The Victory of Brescia

Remains of the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, findspot of the Winged Victory. Photo: Blue Guides.

I was last in Brescia in 2018, preparing for the first edition of Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes which was published the following year. Apart from the extraordinary beauty and interest of her museums and monuments (which I remembered from my last visit when at work for Blue Guide Northern Italy way back in 1996), I was deeply impressed by the multi-ethnic atmosphere of the city. The local government has not only ensured the integration of a new influx of immigrants but it has seen to it that Italian citizenship has been bestowed on the great majority of these new inhabitants. I was struck by many small details which suggested how successful this policy had been, somehow summed up in the simple small ‘supermarket’ outside the station with its sign boasting ‘Food from all the world’.

Little did I imagine that in March 2020, the province of Brescia together with that of her close neighbour Bergamo would have suffered the tragic record number of deaths from Covid-19 in all Italy. That month the army had to be called in to transport the coffins to cemeteries elsewhere in the country as there was no more room for them locally. We have learnt that whole communities of the elderly (many of whom had survived the last war) were wiped out in the valleys near the two cities. The President of the Republic has made a number of visits to these areas in the past few months (both in a public and in a semi-private form) to show his solidarity. And Brescia and Bergamo together (even if traditionally rival cities) are to be the Italian Capitals of Culture in 2023, as a way of helping them forward.

Although Lombardy is still the region of Italy hardest hit by Covid-19, there has been great rejoicing in Brescia this autumn to welcome back the city’s most astounding Roman bronze statue: a Winged Victory, which has spent the past two years in the state restoration laboratory in Florence.

In 2018 I saw it without its arms and its wings, which were already in Florence (in fact when it was unearthed in 1826, the arms and wings were not attached to the statue, but found nearby). Nevertheless, the impression made on me by this over-life-size lady, despite her shorn state, was immense. She glances down, while the folds of her delicate chiton descend to touch the ground having slipped off one shoulder. A heavier cloak clings to her legs.  

The statue was found in the early 19th century in the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, together with a hoard of other bronzes including six portrait heads from the Imperial age, so it is thought that someone had the idea of burying these wonderful artefacts all together in the hope that they would survive to be found again some centuries later. During restoration the Victory has been confirmed as dating from the reign of Claudius (AD 41–54) or from that of his successor Nero (AD 54–68). It seems to have been made, using the lost wax method, somewhere in northern Italy rather than in Rome. The statue is now lighter by some 100kg, as superfluous accretions both inside and out, many added during past restorations, have been eliminated. Traces of gilding and silver intarsia have been revealed. The Victory has many close similarities with the Aphrodite of Capua, preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The position of the Victory’s arms seems to indicate that she would have been holding a shield captured from the enemy on which she was writing the name of the divinity to whom the victory was owed, but the Greek model may have been Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, looking at her reflection in the shield of her beloved Ares, or Venus Victrix (the Conqueror) inscribing the victories of the first Roman emperors on the shield of Mars. The shield has not survived and we do not know in what material it would have been made. Another mystery is the raised left foot of the Victory, which has been interpreted by scholars as trampling a helmet (of the enemy).

The Aphrodite of Capua, a Roman marble of the Hadrianic era (2nd century) based on a Greek original. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC by 2.5.
The Winged Victory of Brescia, photographed before its recent restoration. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto.

When I saw the statue it was still in the superb Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia, which has an immense number of treasures from all periods, especially the Lombard era of the 6th century and the later Carolingian age (when the monastery of Santa Giulia was founded, in 753). These include an exquisite little ivory reliquary casket and the so-called Cross of Desiderius, as well as more mundane objects such as a perfectly preserved helmet apparently of the type worn in the Alpine area of Italy from the 4th–1st centuries BC, lined in leather for extra comfort. But since this museum is so large and needs much time to do it justice, the decision to display the Victory now in the southern hall of the Capitolium temple close by is a good one. It is also most fitting since the statue was found here. The design of the display has been provided by the Spanish architect and sculptor Juan Navarro Baldeweg. The Victory will be placed in a raised position (on an anti-seismic base) lit by a light symbolising the moon and reflecting the position of the shield. Although the statue is already here, it cannot yet be visited as all museums in Italy are closed due to Covid-19. But the Victory can be seen and the opening celebrations followed on her very own dedicated website

Alta Macadam, November 2020

Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

An Artist of the World

Portrait of the artist’s wife. 1918. Private collection.

A rare treat for lovers of portraiture: a small show entirely dedicated to the work of Philip de László (1869–1937) is currently running at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest.

On the face of it, this should not seem altogether surprising. Hungarian gallery exhibits works by Hungarian artist. Not a headline-stealer, you might think. But the extraordinary thing about de László is, that this is the first exhibition devoted to his work to be mounted in his native city for almost a hundred years.

De László was the last—and for many, the finest—portraitist in the Grand Manner. His biography is a true example of life mimicking fairy-tale. Born into a humble family in inner-city Budapest, he rose to become the most sought-after portrait painter of his generation. He married an Anglo-Irish girl, Lucy Guinness, and settled permanently in England in 1907. During the course of an exceptionally successful career he painted more than 4,000 likenesses: heads of state (many of them crowned), lords temporal and spiritual, celebrated hostesses, heroes of the battlefield—and was much honoured in recognition, receiving the MVO from Edward VII and a grant of arms from Franz Joseph (to name but two of the 22 distinctions heaped upon him).

The sixteen works on display in this small show, all from de László’s mature period, represent a tiny fraction of his total output. His pace was feverish and scarcely slackened, except when he was interned as a person of ‘hostile origin’ during WWI. The portraits, both from public collections and on loan from private ones, are well chosen, a mix of the famous, the not-so-famous and the fascinating to google. Among them are Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (when Duchess of York), Cardinal Mariano Rampolla (whose path to the papacy was blocked by Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary) and General Artúr Görgei, anti-hero of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1849. But the success of a portrait need not depend on the fame of the sitter (only think of Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier). By no means all of de László’s subjects were household names, but with an artist of his skill, that is irrelevant. De László was brilliant at capturing a likeness. His portraits flatter but never falsify. The face is everything, and it is made to speak volumes. ‘Wonderfully clever,’ was Margot Asquith’s verdict on her portrait of 1901, ‘and much more interesting than I am’. This is possibly because there is so much left unsaid. Unlike, for example, Pompeo Batoni, the popular Italian portraitist of some hundred years previously, who threw suggestive contextual paraphernalia into his backgrounds (hunting dogs and fragments of Grecian urn, to anchor his subjects in their ‘milords-on-the-Grand Tour’ personas), de László rarely uses extraneous props. The result is an impression of irresistible glamour. De László may have had extraordinary powers of psychological penetration but he also got to the essence of his sitters by the simple expedient of chatting to them. Many became lifelong friends. One gets the impression that sitting for him was fun. Unlike Sargent, who ultimately disliked a lot of the people who made his reputation, Eeyore-ishly admitting that ‘Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend,’ de László’s experience and approach was entirely the opposite. He liked people. He was a showman, garrulous and energetic. A lovely touch in this exhibition is a little cine film snippet that shows him darting about his studio with quick, robin-like movements.

There is also a sense of the thrill of the chase. One of the aims of the De Laszlo Archive Trust is to complete the Catalogue Raisonné of all de László’s works, the whereabouts of many of which are still unknown. But when a lost painting does float to the surface, the excitement is palpable. At the opening night of this exhibition, four generations of one family were present in the room: the sitter and her children staring out from one of the portraits and the grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter among the assembled guests. The group portrait in question had only just come to light, in eastern Hungary. Hiding in plain sight. But de László is not well known in his native country. Partly because he left it and made his name outside. Partly because the monarchs and prelates of the age he depicted were hopelessly bad cadre under Communism. Not all of their reputations have recovered (Admiral Horthy, Mussolini, Kaiser Wilhelm II) but as de László himself insisted—in a remark which has become famous and serves as the title of this exhibition—he painted people, not politics. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the portraits of his family. The portrait of Lucy (their relationship was not without its trials but remained devoted) is an exceptionally accomplished work, using the device of the mirror to play with ideas of reality and illusion, the paradox of the viewer viewed. Perhaps this little jewel box of an exhibition does something similar in the variety of ways it displays its artist to us. De László is manifoldly manifest. These are his portraits, of course. One of them is even a self-portrait. And then there is the cine-clip. But he is present in three dimensions too, in the form of a small sculpture by Paul Troubetkzkoy. A lovely example of the limner limned.

I am an Artist of the World runs at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest until 5th January.

The Seuso Treasure: a new display

Readers of these blogposts might have noticed our interest in the Seuso Treasure. We freely admit it. After all, these fourteen pieces make up what is arguably the finest trove of late imperial Roman silver in existence. And now, in a keenly-awaited move, it has become one of the permanent galleries at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest with an impressive and spacious new display.

Since 2014, when the first seven pieces of the hoard were repatriated by the Hungarian government, we have written plenty about the silver and its convoluted history. To read about that, see here (also linked at the bottom of this article). This post will talk exclusively about the new display, which opened last week.

What is immediately striking is the solemnity. The visit begins in a long corridor, flanked by artefacts and information panels that give context and set the scene. The experience is a little like entering a processional dromos or sacred way, leading to an ancient temple or tholos tomb. At the end of the corridor is the inner sanctum, where the silver itself is displayed in a space made mysterious by plangent music. The air is thick with the silence. Custodians are keen to remind visitors not to take photographs. It is almost as if we were being inducted into an Eleusinian mystery, with the injunction never to divulge what we saw and heard when we return to the less rarefied atmosphere of our ordinary lives. Certainly not share it on Instagram!

Whereas the previous display of the silver was cramped, with the pieces crowded together, almost as if mimicking the tight packing in the copper cauldron in which they were found, the new exhibition arranges the items far apart. Those which clearly belong together (the Hippolytus situlae, for example) are displayed side by side. The others are their own islands.

And now they are joined by the famous Kőszárhegy Stand (illustrated below), an adjustable four-legged contraption, a sort of luxury camping table, made of silver of the most extreme purity, purer than sterling. It was discovered near the village of Kőszárhegy, close to the putative find-spot of the Seuso Treasure itself, in 1878, during the chopping down and digging out of a plum tree. It was in a fragmentary state: two legs were unearthed together with most of two of the crosspieces. Restorers originally assumed that it had been a tripod, and integrated it accordingly. It was only when it proved impossible to prevent persistent cracking that the Museum team realised that it needed a fourth leg to make it stable and correct the tension. Two of the legs and X-shaped crossbars that you see today are original. The other two are restorations. The challenge is to detect which are which.The Kőszárhegy Silver Stand, in the Hungarian National Museum’s booklet on the Treasure.

The stand is an extraordinary piece, well over a metre high and capable of being adjusted to hold the largest of the Seuso platters. It is thought that it could have been pressed into service in a number of ways: to hold plates laden with good things at an outdoor feast, for example; or as a washstand bearing a silver basin and water pitchers. Its marine-themed iconography would support this view. Each leg terminates in a cupid figure riding a dolphin. Halfway up each leg is a sharp-beaked aquatic gryphon. The finials are decorated with silver tritons, clutching conch shells in huge-fingered hands, with water nymphs seated on their backs, naked but for a chain around their necks and a billowing veil above their heads. One of them holds an apple, the attribute of Aphrodite. As the information panel tells us, the Roman or Romanised Celtic domina who washed her face at this stand would have been flatteringly reminded as she did so of her own uncanny resemblance to Paris’s chosen goddess.

The Kőszárhegy Silver Stand, in the Hungarian National Museum’s booklet on the Treasure.

But the wealthy elite of Roman Pannonia were not goddesses or gods. As the central scene on the famous Pelso plate shows, they were a fun-loving bunch of mortals. They enjoyed picnicking in the open air beside Lake Balaton, scoffing freshly-caught fish and washing it down with beakers of wine. They loved their dogs and gave humorous nicknames to their horses. They threw banquets to show off their silver to each other, and display their erudition when it came to Graeco-Roman mythology. The characters that Seuso—whoever he may have been—chose to depict on his tableware, as reflections of his own attributes, were the great warrior Achilles, the great huntsman Meleager and the great reveller Dionysus. The women of his household are associated with Aphrodite, the Three Graces and Phaedra the temptress. These were people in love with life and merrymaking. So why the solemn atmosphere and the doleful music? Where are the dancing girls and the Apician stuffed dormice? The title of this display is “The Splendour of Roman Pannonia”: a good one; Seuso could certainly do bling. What he and his family left behind is ineffably precious. As well as revere it, we should also enjoy it, throw ourselves a little into the mood of carefree frivolity that these gorgeous pieces evoke.

The story of the Treasure on blueguides.com

Website of the Hungarian National Museum

The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last

The magnificent Seuso Treasure has finally gone on public display, at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. We have waited a long time for this. The Treasure (14 stunning pieces of late imperial Roman silver) has had an unsteady and sordid career, passed from hand to hand like an expensive courtesan whose origins are obscure and best not investigated too closely. After many decades, Hungary–who always stoutly maintained her claim to the trove–has redeemed it from its demi-monde existence and placed it on show as a magnificent piece of Pannonian patrimony.

The 14 pieces are as follows: four huge platters, variously decorated; a washbasin; five large ewers; two elaborate situlae (water buckets); an embossed amphora and a conical-lidded casket for perfumed unguents. They were almost certainly not made as a single set (dating from the 4th–5th centuries, there is a range of about five decades between the oldest and the youngest pieces) and they include items worked in vastly different styles. The elegant, strigilated washbasin and two ewers with incised geometric designs, for example, which are assigned by some scholars to a “Western” workshop, are stylistically worlds away from the jug and amphora with Dionysiac scenes of frenzied maenads and inebriated satyrs, punched out in a sort of bubbling, varicose repoussé that seems opulently “Eastern”.

Though Hungary’s ownership is no longer contested, the exact findspot of the Treasure remains unclear. In the 1970s a young man called József Sümegh stumbled on a Roman hoard packed into a wide copper cauldron in the vicinity of the village of Polgárdi, east of Lake Balaton. Sümegh did not live long to enjoy his find. He died in mysterious circumstances at the age of just 24 and the treasure vanished. What is most likely is that this is it, although the trail of the pieces when they cropped up on the art market was for decades deliberately obfuscated by dealers, smugglers, heisters and crooks. The Getty Museum was at one stage interested in purchasing the silver, but pulled out because its provenance documents turned out to be forgeries. By the time it ended up in the hands of Lord Northampton in England, it numbered 14 pieces, perhaps vastly fewer than had originally been stashed away, hurriedly and in panic, by a Roman family clinging to the coat-tails of their civilisation as it fled from the barbarian invasions of Central Europe. After long and intricate negotiations, Hungary finally succeeded in repatriating the Treasure in two tranches, in 2014 and 2017. The money that they gave for it (tens of millions of euros) was paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for long years of care and custody of the silver by others. This summer it went on permanent public display.

Why the “Seuso” Treasure? It was customary for the owners of valuable Roman pieces to scratch their names on them. Seuso, however, is mentioned in a dedication incorporated into the design of the large Hunting Plate: a huge salver with a decorated rim and a central roundel filled with a busy scene. In the middle are figures dining under a canopy. Around them are scenes of hunting and fishing. Above a band showing water teeming with fish is the word “PELSO”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The whole design is of silver gilt with the details picked out in niello (a black-coloured alloy of sulphur with copper and lead). Circling the roundel is the following inscription: H[A]EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECULA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS (“May these, O Seuso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily”). Small vessels these are certainly not: the total weight of the pieces is a whopping 68.5kg. It has been suggested that some of the silver came from a set that was presented to Seuso as a wedding gift (one of the picnickers on the Hunting Plate is a woman sporting a hairstyle in the manner of Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus). Anything smaller that may have belonged to such a set, however—cups, spoons, toothpicks—has not come to light.

Detail of the Hunting Plate, with the word PELSO bottom left.

Stylistically and in terms of subject matter there are a number of parallels. The Hunting Plate shows similarities to the Cesena Plate in Italy (for an image, see here). The scenes of hunting, with animals being chased into nets, slaves butchering them, and a family seated on a stibadium (curved couch) under an awning slung between trees, feasting and feeding titbits to a dog while their horses are tethered in the background, is identical in many details to the 4th-century mosaic floor of the Sala della Piccola Caccia in the Villa del Casale in Sicily. One way in which it differs is in the absence of a scene of sacrifice to Diana, which might be significant. Between the first and the last words of the Seuso inscription, encircled in a laurel wreath, is a tiny Chi Rho. Seuso might have been a Christian. Nothing otherwise is known of him. From his name he would seem to have been a Celt and from the scenes depicted on his tableware, we can surmise that he was a landowner and keen hunter who lived a gracious life in one of the fine villas that existed in Pannonia. A veteran general, perhaps, grown wealthy from service to an empire into whose culture and lifestyle he was fully assimilated. The heterogeneous nature of the hoard suggests that he might have received rich gifts as rewards for his service.

More personal details are entirely lacking but it is tempting to speculate. The strapline of the Hungarian National Museum’s 2018 Seuso exhibit was “Wealth, Erudition, Power”. Certainly, Seuso must have been wealthy and with that wealth would have come a certain degree of power. But how erudite was he? How deep did his Romanisation go? Petronius, in his Satyricon (1st century AD), the famous send-up of a vulgar, nouveau riche banquet, puts the following words into the mouth of Trimalchio, the host:

“I absolutely love silver. I’ve got about a hundred wine cups showing how Cassandra killed her sons—the boys are depicted lying dead in the most lifelike way. Then there’s a bowl my patron left me with a scene of Daedalus shutting Niobe into the Trojan Horse. And there are some goblets with the fights between Hermeros and Petraites. All of good heavy make. I wouldn’t sell my connoisseurship at any price.”

Cultivated Roman readers would have snobbishly tittered at the malapropisms. Trimalchio has no connoisseurship; he is an uneducated ex-slave, a parvenu from some further corner of the Empire posing as a man well versed in the culture of the native elite. He muddles Cassandra with Medea, Niobe with Pasiphaë and the Trojan Horse with Daedalus’ wooden cow. Was Seuso’s grasp of Graeco-Roman myth as hazy as this? We have no idea. But what the Petronius extract does suggest is that it was normal for possessors of fine works of art to make a show of knowing what they had. The pictorial world of ancient Rome was extraordinarily uniform. From Britannia to the Balkans and beyond people would have seen the same scenes depicted in exactly the same way, in sculpture, pottery, metalwork, painting and mosaic. “I’ve got two exquisite silver-gilt pails with the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra,” Seuso might have boasted, “And a gorgeous platter showing Meleager having just dispatched the Calydonian Boar.” It is a signal of Rome’s remarkable achievement in co-opting and homogenising so many diffuse civilisations that all of Seuso’s dinner guests would have known what he was talking about—or at least felt it necessary to pretend they did. It is also an extraordinary privilege to be able to admire those objects now, tangible vestiges of provincial pomp, of days of laughter and conviviality in some long-gone lacustrine willow grove.

The Seuso Treasure, on display at the Hungarian National Museum. For more details and good-quality images, see their website (at present in Hungarian only). The Museum has also produced an excellent booklet about the Treasure, in English and several other languages.

The Zeugma Mosaics Saga

Visitors to southeast Turkey will be familiar with the ‘Gipsy Girl’, the portrait of a young lady (actually a maenad, one of the frenzied followers of Dionysus) exhibited amid tight security at the Gaziantep Museum. The image—featured on the cover of Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey—is now so ubiquitous (second only to the Nemrut Dağ) that it has become the logo for ‘Archaeology in Turkey’; unfortunately in the process the archaeological context of the find has been overlooked. The image was uncovered in 1998–9 during the tail end of rescue excavations when work on the dam was completed and water levels were rising. We know that it came from a villa, one of the many in Zeugma, and on stylistic grounds it is dated to the 2nd century AD. Soon, however, visitors will be able to admire the piece in a context of sorts.

Back in the early 1960s, the villa floor had been unofficially excavated, at which time the mosaic floor was hacked into twelve convenient, portable sections and sold on the international art market. The items found a new home at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which paid $35,000 for them. Fifty years on, an agreement has been reached and the pieces will be repatriated.

Included among them is another female figure, a young lady with a frightening—or firghtened—look on her plump face and a lot of foliage in her hair. In this case the mosaicist did not reach the heights of the haunted look that has made the ‘Gipsy Girl’ so famous. On the other hand the birds are delightful and the theatre masks (if they are theatre masks) may offer a clue to understanding the composition.

In due course the pieces will be displayed at the Gaziantep Museum and one hopes that all 13 of them will be exhibited together on the floor, not hanging incongruously on the wall, in an atmosphere of less intrusive security and together with a plan of the villa.

By Paola Pugsley. Paola is the author of Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey. Her latest volume, Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum, was published earlier this year.

Season’s Greetings

This Advent we’ve chosen twelve different depictions of the Nativity, which we have discovered in the course of Blue Guides research trips around Italy—plus one final one from our latest title in preparation.

1. The ox and the ass and the baby in the manger from an early Christian sarcophagus (4th century) on display in Palazzo Massimo in Rome.


Related title: Pilgrim’s Rome

2. Mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi (5th/6th century) in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The mosaics date from the reign of the Arian king Theodoric. Note the opulent dress and the Phrygian (eastern) caps of the Magi. The Madonna and Child are represented not in a stable but regally enthroned.

Related title: Blue Guide Emilia-Romagna

3. Sculpted relief of the Adoration of the Magi from the Lombard Altar of Ratchis (8th century) in the Museo Cristiano in Cividale. For a review of the current exhibition on the Lombards, running in Pavia, see here.


Related title: Blue Guide Friuli-Venezia Giulia

4. Mosaic of the Nativity, probably by Constantinopolitan craftsmen (12th century) from the cupola of La Martorana in Palermo. The bathing of the newborn infant is shown below right. Below left is Joseph, asleep and slightly apart from the others, as traditionally depicted in early renditions of this scene. Above him is a parallel scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.


Related title: Blue Guide Sicily

5. Fresco of the Nativity by an anonymous Lombard artist (14th century) in the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, Como. The washing of the infant is again shown as a separate scene, and once again, Joseph is withdrawn to one side. Note the friendly ass, licking the baby’s face.


Related title: Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Lakes (pub. date to be announced)

6. Nativity scene from the predella of the famous Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (1423) in the Uffizi. Once again, Joseph is shown asleep, somewhat apart from the group. In a separate, parallel scene, the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in a brilliant glow from out of a sky spangled with lovely stars.


Related title: Blue Guide Florence

7. Fresco of the Nativity by Pinturicchio (late 15th century) in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The red brick and the breeze blocks of the dilapidated stable are particularly well done and Pinturicchio’s love of a detailed background is given full reign here: on the rugged hilltop ledge on the left are the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Below them the Magi are seen coming round the mountain at full tilt. And just behind the Madonna’s head is a delightful scene of a crowd crossing a bridge.

Related title: Blue Guide Rome

8. Detail of an early 17th-century terracotta tableau of the Nativity from the Sacro Monte of Orta San Giulio, Lago d’Orta. The scene seems identical to any other Nativity, but there is a twist: the infant here is not Jesus but St Francis of Assisi (and if you look carefully at the entire tableau, in situ, you will notice that it is not an ox and an ass that shares the stable with the Holy Family, but an ass and a mule). The idea that Christ’s life and the life of St Francis shared more than 40 parallels was dreamt up by a Franciscan Friar of the Counter-Reformation.


Related title: Blue Guide Piedmont

9. Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi by Federico Zuccari (1564) in the Grimani Chapel, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice. The altarpiece is badly damaged (the head of one of the Magi is missing) but the colours are beautiful.


Related title: Blue Guide Venice

10 and 11. Not paintings, frescoes or sculptures, but live installations. The first is from Manarola in the Cinque Terre, where every year from 8th December the hillside above the village is covered with hundreds of illuminated figures, creating a sort of electric crib scene. The second is from Genga in the Marche, where every year from Boxing Day until Epiphany, people form a living crib in the Frasassi Caves.

Related titles: Blue Guide Liguria and Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino

12. The Three Kings by József Koszta (1906–7). Koszta was a member of the plein-air artists’ colony known as the Nagybánya School. This work, which belongs to the Hungarian National Gallery, is a superb example of the colony’s style: the use of light and shade, of texture and colour, and involving the transposition of grand themes to a Hungarian peasant setting.


Related title: Blue Guide Budapest

The Seuso Saga

Together again under a single roof. In July 2017, the Hungarian government revealed that it had acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.

The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display in the Hungarian National Museum.

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Seuso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:

1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).

Detail from the Animal Ewer.

2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.

Dionysys and Pan: detail of the Dionysiac Amphora.

3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.

Hippolytus with the rejected love letter falling to the ground between his feet.

6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.

Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: the birth of Achilles.
Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: Athena receives the crown and palm of victory while Poseidon retreats.
Achilles hears the trumpet blast and seizes his spear and shield, causing consternation among the women. His manly leg is shown bursting from his chiton.

Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.

Annabel Barber

Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” restored

One of the Uffizi’s masterpieces, the unfinished Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci, has been absent from the gallery since 2011 undergoing a meticulous but complicated restoration in Florence’s famous state restoration laboratory. It has just been returned and is currently on view in a special exhibition on the first floor (it will remain there until 24th Sept, when it will once again take its place in the gallery, but in a new room specially designed for it). Centuries of surface dirt have been removed as well as the varnishes added over the years, and a microscopic restoration of the paint has been completed. The result is outstanding: the work is now thought to be as Leonardo left it, an unfinished painting, with some areas more complete and others just sketched, some with paint, others with charcoal.

The “Adoration of the Magi” before restoration.

The room which leads into the exhibition has been newly arranged with just two works superbly lit: the famous Annunciation by Leonardo, and his master Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, on which it is known that Leonardo worked (it is traditionally thought he painted the angel in profile, and it is now suggested he intervened also on the figure of Christ himself, and part of the landscape). We know that the Annunciation was painted while Leonardo was still in Verrocchio’s workshop but strangely we know nothing about who commissioned it or where it was to be placed. It is a truly wonderful painting, with every detail highly finished, from the landscape to the flowery meadow, from the classical sarcophagus to the transparent white veil of the Madonna. So it is all the more fascinating to be confronted in the next room with the Adoration of the Magi where one feels one can experience Leonardo’s moods and whims as he experiments with placing a horse here or there; inserting a strange classical building under construction (with its architect observing the work); deciding whether to include a camel, an elephant, a group of dogs; inserting some dark trees in certain places, as the entire scene begins to take shape.

The Madonna herself seems isolated in the middle of all this action, in her beautiful calm serenity, even though her cloak seems to have been caught up in a bizarre fold beneath her thigh. And the Child (with some of his curls still to be completed by the artist) has been given a superior air as he blesses the genuflecting king before him, but amusingly decides to ‘receive’ his gift by playfully just taking off its lid and leaving the heavy vessel in the old man’s hands. (One wonders if that is why Joseph in the background is seen holding just the lid of one of the other king’s gifts and why Leonardo decided to alter this detail from the drawing in which the Child takes the entire vessel from the king, resulting in the Virgin having to hold on tight to him because of its weight). The Three Kings are interpreted by Leonardo as rather terrifying old men, and the thoughtful figure conspicuous on the extreme left, painted in shades of dark brown, remains a mysterious onlooker (just one of the many enigmatic figures present). The numerous horses, one shown perfectly head-on to us and others only just taking form, are amongst the most fascinating details. Leonardo left the work at this stage since he was called away to Milan in 1482.

The exhibition also includes photographic reproductions of two of Leonardo’s drawings (one from the Louvre and one from the Uffizi’s prints and drawings collection) related to the Adoration, blown up so that one can see the various details. The former is interesting above all to show not how it relates to the ‘finished’ work but how it differs from it, and also shows just where Leonardo thought at first to place the kings, which he left sketched in the nude. Seeing these one does feel this would have been the occasion to have shown the originals of some of the other preparatory drawings by Leonardo (if only from the Uffizi’s own collection).

The exhibition also includes Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi because it was the work that the Augstinians commissioned in 1496 for their church, San Donato a Scopeto, outside the city walls (destroyed a few years later in the 1529 siege of Florence) when it became clear to them that Leonardo would never return from Milan to complete the Adoration they had originally commissioned. Filippino’s Adoration (which is exhibited beside three very mediocre panels of its predella, two now in the North Carolina Art Museum and one from a private collection) comes as a shock after Leonardo’s work as it is in such a completely different world, with an atmosphere totally diverse. The decision to include it here, to illustrate the history of the commission, was correct but this work, although Filippino was one of the great artists of his time, simply cannot be appreciated next to the Leonardo.

We now know that Leonardo’s work was never consigned to the monks of San Donato. According to Vasari it remained in the house of Amerigo Benci so was probably seen there by other artists of the time. By 1670 it had entered the Medici collection.

In the last room there is a reproduction of Leonardo’s work to scale which, using reflectography, revealed that there was a “faint, freehand drawing beneath the brushwork”. The other details of the restoration are well documented in a film. At one stage the carabinieri were called in to prove that certain marks found on the surface were indeed the fingerprints of the master, as well as, in one area, the impression of the palm of his hand.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, where this masterpiece is described on p. 134 of the new edition, just out.

Selectivity at the Uffizi

Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he was about to go back to the Uffizi with a grandchild and would be showing him just five paintings there. A method of ensuring not only his full attention but also his appreciation. I can only imagine what a memorable occasion that will be for the child.

Returning myself to the gallery the other day, I took the lift up to the first floor, and on the stair landing, outside the entrance to the Prints and Drawings Room, a little room exhibits just one work owned by the Uffizi, (and it will be kept there until 30th April). This is a large triptych signed and dated 1461 by Nicolas Froment, a little-known artist from Picardy, much influenced by the Flemish school. It came to Italy because it was commissioned by Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Terni, probably while he was in Flanders. Born in Prato, Coppini had a distinguished early career as a lawyer and diplomat, and Leon Battista Alberti dedicated his De Iure to him in 1437. He was sent to northern Europe by Pope Pius II and when in England, as papal legate, he attempted to interfere in the War of the Roses. When he sided with Edward of York, who was crowned king in 1461, against the House of Lancaster, the pope promptly disowned him and he was defrocked when he returned to Rome.

Meanwhile the painting seems to have reached Pisa by 1465, but just what happened to it afterwards is not known: we next have news of it in the Franciscan monastery of Bosco ai Frati in the Mugello (apparently a gift from a Medici). When the monastery was suppressed by Napoleon it came to Florence, joining the Uffizi collection in the early 19th century, attributed to an anonymous German painter. It is only since 1878 that Froment has been identified as the French master of this triptych as well as that of the Burning Bush painted for René of Anjou in 1478 (and now in the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence).

Today it has been wonderfully restored and is especially interesting for its subject matter, since it shows not just the central Raising of Lazarus, but also, on the left, the scene before the miracle, when Martha informs the Saviour that her brother is dead (the figure of Martha is the most memorable of all the figure studies in the painting) and, on the right, the Saviour seated at table after performing the miracle, having his feet anointed by Mary Magdalene. Lazarus (still with his beard and moustache, but now looking much better, dressed in blue) is sharing the meal. In this panel the fascinating details include a formal garden outside the window, and, on the table, a succulent roast chicken flavoured with herbs, a segment of pear with a fly settled on it, and a salt cellar. Judas (with a little fluffy dog at his feet) is the ugly disciple pointing at Mary, and Peter is the one cutting a slice from a loaf of bread by holding it and drawing his sharp knife towards himself (a gesture still sometimes to be seen at an Italian picnic). The central panel, with its lovely Gothic gilded fretwork, includes a self-portrait of the artist looking at us, and an amusing ‘courtier’ elaborately dressed trying to survive the stench coming from the decomposing body of Lazarus (who certainly looks as if he has indeed ‘returned from the dead’).

The triptych of three oak panels was made so that it could be closed, and on the panels of the door Coppini kneels before the Virgin.

On the wall of the room, a video illustrates details from the under-drawing, which was found through reflectography during restoration, and shows where the artist had second thoughts and altered his original design. The presentation is accompanied by an excellent little catalogue in Italian and English.

To learn about a painting’s history, and the technique used in producing it, apart from the name of the author and the subject matter, adds so much to its interest and increases one’s appreciation. It seems a very good idea to provide visitors with an in-depth study of one painting in this way, and hopefully it will encourage people to become more selective in what they choose to see among so many masterpieces in the gallery.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.