Restoration work in Rome’s ancient catacombs reveals 1,600-year-old hidden frescoes

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Since their rediscovery in the 16th century, Rome’s catacombs have dazzled the archaeological community. The ancient underground burial networks are a famed burial site both for Christians and for people who worshiped any of the earlier Roman religions.

Underneath the city, people were either placed in distinct catacombs or buried together. It began as early as the 2nd century AD, when inhumation had become a more common funerary practice. Christians at the time typically opted for burials instead cremations, as they believed in bodily resurrection at the Second Coming.

As an extremely important site, Rome’s ancient catacombs represent an epic monument of the ancient empire and the inception of Christianity. Moreover, the catacombs also provide an invaluable contribution to the history of early Christian art. They have been a treasured site with a plethora of frescoes, sculptures, or gold-glass medallions among other items, which widely exemplify the artwork done before 400 AD.

The exploration and excavation of Rome’s hidden tunnels seem to be a continual work in progress. The discoveries have never ceased to surprise us. Not only have new chambers been identified in recent decades, but so have new precious artifacts.

In May 2017, restorers put the finishing touches on a seven-year restoration work of two underground burial rooms in the Catacombs of Domitilla. Thanks to their effort, two long-hidden frescoes, which were likely commissioned approximately 1,600 years ago by bakers in the city, have been revealed.

The Catacombs of Domitilla, named after Saint Domitilla, expand over 11 miles of underground caves. As large and impressive as they are, they are exceptional for several other reasons. They are the oldest of Rome’s catacombs, and the only ones still containing bones. Reportedly, they alone have been the burial site of almost 150,000 bodies.

The Domitilla Catacombs are also the best-preserved and the most extensive of all ancient burial networks beneath the city. Among their treasures and invaluable artifacts is a 2nd-century fresco of the Last Supper.

Lurking under a chalky deposit and algae domesticated after centuries of being abandoned, new frescoes have been found. Experts have used lasers and scanning technology to restore the paintings, stripping away the deposits, layer by layer. The technique used has never before been applied in catacombs.

As the layers have been removed, numerous images have slowly started to emerge on the surface, depicting figures from the Old and New Testament, and also vignettes related to the baker’s trade.

According to Barbara Mazzei, who had been supervising the restoration work on behalf the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, the restorers have accomplished the work “millimeter by millimeter.”

One of the scenes revealed in the frescoes depicts the deceased accompanied by two saints. The saints may be Nereus and Achilleus, who were two martyrs, most likely killed under Emperor Diocletian and buried here. According to the experts, all evidence shows the frescoes’ origin dates back to the second half of the fourth century when a similar type of iconography was common.

Restoration projects at the catacombs are set to continue further, as there are still more chambers that are in poor condition. It might mean that new finds just may be on their way.

A new museum, to be inaugurated in June, is to showcase artifacts dating from the 2nd to the 5th century from several catacombs in Rome. The collection is certain to shed light on how paganism and Christian faith were mysteriously intertwined together in the early Church.

 Stefan Andrews

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1st century A.D. mosaics and paintings buried under volcano damage now being revealed and restored with X-ray technology

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An iron element map (right) made with new X-ray technology reveals the underlying craftsmanship hidden beneath a damaged portrait of a Roman woman (left). Photo credit: Roberto Alberti.

X-rays have allowed us to look at many wondrous things, but can they bring an ancient city back to life?

They can if it’s the city’s artwork.

In 79 A.D. the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples destroyed Pompeii and its lesser-known neighbor, Herculaneum. The cities and their civilizations were lost under the deluge of mud, molten rock, and volcanic ash.

When early researchers began uncovering Herculaneum in the 19th century, they found a treasure trove of mosaics and paintings preserved under that blanket. The problem was, the volcanic blanket had protective properties and once removed, the frescoes were exposed to weather and, even worse, air pollution. Decades of deterioration followed.

Now modern-day technology–the macro X-ray fluorescence instrument–is helping restore some of that ancient art. Researchers working in one of Herculaneum’s most art-rich locales, the House of the Mosaic Atrium, are using the portable instrument placed in close proximity to works of art to virtually peel back layers of contaminants and help reconstruct and even restore paintings.

The instrument helps map elements like iron and copper without doing damage. One analysis revealed the artist had sketched a young woman using an iron-based pigment. Highlights around her eyes had been done using a lead-based paint. Potassium signaled that her flesh was painted using an earth-based pigment.

By establishing the chemical elements in the painting, conservators can more safely choose cleaning solvents and stabilizers. And while they typically don’t paint over what remains, they can use what they learn to digitally re-create a work.

The art of Herculaneum is not the first use of the technique, but it is the first use in the original setting of the paintings. In carefully controlled museum settings, the instrument has been used to analyze work by Picasso, Van Gogh, and the Dutch masters.

 As for the original settings in the shadow of Vesuvius, much has been recorded about Pompeii, where volcanic material formed eerie molds around people who perished there. Relatively few human remains were found at Herculaneum.

Another key difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum is the compact mass of material that buried the latter city under more than 50 feet of crust; it made excavation difficult, preserving Herculaneum and staving off looting.

Even more significantly, special ground moisture conditions preserved wooden frameworks of houses, wooden furniture, the hull of a boat, fabric–and even food. Extra toasty loaves of bread remained preserved in Herculaneum’s ancient ovens.

Out of sight is often out of mind in ancient history, so over the years, the modern city Ercolano was built over the forgotten Herculaneum. And for many years, the latter-day residents had no idea of the treasures buried deep beneath their feet.

 It wasn’t until well diggers struck an underground wall in 1709 that Herculaneum was rediscovered. Tunnels were dug and treasure seekers did appear at that point, removing artifacts related to an ancient theater. Other excavations were undertaken, but when military engineer Karl Weber took over from 1750 to 1764, careful diagrams of the ruins were made, and artifacts were well documented. Weber logged an entire library of papyrus documents, recorded bronze and marble statues, and impressive paintings.

His work is considered among the earliest examples of what evolved into archaeology. The archaeology continued on and off under different oversight, but began in earnest again in 1927 with funding from Italy.

The work has also brought insight into the architecture and lifestyles of the ancient city of around 5,000 residents. The houses of nobles overlook the water, but the homes of middle class are interspersed nearby.

Public monuments uncovered include sports grounds, a large central swimming pool, and public baths.

In 1997, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and their sister, Torre Annunziata, which was also destroyed, were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their cultural importance. As such, they are protected by international treaty.

 Terri Likens

Why Is the Mona Lisa So Famous?

Mona Lisa, oil on wood panel by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503-06; in the Louvre, Paris, France. 77 x 53 cm.
© Everett-Art/Shutterstock.com

Five centuries after Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa(1503–19), the portrait hangs behind bulletproof glass within the Louvre Museum and draws thousands of jostling spectators each day. It is the most famous painting in the world, and yet, when viewers manage to see the artwork up close, they are likely to be baffled by the small subdued portrait of an ordinary woman. She’s dressed modestly in a translucent veil, dark robes, and no jewelry. Much has been said about her smile and gaze, but viewers still might wonder what all the fuss is about. Along with the mysteries of the sitter’s identity and her enigmatic look, the reason for the work’s popularity is one of its many conundrums. Although many theories have attempted to pinpoint one reason for the art piece’s celebrity, the most compelling arguments insist that there is no one explanation. The Mona Lisa’s fame is the result of many chance circumstances combined with the painting’s inherent appeal.

There is no doubt that the Mona Lisa is a very good painting. It was highly regarded even as Leonardo worked on it, and his contemporaries copied the then novel three-quarter pose. The writer Giorgio Vasari later extolled Leonardo’s ability to closely imitate nature. Indeed, the Mona Lisa is a very realistic portrait. The subject’s softly sculptural face shows Leonardo’s skillful handling of sfumato, an artistic technique that uses subtle gradations of light and shadow to model form, and shows his understanding of the skull beneath the skin. The delicately painted veil, the finely wrought tresses, and the careful rendering of folded fabric reveal Leonardo’s studied observations and inexhaustible patience. And, although the sitter’s steady gaze and restrained smile were not regarded as mysterious until the 19th century, viewers today can appreciate her equivocal expression. Leonardo painted a complex figure that is very much like a complicated human.

Many scholars, however, point out that the excellent quality of the Mona Lisa was not enough by itself to make the painting a celebrity. There are, after all, many good paintings. External events also contributed to the artwork’s fame. That the painting’s home is the Louvre, one of the world’s most-visited museums, is a fortuitous circumstance that has added to the work’s stature. It arrived at the Louvre via a circuitous path beginning with Francis I, king of France, in whose court Leonardo spent the last years of his life. The painting became part of the royal collection, and, for centuries after, the portrait was secluded in French palaces until the Revolution claimed the royal collection as the property of the people. Following a stint in Napoleon’s bedroom, the Mona Lisa was installed in the Louvre Museum at the turn of the 19th century. As patronage of the Louvre grew, so too did recognition of the painting.

The identity of the portrait’s sitter soon became more intriguing. Although many scholars believe that the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, no records of such a commission from Francesco exist, and the sitter has never been conclusively identified. The unknown identity has thus lent the figure to whatever characterization people wanted to make of her. During the Romantic era of the 19th century, the simple Florentine housewife who may have been portrayed was transformed into a mysterious seductress. The French writer Théophile Gautier described her as a “strange being…her gaze promising unknown pleasures,” while others went on about her perfidious lips and enchanting smile. The English author Walter Pater went so far as to call her a vampire who “has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.” The air of mystery that came to surround the Mona Lisa in the 19th century continues to define the painting and draw speculation.

Meanwhile, the 19th century also mythologized Leonardo as a genius. Throughout the centuries after his death, he was well regarded—but no more so than his esteemed contemporaries Michelangeloand Raphael. Some scholars have noted, however, that, as interest in the Renaissance grew in the 19th century, Leonardo became more popularly seen not only as a very good painter but also as a great scientist and inventor whose designs prefigured contemporary inventions. Many of his so-called inventions were later debunked, and his contributions to science and architecture came to be seen as small, but the myth of Leonardo as a genius has continued well into the 21st century, contributing to the Mona Lisa’s popularity.

The writers of the 19th century aroused interest in the Mona Lisa, but the theft of the painting in 1911 and the ensuing media frenzy brought it worldwide attention. When news of the crime broke on August 22 of that year, it caused an immediate sensation. People flocked to the Louvre to gape at the empty space where the painting had once hung, the museum’s director of paintings resigned, accusations of a hoax splashed across newspapers, and Pablo Picasso was even arrested as a suspect! Two years later the painting was found in Italy after an art dealer in Florence alerted the local authorities that a man had contacted him about selling it. The man was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant to France, who had briefly worked at the Louvre fitting glass on a selection of paintings, including the Mona Lisa. He and two other workers took the portrait from the wall, hid with it in a closet overnight, and ran off with it in the morning. Unable to sell the painting because of the media attention, Peruggia hid it in the false bottom of a trunk until his capture. He was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the theft while the painting toured Italy before it made its triumphant return to the Louvre. By then, many French people had come to regard the work as a national treasure that they had lost and recovered.

The Mona Lisa was certainly more famous after the heist, but World War I soon consumed much of the world’s attention. Some scholars argue that Marcel Duchamp’s playful defacement of a postcard reproduction in 1919 brought attention back to the Mona Lisa and started a trend that would make the painting one of the most-recognized in the world. He played against the worship of art when he drew a beard and mustache on the lady’s face and added the acronym L.H.O.O.Q. (meant to evoke a vulgar phrase in French) at the bottom. That act of irreverence caused a small scandal, and other cunning artists recognized that such a gag would bring them attention. For decades after, other artists, notably Andy Warhol, followed suit. As artists distorted, disfigured, and played with reproductions of the Mona Lisa, cartoonists and admen exaggerated her further still. Over the decades, as technology improved, the painting was endlessly reproduced, sometimes manipulated and sometimes not, so that the sitter’s face became one of the most well known in the world, even to those who had little interest in art.

A tour of the painting to the United States in 1963 and to Japan in 1974 elevated it to celebrity status. The Mona Lisa traveled to the United States in no less than a first-class cabin on an ocean liner and drew about 40,000 people a day to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., during the portrait’s six-week stay. Large crowds greeted the portrait in Japan about ten years later. What’s more, as travel has become increasingly affordable since the late 20th century, more and more individuals have been able to visit Paris and pay their respects in person, contributing to the unyielding crowds of today.

Although the Mona Lisa is undoubtedly good art, there is no single reason for its celebrity. Rather, it is hundreds of circumstances—from its fortuitous arrival at the Louvre to the mythmaking of the 19th century to the endless reproductions of the 20th and 21st centuries—that have all worked together with the painting’s inherent appeal to make the Mona Lisa the world’s most famous painting ever.

WRITTEN BY:  Alicja Zelazko 
PUBLISHED: 

How a Rejected Block of Marble Became the World’s Most Famous Statue

Florence, Italy Statue of David by Michelangelo
© massimo lama/Dreamstime.com

At the start of the 16th century the Opera del Duomo—the committee of officials in charge of the decoration and maintenance of the Florence cathedral—had a tricky unfinished project on its hands. A document from 1501 refers to a massive barely begun statue, “a certain man of marble, named David, badly blocked out and laid on its back in the courtyard.” The stone was a leftover from a long-running decorative project: in 1408 the committee had decided to decorate the roofline around the dome of the cathedral with massive statues of biblical prophets and mythological figures. The first two, put into place in the early 15th century, were a statue of Joshua sculpted in terra-cotta by Donatello and painted white to look like marble, and a statue of Hercules, sculpted by one of Donatello’s students, Agostino di Duccio.

A statue of David, the Biblical hero who slayed the giant Goliath, had been ordered in 1464. This commission went to Agostino, and a huge slab of marble was extracted from the Carrara quarries in Tuscany, Italy, for the project. For unknown reasons Agostino abandoned the project after doing only a little work, mostly roughing out around the legs.

Another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was hired to take over the project in 1476, but he backed out almost immediately, citing the poor quality of the marble. (Modern scientific analyses of the marble have confirmed that it is indeed of mediocre quality.) Left without a sculptor but too expensive to throw away, the massive slab sat out in the elements for a quarter century.

In the summer of 1501 a new effort was made to find a sculptor who could finish the statue. The 26-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was chosen and given two years to complete it. Early in the morning on September 13, 1501, the young artist got to work on the slab, extracting the figure of David in a miraculous process that the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari would later describe as “the bringing back to life of one who was dead.”

In 1504, as Michelangelo finished his work, Florentine officials concluded that the statue was too heavy to place in its intended location on the roofline of the cathedral. A committee of artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, met and decided that the statue should be placed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In 1873 it was moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and a replica was erected at the original site.

There are several aesthetic aspects of the David statue that may be connected with the tortuous process by which it was commissioned and created. The figure, although muscular, is slimmer than the bodybuilder-like physiques that are typical of Michelangelo’s other works. This may be because the marble slab was narrow, having been cut with the thinner statues of Donatello and Agostino’s era in mind. The absence of David’s traditional accoutrements, a sword and the severed head of Goliath, may be because there was no room to carve them in the block of marble or possibly because they would have been invisible once the statue was put in place on the cathedral roof. Likewise, David’s disproportionately large right hand and prominent facial expression may have been exaggerated to ensure that they would be legible to spectators on the ground.

WRITTEN BY:  The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 

“The sun began to be darkened”: The strange cloud over much of the world in 536 AD changed history dramatically

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In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.

This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.

A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.

For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.

Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.

There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.

In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”

The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.

Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.

What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.

Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.

Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.

A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.

Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.

 Mark Shiffer

The People of Ellis Island- Portraits of immigrants arriving in the U.S.A from the early 1900’s

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Ellis Island was the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States as the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. Between 1905 and 1914, an average of one million immigrants per year arrived in the United States.

Immigration officials reviewed about 5,000 immigrants per day during peak times at Ellis Island.Two-thirds of those individuals emigrated from eastern, southern and central Europe. The peak year for immigration at Ellis Island was 1907, with 1,004,756 immigrants processed.

The all-time daily high occurred on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants arrived. After the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies, the only immigrants to pass through the station were those who had problems with their immigration paperwork, displaced persons, and war refugees.

Today, over 100 million Americans—about one-third of the population—can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country. Here are some photos of immigrants from the early 1900’s. All photos by  New York Public Library

A Bavarian man

 

A Danish man

A Dutch woman

 

A Greek Orthodox priest

 

A Greek woman

A Guadeloupean woman

 

A man whose descent was not identified, possibly Russian

 

A Romanian man

 

A Ruthenian woman

 

A Slovak woman with her child

During World War I, the German sabotage of the Black Tom Wharf ammunition depot damaged buildings on Ellis Island. The repairs included the current barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Main Hall.

During and immediately following World War II, Ellis Island was used to intern German merchant mariners and “enemy aliens”—Axis nationals detained for fear of spying, sabotage, and other fifth column activity.

In December 1941, Ellis Island held 279 Japanese, 248 Germans, and 81 Italians removed from the East Coast. Unlike other wartime immigration detention stations, Ellis Island was designated as a permanent holding facility and was used to hold foreign nationals throughout the war.A total of 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese would be ultimately detained at Ellis Island. It was also a processing center for returning sick or wounded U.S. soldiers, and a Coast Guard training base.

 

An Albanian soldier

 

An Indian boy

 

An Italian woman

 

Another man whose descent was not identified, possibly Russian

 

Several Romani people

 

Several Romani people

 

Three Dutch women

 

Three Russian Cossacks

 

Three Scottish boys

 

Two Romanian women

Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried.

It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time.

More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge.” About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity.

Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island”because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs and kisses.

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/02/25/the-people-of-ellis-island/