Category Archives: art & architecture

art & architecture

Pompeian red? It’s actually ochre, researchers say

Pompeii: all about ochre?

Those rich reds adorning paintings in Pompeii were originally ochre —  Italian researchers say they now think that sensuous Pompeian red is the result of an accident.

Researchers at the national science council (CNR) say the original signature color at the ill-fated city of Pompeii was probably yellow –  ochre to be specific.

Before Mount Vesuvius blew its top in 79 A.D. and buried the city, it emitted high-temperature gas which turned the original yellow color that dark red. It’s not an entirely new discovery – ochre was also the main color at Herculaneum, sister city also buried by Vesuvius.

“Thanks to the investigations we have ascertained that the symbolic color of the archaeological sites in Campania is the result of the action of high temperature gas leakage which preceded the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.,” says Sergio Omarini of CNR.
“Experts already knew about the color alteration, but this research makes it finally possible to quantify to the extent of it.”

Researchers went back to texts by Pliny and Vitruvius to see how their contemporaries made red – cinnabar, mercury compound, red lead, lead compound and the rarest and most expensive pigments, mainly used in the paintings.

To check out the composition in the paintings, scientists used a non-invasive X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer that reveals the presence of chemical elements that exclude red lead and cinnabar – leading them to believe ochre was the original color.

Somehow Pompeian ochre just doesn’t lend the same tone.

Got a buck? Help out real-life Da Vinci Code quest for lost Leonardo

This is just about as cheap a thrill as they get: by pledging even just a dollar, you can help fund a project to find a lost Leonardo Da Vinci fresco in Florence, Italy.

Photographer Dave Yoder has been working on for a number of years  on a quest funded by the National Geographic Society to uncover The Battle of Anghiari in Palazzo Vecchio.

Because of the complications of doing just about anything in Italy – this involves going between ancient palazzo walls after all — it requires expensive expertise.

He’s put up a Kickstarter page to fund the sci-fi movie-worthy gamma camera needed to locate the painting which probably lies between the walls. (It seems Vasari couldn’t bring himself to cover Leonardo’s masterpiece when commissioned to paint over it in 1563).

Dave is a friend and it’s a fascinating project – one I also enjoyed reporting on — so I hope you’ll consider kicking in what you might spend on a cappuccino. Higher pledges $35 and up will earn you a digital e-book or prints of the project.

You can check out his pics on the project so far here.

To donate or for more information, see Kickstarter

Can a toe provide the answer to Mona Lisa mystery?

Excavations at Sant'Orsola.

Experts digging around a former convent in Florence have unearthed a big toe that might belong to Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa painting.

Little is known about the real life of the noblewoman said to have posed for Da Vinci, but she is thought to have died in the 1540s in Florence’s Sant’Orsola convent.

Last month, experts started digging around Sant’Orsola in hopes of finding the remains of Gherardini.

Working on the project are two of Italy’s famed art super sleuths, Francesco Mallegni, the anthropologist/detective who famously brought to light Dante’s Cannibal Count and Silvano Vinceti.

So far, in the first tomb excavated under an altar, the only significant remains are a bone fragment, probably of the big toe of a left foot. Mallegni told daily La Nazione that it might belong to a woman and provide enough DNA material to identify Gherardini.

Research will continue with ground-penetrating radar in the central part of the church where they believe there may be other crypts.

The large Sant’Orsola complex dates to 1309, ceased its life as a convent in the 1800s, then became a tobacco factory before being used by the university up to the 1950s. It stood semi-derelict with its windows bricked-up until restoration work started in 2010.

Art sleuths hunt for Mona Lisa’s bones

Hoping to solve the mystery behind Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa, scientists in Florence are looking for the bones of his presumed model,  Lisa Gherardini.

Working on the project are two of Italy’s famed art super sleuths, Francesco Mallegni, the anthropologist/detective who famously brought to light Dante’s Cannibal Count and Silvano Vinceti who found painter Caravaggio’s remains.

Little is known about the real life of the noblewoman said to have posed for Da Vinci, but she is thought to have died in the 1540s in Florence’s Sant’Orsola convent.

The large Sant’Orsola complex dates to 1309, ceased its life as a convent in the 1800s, then became a tobacco factory before being used by the university up to the 1950s. It stood semi-derelict with its windows bricked-up until restoration work started in 2010.

“Using ground-penetrating radar we have already identified a crypt under one of two churches in the convent, the search will start from this spot,” Vinceti told daily La Nazione. “Given the architecture of the building and manuscripts of the nuns who lived there, we believe that the crypt was used to guard the tombs.”

Researchers hope to finally solve the ongoing mystery about the model with the mysterious smile: over the years, historians have theorized that the woman was in fact a self-portrait of the painter or perhaps a young boy.

How could they prove it?

“If we find anything, the DNA of Lisa Gherardini would then be compared with DNA from two her two children, Bartolomeo and Piero Del Giocondo who are buried in Santissima Annunziata,” Mallegni said. “Only then could we go back to her facial structure and compare it to the painting.”

Researchers Find Symbols in Mona Lisa’s Eyes: Mystery or Hoax?

Can you make out the "L" and "S" in her irises?


I’ve been following the story of Italian research team delving deep into Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

La Gioconda, as the painting is called in Italian, has always been a mystery. Still, I’m not so sure this find really sheds any new light on the 500-year-old masterpiece.

Silvano Vinceti and team claim to have spied the letters “L” and “S” in her eyes and the symbolic number “72” in the background.

Don’t get me wrong: I love using tech to pore over old paintings, whether its Leonardo’s “Last Supper“or Caravaggio’s “Bacchus.” (One editor, assigning yet another story on Leonardo, joked I was on the “Dan Brown beat.”)

When you look at something a few hundred years old with a level a detail previously unavailable, something interesting always turns up.

In this case, though, Vinceti and his team are working off high-definition scanned images from a company called Lumiere Technology in Paris, which specializes in digitizing artworks, and then processed by a lab in Rome.

The lack of transparency (pun intended) about the processing is what makes me skeptical.

When his colleague Stefania Romano sent me the press packet with the image, I couldn’t make anything out. Before writing back to her asking if they had another image, I looked at their website. In the image you see above,  the letters in her mysterious eyes are much clearer – making me wonder which one is the correct shot and whether they’ve been manipulated or not.

Vinceti told AP that a Roman lab “digitally excluded reflexes and other colors in the eyes in order to isolate the letters and make them stand out.”

The Leonardo experts they interviewed were also skeptical about this latest discovery.

If they’d only put the hi-res image online even temporarily – like art digitizer Hal9000 has done – or made a video of the stripping process, we could all see whether there’s really something behind those enigmatic eyes.

Replicas to Bring Painter Caravaggio Back Home

Last fall, a group of specialists worked late into the night, perched on scaffolding in a Roman church, trying to copy Caravaggio’s “Inspiration of St. Matthew,” rendering the image true right down to the subject’s dirty feet. Every night for two weeks, they set up a scanner to photograph the Contarelli Chapel paintings, part of a project to make a facsimile of the baroque master’s works for a research center in Caravaggio slated to open this September.

Meanwhile, two years ago in Venice, a lifesize facsimile of Paolo Veronese’s monumental work “Wedding at Cana” drew 20,000 visitors in three months, while the real 16th-century masterpiece is often ignored by tourists waiting to see the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre museum in Paris.

Another state-of-the art copy — of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan — attracted nearly 55,000 visitors to an exhibit so popular the dates were extended twice. It was an unexpected hit born out of compromise. Director Peter Greenaway was asked to create a short film to project over the original Renaissance fresco at Santa Maria delle Grazie but officials got cold feet about crowds and conservation. His 20-minute short was projected only once over the original to a handful of dignitaries during the 2008 International Milan Furniture Fair. Shown over a high-resolution copy at nearby Palazzo Reale, the installation stayed open for five months.

Whether to rewrite history or reinterpret masterpieces, replicas made with a palette of high-tech tools are changing the way tourists see art.

All three of these faithful fakes are the work of Madrid-based Factum Arte, a company that employs high-resolution 3-D scanners of its own devising to reproduce artworks.
The scans result in thousands of files whose images are stitched together, then churned out by flatbed pigment printer onto canvas primed with historically accurate paints. To get the clone closer to the real thing, conservators fill in any ridges or creases from manhandling or restoration by hand afterward.
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Italian Museum Says: Touch the Paintings, You Know You Want To

caption: caption: Hands on with a chubby Christ child. @centrica

Hands on with a chubby Christ child. @centrica

If you’ve ever stared at a painting and wanted to reach out and squeeze that adorable little putto, you’ll soon have a chance to do it without getting arrested.

Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, one of the largest treasure troves of Renaissance art, is developing a touch-screen device that allows art lovers to zoom in for a more hands-on approach to the masterpieces.

caption: Italian art, Cover Flow style. @centrica

Italian art, Cover Flow style. @centrica

You can flip through centuries of art — the same way you scroll through your albums on iTunes.

The program is called “Uffizi in a Touch” (sadly, a name not vetted by anyone who actually speaks English) developed by an Italian company called Centrica.

It took them four years to take life-size 100-megapixel photos that will be up for perusal in December for researchers and the more tactile groups of tourists.

No word yet on whether Apple will be after them for using the Cover Flow technology that’s been on the Cupertino company’s devices since 2006.

Italian Mobster’s Prison Paintings For Sale Online

Picture 7

Sicilian mafia turncoat Gaspare Mutulo, recently in the headlines for revealing a kidnapping plan aimed at Silvio Berlusconi, used his time in jail to paint.

His lawyer Silvio Nistico’ has put 20 of his artworks, which all portray a slightly naif if always sunny and calm Sicily, on display in an online gallery.

The views of small crowded houses and a sea framed by prickly pear cactus typical of the Italian isle go for about a thousand euro each, Italian media reported, though the online shop is not live yet.

@gaspare mutulo, painting detail.

@gaspare mutulo, painting detail.

The Palermo-born mobster, called “Asparino” diminutive for “Gasparino” in Sicilian dialect, was locked away various times between 1965 and 1992, when he became a state witness against the Mafia.

He was the first mafioso who spoke about the connections between Cosa Nostra and Italian politicians. Mutolo contributed to the indictment of Italy’s former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti and to an understanding of the context of the 1992 Mafia murders of the politician Salvo Lima and the magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

A Peek at the Real da Vinci Code

The Codex Atlanticus at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana

The Codex Atlanticus at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana

If you’ve ever wondered what’s inside Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, you’ve got six years to take a look.

Milan, where the original Renaissance man worked for years, has brought the largest collection of his drawings and writings, the 1,000-plus-page Codex Atlanticus, to the masses. The Codex is normally housed in the city’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana, where it is off-limits even to most scholars. But until 2015, visitors can view a rotating exhibition of selected pages from the real da Vinci code, grouped into themes including mechanical flight, anatomy and war machines.

Finished drawing for strut solution@ Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana -Milano

Finished drawing for strut solution@ Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana -Milano

Among the pages, dating from 1478 to 1519, visitors will find engineering designs, recipes, doodles from apprentices, as well as sketches for da Vinci’s many ahead-of-his-time contraptions. Da Vinci, who reportedly made sketches of his observations on loose sheets or on tiny pads he kept in his belt, left behind the largest literary legacy of any painter.

“It can be a little embarrassing, when people only expect to see finished drawings or amazingly detailed sketches,” said da Vinci expert Pietro C. Marani, curator of the first three-month exhibit, “Fortresses, Bastions and Cannons.”

“What you’re really looking at is a cross-section of art, science, technology, mechanical studies – all woven into the daily life of an amazing figure, but it’s not always what you might expect,” he said.

Full story on the Wall Street Journal Europe

Codex Atlanticus Exhibit Info:
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday
8:30 am – 7:00 pm
Price: €21.50 for both halves of the exhibit, includes reservation.
Online tickets and reservations: www.ambrosiana.it

How to See Caravaggio’s “Adoration of the Sheperds” During Restoration

Picture 1

Caravaggio’s 1609 masterpiece “Adoration of the Sheperds” is getting touched up in public — here’s how to book the free visits.

Like a lot of things worth doing in Italy, it won’t be particularly easy. Groups of 10/15 people will be allowed to watch restorers at work in Rome’s lower chamber of parliament until it is returns to pristine condition in January 2010. Visits are free, but available only Wednesday and Friday afternoons and last about 20 minutes.

Sponsored by broadband telecommunications company Fastweb, the online reservation form shows which dates are still available. (Here’s the Google translation into English, if you need it).

Ever since a restorer acquaintance let me climb up on Giambologna’s Ferdinando I de Medici statue to check out her work, I’ve tried to get a gander at restorations whenever possible, like Donatello’s David at the Bargello or at the frescoes at Santa Croce.

If you’re in Rome, it’ll be worth the trouble.