. The child’s excited insistence of seeing fairies amongst the trees roots, darting away to their underground dwelling, sparks a thought that soon evolves into a thirty year labor of love.
The construction of Titania’s Palace began in 1907 by Sir Nevile Wilkinson, designed as a dwelling place for the Fairy Queen Titania, and her family. Consisting of 18 rooms, with hand carved mahogany furniture and more than 3000 miniature treasures from all over the world, the structure never became his daughter’s playhouse, Gwendolyn Wilkinson grew up before its completion. Sir Nevile had more profound plans for his masterpiece; Queen Mary inaugurated the palace in 1922, and exhibitions around the world raised substantial funds for deprived and handicapped children.
A great history of this handmade masterpiece can be found here, with several accompanying photos describing the contents. The palace has been exhibited in Denmark since 1980.
A Pope’s Ring
The Metropolitan Museum of Art never fails to find at least one unique item that rouses my curiosity each week. Having never visited this great repository of art, I wonder if I would ever see enough to satisfy my endless thirst for art and history. A week doesn’t seem long enough.
This ring made of gilt brass with blue glass dates to 1464-71, the reign of Pope Paul II. At the corners of the bezel are emblems of the four Evangelists, and on the sides are the shield of Paul II and that of the French crown. Papal rings have been used as investitures to establish diplomatic credentials, much like the Medici used carved jewels to establish their influence. An accompanying essay on the Church during the Renaissance is available at the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Closing this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, I leave you with the first flowers of spring, by Jean Baptiste Monnoyer (1636-1699), from the High Museum of Art.
Join me for Museum Monday where I explore the City of New York, compliments of the iPad app, Museum Planet. Buildings, parks, antique stained glass, and their history tell the story of this ever changing landscape. Museum Planet will also be featured in an upcoming Reader’s Digest article in April.