Reunification in Raleigh: The St. John Altarpiece

​A new exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh covers one of my favorite subjects, the reunification of the former components of a singular work of art. The interesting twist in this particular exhibition is that, as the Sesame Street song goes, one of these things is not like the others. For one of the paintings on display in “Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” is a contemporary artist’s imagining of what might have been, created using a combination of 14th century techniques and 21st century technology.

Francescuccio Ghissi (c. 1345-1395) was an artist who worked mainly in the Marche, a region of Italy dominated by the towns of Ancona and Urbino; the area was heavily damaged during a 2014 earthquake, as readers may recall. Little is known about Ghissi’s life and work, and truth be told he is not of great importance in art history. However he did produce a number of charming, beautifully colored and patterned works of art, such as this triptych in the collection of the UK National Trust at Polesden Lacey, a country house outside of London.

One of Ghissi’s major works was an altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion of Christ with accompanying apocryphal scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, based on the book, “The Golden Legend”. This was a popular 13th century work by Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (lived c. 1230-1298), a Dominican friar who later became the Archbishop of Genoa. It was a huge best-seller in de Voragine’s own lifetime, and both Ghissi’s patrons and Ghissi himself as a working artist would have been very familiar with it.

In his book, de Voragine retold stories which he had collected from many sources concerning the lives of the saints. The historicity of these tales is often highly questionable, and in some cases they are little more than pious fiction. However when it comes to developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of Christian culture before the French Revolution, particularly in the arts, “The Golden Legend” is the most important source material after the Bible. The book also had a tremendous impact on world history: for example, it played a significant part in the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and was one of the first books to be translated and printed by William Caxton, founder of the first English printing press.

The St. John Altarpiece was probably completed by Ghissi around 1370. It featured a large, central image of the Crucifixion, which is now at the Art Institute of Chicago, flanked by 8 small panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, taken from “The Golden Legend”. Today these smaller components of the altarpiece are scattered among several museums, including NCMA, The Met, and the Portland Art Museum.  

At some point after the altarpiece had been hacked to pieces for sale, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, one of the smaller 8 panels was lost. In anticipation of this exhibition, NCMA took the rather unusual step of working with artist and conservator Charlotte Caspers to create an original painting which provides an example of what the missing panel might have looked like. Ms. Caspers not only studied Ghissi’s style, she also read “The Golden Legend” for clues as to what story Ghissi might have originally selected to portray. In executing her painting she used 14th-century techniques and recreated materials like those which Ghissi might have used.

Technology experts next took Ms. Caspers’ work and created a hi-res digital image of the completed painting. They then applied faux cracks and aging signs to the digital image, in order to replicate those found on the original, existing panels. This photoshopped image of Ms. Caspers’ painting will be part of the NCMA exhibition, along with a documentary film showing how the new piece was made.The entire project strikes me as being just as fascinating as the reunified altarpiece itself.

Of course, much as we can admire and appreciate both NCMA’s and Ms. Caspers’ work in reuniting and quasi-recreating the lost portion of this work of art, there is also much to mourn here, as well. Ghissi never imagined that his paintings would hang on the walls of museums, to be gawked at as if they were curiosities alongside secular things such as silkscreened prints of Campbell’s Soup cans. Rather, Ghissi’s art was created in order to honor God, to celebrate the life and example of the Beloved Disciple, and to serve as an aid to prayer. That his altarpiece can be reassembled is of great benefit to anyone interested in the history of art. That it no longer serves its intended purpose however, is a loss to all Christians.    

“Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” runs at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh from September 10, 2016 through March 5, 2017.

Reconstruction of the missing panel

Chinese Skyscrapers, Renaissance Style

Architecture is an infinitely rewarding area of study, because just when you think you’ve seen and heard of everything, you come across something like the Italian Renaissance skyscrapers of rural China, and realize that you still have a lot to learn.

In many countries around the world, the rural landscape is dotted with the crumbling architectural fantasies of middle class Victorians and Edwardians. The profusion of styles employed in these places usually did not approximate the originals on which they were based: Italian Renaissance Revival houses, for example, do not greatly resemble the Renaissance palazzi of Florence, Venice, or Genoa. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution however, they could be built comparatively cheaply and quickly.

In general terms, this process is not very much different from how new middle class housing is built today. Buyers seeking to build their own Medici villa could usually select from a series of options in a builder’s catalogue, and then customize their new home with their preferred finishes and as much ornament as they could afford. Just about every small town in America has at least one prominent example of this sort of architectural pastiche, built around the turn of the previous century.

A more unusual manifestation of this trend appeared in rural China at about the same time. In Guandong Province, not far from Hong Kong, quasi-Tuscan towers called “diaolus” sprang up in great numbers during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. As the Chinese middle classes became both more well-traveled and well-to-do, acquiring homes and businesses overseas, they wanted to display their new wealth back home, and to protect that wealth from attacks by bandits that continued to plague the countryside. Some of these diaolus served as grand residences, for when the owner was in town, while others were built to serve communal purposes, such as watchtowers or places to hole up in times of danger.

At one time, it is estimated that there were over 3,000 such towers dotting the landscape in Guandong. A significant number have been demolished, but hundreds still remain, thanks in part to their recognition as world heritage sites by UNESCO back in 2007. Their future at present is unclear, since finding new purposes for what are in most cases abandoned rural buildings of rather large size is a significant problem in today’s China, where over the past decade the countryside has been rapidly emptied, as peasants leave the land in favor of urban job opportunities and greater social mobility.  

Unlike the tower villas of classic Tuscan hill towns such as San Gimignano, on which these constructions are perhaps loosely based, many of these structures stand independently of one another, rather than clustered next to each other for protection. Some of the towers are exotic mixtures of European and Asian styles, such as the elaborate Ruishi Dialou in the village of Jinjiangli pictured below. It features a bizarre combination of Italian Renaissance tower shaft, a top formed of an arcade and a series of Byzantine-Mughal cupolas, and gigantic Chinese characters painted onto the façade.

None of these structures are great works of architecture. Yet collectively, they are an interesting, sometimes amusing look at the way different architectural styles can be combined to create something truly unique. If any of my readers have been to see these unusual towers, I would be very curious to learn more about what they are like.

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Why A Major Art Heist In Italy Robs Us All

This past Thursday, November 19th, what may turn out to be the biggest art theft in Italian history – apart from Napoleon’s efforts of course – took place at the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio, in the city of Verona. Three armed men overcame the museum’s security guard at closing time, and stole 17 paintings from the museum’s collection, before making their getaway in the security guard’s own car. So far, the robbers have not been apprehended.

Some in the press are suggesting that, as in the famous heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the paintings stolen from the Castelvecchio were taken to order. Presumably, given the list of what was taken, the underworld kingpin who selected these items has a particular penchant for Venetian art. The majority of the works stolen were by the great Venetian Old Master painter Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-1594), and of the remaining pieces, three were by his son Domenico (1560-1635) or his associates, another by Jacobo Bellini (c. 1400-1470), the progenitor of the Renaissance style in Venice, and another by Bellini’s son-in-law, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506).  

The stolen works are estimated to be worth between $11-16 million, but this seems a figure based purely upon conservative speculation. For example, works by Mantegna are not only rare in themselves, they almost never come up for sale on the open art market. Mantegna’s painting of “The Descent of Christ Into Limbo”, a very interesting picture but certainly not pretty to look at, sold at Sotheby’s over a decade ago for around $28.5 million. The work of Antonio di Puccio Pisano (c. 1395-1455), or “Pisanello” as he is commonly known, is even rarer: apart from some of his bronze medals and drawings, I could not even find a recent auction result for one of his paintings.

You can see photographs of each of the stolen paintings by visiting this link. I imagine that they will soon appear on the Art Loss register, if they have not already. Here’s a translated list of what was taken:

The Madonna of the Quail by Pisanello

St. Jerome Penitent by Jacopo Bellini

The Holy Family with St. Mary Magdalene by Mantegna

Portrait of a Child Showing a Child’s Drawing by Giovanni Caroto

Portrait of a Young Benedictine Monk by Giovanni Caroto

The Madonna Nursing the Christ Child by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Carrying of the Ark of the Covenant by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Banquet of Belshazzar by Jacobo Tintoretto

Samson by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Judgment of Solomon by Jacobo Tintoretto

Portrait of a Man by Circle of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of a Venetian Admiral by Studio of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of Marco Pasqualigo by Domenico Tintoretto

The Lady of the Campions by Rubens

A Landscape by Hans de Jode

A Seaport by Hans de Jode

Portrait of Girolamo Pompei by Giovanni Benini

I chose the missing Tintoretto “Samson” to illustrate this post, because he accurately reflects in this picture the attitude of frustration we all ought to have toward stolen art. Certainly, the loss of these works highlights the ongoing problem of art and antiques theft in Italy and elsewhere, which is quite a lucrative black market business and often used for money laundering purposes. Yet more importantly, this act removed from the shared patrimony of both the people of Verona and indeed of the world, the opportunity to study, appreciate, and learn from these paintings.

These works of art not only represent people and events important to the Catholic faith and to Italian culture, they are also tangible fragments of our shared human history. Each tells a story of how and where they were made, by and for whom, using what materials and methods were commercially available and scientifically understood at the time, and what happened to them after they left the artist’s studio. Without the paintings themselves, we may still have words on a page to tell us these things, but words alone cannot make up for their loss as objects of both visual beauty and historic significance.

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Detail of "Samson" by Tintoretto