When Buildings Vanish: Digital Technology Brings Back Long-Lost Structures And Their Art

Over on The Art Newspaper recently, Noah Charney explored the question of what to do with the memory of historic buildings, after they’ve been completely razed to the ground. In writing about the World War II-era destruction of castles in Slovenia, where Mr. Charney resides, he gives some examples of how local institutions are now creating landscaped environments that evoke a memory of vanished structures, without actually rebuilding them. Interestingly, he notes that the demolitions were carried out by local pinkos on “principle” (if that’s not too oxymoronic a term):

Socialist partisans did not approve of the aristocracy and wanted to eliminate the physical remnants of feudalism and the class system, even though the aristocrats themselves were long gone. But their castles, full of beautiful objects and works of art, remained. The Nazis generally preserved palaces, to occupy them themselves, until Hitler’s 1945 Nero Decree resulted in the destruction of German infrastructure to prevent its use by incoming Allied forces. The partisans, however, voluntarily destroyed their own cultural heritage, just because they disapproved of the people who had built them and what they stood for.

[N.B. As an aside, I highly recommend reading Mr. Charney’s work for The Art Newspaper, since he’s particularly interested in researching objects and buildings that are now lost to history.]

Yet when it comes to actually envisioning what has been lost, particularly when there are no detailed photographs available to refer to, advanced digital technology is increasingly able to provide us with the next best thing to a full reconstruction of a building, or even an entire city. To that end, the Getty Foundation recently announced funding for several digital mapping projects that will advance our knowledge and understanding of some historic sites around the world. Of these, the two that I want to draw the reader’s attention to both have to do with important cultural sites in Italy.

The “Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project” (“PALP”) is a joint effort between UMass Amherst and NYU, which will integrate images and data from excavations at Pompeii, in order to get a better idea of how the structures and art uncovered at the site to date occupied the spaces where they once stood. At present, there is no single resource linking art objects and architectural fragments to the remains of the buildings where they were found. This is a very exciting idea if, like me, you’re endlessly fascinated by Pompeii and the surrounding cities that were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.


Another project which the Getty has chosen to fund, “Mapping the Renaissance in Florence”, is being carried out by the University of Exeter in collaboration with Cambridge and the University of Toronto. Somewhat like the project at Pompeii, it will seek to integrate data and images with a fairly detailed map created in Renaissance Florence, including works of art that once (or still do) reside in the city’s structures; an app associated with this project which can be used by both researchers and sightseers is already in the works. For me, one of the most surprising aspects of this particular project was seeing the digital illustration of a Florentine church that no longer stands, and of whose existence I was previously unaware: perhaps I have not read my Bernard Berenson closely enough.


San Pier Maggiore was a large Benedictine church and monastery that was first built in the Middle Ages, later remodeled and expanded, and torn down in the 18th century when it became structurally unsound. Today, only part of the entrance portal remains, incorporated into later buildings. You can see it in the above illustration on the lower right, as the triple-arched structure with the center archway serving as the entrance into a courtyard space.

Among the works of art that were once located in the now-vanished church was a strange, yet extremely interesting image by Francesco Botticini (1446-1498) depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, which is now in the National Gallery in London. For many years it was believed to be by Botticini’s contemporary Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), and when you see pictures such as Botticelli’s “Mystical Nativity”  of about 1500-1501, which is also in the National Gallery, you can see why this was the case. In both pictures the dome of the sky has been sliced open at the top, revealing an Earth encased in a celestial sphere that is normally hidden from view.


If we zoom in on the lower portions of Botticini’s picture, behind the kneeling figures of the donor and his widow, we get to see some amazing views of late 15th century Florence, as well as some of the countryside surrounding the city. What I find a bit of a head-scratcher in the detail shown below is that the dome of the Cathedral of Florence appears to be lacking both its lantern and finial ball and cross. The lantern was completed in 1461, and the ball and cross were placed on top in 1469, but the altarpiece itself was painted between 1475-1477.


Perhaps this part of the image was rubbed away over time? Or perhaps this is just a bad photograph and these elements are visible to the naked eye? Whatever the case, if one of my readers happens to drop by the National Gallery anytime soon, I’d be curious to know what you can see when viewing the piece in person.

Sometimes it’s possible to bring back a heavily damaged or destroyed building to some semblance of what it once was. When this is not possible, there are still ways to keep the memories of those structures alive in the former locations, through a creative application of art, architecture, and landscape design. At the same time, we should be appreciative of those who are using technology to provide us with the ability to not only see these vanished places in virtual space, but also to understand their former contents in context.

Art News Roundup: Seeing And Believing Edition

For those of you who are new to my blogging, each week I do a writeup of some interesting items that I’ve come across in the art press, which I refer to as the “Art News Roundup” – even though I’m still not hugely satisfied with that moniker. For one thing, I don’t just write about “art” per se, but also about architecture, archaeology, design, and other things that catch my eye. Since I haven’t come up with a better title to date, I’m sticking with what I’ve got for the sake of continuity from the old blog. While Tuesdays hereabouts are for long-format articles, Thursdays are for curated links and short commentaries, where I get to tell you about things like interesting discoveries, new exhibitions, forthcoming books, etc.

So without further ado, let’s dive in, shall we?

Leonardo Lunacy in London
An Italian scholar has postulated that this statue of the Madonna and Child in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is by Leonardo Da Vinci. It obviously (to me, anyway) isn’t, and I’d chalk this theory up to wishful thinking coupled with the latitude provided by an uncertain provenance, but slap the name “Da Vinci” on anything these days and you’re assured of your fifteen minutes of fame in the art press. Have a gander and decide for yourself, but there are plenty of examples of smiling Madonnas, angels, and the like from around the beginning of the 14th through the end of the 16th centuries in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, none of which have anything at all to do with Leonardo.

Viewing de Vuez
Quelle surprise! Workers renovating a townhouse in Paris recently stumbled across a huge 17th century painting hidden behind a false wall. The circa 1674 canvas, by Arnould de Vuez (1644-1720), depicts the arrival in Jerusalem of the Marquis de Nointel, Louis XIV’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The cityscape in the background appears to be a reasonably faithful view of the holy city at the time of the visit, and on closer inspection one can make out major landmarks such as the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. No one is quite sure why the piece ended up being affixed to the wall and then covered over, although speculation is that the owners did this during World War II, when the Nazis were looting art from all over Paris and occupied France. The painting is currently undergoing cleaning and restoration, which is expected to be completed in May; it will form the design centerpiece of the new Oscar de la Renta boutique that will be occupying the space.


Seeing Spain in San Diego
“Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain” will open at the San Diego Museum of Art on May 18th and it looks to be well-worth seeing; if I happen to find myself out that way, this is definitely a show I’ll go along to check out for myself. It’s not often the case in this country that one gets to take in a survey of Golden Age Spanish art (which is roughly the period from about 1500-1700) alongside works related to the Spanish empire. Along with works by El Greco, Murillo, Velázquez, Zurbarán, and others from its own collections as well as on loan, the Museum has one of my favorite Spanish bodegónes (still life paintings), the circa 1602 “Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” by Juan Sánchez Cotán, which will be part of the exhibition. Some of the art in the show will be from Spain, while some will be from the Spanish colonies, or pieces produced in Spain for export to those colonies, so it should prove to be quite an interesting juxtaposition of styles, materials, and historical information.


The Collector In Private: How Our Objects Tell Our Stories

Recently when ill with the flu, I found myself binge-watching HGTV, probably because I occasionally like to add insult to injury in my life. One of the programs featured a designer creating “artwork” for a finished home. While the end result was predictably awful, it actually told me more about the people who lived in the house than it did about the host. The homeowners ooh’ed and aah’ed over how much they loved the “artwork”, which they themselves did not acquire, and which was placed where someone other than themselves thought it should be placed.

For historians, the placement of a work of art in someone’s home can often reveal a great deal about the person who owned the object. This significance is often lost to us when a painting or sculpture is placed in a museum alongside other objects coming from various dates, eras, and owners. It’s a problem that I’ve often complained about in my writing over the years, when discussing sacred art that has been removed from the sacred spaces which it used to occupy. Yet it’s also true of pieces that were created or collected for private enjoyment.


One great example of this was King Charles I of England (1600-1649), shown above in a portrait by Gerard van Honthorst, whose personal art collection was partially reassembled last year for a show at the Royal Academy in London. I didn’t get to see the exhibition, and I daresay most of my non-English readers didn’t either. Nevertheless, a recent lecture I watched touches on some of the same subjects addressed in the show, and gives great insight into how one of the most famous art collectors of the 17th century used the work that he collected to define the most intimate aspects of his day-to-day life.

Simon Thurley is one of my favorite English historians, particularly when it comes to his lectures on art and architecture. Currently, he’s in the midst of a series of presentations on artistic and architectural patronage in England under succeeding dynasties, having begun with the Tudors and just recently having spoken about the Stuarts. Even if you’re already a student of English history, I can fairly reasonably guarantee you that a Thurley lecture will present you with new information and insights which will further illuminate your knowledge.

I knew before watching Dr. Thurley’s most recent lecture that Charles I was both a great patron and collector, having commissioned works from important artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck, and having amassed an art collection that, after his execution during the English Civil War, was scattered into some of the great princely collections of Europe. What I did not know was the fact that, until his death, only a very small group of people knew that he owned such a massive and important collection, which he displayed at the now-vanished Palace of Whitehall in London, the sweep of which is shown in the painting below from the Royal Collection. It’s hard to reconcile Charles’ level of privacy with the actions one might expect in an age when wealth was openly flaunted by many, and when Charles himself was someone who believed firmly in absolute monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings.


The bulk of Charles’ collection was displayed in the King’s private apartments, rather than in the public areas of the Palace. These were areas of the building to which only members of the royal family and the most intimate of courtiers were granted access. Thus, unlike many of his contemporaries who built enormous galleries to publicly showcase their art, and thereby broadcast their taste, wealth, and power to any and all visitors, King Charles rather modestly kept his art largely to himself.

In his lecture, Dr. Thurley provides examples from contemporary written accounts of how many visitors to Whitehall during Charles I’s reign made no comment whatsoever on some of the very important works of art there, including paintings by Mantegna, Titian, and Veronese. This seeming omission is explained by the fact that these visitors were given access to the spaces where objects such as official portraits were displayed, but they never secured entry into the private rooms. As he explains when showing the architectural layout of the palace, indicating which rooms and wings were accessible and which were not, Dr. Thurley also shares some interesting information regarding what the King chose to display in his private apartments.

Among the works that Charles kept close to himself is this beautiful group portrait of five of the royal children with two of their favorite dogs, a painting that is now at Windsor Castle:


The directness and intimacy of the work is breathtaking, if you consider the formality of court life at the time. We get a sense of the personalities of all five siblings here, particularly the three eldest: on the far left we see Princess Mary, then the future King James II (looking a bit melancholy), and the future King Charles II at the center of the picture, gazing boldly at the viewer. The fussy, half-naked infant on the far right is Princess Anne; I particularly like how Princess Elizabeth is trying to both stop her baby sister from falling out of the chair, and from grabbing a hold of what must have been a very good and obedient mastiff.

Another work that the King kept close to him is this lovely High Renaissance image (in a later frame) of the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist in a landscape; we can just see St. Joseph with a lantern inside the ruined building in the background:


At one time this painting of the Holy Family with St. John was believed to be by Raphael, but historians now believe it is more likely a work by his workshop assistants or those in his circle, probably based on Raphael’s design. This was not at all unusual at the time, for popular artists often had so many commissions that they could not possibly hope to keep up with demand. We can see a rather similar-looking Virgin Mary in the “Madonna dell’Impannata” in the Pitti Palace in Florence, which dates from around the same time, and this painting like the one in Charles’ collection is now believed to have been executed mostly by Raphael’s workshop assistants to his designs, with only some intervention by the Master in some of the faces or other details.

After having been sold off by Cromwell during the English Civil War, King Charles’ painting ended up at the Escorial in Spain. It remained there until it was stolen during the Napoleonic period, and eventually made its way back to a collector in England. [Quite a number of works of art currently in English and French collections were stolen from Spain during the 19th century, and unlike some you don’t see Spain screaming and wailing about getting all of them back, but we’ll leave that subject for another time.]

In any case, the Van Dyck portrait of his children and the Raphael-esque devotional painting are two of the images that Charles I wanted to see when he got up in the morning, and at night before he went to bed. Dr. Thurley doesn’t explore the question, but for the purposes of this post it’s a relevant one for us to ask: do these art choices, and the placement of them in the King’s private apartments, tell us something about the King’s character and personality? Did he smile and greet the image of his children and their dogs, for example, or did he pray before the image of the Holy Family and St. John?

As to the former, Charles loved having paintings of his children around him, and commissioned quite a few of them, so we can reasonably assume that this was one of his favorites. We know that the beginning of his marriage to Queen Henrietta Maria was a bit rocky, but once they started having children they became very devoted to one another; they would have nine children in all, not all of whom survived to adulthood. Over time, as he became less popular with the low church Protestants who came to dominate Parliament, he and the royal family withdrew more and more from public life in order to spend more time together. So perhaps an image such as this one not only reminded Charles on a daily basis of his paternal love for his children, but also of his duty to them as a monarch to try to set an example of how one ought to rule.

Regarding the devotional art, we may not want to read too much into the fact that this very personal, affectionate, and Catholic image was kept in the King’s bedchamber. Although Charles tolerated his wife’s Catholicism, he himself was a Protestant, and intended to remain so. He often clashed with the Presbyterians and Puritans, who (wrongly) suspected that he was either about to convert to Catholicism or legalize it once more in Britain, but at the end of the day he was what today we might call a smells-and-bells Anglican: a very devout one, who spent a great deal of time in prayer, but not a Catholic. As the Catholic Herald pointed out in their review of the Royal Academy exhibition on the King’s collections, “Charles’s taste lay with the Catholics, and while that tells us something about his aesthetic leanings, and quite a bit about his political ambitions, it does not very much about his faith.”

By way of conclusion then, I have an interesting question that I’d like my readers to consider.

If a group of historians visited your home today, without your being present to explain what art you had on display, or why you put it where you did, what conclusions would they be able to draw? We’ve seen how the art objects that Charles I chose for his private apartments tell us something about the man himself: what mattered to him, and what inspired him on a daily basis. In our own, far less magnificent way, each of us has a collection of pictures, decorative objects, and the like, however great or small, that whether we realize it or not tells a story about us.

So it’s a good exercise to, periodically, take a step back, look at what you have on the walls, shelves, and tabletops, and ask yourself, what do these things say about me? Do I actually like or agree with the message they are conveying about who I am to others? Whatever you happen to collect – be it paintings, porcelain, or postage stamps – you may be surprised by what you discover about yourself, if you take a  detached look at both what you collect and where you display it.

From The Federalist: A Review Of The New Tolkien Exhibition At The Morgan

I hadn’t realized that The Federalist was going to run my review of the new J.R.R. Tolkien exhibition that just opened at the Morgan Library in New York so soon, but since it appeared today I’m happy to share the link with you. As I always do, I extend my sincere thanks to my editor for being the patient and careful reader that she always is. Somehow, Joy Pullman inevitably manages to condense my often rambling prose into a more readable format, for which I’m very grateful.

Even though as I write this the Federalist article just came out, already the comments section on the piece (as well as some voices on social media) are criticizing *my* major criticism of the show, which is that it fails to examine Tolkien’s religious faith. As usual in the lazy age in which we live, people have failed to actually take the time to read what I wrote in its entirety. In the article, I acknowledge the fact that no single exhibition can hope to explore all aspects of an artist’s life and work. If a particular artist happened to be a member of the Shinto faith, but that faith had little direct impact on his life and work, a museum might reasonably decide not to discuss that issue, in the context of a general survey exhibition on his life and work.

Yet it must be acknowledged that Tolkien himself was a very devout Catholic. He himself stated, as I quote in The Federalist piece, that “The Lord of the Rings” is a Catholic book. Tolkien’s entire life was informed by his faith – from his being raised by a Catholic priest when he and his brother were orphaned at a young age, to his helping his future wife to convert to Catholicism as part of their courtship, to their eldest son becoming a Catholic priest, to his close relationship with another famous Christian fantasy author, C.S. Lewis, whom he helped to move from doubt to belief, and so on. I found the fact that the show doesn’t even touch upon Tolkien’s Christianity, let alone explore it, but does spend time examining his horror of conflict based on his wartime experiences, or his views on environmentalism given what he saw of industrialization in early 20th century England, to be a serious oversight.

Agree with me or not, I hope you’ll take a moment to pop by the The Federalist and have a scroll through the piece, and by all means feel free to share your own thoughts in the article’s comment section.


From The Federalist: An Interview With Sculptor Alexander Stoddart

Gentle Reader:

Welcome to the newly-redesigned and updated site, which among other things will be the home for my blogging activity from now on. Thanks to those of you who migrated here from Blog of the Courtier, which I recently archived after over a decade of posts. Realizing as I do that there are still a few kinks to work out over here, please feel free to let me know via the Contact section of this site if you come across anything that isn’t working properly, or that doesn’t display well on your end of things, since no matter how many times you preview something before you publish it, you’re never 100% sure whether the final product is any good once it heads out into the ether.

I had intended to write this first post on the new site last week but, due to a rather nasty bout of the flu, I’m only able to get around to it now. My latest piece for The Federalist is now available for your perusal, and in it I interview Alexander Stoddart, the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland. It’s quite a long interview, even cut down as it was from the considerable transcript that I started with, but I think you’ll find it worth your time. My sincere thanks to (ever-patient) editor Joy Pullman for leaving intact virtually everything I submitted to her.


Mr. Stoddart is not only an enormously talented artist, he’s also an absolute riot. I remember messaging my publisher immediately after the interview, and commenting that we should take the senior staff of the magazine on pilgrimage to Paisley, the town in Scotland where Mr. Stoddart lives and works, just so that we could all join him at his local watering hole. His great sense of humor and deep insight into art, culture, and the human condition would enthrall all but the smallest of minds for hours.

Once again, cheers to those of you who are long-time readers, and to those of you who are just getting to know my work, for joining me here on this new venture. It will take a little time yet to settle back into the groove of writing on a regular basis, but I hope you’ll continue to bear with me during the interim. Thank you for your support!