This lovely gentleman right here is Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection is the basis of the British Museum. A physician and collector, Sloane amassed a huge array of scientific and historic artifacts — an impressive 71,000 books, manuscripts, natural specimens and “things relating to the customs of ancient times” which became the foundation of the museum. Sloane started off his collecting spree by gathering natural specimens, many of which he got on an adventure in 1687 to Jamaica. During his time there, he amassed over 800 plants and other live specimens. He didn’t stop there though– Sloane became a collector of collections! He purchased collections by people such as William Charlton and James Petiver. Once word got around that Sloane enjoyed collecting these specimens and objects, you can bet that every birthday and Christmas he was gifted with more pieces to add to his collection.
Though the British Museum is known today primarily for its antiquities, it wasn’t until 1772 when Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek vases was bought by the museum that they began to accrue much of the classical antiquities collections. Now, the British Museum holds over 8 million objects – which all started from Sir Hans Sloane’s generous donation.
The Aztecs had an extensive empire in Mexico, ruling from the Island metropolis of Tenochtitlan, in Lake Texcoco. They forged an imperial dynasty based on military prowess and a network of long-distance trade and tribute routes that stretched from the Caribbean to the Pacific. They treasured the precious stone, turquoise, which among other green stones symbolized life-giving water and the sources of fertility. The mineral was scarce, and reserved for ritual objects and ceremonial regalia worn by priests and rulers. Aztec trading emissaries went as far as the South-West of North America (think Texas, New Mexico and Arizona) where there were mines of turquoise. However, only about 55 turquoise mosaics are known to have survived. Taking the scenic route to the BM’s room 27, here there are 9 of their finest examples. The BM bought them in Continental Europe – it’s thought that they may have made their way to Europe via Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes, who the Aztecs would have presented with such treasures upon his arrival to the coast of Mexico in 1519 AD.
Examples range from one of the BM’s highlight, a double headed snake. To a frightening skull, who would have dangled around the waist of a priest while he was making sacrifices (think cutting the heart out of some poor schmoe!). Then there are turquoise mosaics, such as on the handle of the sacrificial knife, in case the skull didn’t drive home the gruesomenature of their sacrifices, this knife was actually used in obtaining the live, blood-pumping hearts from their sacrificial victims!
A high priest would have needed their hands free (to hold the knife, presumably!), so the priest would have worn the skull dangling around his waist while performing a human sacrifice which was made in the belief that blood offerings kept the sun on its course. Now how’s that for grisly & gross?
Remember, hunters, if a sentence is bold it’s likely to be helpful on bonus questions for while you’re hunting!
The other day I touched on Spain’s Span Across Europe in the general. It’s true that Spain’s reach was just so broad that it’s hard to know what to focus on at the Prado (the royal collection reflecting the crown’s omnipresence). However, what’s better to linger on than a hermetically sealed connection between the Prado and the Louvre? And what better represents the Louvre than Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? It’s a painting I generally avoid – in my treasure hunts, or in person at the museum. Too much hype surrounds her cryptic eyes, too much money spent on magnets with her “enigmatic” smile – not to mention the flocks of publicists who’ve promoted a ‘famous author’, as St Sulpice refers to Dan Brown, and his tours to the Mona Lisa. (and yes I do love St Sulpice for thinking it below them to even name this famous author, resentful of the many tourists who march right past their Delacroix frescoes or Pigalle Baptismal font to find the P/S in the stained glass + Meridian line mentioned in the Da Vinci Code).
But it feels like a knee-jerk reaction to Lisa’s fame to avoid her entirely. So while trawling the internet to soak up all-things-Prado I was truly floored and excited to read about last February’s discovery of a contemporary copy of the Mona Lisa, found at the Prado.
The picture is more than just a studio copy— apparently it changed as Leonardo developed his original composition. Infra-red reflectography images of the Prado version allowed conservators to see beneath the surface of the paint, to the under-drawing. Apparently the two versions were painted next to one another and painted au même temps! Which means the copy must have been by an apprentice in his studio.
There was a dull black background that left a deadening effect on the Prado Mona Lisa (who’s generally believed to have been Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo – thus the French and Spanish name for her La Joconde/Gioconda, respectively). Conservationists aren’t clear on why the black over-paint was there, but believe it was added in the 18th century.
In 1992 Art Historian José María Ruiz Manero published a paper called “Italian Painting in 16th Century Spain” where he surmises that the painter was Flemish and that it was probably painted in Northern France. Because the Prado version’s wood was assumed to be oak (rarely used in Italy at the time) Northern Europe was an entirely plausible guess. However, last year the panel was found to be walnut, which was used in Italy — as was poplar, what da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is painted on.
What I don’t understand is why all of the newspapers refer to it as a copy, as in this Guardian article or this Time Magazine piece… If it was painted simultaneously and developed along side Leonardo’s, why isn’t it simply thought of as another painting of the same subject, by a lesser painter?
Even more interesting than this is who painted this Prado version of the Mona Lisa. Though it hasn’t been confirmed (the discovery was only unveiled at a National Gallery (London) conference of conservators, most people seem to believe it was by Andrea Salai, an assistant to and perhaps Leonardo’s lover. More on that for our next visit!