One of the very big stories in the art world (writ large) this week is that we may be on the verge of a major archaeological discovery from Ancient Egypt. Or not.
As you may recall, for the past few years there’s been a great deal of back-and-forth speculation in the media regarding claims that there are additional, as-of-yet undiscovered chambers connected to the tomb of the most famous of all Egyptian pharaohs, Tutankhamun. Using both visual clues and the latest technology, some researchers claim to have identified such spaces, while others performing similar research have not found anything. The breathlessness of some of the headlines on the subject, like this one in ArtNet or this one in Newsweek, sometimes makes me wonder whether we’re still living in the 21st century, or whether we’ve somehow reverted back to the era of Yellow Journalism.
The latest claim stems from an unpublished report presented to Egypt’s Supreme Council on Antiquities earlier this month, a copy of which was somehow obtained by the British science journal, Nature. Perhaps rather regrettably for a venerable scientific publication, the analysis of the report careens off into a frenzy of wild speculation. “It’s Nefertiti!” “It’s Ankhesenamun!” “It’s some missing princesses!” “It’s intact!” “It’s empty!” Toward the end of taking the reader on the archaeological equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the journal notes that the Supreme Council didn’t respond to requests for comment. Quite honestly, one can understand why not.
Far be it from me to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the possibility of there being a major archaeological discovery about to be made in the Valley of the Kings. It’s unquestionably an exciting prospect for those who care deeply about the subject, but it’s also exciting for those who have only a passing interest in Ancient Egypt. However it seems to me that the foundational inquiry to be made here is not in regards to who might be buried in King Tut’s tomb, but rather whether there is something to be discovered in the first place.
The childish impatience of contemporary journalism, even supposedly high-brow journalism, does not lend itself to a thoughtful analysis of proper scientific inquiry. As much as one might wish it otherwise, the application of methodical research involves careful planning and testing, rather than the functional equivalent of rolling out the old jump to conclusions mat. In this particular case it means that the question of such a space’s function is, if one chooses to approach the question rationally, secondary to proving its existence. Otherwise, you end up with millions of people watching Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault to a chorus of crickets.
So unless and until there’s actually something to report, gentle reader, rather than engage in idle speculation on what might be, we’d best move on to some of the more tangible bits of news that caught my eye over the past week.
Roll out the Raphaels
As 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael (1483-1520), my all-time favorite artist and the “Prince of Painters”, as Vasari called him, for the first time in many years the tapestries which he designed for the Sistine Chapel are temporarily back in place – but only through this Sunday, February 23rd. Many visitors are unaware that in addition to the frescoes by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and others, the Sistine Chapel once sported massive tapestries designed for the space by Raphael, featuring scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul. Due to their age and delicacy, the hangings are normally kept elsewhere in the Vatican, either rolled up or on rotation inside display cases, so this is a very, very unique, not-to-be-missed opportunity indeed, should you happen to be in Rome this weekend. As a side note, look for an upcoming piece from me in The Federalist about Raphael and the classical tradition, using a new exhibition of drawings and engravings by him and his circle which just opened at the National Gallery here in DC.
Pen, Paper, and Piranesi
Speaking of artistic anniversaries, the British Museum has just opened a new exhibition to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), whose images of architecture both real and imagined have always fascinated me. While Piranesi is best-known today for his massive engravings, those images arose, naturally enough, from countless hours of observation, sketching, and detailed drawing. This exhibition places on display, for the first time, all 50 Piranesi drawings in the Museum’s collection, which is one of the largest in the world. The collection includes works such as the “Interior of a Vast, Vaulted Building” below, drawn on paper sometime between 1745-1755, using brown ink, red chalk, and a brown-grey wash for shading. Astonishingly, this drawing is only about the size of a 3×5 photograph, demonstrating how skillfully the artist could compress his enormous imagination into a very small format, and later blow it up in order to create one of his signature prints. “Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity” is at the British Museum through August 9th.
Shifting from the very small to the very large, the Art Institute of Chicago has recently acquired one of the most colossal stained glass windows ever produced by the legendary Tiffany Studios. “Light in Heaven and Earth” (1917), which comes from a former Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, was probably designed by Agnes Northrop (1857-1953), who worked on most of Tiffany’s landscape windows. This example is particularly large, comprised of 48 glass panels and standing a whopping 23 feet tall. The window is currently undergoing much-needed cleaning and conservation, and will go on display at the top of one of the staircases inside the Art Institute come this September. As I hope to be in Chicago later this year, I’m looking forward to seeing it in person.