Upside to Financial Crisis: Tomb Raiders Out of Work

caption: found by police in an antiques market, this bust was put into a 2008 art show of recovered works.

caption: found by police in an antiques market, this bust was put into a 2008 art show of recovered works.

Even tomb raiders have to deal with a market in crisis: in the first half of 2009, thefts of Italy’s art and historical treasures were down 52% compared to last year.

Some 12,716 precious artifacts were stolen from churches, archeological sites, museums and private homes in the first six months of 2008, while 6,000 items disappeared so far this year, according to figures from the art-theft patrol of the Carabinieri.

Many of these paintings, vases, sculptures, religious paraphernalia end up on the international black market.

With thefts down, the Carabinieri have had more time to recover stolen goods. They’ve managed to track down and return to rightful owners 79% more antiques (from 3,955 in 2008 to 7,088), 34% more recovered archaeological finds (from 26,725 to 36,035) and over 3,000% more paleontological artifacts (from 238 to 7,747).

Key recoveries include Pompeian frescoes, funerary urns, objects from the Neolithic Age, bronzes and modern and contemporary art paintings, including an oil on canvas by Giorgio De Chirico.

For at least a hundred years, tomb raiders, called “tombaroli” in Italian, have been ferreting out artifacts and selling them, mostly unhindered, on the international market.

Roberto Conforti, who heads the special art-theft patrol of the Carabinieri, says the black market for artifacts rivals Italy’s drug and arms trade. In the last 30 years over 300,000 objects stolen from tombs have been recovered, according to Minister of Culture statistics.

Milan Design Week: Pac-Man Bookshelf, Ghost Lamps


Graphic and industrial designer Mirko Ginepro came to my notice with the iPod table for last year’s international furniture fair.

Keeping in the pop-culture theme, this year’s effort for the fair’s fuori salone is a wooden lacquer book case in the form of a giant Pac Man, called Puckman (the original name of the video-game icon), with companion ghost lamps.

Ginepro was inspired by the enduring icon of Pac-Man, he spent long afternoons spent playing Pac-Man against his sister on a Commodore 64 — now he plays it on his iPhone.

If you’re in Milan, it’s at the Nhow Hotel in Via Tortona.
For info, prices etc., here’s his website.

Image courtesy @ Mirko Ginepro

Menu for Leonardo’s “Last Supper” Discovered

Just what was on the table in Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper?”

Historian John Varriano has his theory, outlined in Gastronomica in a pithy account which draws inspiration from Leonardo’s shopping lists and anecdotes from Vasari.

The plates in front of Andrew and Matthew—the fourth figures to Christs’ right and left—are heaped with food. Not bread and lamb, as previously thought, but eel.

Varriano says the three serving dishes on the right are grilled eel with orange slices.

If you’re curious about what was on the menu, Varriano’s theory is easy enough to check out. The Last Supper was scanned in 2007 in a project to make it the world’s highest-res photo. leonardo last supper table

Armchair investigators can zoom in on the plates in question and get a much better look at the than provided in the article.

The orange slices are clearly visible. The eel? Hard to tell. Leonardo’s experimental paint techniques left a disastrous, flaking mess.

Gray-ish blobs certainly appear fish-like, reminiscent of eel dishes still eaten by Italians during the Christmas holidays.

Any guesses?

Peter Greenaway’s “Last Supper” — Held Over, Again

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan got a multimedia makeover thanks to British director Peter Greenaway. You can still catch it in Milan until September 6 when it’ll be packed up for an international tour promoting Italy’s Furniture Fair.

Visitors see the ravaged Renaissance masterpiece in a new way with lights, voices, sounds and images layering over the work, centering around the moment when Christ announces the betrayal of one of the apostles.

Greenaway’s film was intended to run on top of Leonardo’s original fresco, but although the project has been hyped for months, the Italian government woke up a few days before the launch and forbade any such artistic happening given the extreme fragility of the work.

Instead, the film projects over a life-size copy of the fresco at the Sala dei Cariatidi, normally closed to the public, in Palazzo Reale near the Duomo. I elbowed my way into the press preview, where the video is projected over a convincing replica of the fresco — thanks to an extremely high-res digital photo — while the room is divided by a long white table with white plates, cups and bread similar to the one in the artwork.

Viewers are sandwiched between the fresco and a back wall where up-close fragments of the fragile painting and portraits play across a screen — leading to a tennis-game effect since it’s impossible to know where to be look during the 15 or so minutes of the piece. (My friend and I both missed the final moment before the writing comes up on the wall because we were looking in the wrong direction. If you know how it ends, please email me.)

Though the experience would improve dramatically following a glass or two of Chianti, it is worth a gander, especially for the dramatic use of back lighting which seems to make the painting move towards viewers.

This is the latest in a trio of Greenaway’s projects in Italy — he “peopled” a newly-restored palace, the Venaria Reale, with 200 HDTV short films and used the same multimedia approach to enliven Milan’s recently inaugurated Design Museum.

If you go: Palazzo Reale
April 16–Sept. 6
Opening hours have been extended, too:
Mon., Tues., Weds., Sunday 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thurs., Fri., Sat., 2:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.

Admission every 20 minutes, tickets €5.
From the Duomo, walk all the way through the courtyard and up the huge stone staircase on the left. You’ll have to walk through part of the Canova exhibit to get there, there are combined tickets if you want to see both.

Italians Pray for New Religious Design

Baptismal Font -- VigolenoAn international design competition aimed at religious objects has extended the deadline until April 4 in hopes of getting more entries.

Called “deisign” (God-sign), promoted by the diocese of Cuneo and part of Torino’s year-long stint as World Design Capital, the competition aims to enhance and promote all spiritual, cultural, historical and emotional expressions of holy Catholic symbols.

The Torino Design Capital site says winning entries will demonstrate “a careful eye on the past for the forms of religious art over the centuries converses with the future and with other cultures through the present, involving contemporary expression.”

So nudge yourself beyond the bad English on the official site (“similarly a papery or cd-rom or dvd-rom will be predisposed for every elaborate”) and get cracking with those chalices, baptismal fonts, robes and crucifixes.

Prizes are mentioned — but sans details — as is a public show. Of course, eternal rewards are a given.

Swoon-Worthy Canova on Show in Milan

Canova statue

A young Italian woman swooned over a replica of Antonio Canova’s “Venus and Adonis” statue on display at a tourism fair.

Francesca Fraticelli burst into tears, then fainted after admiring the adoring glance of Venus and the gelid grace of the plaster copy — though hard to compare to the original 1795 work in marble — brought out to attract visitors to the Canova museum. (The finished version is housed in Geneva).

Fraticelli, who has a degree in art history, works as cultural attaché for the province of Chieti in the Abruzzo region. Luca Zaia, president of the Canova Foundation, helped her get back on her feet and escorted away from the statue. The next day, revived and perky looking with red-framed glasses, she nonetheless told Italian television news that she would avoid testing her mettle by looking at the statue again.

Symptoms including dizziness, palpitations and shaking normally associated with Stendhal Syndrome — first studied by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini — are often reserved for foreigners unused to seeing so many beautiful treasures crowded together possibly also suffering from heat and the after-effects of a gelato high.

Like to test whether Italian art can produce a good fainting spell? Milan’s Palazzo Reale hosts a Canova exhibit with statues on loan from the Hermitage (including the much-awaited “The Three Graces“) until June 2.

More quick pics here.

Has art ever made you lose your head? Let me know in the comments…

Italy Opens First Design Museum

Triennale Design Museum

A quick look at Milan’s new museum of design at the Triennale, which opened today.

First impression: it’s a little dark (maybe just opening night glam?) and an little sparse.
There are 400 objects, from Vespas and Moka coffee makers to Kartell plastic chairs and the Olivetti “Valentina” typewriter, that I remember seeing in just one room on a rotating basis before the new space. It’s been hailed as Italy’s first dedicated design museum, but takes up only one refurbed part (2,000 square meters, about 21, 500 square feet) of the cavernous Fascist-style building in Sempione Park.

Triennale moka

Architect Andrea Branzi, with enough rings around his trunk to have worked with many top-tier names in Italian design, curated the collection which includes pieces from Alessi, Achille Castiglioni, Ettore Sottsass and Zanuso. Instead of printed paper signs, little computer screens provide background info and dates on the works — for the moment only in Italian.

Triennale Design Museum Kartell room

The main room, which contributes much to the murky underwater feel of the place, is a multimedia “overture” by movie director Peter Greenaway, lots of naked bodies shot on transparent screens called “the body is design” (“il corpo è il design.”) Mah. Themes and exhibits will change every year during design week.

Michele De Lucchi created the most interesting part: a transparent walkway perfect for people watching.

Tickets are 11 euros, price includes a catalog.
Triennale Design Museum

High-Res Last Supper Reveals Leonardo’s Secrets

Last Supper in Hi-ResA 16-billion-pixel image of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper — said to be the world’s highest-resolution photo — went online Saturday, making the masterpiece available for scrutiny by art lovers everywhere.

White-robed Dominican monks opened the doors of their sacristy to unveil the high-res image of the painting on a giant screen just steps away from the real thing at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

The digitized version, produced using special techniques designed to protect the fragile painting from damaging light exposure, gives anyone with an internet connection a chance to dig deeper into Leonardo’s techniques than ever before.

With the air of chiding an old friend, Leonardo expert Pietro Marani zoomed in on the cuff of traitor Judas to show the gold flake Leonardo applied.

“He went against his own better judgment here,” Marani said. “We know he considered using real gold a cop-out, that he thought true artists should be able to make paint glitter like gold, but there it is.”

For a close-up on the workings of a genius, Marani recommended viewers search the Last Supper for the church bell tower and shrubs outside the windows, the patterns and wrinkles in the tablecloth, the reflection of an orange wedge in a pewter plate in front of Matthew and the perspective lines in the upper left-hand corner that lead (imperfectly) to Jesus’ eye.

Leonardo used oil and tempera paints on dry plaster, an experimental technique, and as a result, the Last Supper is now so faded and cracked it can’t withstand exposure to bright light. To protect the painting, HAL9000 worked with restoration specialists at Rome’s Istituto Centrale per il Restauro to develop a lighting system without the ultraviolet emissions and high thermal impact so hazardous to works of art. Shot with a Nikon D2X digital SLR in just nine hours, the total impact of the digitization process was equal to just a few minutes of the soft lighting that normally illuminates the painting.

More from zoomata’s Nicole Martinelli at Wired.

Neutron Beams Search for Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece

palazzo vecchio florenceFLORENCE, Italy — Art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini has waited 30 years to get to the bottom of his biggest mystery yet: whether Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest lost fresco lies behind a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio here.

Seracini’s team of 30 will scan the palazzo’s 177-foot-long wall in mid-November, looking for the Battle of Anghiari, a work so magnificent it has been called the “school of the world.” The $1.5 million search expedition will jump-start a multidisciplinary conservation program at the University of California at San Diego’s Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology.

Since founding the art- and architectural-diagnostic center Editech in 1977, Seracini — a fourth-generation Florentine — has synced studies in engineering, art history and medicine to examine more than 2,000 buildings and artworks. He augments standard archival work with the use of ultrasound, X-rays, infrared, thermography and ultraviolet devices.

Editech’s notable discoveries include the original positions of the Three Graces in Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring and the hasty cover-up by a lesser hand of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, which earned Seracini a mention as the only real-life character in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Full story at Wired.

Florence: smog may drive Giambologna indoors

GiambolognaGiambologna’s virtuoso marble statue “Rape of a Sabine” may be the latest work to head indoors because of pollution.

The powerful, writhing trio has been in the Loggia dei Lanzi next to Palazzo Vecchio since Giambologna laid down his chisel in 1583.

In 2001 (when I took this photo), restorer Alberto Casciani blasted the grime off using laser and tried several different “chemical shields” hoping to leave the statue in its original context, according to daily Il Corriere della Sera.

Every six months, the surface was checked for damage but the results haven’t been encouraging. Officials will decide whether to take the statue inside and leave a resin facsimile to face the elements in early 2008.

A big chunk of Florence’s statues has already headed indoors for protection, including the base of Benvenuto Cellini’s “Perseus” which Francesco I de’ Medici commissioned Giambologna to provide a counterpoint for in the loggia.

Critics are calling it a further example of the “museumification” of the city, but how much does this matter to the average visitor? Hard to say. The last time I was in Florence, a young foreign couple asked me how to get to Piazza della Signoria to see the “David.” I gave directions but pointed out that it was just a copy, Michelangelo’s original is in the Accademia. “Doesn’t matter, we just want to see one of them,” was the answer.