Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts about a significant New York Times investigation into the alleged failures of French authorities to adequately address public health and safety concerns during and in the aftermath of the devastating fire at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris. Yet despite the negative stories arising from that tragedy, there are also positive tales to tell. Among them is the news that a massive tapestry-carpet created in 1838, and in the possession of the cathedral for the past 176 years, has been saved from almost certain destruction. The story of what happened involves quite a few figures for us to consider, so here we go.
The 82-foot long wool rug, designed by Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange-Desmaisons (1780-1860) and produced by the renowned Savonnerie factory, is rarely seen by the public, and then usually only on very special occasions, such as the visit of Pope St. John Paul II to celebrate Mass in the cathedral back in 1980. Although it survived the fire back in April of this year, the carpet soaked up an enormous amount of water during the effort of firefighters to bring the blaze under control, to the point that it had increased in weight from about 1 Metric tonne to over 3 Metric tonnes (about 6,614 pounds.) If you’ve ever forgotten to air out a wet scarf, sweater, or pair of socks made of wool, you know what happens next: mold and mildew can start to grow, not only creating a distinctively unpleasant odor, but also eating away at the very fabric of the item. Now imagine this happening on a scale many, many times that of an article of clothing.
To combat this, conservationists had to unroll the Saint-Ange tapestry, which is stored in two halves, and dry the pieces in an industrial wind tunnel. Then over a period of 24 hours they froze the fabric to kill any bacteria and mold, by gradually dropping the temperature down to -31F. Afterwards, it was transported to the Mobilier National, a conservation and restoration agency that is part of the French Ministry of Culture, which looks after many of the country’s artistic treasures, particularly period furniture and historic textiles. It will now take months of painstaking cleaning and restoration work to address issues such as water stains, tears, and so on.
The best part is, the experts have decided to perform their work for FREE, at no cost to the Archdiocese of Paris, which owns the tapestry. What’s more, before that work gets underway, the public are invited to come see the carpet in its current state this weekend, September 21-22, by visiting the Mobilier’s studios in Paris. If any of my readers happen to trundle along for a look, please let me know, as I’d love to see your photos.
And now on to some other numerically interesting stories from the art world this week.
Sculpture on 70th
Although he wasn’t as talented an artist as his contemporary Verrocchio, the Florentine sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni (c. 1440-1491) was nevertheless an important figure in the development of Western art, and he is now the subject of a show which just opened at the Frick Collection in New York. As the informal dean of an artistic academy founded by Lorenzo de’ Medici in his palazzo in Florence, Bertoldo was a teacher of the young Michelangelo, among others, but is perhaps best remembered today among historians and art aficionados for the commemorative medals that he produced in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy. Among other works in the show is the magnificent glazed terracotta frieze in the Classical manner – a section is shown below – which he designed for the entrance portico of Lorenzo’s country house at Poggio a Caiano; at around 48 feet long, it’s the largest terracotta relief produced during the Renaissance.
“Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence” is on show at the Frick through January 12th.
Artists in the Aggregate
There’s a new online project that I encourage you to take a look at, particularly if you’re in a position to commission or acquire sacred art. The Catholic Artists Directory, which launched just recently, is “a starting place for those looking to commission a work of art or music for a parish, home, or other community,” and will eventually include artists from across many disciplines: from painters and sculptors to composers, cabinet makers, metalworkers, and everything in between. Among those already listed whom I know either personally or via online friendship are John Henry Folley (an in-progress shot of a Eucharistic-themed still life by him appears below), Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Daniel Mitsui, Enzo Selvaggi, and Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs. This is definitely a resource worth adding to your bookmarks.
Paintings in the 8th
And to finish up in Paris where we began, those of you who find yourselves in the City of Lights this Fall/Winter need to visit the somewhat lesser-known Musée Jacquemart-André, in order to see the equally lesser-known Alana Collection of Italian Renaissance art. The collection was assembled by Chilean corporate magnate Àlvaro Saieh and his wife Ana Guzmán, and has never been exhibited in its entirety; this is the first time that a selection of pieces from the collection is being shown to the public. Works in the Paris show include paintings by Bellini, Bronzino, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, Uccello, Veronese, and many more, in a virtual who’s who assemblage of Italian Renaissance masters. I’m already on the waiting list for the exhibition catalogue, because despite having studied Italian Renaissance art for many decades now, I’m unfamiliar with many of the pictures in this show, and need to feast my eyes upon them, albeit only in photographs.
“The Alana Collection: Masterpieces of Italian Painting” is at the Musée Jacquemart-André through January 20th.