Florence News: New Botticelli rooms open in Uffizi

The long awaited new Botticelli rooms at the Uffizi opened in mid-October after being closed for fifteen months. The heavy dark planked ceiling is gone and the Early Renaissance master’s works are now spread across three rooms with white walls and brighter lighting. While most paintings are still covered in glass, it is less obtrusive. Glare has been minimized.The most famous works, the Birth of Venus and Primavera, are given generous space and recessed into gallery walls.

In the new layout, all Botticelli’s works have been restored and given more space. There is a fresh feeling like a newly constructed home compared to the old dark and crowded spaces. While you can’t actually smell the new paint, you can still see the marks of the suction cups used to place the glass in front of the Birth of Venus.

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A Director’s tour of Florence’s new Duomo Museum

The opening of the Museo del Duomo in 2015. Photo: Andrea Paoletti

The opening of the Museo del Duomo in 2015. Photo: Andrea Paoletti

The reviews for Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo highly anticipated reopening in 2015 after an expansion and extensive renovation were enthusiastic. The Florentines were thrilled about finally having a truly 21st century museum in their city center. But when I made my first visit that November, my reaction was very different. I was stunned by the many unaesthetic choices made by its designers, left cold by its grand gestures, and particularly disturbed about how it had intentionally eliminated the possibility of intimate contact with so many of its iconic works – like Donatello’s Magdalene – something that was a hallmark of the old museum. This past summer I returned again, hoping that my initial reaction was simply shock at seeing big changes in an old favorite museum. Yet the second visit only reinforced my disappointment and frustration.

This Fall, however, I had an extraordinary opportunity to understand the philosophy behind the changes to the Museo dell’Opera by joining a tour given to Museum Studies students. The leader of the tour was none other than its Director, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, who, I came to learn, was behind all of the design decisions for the new museum. If anyone could convince me of the wisdom of these changes – this was the man.

Monsignor Timothy Verdon

Monsignor Timothy Verdon

Timothy Verdon has had an extraordinary career. While originally from New Jersey, he has lived and worked in Florence for more than half a century. An expert on sacred art, with a PhD in Art History from Yale University, he has curated important exhibits and written many books on the subject. Today, besides being Director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, he teaches at Stanford University’s Florence campus and is the Canon of the Florence Cathedral complex, which includes the Baptistry, Giotto’s Campanile (or Bell Tower), and the Duomo.

Our group met the Director in the lobby, which remains at the old entrance to the Museum. Msgr. Verdon greeted us with a sweet and friendly smile, acknowledging his enthusiastic introduction by a faculty member with endearing modesty. He began the tour by explaining the goals of the renovation.  His words revealed the central role he had played in developing its new vision. “My vision” was to re-connect the museum with the historical sites of the Cathedral piazza. He pointed out that the Duomo museum is unlike a typical museum, since almost all of its art is from one place – the buildings of the Piazza del Duomo — the same place where it is shown. Thus, unlike almost any other major world museum, it provides a unique opportunity to talk about the place itself and to have what Verdon called a ‘narrative.’

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Update on the Missing Botticelli

Botticelli St Augustine restored bannerIt was a stormy afternoon (not night), when I nervously entered Florence’s Ognissanti Church to check if Botticelli’s St. Augustine had finally returned. My last meeting had run late and I was out of breath. Tomorrow my flight was leaving at sunrise, so this would be my last chance. I walked at top speed nearly the whole way, because it was close to closing time. There was no time to take more than a few irresistible last looks at the city (Santa Maria Novella, the Arno).  Luckily, a thunderstorm had just ended, thinning the crowds of tourists, but the stone pavement was slippery in spots along the way.

For the past three years, I had made this pilgrimage, only to experience disappointment. Ognissanti, one of the important neighborhood parish churches of Florence, has quite a few treasures, like its beautifully restored, spectacular 15 foot tall crucifix by Giotto. It is also the final resting place of Sandro Botticelli, his tomb near the feet of his unrequited love, Simonetta Vespucci, the model for The Birth of Venus and other masterpieces. Visitors from around the world leave love notes addressed to the artist there.

But one of my favorite Botticelli frescoes, St. Augustine in his Study (1480), has been missing for years, its place taken by a mounted, fading color photocopy. Just across the aisle hangs a fresco designed to be the other half of a pair — Domenico Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome in his Study (1480).  St. Jerome appears to be looking across at St. Augustine. Leaning his head in his hand, he seemed to, while trying to be philosophical, share my frustration looking across at the poor copy.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study (1480)

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study,  1480

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Vigée Le Brun’s unfortunate marriage

Lebrun,_Self-portraitThe odds were stacked against Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, yet she became one of the most successful court portrait painters in France during the reign of Louis XVI. Many troubles would come her way during her life. But the worst may not have been the French Revolution, it may have been her husband.

Born in Paris in 1755, Élisabeth Vigée demonstrated great artistic promise as as a young girl. Her father, a pastel artist himself, told her, “You will be a painter, my child, if ever there was one.” Still, her application to train at the painter’s guild was denied because she was a female (even though her father was a member). Forced to learn at home, she set herself on a course that mirrored academic training by copying plaster casts and engravings. While her father helped with lessons, her mother took her to exhibitions and acted as her chaperon when the young Élisabeth visited homes to work on portraits.

By the age of 19, she already had a successful career. Too successful — she attracted the attention of the local authorities, who closed her studio down because she was not a member of the artist’s guild. To make matters worse, after her father’s untimely death when she was 12, her mother had married a wealthy jeweler who collected the young artist’s fees and was not eager to share them with her.

Young Self-Portrait

Young Self-Portrait, c. 1782?

Vigée managed to gain admission to the painter’s guild after they unsuspectingly exhibited her paintings at their annual exhibition in 1774. By then, the daughter (whom her mother once thought homely) had become a beautiful young woman who attracted not only commissions but the attentions of many important people, including Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun, the most successful art dealer in Paris. Le Brun was one of the first dealers to sell artworks as investments and was an innovator in making art a much more international trade.

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), Self-Portrait, Salon of 1795

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), Self-Portrait, Salon of 1795

According to Vigée, Le Brun invited her often to his mansion, which was filled with art. “I was enchanted at an opportunity of first hand acquaintance with…works of the great masters. M. Lebrun was so obliging as to lend me, for the purposes of copying some of his handsomest and most valuable paintings.”

To her surprise, in 1776, Le Brun asked her to marry him. Already a favorite portrait artist of Paris’s aristocratic women, she wondered if it was wise to give up the name by which she had become well known. But her home-life was becoming miserable. Her stepfather had retired, was becoming increasingly ill-tempered, and was hoarding her earnings.

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The Monk and the Missing Botticelli: A Florence Story

botticelli closeup

One of the treasures of the Ognissanti Church in Florence has been missing for years. Ognissanti, known for being the burial place of Sandro Botticelli and Amerigo Vespucci, and for its huge and recently restored Giotto crucifix, is a pilgrimage site for art lovers and romantics. In 1480, the Vespucci family commissioned a pair of frescos that face each other across the main nave:on the left, Saint Jerome at his desk, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio; on the right, Saint Augustine in his study by Botticelli.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, St. Jerome in his Study, 1480.

Sandro Botticelli, Saint Augustine in his Study

Sandro Botticelli, Saint Augustine in his Study, 1480.

Sadly, the Botticelli  is no longer there. In its place is a photograph of the fresco. For years now, whenever I visit Florence, I go to Ognissanti hoping to see the original fresco has returned, only to be disappointed. The print at this point is fading badly, its colors turning a pale blue like an old family Kodachrome.

While I always assumed the fresco was only temporarily removed for restoration, about a month ago I decided to investigate. On a cold February morning, I approached a monk who was huddled in a corner near the entrance, wrapped in his robes, a stocking cap under his hood. I recognized him from my previous visits as the guardian of the church. He appears to be Asian, possibly from the Philippines. Even though we have never talked, I had a fond feeling for him because I believed he was responsible for the lovely recorded religious music that fills the church.

I asked in my weak Italian, “the Botticelli fresco, is it being restored?” The question seemed to rouse him. Over the next ten minutes, I would get an earful from the monk in a mix of Italian and English.

“In restauro? (restoration?) That’s what they said. Two years ago! But it is not being restored at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is on tour of Japan to earn money for the state.”

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Triumph and Travesty in Florence: Baptistry cleaned and Museum reopens

Baptistry before and during cleaning

Baptistry before and during cleaning

This fall, there is good news and bad news from Florence. Lovers of the city rejoiced during the last week of October when, just before the visit of Pope Francis, the scaffolding and giant canvas tarps around the Baptistry finally came down. Since February 2014, the nearly thousand year old Florence Baptistry has been wrapped and blocked from view while its walls were given their first top to bottom cleaning in seventy years. Like a giant gift box finally opened, all can finally see what has been missing from the heart of the city for almost two years.

The cleaned walls of the Florence Baptistry

The newly cleaned walls of the Florence Baptistry

The $2 million restoration was a huge undertaking not just because of the size of the building or its age, but also due to the variety of marble found on the Baptistry’s exterior. According to the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, which manages all the historic buildings in the piazza, its cladding ranges “…from Apuan [Carrara] marble to the oldest marble recycled from ancient Roman buildings and tombs.” Most difficult to handle of all is the green serpentine of Prato, a very fragile stone. Depending on the material, conservators used chemical softeners, sponges, scalpels and lasers along the eight sided building.

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Roman relief sculpture in Baptistry wall

Roman relief sculpture in Baptistry wall

Yet I am happy to report from a visit earlier this month that the results are simply spectacular. The white marble looks bright and fresh. It contrasts beautifully with the black and green marble, which now appear deep and resonant. The Baptistry’s designs seem crisper and more abstract than before – almost modern.  In comparison, the nearby 19th century facade of the Duomo’s entrance, cleaned not so long ago, seems not just overly complicated, but also tired and grimy.

Detail of Baptistry wall

Detail of Baptistry wall

Perhaps most shocking is the change in the Baptistry’s roof. In the past, it had a gray metallic color with what looked like some random splashes of whitewash.  Now, one can see that it is not made of lead at all but stark white marble.

Marble roof of the Baptistry

Marble roof of the Baptistry

The success of the restoration is good news to art and architecture lovers. Unfortunately, the news is not so good concerning the long awaited expansion and reopening of the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. The two and a half year renovation tripled the exhibition space of the museum and allowed for a complete reconsideration of its exhibits. It now has a great hall, the largest exhibition space in Florence, which features a life-size reconstruction of the original Medieval façade of the Duomo and the newly cleaned Baptistry doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, “the Gates of Paradise”. Continue reading

Florence: Great Art Without the Crowds

Gozzoli-LProcession-BR800Everyone knows that there is great art in Florence, Italy.  What the Taj Mahal is to India, Big Ben to London, and the Eiffel Tower to Paris, the Uffizi, Accademia, and Duomo are to this Tuscan city.  Here throngs of tight-packed tourists from all over the world follow in the wake of their multilingual guides, anxious for a chance to finally see the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Michelangelo’s David, and Brunelleschi’s Dome.  Unfortunately, the Birth of Venus is hidden by a pane of glass and so badly lit that it looks better in reproductions; the David is magnificent but the space around it usually packed with other viewers.  The dome of the Duomo is indeed fabulous outside and in, but disappointingly located in a cathedral from which most of the original decoration has been removed to a museum, now closed for renovation.

Yet Florence offers other treasures, less famous and far less crowded, but equally rewarding. In fact, although these works of art are not among those featured on 72-hour tours, they are easier to spend time viewing.  In particular, we recommend three under appreciated places to enjoy art in Florence: the Orsanmichele, the Magi Chapel of the Medici-Riccardi Palace, and the Bargello.  In all three, without reservations or long lines (without even an entry fee at Orsanmichele), you can spend the time it really takes to study and enjoy artwork in a peaceful setting.  The three little-known artists we highlight here are Orcagna (Andrea di Cione, c.1308-1368), Benozzo Gozzoli (c.1421-1497), and Desiderio da Settignano (c.1428-1464).

orsanichele.view

Orsanmichele, Florence

Orsanmichele, Florence

Florence’s Orsanmichele is a common tourist stop, but most groups come only for a look at the famous statues on the outside by Donatello, Verrocchio, and Giambologna (ironically, all copies).  Originally constructed as a place to store and sell grain, the ground floor was converted into a church in the 14th century.  Here Orcagna (the leading painter, sculptor, and architect of Florence at the time) was commissioned to create a tabernacle to house a sacred image of the Madonna and Child by Bernardo Daddi.  This painting replaced a fading fresco by an unknown artist, a picture of Orsanmichele,_interno,_tabernacolo_dell'orcagna_03the Virgin which had attracted its own following through miraculous powers. Not accidentally, Daddi’s masterpiece, known as the “Madonna della Grazie,” was completed in 1347, a year after the Black Death struck Florence.  It is a masterpiece of Italian Gothic painting, yet not as unique as the ornate structure that frames it.

The preservation and restoration of this tabernacle is so amazing that it seems to have been built in the Gothic revival style of the 19th century, not in the actual medieval period more than 650 years ago.  The marble glows, the inlays of glass and lapis lazuli sparkle, the gold accents glint, reflecting the gold leaf of the halos and throne on the painting it houses.  The Madonna seems to be enclosed in a tiny chapel of her own, a church within a church.  Intricate yet harmonious, the carvings intersperse religious scenes and figures with decorative patterns.  Orsanmichele,_interno,_tabernacolo_dell'orcagna_07.detail

The interior of the Orsanmichele is perfect for the quiet contemplation and appreciation of a Gothic masterpiece.  Perhaps because Florence is primarily known for Renaissance art, Orcagna’s tabernacle (and Daddi’s Madonna) remain overlooked gems.

Our next stop, however, takes us into the Renaissance and even into the palazzo of the patrons most associated with Renaissance Florence, the Medici.  The palace known today as the Medici-Riccardi, conceals within its massive walls — so typical of Florentine architecture — another uncrowded surprise.

Medici-Riccardi Palace

Medici-Riccardi Palace, Florence

Benozzo Gozzoli is far from a household name in the United States, even for art aficionados.  Yet this Medici palazzo owes its appeal to a single room decorated with his frescoes.  The walls of the “Chapel of the Magi” (1459-61) create a magical space where the three Wise Men — here interpreted as elderly, mature, and youthful kings — their courtly followers, horses, servants, and pet animals (including a cheetah) wend their leisurely way toward Bethlehem.  Dressed for display in the sumptuous brocades that made Florence wealthy, they pose attractively amidst a landscape of rocks, where a long cavalcade of of travelers climb and descend among picturesque hills and valleys.  In fact, with their handsome mounts and weapons, they seem more like nobles on their way to a hunt or a joust than the mystic scholars of the bible story.

In fact, Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico and an assistant to Ghiberti, incorporated several portraits in this scene which stretches around three walls of the small chapel.  Art historians don’t completely agree on the identifications, but it seems that the figure in black (below) is Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), founder of the dynasty and patron of this work, on a modest donkey. The figure next to him, on the white horse, is his son Piero, father of Lorenzo di Medici.

Cosimo I (in black)

Cosimo I (in black)

Other identifications are less certain.  The young king has often been called an idealized portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was only a boy at the time.  Another boy in the cavalcade has been called Guiliano, his younger brother who was later killed in the Pazzi Conspiracy.

The fresco even includes portraits of the artist — Gozzoli himself — one wearing a red hat, and another holding up his hand as if to say he made this work.

The Bargello, Florence

The Bargello, Florence

The third site we recommend for art appreciation is the Bargello, Florence’s museum of sculpture.  The Bargello is to Florentine sculpture what the Uffizi is to Florence’s painting. In fact, many of its works were formerly part of the Uffizi Collection. Here you may recognize well-known masterpieces of the Renaissance by Donatello, Verrochio, and Michelangelo.  We recommend that you widen the scope of your discoveries to include the work of Desiderio da Settignano.

Settignano-Marietta-StrozziA Renaissance sculptor who attained popularity at about the same time that Gozzoli was painting the Chapel of the Magi, Desiderio is known for particularly graceful and sensitive portraits and relief sculptures.  At the Bargello, you will see his portrait of Maria Strozzi, a head of John the Baptist, and a beautiful Madonna and child — among other notable works.    Once you recognize his style, you will be able to identify other sculptures as well.

 

 

 

desiderio.stjohndesiderio.madonna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of the three artists we have focused on here, Desiderio is best represented in collections outside of Italy – for instance, you can find his work in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C.

Great art is everywhere in Florence; these are only a few examples of where to find it “off the beaten track.”  If you prefer to enjoy your art without crowds of tourists more intent on selfies than the masterpieces in front of them, we recommend venturing to one of these locations and immersing yourself in more relaxing art appreciation.

 

The Horse from the Battle of Little Big Horn

D17 Horse Effigy

Joseph No Two Horns, He Nupa Wanica (Hunkpapa Lakota), Horse Effigy, c. 1880. Wood (possibly cottonwood), pigment, commercial and native-tanned leather, rawhide, horsehair, brass, iron, bird quill. Length: 38 1/2 in. South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre.

Joseph No Two Horns‘s Horse Effigy is not only a powerful sculpture, but a portrait of a beloved horse ridden to victory in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In a recent exhibition of Plains Indian art with hundreds of objects at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it regularly drew the biggest crowds. His horse’s death in that battle haunted the artist for the rest of his life.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939.  Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939. Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

In 1876, No Two Horns or He Nupa Wanica, was a 24 year old Hunkpapa Lakota warrior following his chief and cousin, Sitting Bull, when he fought in the most famous battle of the Great Sioux War. Popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand, it is called The Battle of Greasy Grass by the Lakota. On June 25th, General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were scouring the Montana territory looking for about 800 “hostiles” as reported by his scouts. Custer expected to easily drive them back into their reservations. Instead, when the Seventh Cavalry attacked what they thought was a small village, Custer and his men found themselves facing the combined forces of thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.

Drawing by Joseph No Two Horns. c. 1876.

Joseph No Two Horns, Death of Blue Roan Horse. c. 1876. Drawing on paper, 8 x 10 “. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

In the battle, No Two Horns’s blue roan suffered seven bullet wounds before collapsing, but not before carrying No Two Horns to victory over the army of General George Custer.  For the rest of his life, until his death in 1942, he portrayed this event in colorful drawings and paintings, as well as sculptures.

horse close-upThis wooden sculpture from 1880 shows his galloping horse is in the midst of battle. It stretches and strains, fighting to keep moving as death nears. His eyes are brass tacks, his leather ears are pulled back. Bullet wounds across his body run red. His mouth is covered in blood and red dyed horse hair dangles to represent blood running from his mouth.  Like a skilled animator, No Two Horns pulls the horse’s torso into the long line of its motion path.

The love of horses is an important part of Plains culture and one of the many atrocities of General Custer’s Seventh Army was their systematic slaughter of Plains Indian ponies. The Lakotas were a warrior society and these effigies or Dance Sticks were used in ceremonies and dances to prepare for battle or celebrate victories. This is, however, the only existing Dance Stick that shows the entire body of a horse.

hs_logoNo Two Horns remains one of the most famous artists of the Plains Indians and his effigies the model for many other Plains artists. Today, his Horse Effigy is not only the most prized object in the collection of the South Dakota State Historical Society but their symbol.

While a veteran of more than forty battles, Joseph No Two Horns did not brag about his exploits. In 1926, No Two Horns participated in the ceremonies honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  He said he danced for the ‘soldiers who were so brave and foolish.’

[Thanks to Danyelle Means for corrections to this story.]

 

Flash photos in the museum – is everything we thought wrong?

A typical day in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre museum in Paris. Photograph: Lydie France/EPA

A typical day in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre museum in Paris. Photograph: Lydie France/EPA

In recent years, the battle lines between tourist photography and museum guards have been shifting.  Once entirely verboten, more and more museums have given up the cause under an onslaught of mobile phones with built-in digital cameras.  First, the old cry of “No photo!” gave way to “No Flash!” Now, is this last bastion about to fall, too?

I must admit that for some time I have been engaged in a private mission to protect masterpieces from the threats of a thousand suns exploding.  Horrified at the laissez faire attitude of museum guards (the Louvre is a prime offender) unable or unwilling to stop the fireworks, more than once I’ve thrown myself between a tourist’s flash and a Monet Waterlilies or a Van Gogh landscape. I’ve even felt compelled to berate an innocent father and lecture startled teenagers on the dangers they posed to the artwork they purported to love. I reminded them of the fate of the colored construction paper on their elementary school bulletin boards at the end of each school year.  Remember when the teacher pulled the posters off, you could see how much the colors had faded because of the bleaching effect of sunlight? Passionately, I’d rant, “imagine what that beautiful Matisse is going to look like in a couple of years after being blasted by hundreds of sunbursts every single day!”

no-flashBut recently, I was startled while reading an aside in a discussion on controlling photography in the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) forum.  An Executive Director, who shall remain unnamed, wrote, “There used to be some concern about damage to textiles from camera flashes, but that’s not an issue with smartphones [my italics].”

Huh?

After doing some research (on the web, of course), I found the big question put succinctly on reddit.com’s Ask Science forum, “To what degree, and how, does flash photography damage museum exhibits?”  To my horror, the answer appears to be — it doesn’t.

While ultraviolet light or strong sunlight does bleach colors,

In general…the light from a properly UV-filtered flash is no more harmful to art than the ordinary gallery lighting, but many galleries and museums maintain a ban on flash photography out of an excess of caution.

Apparently, almost all flash units on cameras today have UV filters on them. Especially consumer grade cameras. Not because manufacturers share our concern about art. They are trying to avoid lawsuits by protecting people’s eyes from being damaged.

Museumgoers snapping photos of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889, at MoMA. ©2013 REBECCA ROBERTSON

Museumgoers snapping photos of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889, at MoMA. ©2013 REBECCA ROBERTSON

In 1995, the National Gallery in London conducted experiments that concluded that flash photography was dangerous to artworks.  But their conclusions have since been disputed. One problem with their study was they tested only with watercolors, which are notoriously light-sensitive and generally kept in darkened rooms. They used some heavy artillery, too. Powerful flash guns were set to fire every seven seconds from three feet away and they even removed the UV filter from one of them. After months of this and more than a million flashes, the only visible damage was to the watercolor hit by flashes from the unfiltered gun.

Martin H. Evans, a British researcher, after examining this study and others points out with irony that, despite the scientific evidence, curators continue to ban “photographing things like Pharaonic Egyptian relics that have been bathed in the intense UV light of desert sunlight for over 3000 years.”

Reddit.com has a long discussion on this topic.  I encourage you to read it. While much of what I once believed lies in tatters on the ground, I take some small comfort that there remains general agreement that flash photography is unnecessary and annoying. Of course, there is also the fact that flash photographs of art generally look terrible.

Still, if I could only find that humiliated father in the Metropolitan Museum to apologize to….

Turner the “Fire King” and Accounting

JMW Turner, Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1835.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

J.M.W. Turner, Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1835. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Oddly, one of J.M.W. Turner‘s greatest subjects, the Burning of the Houses of Parliament, was the result of the modernization of accounting.

According to the October 17, 1834 issue of the Times of London:

“Shortly before 7 o’clock last night the inhabitants of Westminster…were thrown into the utmost confusion and alarm by the sudden breaking out of one of the most terrific conflaglarations that has been witnessed for many years past…The Houses of the Lords and Commons and the adjacent buildings were on fire.”

The inferno was not an act of terrorism, but a result of human error – overloading a furnace with too much wood. The wood was not ordinary fire wood, however. Two cartloads of tally sticks have been jammed in the furnaces of the House of Lords by an impatient workman.

Tally sticks were one of the earliest accounting methods, perhaps going as far back as the Stone Age. Debts were marked with cuts on a thin piece of wood, the depth of a cut corresponding to the seriousness of the debt. After the cutting was complete, the stick was split lengthwise. The loaner was given the longest part (or ‘stock‘ — the source of the word, “stockholder”), the debtor getting the smaller half or, in essence, “the short end of the stick.”

Tallying didn’t require literacy and was tamper-proof. No notches could be added later by an unscrupulous money-lender because the halves wouldn’t match. As an extra safety measure, one could check that the grain of the wood across the parts tallied.

English tally sticks.

English tally sticks.

In England, the official use of tally sticks went back nearly to William the Conqueror. His son, King Henry I, established the system when he took the throne in 1100 AD and expanded its use to the collection of taxes (by sheriffs, like the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham). For more than 700 years, the British Empire’s financial backbone depended on these thin slices of wood, so accuracy was critical. The Chancellor of the Exchequer prescribed the following system of cuts:

“The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower than a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood”.

The tally stick system was abolished in 1826 and replaced by paper notes backed with gold controlled by the new Bank of England (though in some small European towns, tally sticks continued to be used into the twentieth century).

But how did they cause such a terrible fire eight years later? We’ll let Charles Dickens explain:

…In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? ….The sticks were housed in Westminster [Parliament], and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for fire-wood by the miserable people who lived in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes…

Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834, watercolour study (Tate Gallery, London)

Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834, watercolour study (Tate Gallery, London)

J.M.W. Turner was one of the tens of thousands of Londoners who lined the south bank or crowded onto bridges across the Thames River to witness the burning of the Houses of Parliament. He filled two sketchbooks. He made drawings and watercolors from several positions, even hiring a boat to take him down the river. He would complete two oil paintings in his studio based on the national tragedy,earning him the nickname ‘the fire King.’

Detail, Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons,  (Philadelphia Museum) Photo: Wayne Stratz

Detail of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (Philadelphia Museum) Photo: Wayne Stratz/Flicker

Once can easily see why the scene so captivated Turner, a man who believed in nature’s sublime and terrible magnificence. What a subject for a Romantic artist! The brilliant fire’s golden light illuminates the night, sending sparks across the canvas, reflecting in the water below, framed by a vortex of billowing clouds of smoke.  What better symbol of the awesome power of nature, one that makes the hordes of people who line the edges look quite small and insignificant? The sturdy and impressive Westminster Bridge on the right appears to disappear near the hellish blaze. The Houses of Parliament, a symbol of Western civilization and government, are no match for nature’s fury and seems puny in contrast to the flames. These grand Gothic buildings that had housed the British governing body for centuries (and English kings before them), the center of the great British Empire, are quickly swept away.

Rebuilding took thirty years and millions of pounds. Turner, as well as the architects, would not live to see construction completed. In a strange irony, the terrible fire resulted, not just in a masterpiece of Romantic painting, but in the creation of London’s most famous symbol, the new Parliament’s clock tower by Augustus Pugin, known today around the world as ‘Big Ben.’

Note: Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biographical picture on the great English painter, opened in the U.S. on December 19th and continues to receive excellent reviews.