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Urgent conservation work is needed to save a series of caves in northwest China containing ancient murals by Buddhist monks, which are threatened with destruction from the forces of nature.
The network of 236 sandstone caves extend over an area of two to three kilometres in the vast, sparsely-populated autonomous Xinjiang region of China, along the ancient Silk Road. The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks and used as temples between the third and the eighth centuries, and are lined with murals providing a rich picture of early Buddhist culture.
The caves, known locally as Kezer, are prone to deterioration, particularly from moisture, because of their geological composition, which includes many soluble salts. Although the region is very dry, any rainwater could have “distastrous consequences”, according to Giorgio Bonsanti, an expert in wall painting preservation. He told our sister paper, Il Giornale dell’Arte, “the signs of progressive decay, which in the long term would turn everything to sand, are dramatically evident.”
The Art Newspaper
The government of Aragon, an autonomous region in the north east of Spain, is formally asking the neighbouring government of Catalonia to return Romanesque frescos that are in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, Barcelona, the Spanish newspaper, El País reports.
The frescoes, which date from the early 13th century, were saved during the Spanish Civil War from the monastery of Santa María la Real de Sijena, which was badly damaged during the conflict.
Aragon has long claimed the frescos. This year the order of nuns, which has used what remains of the monastery buildings since the 1980s, ceded the historic property in the province of Huesca in the Spanish pyrenees to the Aragonese government. Aragon and the Fondación Caja Madrid spent €3.3m restoring the monastery between 1988 and 2009, according to the regional government’s website.
The Art Newspaper
The colorful secret of a 1,600-year-old Roman chalice at the British Museum is the key to a supersensitive new technology that might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints.
The glass chalice, known as the Lycurgus Cup because it bears a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind—a property that puzzled scientists for decades after the museum acquired the cup in the 1950s. The mystery wasn’t solved until 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London.
When it began its tour at the J. Paul Getty Museum in April, “Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome” was supposed to crown years of effort by some American museums to patch up relations with Italy over claims of looted antiquities.
Featuring dozens of antiquities from Sicilian collections, the exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif., was scheduled to go to the Cleveland Museum of Art this fall before a final showing in Palermo next winter.
But all has not gone smoothly.
Sicilian officials now say that two star attractions — a dramatic six-foot-tall statue of a charioteer and an immaculate gold libation bowl, or phiale — should not travel to Cleveland because their absence is depriving Sicily of tourist dollars. And in a letter sent to the Getty and Cleveland museums this week, Sicily’s highest cultural official, Mariarita Sgarlata, noted that the region — which enjoys broad autonomy from Rome to shape its cultural policy — never signed a contract authorizing the exhibition in the first place.
In fact, the items were shipped from Italy months ago while the contract was being negotiated by Sicilian cultural officials who are no longer in office.
New York Times
A fleet of eight prehistoric boats, including one almost nine metres long, has been discovered in a Cambridgeshire quarry on the outskirts of Peterborough.
The vessels, all deliberately sunk more than 3,000 years ago, are the largest group of bronze age boats ever found in the same UK site and most are startlingly well preserved. One is covered inside and out with decorative carving described by conservator Ian Panter as looking “as if they’d been playing noughts and crosses all over it”. Another has handles carved from the oak tree trunk for lifting it out of the water. One still floated after 3,000 years and one has traces of fires lit on the wide flat deck on which the catch was evidently cooked.
Several had ancient repairs, including clay patches and an extra section shaped and pinned in where a branch was cut away. They were preserved by the waterlogged silt in the bed of a long-dried-up creek, a tributary of the river Nene, which buried them deep below the ground.
Destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii survived excavation starting in the 18th century and has stoically borne the wear and tear of millions of modern-day tourists.
But now, its deep-hued frescoes, brick walls and elegant tile mosaics appear to be at risk from an even greater threat: the bureaucracy of the Italian state.
In recent years, collapses at the site have alarmed conservationists, who warn that this ancient Roman city is dangerously exposed to the elements — and is poorly served by the red tape, the lack of strategic planning and the limited personnel of the site’s troubled management.
The site’s decline has captured the attention of the European Union, which began a $137 million effort in February that aims to balance preservation with accessibility to tourists. Called the Great Pompeii Project, the effort also seeks to foster a culture-driven economy in an area dominated by the Neapolitan Mafia.
Rachel Donadio and Elisabetta Povoledo
New York Times
The increasingly dire state of conservation of much of Naples’s cultural heritage—its churches, monuments, libraries and palaces—has been highlighted by a damning news report published by one of Italy’s leading papers, the Corriere della Sera, in January.
The online report revealed an alarming statistic: Naples has around 200 closed and abandoned churches. Some have been stripped of all their furnishings including works of art, some never received the funds they had been promised, while others received them but never embarked on the agreed conservation projects. Others still were closed down, restored and then never opened again.
The report points to years of neglect and mismanagement by the local and national government, as well as by the Church and the regional arm of the ministry of culture.
The city’s historic centre, the largest in Europe, has been listed as a Unesco World Heritage site for the last 17 years, however the city’s residents have long bemoaned the state of their heritage, so much so that a petition, signed by 16 civic committees and 60 leading intellectual figures, was circulated at the end of last year calling for the city to be stripped of its Unesco title.
The Art Newspaper
A preservation fight has erupted over LG Electronics’ plan to build a headquarters that would compromise the Cloisters museum’s view across the Hudson River. (Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)
After John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated land for the Cloisters museum in northern Manhattan, he went a step further in the 1930s and bought the cliffs across the Hudson River in New Jersey to preserve the museum’s pristine view of the Palisades.
Now his grandson Larry Rockefeller; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the Cloisters; and other groups are fighting to preserve that vista, which they say is threatened by a new corporate headquarters to be built in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
As designed, the headquarters for LG Electronics USA, a major employer and taxpayer in that borough, would be 143 feet tall and rise several stories above the tree line.
“The Palisades really rests at the heart of the conservation legacy, if you will, which our family has left, and is leaving, to America,” Mr. Rockefeller, 68, said in a telephone interview from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, which his family also helped preserve.
“No one’s opposed to the building per se,” he continued. “I’m certainly not. It’s just the design of it being tall and so visible.”
New York Times
Few people have ever visited the long network of underground tunnels under the public baths of Caracalla, which date back to the third century AD and are considered by many archaeologists to be the grandest public baths in Rome. This underground network, which is due to be reopened in December, is also home to a separate structure, the largest Mithraeum in the Roman Empire, according to its director Marina Piranomonte. The Mithraeum has just reopened after a year of restoration work which cost the city’s archaeological authorities around €360,000.
To celebrate the reopening, Michelangelo Pistoletto has installed his conceptual work Il Terzo Paradiso (the third heaven), which he first presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale, in the gardens surrounding the public baths. The work, made of ancient stone fragments and pieces of columns arranged in a triple loop, represents the harmonious union of the natural and technological worlds, according to the artist. It will be on view until 6 January 2013.
Federico Castelli Gattinara and Ermanno Rivetti
The Art Newspaper