28 June 2009

Were Prehistoric European Cave Artists Female? (Updated)

I want to get my two cents in ... before this brouhaha becomes writ in stone.

Or before I'm accused of ignoring (rather than cheering on) the newly discovered 'Uppity Prehistoric Female Artists' who were supposedly painting cave walls 30,000 years ago.

What's the scoop?

The underlying idea is very clever, really.

Upper Palaeolithic people loved to stencil, paint, and press their hands into the soft clay of cave walls -- as if to leave unique, indelible signs of their presence. Some cave walls are literally covered with hand prints, but hands also appear around more complicated painted images, such as those surrounding the spotted horses from the Pech Merle cave in south-western France (below).

So whose painterly hands are these?

It has long been known that men's ring fingers (the fourth digit) are usually longer than their index fingers (the second digit). Women's second and fourth fingers are generally equal in length.

This is the famous finger-length ratio, known in fingering circles as 2D:4D -- that is, the relationship between the length of the second digit, 2D, and the fourth, 4D. Men generally have a low digit ratio, calculated by dividing the length of 2D by the length of 4D. Women tend, in the case of the ratio at least, to be equal.

I bet you're looking at your own hands right now. But hang on a moment, and listen to the argument.

Until recently, according to Pennsylvania State University archaeologist, Dean Snow, most scientists assumed these prehistoric hand prints were male. But, he says, "even a superficial examination of published photos suggested ... that there were lots of female hands there."

Looking at some stencilled hands, Snow could see that "The very long ring finger on the left is a dead give-away for male hands. The one on the right has a long index finger and a short pinky -- thus very feminine."

To assess prehistoric hand-prints from European caves, Snow used modern hands for comparison. "I had access to lots of people of European descent who were willing to let me scan their hands as reference data," said Snow.

By carefully measuring and analysing the Pech Merle hand stencils, Snow found that many were indeed female -- as, for example, those in the 'spotted horse' picture (above). And so he concludes, "We don't know what the roles of artists were in Upper Paleolithic society generally. But it's a step forward to be able to say that a strong majority of them were women."

I hate to be a party pooper but...

this begs three questions.

First, and to my mind most serious, is:

How do we know that today's 2D:4D finger ratio was the same for the early modern humans who painted the caves?

We have very little surviving skeletal material from the Upper Palaeolithic (and what we do have usually looks like those bits and pieces on the left): fragments from a total of 31 adults, mostly their teeth. Still, palaeo-anthropologists can do remarkable things when they get their hands on a bit of skull or a jawbone -- but what they can't easily do is sex the bits. Out of 31 adults, 3 are probably males and 1 is female; that's it: the sex of the others cannot be determined.* So we have no real sample of either sex. And finger bones are rarely found: there are only 4 phalanges (from hands) on Palaeolithic Aurignacian sites.

That's a big methodological problem.

But not the only sticking point. I have another quibble with Prof. Snow's method:

It assumes that the modern Europeans who were measured for this study are, in some way, descendants of this Upper Palaeolithic painterly population.

I can't see any historical reason to accept this. But even if I did accept it, what makes us think that the 2D:4D is a universal constant? In the last ten years or so, about 150 digit-ratio studies have been published. There is now evidence that the digit ratio varies among ethnic groups: Caucasians tend to have high 2D:4D, while black and East Asian people tend to have low 2D:4D. And, worse, 2:4D differences may have genetic roots (rather than being caused by testosterone in utero, as previously thought),** so -- if it's going to work at all -- getting to the right ethnic group is of prime importance.

Why extrapolate back from Caucasians ... to a Palaeolithic group that arrived in Europe not so long before, coming out of Africa?

And, finally, even if we accept the research at face value, it still only tells us that there were women in the caves at about the time when the paintings were made -- and not who made the paintings.

Women in the caves?

That is not news.

"Most scientists" have long given up the idea that only male adults were active inside the caves. Kevin Sharpe, for example, worked for years on the so-called 'finger flutings' -- lines drawn with fingers in the soft clay -- in Gargas Cave in the French Pyrenees and at Rouffignac in the Dordogne.

Line flutings are not as dramatic as paintings -- to our eyes. But they are well worth studying in great detail because, in some caves, the same people made both the painted images and the line flutings. So, when we know everything we can about flutings, we will also have learnt something about the cave artists. And perhaps about the content of their 'art', too -- because the flutings, drawings, and paintings may have arisen from the same social context and impulses.

So, who did the fluting? This is what Sharpe thinks:

three people fluted much of Gargas, a child (perhaps a boy), a woman, and a man. About eight or nine people fluted (and probably decorated) Rouffignac, including one baby, two young children, and 5 or 6 others including both males and females, at least one of whom was an older juvenile or adolescent.
In other words, everyone.

Maybe we should start thinking of the 'art' as a family affair rather than impose our role divisions on the past. Otherwise, we may just be reflecting our own predispositions and not the reality in the caves at all.

That's why it always seems so convincing.

Update: 01 May 2017 


A new project has the Spanish archaeologist Hipolito Collado and his team going from cave to cave, taking scans and high-resolution photos of all of Europe’s prehistoric painted hands. 

They then post them in detailed, 3D format in a free-to-use online database, as part of an EU-funded project called Handpas.

Read more on Seeker

* Dominique Gambier, "Modern Humans at the Beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic in France", in Conceptual Issues In Modern Human Origins Research (1997), Chapter 8.

** The evidence reviewed in Finger Forecasts by Jennifer Huget in The Washington Post. More background, especially on variability and 2D:4D diagnostics, from Finger It Out at FlatRock.org; see also Science News: Finger Length Ratio May Predict Women's Sporting Prowess.

My thanks to David Meadows at Explorator for signalling this breaking news.


Top left: Handprint from Chauvet Cave.

Top centre: from Finger Forecasts by Jennifer Huget,
The Washington Post.

Middle centre: "Spotted Horses" mural from Pech Merle cave. Credit: Dean Snow, via National Geographic News.

Middle left: Photographs by Roberto Ontanon Peredo, courtesy Dean Snow, via National Geographic News.

Lower left: A human jawbone from a Romanian bear hibernation cave, dated to between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago, along with a facial skeleton (center) and a temporal bone
. Credit Erik Trinkaus.

Lowest left: A finger-fluted 'tectiform' from Rouffignac Cave, from K. Sharpe & L. Van Gelder, Human uniqueness and upper paleolithic ‘art’, Fig. 1.

20 June 2009

New Acropolis Museum Opens in Athens

I lift high a glass of ouzo to this gorgeous new museum.

Many years in the works, the 130-million euro ($ 180-million) glass and steel museum was designed by architect Bernard Tschumi to offer amazing views of the surrounding hills and the Acropolis high above.

The entire building is raised on huge concrete columns, which allows the museum's entry plaza and first floor to hover over an open excavation site below. Wide expanses of glass were cut into the floors so visitors, as they move about, can look down into the archaeological ruins discovered during the construction process.

The building also pays homage to the Acropolis by placing remnants of the much-treasured Parthenon Marbles at the centre of the museum.

Take a little time to visit the museum's new website with stunning views and close-ups of masterpieces, and then spend a few moments looking at some of the collections -- from the Acropolis slopes to the Parthenon: click on images and get a mini-essay as well.

And, if your idea of fun is hearing politicians telling each other how culturally astute they are, you can watch the video of the live opening ceremony right here. You will see lots of familiar and semi-familiar Eurocrat faces (for those of us in the EU), a clutch of overdressed wives -- it is a museum, for heaven's sake -- some church-ocrats in full regalia and a scattering of bigwigs.

But no neo-pagans.*

And almost no Brits.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sent their regrets, as did Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Ben Bradshaw, the new secretary for culture and sport, and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

As art slugs it out with politics

The centrepiece of the museum is the frieze that once adorned the Parthenon and was carved by Phidias in the 5th century BC. The problem is that about half the surviving sculptures are in the British Museum in London.

Not unexpectedly, Greece used the inauguration of the Acropolis museum for another attack on Britain for failing to return the marbles.

The culture minister did not mince words:

“For 200 years the Parthenon marbles have been amputated,” said Antonis Samaras.

"We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts. We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in fifth-century [BC] Athens because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometres away."

“Now they must be reunited. The Parthenon frieze speaks through its totality. The new museum is creating a huge momentum. We are winning the fight.”

Well, maybe.

Elgin and Ottomans in one corner, Greece in the other

The Elgin Marbles have been a source of dispute between Greece and Britain almost since the day in 1799 when Lord Elgin began hacking out 75 metres of the 160 metres of sculptures that ran around the Parthenon's inner core. He sailed away with them to Britain in 1806 (with the permission, it must be said, of the Ottoman authorities who then controlled Greece). When his lordship was almost bankrupt, he sold the marbles to the British Museum in 1817 for a whacking £35,000 ($72,000).

The return of the Elgin marbles to Athens has been an issue of national pride in Greece, and successive governments have waged high-profile campaigns for their return.

The legality of the removal is really a moot point, as debate rages as to whether the marbles should remain in London or be returned to Athens.

Acid Rain and Sour Tempers

British authorities maintain that, after two centuries, the Classical sculptures legally belong to the British Museum and insist that they will never be returned -- not least, as they rightly argued, because Greece was unable to guarantee the preservation of the antiquities. Pollution and acid rain were eating into the sculptures that remained on the Acropolis -- many now damaged beyond recognition -- so it would be criminal to send the priceless marbles back to Athens.

That argument, at least, is gone. The new Acropolis museum has a special gallery for the Parthenon marbles on its third floor. The glass hall displays the section of the Parthenon frieze that Elgin left behind next to plaster casts of the works in London.

The copies are stark white plaster, in contrast with the brownish weathered marble of the originals.

Greek authorities believe that the new museum provides Britain with the perfect opportunity to right an historical wrong - and to atone for the colonial imperial legacy of the British Empire.

At the opening ceremony, Greek President Karolos Papoulias renewed the call for the missing works. "The whole world can now see the most important sculptures from the Parthenon together," he said.

"But some are missing. It is time to heal the wounds on the monument by returning the marbles that belong to it."

Not so fast

In The Guardian newspaper this week, a spokesman from Britain's department of culture, media and sport stressed that the opening of the new museum would make no difference to the government's attitude.

"Neither the trustees nor the British government believe they should be returned," he said. "They are available free of charge in a museum that has more visitors than any other in the world; they are looked after in perfect environmental conditions; and above all they are presented in a world context and seen alongside comparative civilizations."

Pro, Con, and Maybe

Volker Kaestner from the Collection of Classical Antiquities in Berlin thinks the issue isn't black and white.**

"As an archeologist, I do believe that this collection belongs together," he maintains. "But on the other hand, there have been legal decisions made about the Elgin Marbles and where they belong that justify their remaining in the British Museum. They have become part of the British cultural landscape, and their removal by Lord Elgin has become part of their history."

He said the issue is primarily a moral one, but with potentially rocky ramifications. "Were the Elgin marbles to be returned to Greece, this would set a precedent which would throw the doors wide open in an unreasonable way," he argues. "We can't expect to see all Rembrandt's work returned to Amsterdam, can we?"

And why ever not?

The Dutch should get started right away. After all, the first architectural competition to design the New Acropolis Museum was held in 1976. If my beloved Netherlanders work at the same speed as the Greeks, the New Rembrandt Museum (with all the world's Rembrandts) will open in Amsterdam in 2042.

I just hope I'm alive to see it!

* See our previous neo-pagan post, Zeus Rains on Pagan Protest.

** Good discussion and analysis in Deutsche Welle

Updated 21 June 2009

Great Slide Show at The New York Times Website, and a Sparkling new video from CelebrateGreece.com on YouTube

09 June 2009

St Zenobius and The Magic Ring

Scroll down to read the story of St Zenobius (pseudo-descendant of Queen Zenobia) and the Girolami family of Florence (reputed progeny of the fifth-century saint) -- or click on The Last of Zenobia's Line? .

Heavenly Honours

The Girolami family of merchants and bankers claimed the great honour of being directly descended from St Zenobius -- and they could prove it.

Unquestionably, they owned the ancient wooden house believed to have been St Zenobius' home (but whether it truly dated to anything as early as the fifth-century is quite another matter; you'll have to take it on faith). It was a near neighbour of their own 12th-c. Girolami tower (pictured in the previous post) and, to hammer the point home, this, too, was known as the Torre di San Zenobi. The fact that a wooden house had survived all the many destructive fires that had swept through the city over the centuries was proof positive of its sanctity.

Although the house was venerable, it wasn't so sacred that the bankers didn't make a profit on it. By 1591 (and probably much earlier), the casa di Santo Zanobi was earning a decent income for the Girolami. In that year, it was rented out to a silk throwster -- a woman who twisted or spun silk, and prepared it for weaving (a good business in 16th-century Florence).

Owning the saint's real estate reinforced the family's ties to the early Christian saint, but another link brought the Girolami even greater honour -- for they had in their possession the very ring worn by St Zenobius: a gold episcopal ring which they kept in a shell of silver [decorated] with the head of St Zenobius.

We first hear of this ring in 1409 when the banker and politician, Zanobi de' Girolami, inherited it from his father. When he died, he left it in turn to his eldest son, Francesco. It was this Francesco di Zanobi de' Girolami who lent the precious family relic -- perhaps grudgingly -- to Louis XI of France in 1482-83.

He had no choice. Lorenzo (aka 'the Magnificent') de Medici made him an offer he could not refuse.

The Medici Connection

According to the Memoirs of Louis XI's friend and biographer, Philippe de Commynes, even during the first two decades of his reign (r. 1461-83), the king suffered from endless ailments, including gout. Then, in March 1479, at the age of 56, he had the first of a series of strokes, after which his physical and mental health deteriorated dramatically. Even though he partially recovered, Louis (pictured right) continued to suffer from dizziness, ringing in the ears, hyper-sensitivity to cold, and a skin disease which he thought was leprosy.

Because Louis believed that only divine intervention could alleviate his suffering, he launched a relentless search for a miraculous cure. Commynes writes that he spent over 700,000 francs (a wow sum of money at any time) on religious offerings and on commissioning reliquaries for diverse saints. So notorious was his grasping at relics that it was still remembered in 1831:

The devotion to the Heavenly saints, of which he made such a parade, was on the miserable principle of some petty deputy in office who endeavours to hide or atone for the [swindles] of which he is conscious. With a poverty of spirit totally inconsistent with his shrewd worldly sagacity, he [exhausted] his physicians until they insulted as well as plundered him. In his extreme desire of life, he sent to Italy for supposed relics.*

Lorenzo De' Medici, Louis XI, and the Girolami Ring

To get the relics, Louis had to give gifts, including a golden shrine to hold the bones of San Bernardino who was interred in his Basilica at Aquila.** The diary of Lorenzo de' Medici notes that the king's agent passed through Florence on 19 February 1481 on his way to measure the saint's body. It had to fit, you see, or the saint might not rise to the bait. The king also gave gold chalices to St John Lateran in Rome -- whereupon the wilier Pope Sixtus IV sent him in return (but only on loan) the actual cloth used by St Peter when celebrating mass. When these didn't work their magic, Louis imported a Franciscan hermit from Calabria and had a hermitage built for him near his palace's chapel.

Alas, neither St Bernardino nor St Peter nor the hermit seemed to help.

So, in spring 1482, we hear that Louis XI expressed a keen interest in getting hold of St Zenobius' ring. He may have learned of the ring's existence from Commynes who was his ambassador to Florence in 1478. Since the saint was well known for raising the dead, healing a king should have been comparative child's play. Rather than directly contacting the Girolami about the loan of the ring, the king turned instead to Lorenzo de' Medici, whom he addressed in correspondence as 'my cousin' and 'my friend'. Lorenzo had helped along their long-distance friendship by giving Louis, who had a passion for dogs, a large guard dog for his bedroom.

Lorenzo was the perfect intermediary for he fostered a special devotion to St Zenobius. Here's the reason why.

"I am not the lord of Florence but a citizen of some authority"

Medici rule of Florence has aptly been described as "a mixture of wile, constitutional procedure, legal pretence and violence." With regular bouts of intimidation, vote buying, and horse trading added to the brew.

Needless to say, not everyone was happy with their rule -- especially not those families cut out of the government and other lucrative positions.

Although the Medici usually retained close ties with the Vatican, relations between Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus IV became strained. The Pope was angered when Lorenzo's diplomacy achieved an alliance between Florence, Venice, and Milan, for such a combination was more than a match for the armies of the Church. Sixtus had ambitions to expand the papal territory and now had reason to worry even about the safety of what the Church already held.

Consequently the Pope agreed to a plot designed to rid Florence of both Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano. The chief conspirators were the Pazzi family, a rival banking house and bitter enemies of the Medici. The plan was to assassinate the two brothers at a moment when their guard would be down, during the celebration of Mass.

I like that touch, the Pope planning murder during Mass.

"Most Bloody Murder, Abominable Sacrilege and Infamous Treason"

So, on 26 April 1478, the Sunday before Ascension, Francesco de' Pazzi and a gang assaulted Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano while attending High Mass in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The attack took place "near the old sacristy toward the altar of St. Zenobius."

While Giuliano was killed instantly, Lorenzo -- wounded in the neck just below the ear --drew his sword and wrapped his cloak around his other arm as a makeshift shield. Fighting off his attackers, he raced toward the northern sacristy, pursued by the assassins, including two priests. He slammed the great bronze doors shut, locked them from the inside, and ended up, as it happens, directly below Giuliano da Maiano's brilliant wooden image of St. Zenobius (left).

As soon as the conspirators saw the Lorenzo had escaped they knew that the plot had failed and fled the cathedral. Surrounded now by Medici loyalists, Lorenzo was taken home to his palace.

An enraged mob immediately began rounding up the conspirators, many of whom were summarily hanged from the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria (now Palazzo Vecchio).

The most prominent victims that day were Francesco de Pazzi and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, a papal loyalist whose grievance against Florence for delaying his seat as archbishop of Pisa had done much to instigate the conspiracy.

The Archbishop's men, trapped within the government palace which they had tried to seize, were taken to the tower and thrown out of windows, their bodies smashing onto the cobbles below. Their corpses were stripped of their clothes and hacked apart by the gathering crowds.

On the very same day, the star chamber of the "Eight" -- a government body responsible for investigating and prosecuting political crimes --convened and summoned Lorenzo to be their leader. In theory he was but one of several equal citizens. In fact, nothing would be done without his knowledge and approval, if not indeed his actual instigation. The ordinary rule of law was suspended -- there would be no trials.

Armed friends of the Medici broke open the doors of the Pazzi Palace and dragged a naked Francesco de' Pazzi to the Palazzo della Signoria where he was questioned along with Archbishop Salviati. Shortly thereafter, Francesco de' Pazzi, still naked and bleeding, was tossed out a tower window with a noose around his neck, his body left there on view. After making a full confession, Archbishop Salviati and his brother, Jacopo Salviati were also thrown from tower windows to strangle at the end of ropes for their crimes.

The Saint's chapel as a Medici shrine

People were "bewildered with terror", as a contemporary diarist wrote, but there is no doubt that the Pazzi Conspiracy, intended to destroy the power of the Medici, had the opposite effect.

Following the Conspiracy, the cult of St. Zenobius assumed special significance. The saint's image evoked vivid personal associations for Lorenzo, who accordingly promoted his cult and his chapel with a vengeance.

He was also directly and immediately involved in the commission and design of the Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies), the great hall of the Palazzo della Signori, the seat of the Florentine government. The central and dominant image in the hall is Ghirlandaio's St. Zenobius Enthroned, flanked by his saintly deacons -- deliberately modelled after the likeness of the three on the wooden panel in the sacristry of the Duomo, under which the wounded Lorenzo had sheltered.

Lorenzo may have intended its replication in the palace to honour Zenobius' role in saving him from the assassins. But, whatever his personal gratitude and devotion to St Zenobius, Lorenzo surely realized that the image worked as an endorsement of his own leadership of Florence. Its message was unmistakeable: divine favour and the city's patron saint had allowed his escape and thus approved Medici control over Florence.

So the cult of St Zenobius was rejuvenated -- and Louis XI was not far behind.

When he learnt of the Pazzi Conspiracy, the king dispatched Commynes to Florence in a show of support for Lorenzo. And, afterwards, the king acted as a mediator between the Florentines and Pope Sistus IV. For, as you would expect, feelings between city and Pope were more than ruffled. There were excommunications and armed clashes. But that's another story and I'm not going to digress.

Given their good relations, when Lorenzo received a letter in April of 1482 asking about "a ring that the king will do anything in order to have," he had every diplomatic reason to oblige the royal sufferer.

By May, the ring was on its way to Louis. But it was a pig in a poke. It didn't work.

Accept No Substitutes

On 9 July, the king wrote to Lorenzo saying that he had seen the relic -- but would his dear friend confirm that this was indeed the ring worn by St Zenobius. And also, please, tell me precisely what miracles had it worked; and if it had really healed anyone.

The king sniffed a trick ... and he was right.

Someone -- presumably Francesco de Girolami -- had made a copy of the saint's ring and sent this false relic with much fanfare to the French monarch.

One can well imagine the conversation that subsequently took place between Lorenzo and the fiddling Francesco.

So, when the king wrote again to Lorenzo (14 November), asking for the true ring, and dispatching an agent with an undisclosed sum of money, Lorenzo made firm arrangments to send the genuine article. In a letter of 10 December, he informed the king that Bernardo -- Francesco's eldest son -- would accompany St Zenobius' ring to France. As a kind of hostage, one might well suppose. But the king was now satisfied with his relic, and all was well. In May of 1483, we learn that the 13-year old Bernardo had become a favourite at the French court because of the saint's ring.

Alas Poor Louis

In the end, however, neither St Zenobius' ring, nor any of the other sacred relics or objects -- not even the fervent prayers of the Calabrian hermit -- could save the ailing king. He suffered a fourth stroke and died on 31 August 1483.

The ring was returned to Florence in a gold reliquary casket weighing fifteen pounds, which Francesco was reported to have melted down within the year. Bankers are like that, you know.

But the ring lived on. When Francesco died in 1511, it became the property of his son Jacopo. It then passed to Jacopo's brother Rafaello, who sent it to Mantua where it healed the epileptic son of Ferrante Gonzaga.

If so, this truly was a miracle as Rafaello died in 1532, one year before Gonzaga's first son was born.

Mirabile dictu.

For the little-known but well-documented story of St Zenobius' ring, I am indebted to Sally J. Cornelison, "A French King and a Magic Ring: The Girolami and a Relic of St Zenobiusin Renaissance Florence", Renaissance Quarterly (2002) 434-69.

* Sir Walter Scott, Introduction, Quentin Durward.

** The Basilica (left) was badly damaged in the April 2009 earthquake. The bank Montepaschi di Siena has pledged to finance its restoration.

Art Photographs

Top: Lorenzo Ghiberti, Shrine of St Zenobius (ca. 1432-42), detail of the dead child. Credit: KunstKopie.At

Middle: Giuliano da Maiano, wooden inlaid panel of St Zenobius (1463-68), new sacristry of the Duomo, Florence. Credit: www.digital-images.net

Lower: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Apotheosis of St Zenobius with his deacons, Eugene and Crescenrius (1482), Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies), Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Credit: Wikipedia

02 June 2009

The Huntington Makes Space -- For Zenobia

Guest Blogging

It's Zenobia’s great pleasure to welcome Glenn Barnett.

He's guest blogging today to tell us about the opening of the newly expanded and refurbished galleries of American art at the Huntington Library -- where a monumental statue of Zenobia in Chains (1859) has settled in and made herself at home.

This weekend, the seven-foot (2.13 m) tall marble statue, long assumed to be lost or destroyed, went on public display -- for the first time in 123 years. I wrote about the statue, and its creator, the sculptor (and "jolly bachelor girl") Harriet Hosmer last year.

If you haven't read that post, maybe now is the time: Harriet Hosmer is worth the detour. Click on Zenobia Is Back In America.

Glenn shares my passion for everything about Zenobia.

He is the author of a novel, the namesake of this blog, Zenobia: Empress of the East -- which makes him our inadvertent godfather. Glenn is also an instructor at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Southern California, where he has taught U.S. and Russian history, Western Civilization and other subjects. His upcoming book is titled: The Persian War: The Roman Conflicts with Iraq and Iran.

Glenn was at the Huntington opening on Saturday. I'll tell you more about The Huntington after his account. But, first, Glenn's on-the-spot report:


by Glenn Barnett

She is here at last! Zenobia has come to Los Angeles.

Unveiled on the last weekend of May, the long lost statue of ‘Zenobia in Chains’ is now on permanent display at the Huntington Library in San Marino outside of Los Angeles.

The statue was crafted by Harriet Hosmer, an American sculptress who studied in Rome. Hosmer created her Zenobia in 1859 while living in the eternal city. Displayed in London in 1862 ‘Zenobia’ was purchased by a private collector and remained in private hands until last year when she came up for sale and was purchased by the Huntington to augment their magnificent art collection.

I first saw her last summer when Huntington curator Jessica Todd Smith, who purchased Zenobia, graciously invited me to have an early look. She led my wife and I to a warehouse where the newly arrived statue resided among other items being prepared for display. Zenobia was still in her wooden shipping crate with one side open.

Even in this unpretentious setting, it was clear that the seven foot (2.13 m) statue captures that moment in time when Zenobia, her head bowed, was being marched in Emperor Aurelian’s Triumph. She clutches the famed golden chains to herself, owning the moment. Ms. Smith also showed us the room in which Zenobia would be displayed. It is a spacious room with two sources of outside light.

There was much work to do before Zenobia could take her place as the centerpiece in a new display of American art. Since she now resides in Southern California, Zenobia had to be made safe from earthquakes. A unique pedestal was created especially for her. About three feet (.9 m) tall, the shock-absorbing pedestal also gives her a majestic bearing with the added height. As an extra precaution against harm, a hole was bored through the bottom of the marble and a steel rod inserted through the center and fastened to the pedestal.

Then it was time for the final touches. Standing atop the earthquake resistant pedestal, she is lighted to great advantage and can be seen some fifty yards (46 m) away from the other end of a long gallery. In her alcove she is surrounded by four contemporary marble busts (Puck,* to the left of Zenobia, is also by Hosmer), that serve to accentuate her majesty.

Zenobia has taken her place in the collection of iconic American artists ranging from Fredrick Remington to Frank Lloyd Wright in the newly refurbished Virginia Steele Scott Gallery.

She is a beautiful addition to the Huntington and to Los Angeles.


Thank you, Glenn. Now, back to our regular blogging.

Railroad and real estate baron Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) married his uncle's widow, the socially determined Arabella (1851-1924), in 1912. She was marrying for the second or third time, depending on whether she had been an unmarried mother (all the dirt right here) when she had her first child in 1870.

Whatever the moral ups-and-downs, she became one of the great connoisseurs in the first quarter of the 20th century -- and an inveterate collector of art, jewellery, antiques, and other costly baubles. The Huntingtons, like many Gilded Age super-rich,were smitten with England’s landed gentry. They saw themselves as the American heirs to European aristocracy – the Mother Country’s privileged spawn in the New World.

If Henry and Arabella couldn’t actually be a duke and duchess, at the very least they could buy Thomas Gainsborough’s iconic Blue Boy from the Duke of Westminster and hang Sir Thomas Lawrence’s coquettish Pinkie in the parlour.

And so they did, building a great country house to hold a celebrated collection of British portraits and much, much more.

This was formerly the Huntington residence (above). The art gallery opened to the public in 1928.**

The Huntington will always and forever be identified with British art. Of a particularly kind.

Iconic but gooey.

Like Gainsborough's Blue Boy (ca. 1770, left). According to Patricia Failing, author of Best-Loved Art from American Museums, “no other work by a British artist enjoys the fame of The Blue Boy.”

I'm sure that's true. Cole Porter even sang the "Blue Boy Blues" in 1922, the year it came to California.

Or the sweet "Pinky" (1794, right) painting by Lawrence. The portrait is of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, who sadly died so young, the year after she was portrayed. I wonder if she is related to the Anne Moulton (age 10), whose 1817 needlepoint sampler is also exhibited at The Huntington. Her stitchery includes this prayer:
How blest the Maid, whom circling years improve / Her God, the object of her warmest love. / Whole useful hours, successive as they glide, / the Book, the Needle and the Pen, divide.
The Huntingtons also owned a few American paintings, especially the kind that would connect the United States to England. It really wasn't until 1979 that The Huntington inaugurated American art as a significant part of its collections, when they received a major gift in memory of Virginia Steele Scott (art collector, patron, and philanthropist) which included fifty American paintings.

Perhaps the most robust of the Americans (which means, of course, that I like it best) is Mary Cassatt's "Breakfast in Bed (1897), evoking the Madonna and child, very much in her particular, strong colours.

Mary Cassatt was one of a very small number of American women (Harriet Hosmer, naturally, was another) to become professional artists in the nineteenth century when most wealthy women did not spend time seriously doing anything. You didn't paint; you sketched and daubed. Her decision to pursue an artistic career was opposed by her family ( her father declared he would rather see his daughter dead than living abroad as a "bohemian"), but she left for Paris anyway in 1866 to study painting.

When Cassatt settled in Paris, an artistic revolution was already underway.

O how wild I am to get to work, my fingers fairly itch & my eyes water to see a fine picture again.

How this Uppity Impressionist Woman fared -- and how she took the sentimentality out of portraiture -- is quite another story, for another time.

But I like to think that she was inspired by our heroine Harriet Hosmer -- who had taken the road to "bohemian" Rome just fifteen years before Cassatt sailed for Paris. And she might have already heard the news that this American woman living abroad had sculpted a monumental statue of another Uppity Woman, Zenobia-in-Chains.

Perhaps, we might imagine that, like another well-brought-up young lady of her time, she too had “read [an] interesting sketch of the gifted Miss Hosmer, which has made me long, long, long for the glorious gift of genius.”***

* Hosmer created 'Puck' (after 1854) as a piece of parlour sculpture during a period of dire financial crisis. Her plan paid off handsomely: more than thirty replicas of the popular sculpture were sold at $1,000 apiece. The work is a prime example of the "conceit," or "fancy piece." Unlike idealized sculptures, which were meant to instruct and ennoble the viewer, conceits were playfully imaginative works designed solely to amuse and delight.

The character of Puck appears in English folklore and in Shakespeare's play A Midsummer's Night's Dream, in which he utters the memorable line, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Speaking of Shakespeare, the Huntington also has the dramatic (to say the least) painting of "The Meeting of Lear and Cordelia (1784) by the American expatriate Benjamin West, the father of American painting and the only American ever to become President of the Royal Academy of England. It is moral painting at its best (or worst, depending upon your taste).

** The Huntington is also surrounded by 120 acres (50 ha.) of superb botanical gardens, including such exotica as a Japanese wild garden, a desert garden, an Australian garden (take a virtual tour of the gardens right here).

*** From the diary of Charlotte Forten, February 10, 1858. Quoted in The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, 1988; via Kate Culkin, "A Tale of Two Harriets".


Credits: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I have also made use of Christopher Knight's review of The Huntington re-opening in the Los Angeles Times.

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