Now that things are starting to get back to normal around the Fortress of Solitude following a very enjoyable vacation, it’s time to get back to the news beat.
Before we get into some art stories of interest, I want to share two links regarding the ongoing reconstruction efforts at Notre Dame de Paris. The devastating fire at the church, which consumed the roof of the cathedral-basilica and heavily damaged the structure, took place on April 15th of last year, and cleanup has taken much longer than initially anticipated. This has been due to issues such as infighting over how to rebuild, political posturing, and cleanup from toxic materials such as thousands of pounds of lead. As you might expect, if you’ve been following the story up to now, the latest news is a bit of a mixed bag.
On what might call the Debbie Downer side of things, architect and historian Barbara Schock-Werner recently gave an interview to Deutsche Welle in which she speculated that Notre Dame is still in serious danger of collapse. Ms. Schock-Werner oversees the fabric of Cologne’s massive Cathedral – which, interestingly enough, is not a basilica, even though it is the tallest Catholic cathedral in the world, and probably the most famous church in Germany – so she obviously knows her subject matter. In the interview, she explains why certain issues, such as how the scaffolding inside the building fused together during the fire, creates problems with respect to potential dangers such as the vaults collapsing. That being said, I particularly appreciated the fact that she agrees with the project’s lead architect that the 19th century spire by Viollet le-Duc (1814-1879) ought to be rebuilt as it was:
My favorite is the old spire. Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s crossing tower, rebuilt in the 19th century, was a masterpiece of neo-Gothic architecture. I would restore it exactly as it was. Of the designs that are in circulation, the one by Sir Norman Foster with its stainless steel and crystal crossing tower seems to me to be the most appropriate as it most closely complements the building. But I am actually in favor, as is my Parisian colleague, of reconstructing the original.
On a (potentially) more positive note, at least among those of us who like our cathedrals to look like cathedrals and not like airport shopping mall atriums, French architect Eric Wirth recently testified before a hearing convened by France’s National Assembly that the best solution for rebuilding the roof of Notre Dame was not to jury-rig a modern glass-and-steel structure onto a medieval building, but rather to use what the builders of the structure themselves originally used: timbers. As ArtNet reports:
“The most modern material, the most ecological today,” he said, “is wood. It is the only one that traps carbon.” He also noted its natural fire resistance. “[Notre Dame] has been there for 800 years. If the structure had been made of steel, there would be no cathedral to speak of today,” he said. In a fire, “iron holds for half an hour, an hour, and then writhes, pulls on the walls and collapses everything.”
It’s rather interesting that a very senior European architect would point out that, for all of contemporary society’s fawning over (supposedly) environmentally friendly materials, traditional ones are far more ecologically sound than those that are typically used to create the boxes that plague the skylines of our cities. Nothing has been decided yet, of course, but the chorus of serious architects advocating for a more substantial, traditional solution to this problematic project is encouraging.
And with that, here are some stories that caught my eye over the past week.
If you’re at all interested in Roman art and architecture – and if you’re not, I highly suggest that you take this excellent, free online course on the subject by my friend, the wonderful Dr. Diana E.E. Kleiner at Yale – then you will be as pleased as I am to learn that the Domus Aurea, the over-the-top pleasure palace built by the Roman Emperor Nero in the 1st century A.D., is once again partly reopened for intrepid visitors to explore. Still an active archaeological dig site, the ruins of Nero’s “Golden House” on the Palatine Hill are filled with magnificent architectural and artistic remains, from intricately frescoed vaulted ceilings to colorful marble mosaic floors, that give a sense of the luxurious excess enjoyed by one of history’s most infamous monarchs. In addition, rediscovery and exploration of the more than 300 underground rooms by artists and architects such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and others, had an enormous impact on art and design across the world, from the Neoclassical country houses of 18th century Britain to the Beaux-Arts train stations and public libraries of Gilded Age America. You can take a look at some of the extraordinary details of the house, including a video of a possible reconstruction of its original appearance, in this excellent overview by architectural historian Christopher Siwicki, along with some of his own photographs (like the one shown below), over at Art & Object.
A rather bizarre art crime story that I’ve been following for quite awhile now, which involves one of the wealthiest families in Spain, and a work by the most important artist of the 20th century, appears to be at or near a conclusion. Banker Jaime Botín, one of the heirs to the Grupo Santander banking and investment fortune, is a major art collector and owned, among other works, the early 1900’s “Head of a Young Woman” by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), dating from the artist’s 1906 summer vacation in Gósol, in the Catalan Pyrenees. While there, the artist took a closer look at the 1000-year-old wall paintings that dominate the many Romanesque churches in the area, and upon his return to Paris executed his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, now at The Met. Sr. Botín was accused of trying to smuggle the picture out of the country without an export license, while he maintained that he was merely taking it to Switzerland for safe keeping – the Swiss freeports in places like Geneva have become well-known areas for the storage of major works of art owned by the wealthiest collectors – and the case has been dragging on for years. After multiple twists and turns, last week he was fined $58.4 million and sentenced to 18 months in prison by a Spanish judge, although it is expected that the prison term will be suspended due to age and being a first-time offender. Meanwhile, the painting itself was confiscated by the Spanish State, and is in the keeping of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, but it doesn’t appear to be on display at the moment. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see whether appeals are taken, or efforts to reclaim the picture are made.
And finally, speaking of Spain, I have to confess that until recently, Orazio Borgianni (1574-1616) was not a painter whose name was familiar to me, but the arresting self-portrait of the artist that is coming up for sale at Sotheby’s New York next week, as well as his extensive work both in and for Spain, all make me want to learn more about him. Borgianni was a contemporary and rival of Caravaggio (1571-1610), during the transition from the Late Renaissance style of Mannerism to that of early Baroque painting. He spent a significant amount of time in Spain under the royal patronage of Felipe II, studying and working in Valladolid, then the capital of united Spain. Later he returned to Rome, where he received many commissions from Spanish courtiers there. This particular picture was only recently rediscovered at an auction held in Berlin a little less than two months ago, so what we’re seeing here is the art world equivalent of house flipping. Still, Caravaggio and his circle are quite hot on the market at the moment, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the hammer price for this painting surpasses the current $400-$600k estimate.