The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.

 

 

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.

 

 

Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.

 

 

Have a go at Sensing Spaces at the RA, by AHA alum Annie Gregoire

 

Eduardo Souto de Moura's concrete installation

When you hear the word ‘architecture’, your mind probably conjures images of the shapes of buildings, their facades, interiors, materials and ornament. But hopefully it will also lead you to consider feelings, to think about light, scent, texture, comfort, space, and everything else that is architecture in addition to its aesthetic. This is the principle of the Royal Academy’s recently opened exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and is one that everyone should be urged to consider.

 

The RA has devoted the grand spaces of its main galleries to architectural installations created by 7 architects. Those chosen to exhibit stretched to every corner of the globe, from Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Japan, Ireland and Portugal. It is refreshing to visit n exhibition turning away from the ‘big dogs’ that tend to dominate the British architecture scene. In a setting in which the art lover is so accustomed to just looking, you are now invited to touch, smell, spin, sit, wander, at any pace you choose, and absorb your surroundings.

 

On top of the Portuguese architects' 'Blue Pavillion'

This time, there is no designated route by which to visit each room. As I entered, however, it was  hard to miss the enormous wooden structure designed by the Chilean couple  Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Its bold geometry contrasts starkly with the classical interior of the gallery itself in an exciting and arresting way. A little investigation will lead you to the foot of four spiral staircases – choose any one and it will take you to a raised platform. Looking out from the top of this edifice offers a novel and interesting perspective on the space, highlighting the design and ornamentation of the gallery ceiling that you may have never noticed, or certainly will have never seen this close. The installation is enjoyable to explore, and for me its success lies not in creating a space for you to sense but a platform upon which to sense the exhibition space itself.

 

 

Inside Li Xiaodong's hazel labyrinth

Next I found myself transported by the all-surrounding work of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong who creates walls of hazel twigs assembled in a fun but sometimes disorienting maze. The two installations designed by the Grafton Architects from Ireland also totally dominate and transform the spaces they are in, creating fantastic effects by playing with straight lined designs and the interception and transportation of light.

 

Tailored light in an installation by the Grafton Architects

 

Kengo Kuma's magical network of scented bamboo

Scent constitutes an important part of place, experience and memory and this is addressed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. He has devised two dark rooms in which stand floor-lit lattices of thin bamboo sticks omitting scents that vividly recall his childhood. The final installation is enjoyable and the smell is certainly pleasant, however I found the exploration of scent and memory perhaps a little too obvious in this instance and found myself craving another layer of meaning. In these rooms the viewer must also walk around the sticks which are placed in the centre in an arrangement which confuses the idea of the exhibition a little – the construction operates less as a creation of architectural space and more as a sculpture or piece of installation art. Perhaps this was a deliberate intention to explore the line between architecture and sculpture.

Diébédo Francis Kéré's honeycomb lattice with straws installation
Visitors can contribute a straw to Kéré's installation

The Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has created a bright and fun tunnel made of honeycomb lattices, very enjoyable to wander through and with the addition of reclining chairs that allow you to stop and consider the space from a different perspective. Kéré, coming originally from a remote village in Burkina Faso, is interested in community and creating architecture that everyone can contribute to and feel part of. He emphasises this in the exhibition by leaving a box of bright coloured plastic straws and inviting visitors to interact with the installation by adding one or two to the lattice. The experience reminded me of contributing a twig or two to a forest stick house (to which any child of the countryside might be able to relate). Kéré’s ideas are engaging and thought-provoking but perhaps more could have been done to add to the visitor experience in this instance.

The exhibition concludes with a video that introduces the figures of the exhibition and runs through a series of their meditations on architecture with a backdrop of film of their work outside of Sensing Spaces (it is a great feature of the exhibition that the installations are accompanied by very basic labels and fantastically little supplementary information that could get in the way of your physical and personal exploration of the spaces) . The video provokes some interesting thoughts on the subject of our environment, as well as demonstrating that the architects featured are indeed exceptional, and have created some of the greatest and most interesting buildings of today.

Sensing Spaces is n innovative and exciting exhibition, though I have to say I was a little disappointed. I think I visited in the hope of being swept away into other dimensions but I was always conscious of being in the gallery. Perhaps this was in part the point of the show – to explore architecture within architecture. The most fantastic element for me was that each visitor is able to respond differently to the spaces; you can wander them alone and reflect on how your environment makes you feel, or use them as a platform for discussion with others. This exhibition explores something I have not encountered in a gallery before,  and if it is encouraging people to think more broadly about architecture and experience then it is a great success.

 

Experience many interesting thoughts on architecture at 'Sensing Spaces'

 

Exciting New Controversy Surrounding the Turin Shroud, by Anna Fothergill

For many centuries, the Turin Shroud has been cloaked in mystery and debate. The single piece of cloth shows an image of a skeletal like figure, with wounds consistent with someone who was crucified. Is this iconic image really that of Christ? The image is certainly much clearer in its black and white negative, adding to its divine nature. For many years, devout believers have flocked to the relic, despite scientific speculation, and it has proved to be a source of sacred comfort.

The scientific story of the shroud has in recent months taken a new twist. The Shroud has undergone numerous tests in chemical, biological and optical image analysis. Original radiocarbon dating tests of the Shroud, placed its creation back to the Middle Ages, and it was therefore written off as a medieval forgery; another relic whose origins had been glorified through myth and propaganda. In 1978, a team of American scientist tested some strands of the cloth, claiming to find no solid evidence that it was in fact a forgery. The question about how the image appeared on the length of linen was still a mystery. However, since 2005, suggestions were made that the samples used had in fact been damaged fragments from a fire the Shroud survived in the Middle Ages. This caused an even greater increase in the interest of the Shroud’s murky history. However, in recent months, new types of tests carried out by Giulio Fanti, (a professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at Padua University) have caused a stir in both the scientific and Catholic world. The tests were carried out through a form of radiation and have in fact, dated the Shroud back to the time of Christ, specifically 300 BC to 400AD.

 

Image pointing out wounds

This discovery is being disputed on every front for its scientific validity, however the tests have at last provided some kind of answer for the imprinted image. Mr Fanti was quoted in a recent Telegraph article as describing the stamp as being “caused by a blast of ‘exceptional radiation’”, more specifically, a blast of radiation from the inside out.

 

Image comparison of Christ

What does a discovery of this kind mean for the art and papal community? The Catholic Church has never confirmed or denied the authenticity of the Shroud, but have been greatly encourage by this new research.

Devotional Showing of the Shroud

The image of Christ is one that has long been established, the oval face with neat beard and parted hair. Despite the biblical commandment against creating idols, Christ’s face evolved from images that where supposedly not made by human hands. While many will defend vigorously that the Shroud is a fake, I wonder why there is such an aversion to considering the relic as authentic. Perhaps because of the divine and historical implications the Shroud would have if ever proved genuine. The thought that a man called Jesus might have been crucified and risen through a “blast of exceptional radiation”, is certainly an uncomfortable one to our society today.

 

Let’s Dig Up Some Dirt: Great Archaeological finds by AHA alum Maddie Brown

 

Word on the street, a carpark in Leicester…the site of one of the most exciting British archaeological discoveries in the 21st century? Really? Who would have thought it? On Monday 4th February 2013, scientists confirmed that they have indeed uncovered the grave of Richard III, the English king killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.

 

In response, I was asked to write this blogpost about some of the most extraordinary archaeological finds ever. I’m a history student and as such I can appreciate the role of the archaeologist and their importance to the study of material culture. This should be easy…

I start chatting away to my friend who is studying archaeology and anthropology and ask her to give me some inspiration.

‘mitochonrial analysis…bipedalism…encephalisation’

I was lost… Quite honestly, I just had Indiana Jones in mind.

Ummm. Right. I suddenly realise that to pick a few of the greatest archaeological finds is going to be more of a challenge that I initially thought.

The possibilities are infinite. Just google it and you will see for yourself. After all, the study of the human past… there is quite a lot there.

So, to narrow things down, do I go with historical archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, biological archaeology, or do I stick with British finds? Browsing the Internet for just 10 minutes the discoveries I made were incredible. I have picked some of what I liked best.

Here are a few of the amazing finds that I have dug up (…sorry):

1) The Dead Sea Scrolls

 

A collection of 972 scrolls found on the shore of the Dead Sea between 1946-56. They consist of biblical as well as extra-biblical documents but are traditionally divided into three groups: ‘Biblical’ manuscripts (copies of texts that can be found in the Hebrew Bible), ‘Other’ manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period that were not included in the Hebrew Bible) and ‘Sectarian’ manuscripts (previously unknown documents that outline the rules and beliefs of groups within greater Judaism).

The manuscripts themselves have been dated to a timespan between 408BC to 318 CE.

Without going to deeply into this, consider the creation and circulation of these documents around 1000 years ago… Wow.

 

 

 

2) The Terra Cotta Warriors

 

This terracotta army was buried with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huan in 210-209BC in the hope that it would protect the emperor in the afterlife.
It was discovered in 1974 by local farmers in the Lintong District of Xi’an. Current estimates put the number of soldiers at over 8,000 and that doesn’t include the chariots and cavalry horses!

How long did it take to make all of these I wonder…?

3) The Mount Owen Moa

 

Found in the 1980s in New Zealand this is a complete foot of a Megalapteryx didinus. It was a form of flightless bird, native to New Zealand and it is thought that most, if not all, of the species had died out as a result of overhunting by the Maori by 1400.

This foot has been tested and is actually 3000 years old…. Yep. No need to say more. Amazing.

 

4) The Oldest Shoes

I love shoes. I look forward to the day when I have the money I can buy a pair of Christian Louboutins (keep dreaming Maddie).

Now it may not exude the style of some Louboutins but this 5,500-year-old moccasin-like shoe is extraordinary. Found in Armenia in 2010, it shows that even half a millennia ago, protecting the foot (and the importance of accessorising?!) was understood.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. 5. Oetzi the Ice man

 

Found in 1991, the whole genome sequencing of the human remain of Oetzi was completed in 2012. It is a mummified corpse of a man who was killed over 5,000 years ago in the Italian Alps. Analysis of his DNA provided not only a unique window into Oetzi’s own life, but more importantly into ancient European migration patterns.

How they glean this information from analysis of a 5000-year old corpse is beyond me but the fact that we have such remains in our hands today is mind-blowing. Just think- 5000 years ago Oetzi was walking around like me and you!

 
   


I have no idea whether these are considered to be the greatest archaeological finds of our time but in a field all about discovery, the research for this blog was just that for me.

Have a look for yourself and see what you can uncover…

Andy Warhol – Playing with Layers.

In this cold, dreary weather, it seems like we could all do with a splash of colour in our routine. Humbly inspired by the recent exhibition of Warhol displayed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I’ve decided to dedicate this blog to the photographic re-creation of some of his work, focusing on the manipulation of multiple layers in portraiture.

There’s no Marilyn and there’s no Campbell’s soup tin, because, although now arguably synonymous with Warhol’s name, I left the exhibition assured that there were many more dimensions to Andy’s career, hence the reason why he is considered one of the most influential individuals of the 20th Century.

Above left: ‘Rosie’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) Here I have a photograph that has been duplicated and layered each frame on top of one another. I have enhanced the saturation of the original, replicating Warhol’s vivid palette. This acts as the base of the original, whilst, akin to Warhol’s portrait, I have sketched the top layer digitally, suggesting subtle details of the facial features.

Above right: ‘Muhammad Ali’ (Warhol)

With the striking simplicity of the line drawing, combined with the small inclusion of hand- drawn details, a sense of identity is created  for the subject, whilst unanimously creating a piece that successfully draws the viewer in, stimulating emotion. It’s almost reminiscent of the Baroque style, with regards to breaking the boundary between the subject and the observer.

Another aspect that impressed me was Warhol’s expertise in creating something magnificent from something so simple, reiterating layers of the same picturesque cliché in order to produce an alternative perspective on the subject.

Above left: Mickey Mouse Screen Print (Warhol) – Warhol’s prints are defined as screenprints on paper and were intended to be produced in multiple impressions.

Above Right: ‘Tara’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) – Here, a monochrome photograph is repeated four times and rendered with the ‘Conte Crayon’ effect in order to imitate the simplified style of the screen print.

Warhol is undoubtedly regarded as an astonishing colourist. I still can’t quite comprehend how he gets away with placing layers of decorative colour on fairly formally composed portraits, and it manages to prove a huge success. The colours chosen are far from naturalistic, yet seem to enhance the overall piece, consequentially adding further expression to the individual.

Above Left: ‘Sarah Bernhardt” (Warhol)

Above Right: ‘Self Portrait’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) Similarly to the first image, I have used multiple layers, combining a line drawing and a monochrome photograph. Additionally, I have added three more layers of separate colours, echoing Warhol’s style. For some reason, the image doesn’t appear primitive, yet instead, a portrait full of expression and animation.

I’ve only touched on a few examples of Warhol’s phenomenal use of layers, but the exhibition did solidify my opinion that he was indeed a master manipulator of photographic imagery and had the ability to transform familiar, commercial art into that of “high art”.