“The idea is that you put the scroll in the machine and it does a pirouette. And as it turns around, the x-rays see what’s inside the scroll from every possible angle, 360 degrees, all the way around. And we can invert that and recover a complete representation of what’s inside, in three dimensions.”
In 1750 well diggers discovered a villa near the ancient town of Herculaneum that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Among the treasures pulled from the villa were more than 1,000 papyrus scrolls that had been turned to carbon by the volcano. Over the centuries since their discovery, many have tried to open and read these papyri in the hopes of discovering great lost works of antiquity, but they damaged these scrolls in the process. However, with modern imaging technology and artificial intelligence, it may now be possible to read these papyri without ever opening them.
In this episode, computer scientist Brent Seales and Getty antiquities curator Ken Lapatin discuss the history of these scrolls, past approaches to opening them, and the exciting opportunities presented by “virtual unwrapping.”
We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.
This week, Maite Alvarez, who works on exhibitions at the museum, recalls how she discovered a Baroque sculpture’s true maker—Luisa Roldán. To learn more about this sculpture, visit: www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/1101/.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. This week Maite Alvarez discusses a painted wooden sculpture by Luisa Roldán. MAITE ALVAREZ: I’m Maite Alvarez, an art historian who works on exhibitions at the J. Paul Getty Museum. I have always loved exploring the past. For me, there is nothing more fantastic than touching our cultural DNA, holding a 500-year-old art object, artifact, even a letter. Historians, like explorers, are driven by the idea of discovery, finding that thing that has been hidden away for hundreds of years. The most exciting thing I ever uncovered happened early in my career, my very first discovery. I had just graduated from college and got my first real adult job—right here at the Getty. The Museum had several new objects that required further research, and my mentors invited me to work on one of them: an almost life-sized polychrome wood sculpture of a male monk, who looks as if he is stepping forward, mouth slightly open and right hand outstretched as if he’s going to speak. Complete with glass eyes, the figure displays a kind of heightened realism typical of religious imagery made for Catholic churches globally in the late 1600s. There was a lot we didn’t know about the work. If not for an inscription-S. GINES DE LAXARA-repeated along the sleeve and hem of the figure’s vestment, we would have had little idea who the figure was supposed to be. Another inscription could be found on the base, sixteen ninty-something, the year the object was made. The identity of the artist was unknown but the sculpture provided one tantalizing clue: along the base, traces of a 300-year-old signature. Unfortunately, time had worn off some of the letters. Over time, historians, curators, and dealers would play a sort of scholarly hangman, the childhood game where players have to guess the word or words by guessing the missing letters. So looking at the partially legible signature on the base, the artist was assumed to be José Caro. The guess made sense; Caro was active in the 1690s in Murcia, Spain, where there was a strong cult following of San Gines de la Jara. This must be the artist—no doubt! And in a case of confirmation bias, every scholar who looked at the base, myself included, swore we read the words, Jose Caro. I was sent to Murcia to do more research on surviving works by Jose Caro and to try and confirm our hypothesis. But it quickly became apparent San Gines had nothing to do with Jose Caro. So, who created this sculpture? I began to reexamine polychrome works created in Spain in the 1690s. Then standing in the royal monastary El Escorial, I came face to face with a sculpture that looked like ours: a similar nose, the outline of the lips, the knitted brows, and the slight opening of the mouth. Suddenly everything clicked!—San Gines was by the famed court sculptor, Luisa Roldán, also known as “La Roldana.” Looking at the bases of her sculptures, it became obvious just how badly we had misread the signature. Our base, like the other bases, now clearly read: LUISA ROLDAN ESCULTORA DE CAMARA, año 1692. Designated court sculptor in 1692 by King Charles II, La Roldana probably produced San Ginés as a royal commission. I think about this sculpture and the process of discovering its artist a lot. There are so many objects out there with their stories yet to be revealed. I often wonder just how many other “La Roldanas,” both figuratively and literarily, are sitting somewhere waiting for their stories to be rediscovered. CUNO: To view Luisa Roldán’s sculpture of San Ginés de la Jara from around 1692, click the link in this episode’s description, or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.
Reevaluating French Colonialism through Visual Culture
“One of the things I’ve heard most frequently in attending and working with and participating with ACHAC at different events, is to hear young people, and even adults, say, ‘I had no idea. I did not know that back at this particular historical juncture, my ancestors were put on display in the city, in these parts, for entertainment.'”
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, France taught its citizens about its overseas territories in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia through commonplace, mass-produced items including postcards and board games. Through these materials, the government attempted to capture and publicize a grand image of France’s empire while also justifying colonization. These same objects are now critical for understanding the often-violent story of French colonialism and its lasting impact on immigration, race relations, and nationalism. Many such items are held in the Getty Research Institute’s collection of the Association Connaissance de l’histoire de l’Afrique contemporaine (ACHAC, the association to foster knowledge on contemporary Africa).The new book Visualizing Empire: Africa, Europe, and the Politics of Representation analyzes this fascinating archive.
In this episode, Visualizing Empire editors Rebecca Peabody, head of Research Projects and Programs at the Getty Research Institute; Steven Nelson, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; and Dominic Thomas, the Madeleine L. Letessier Professor and chair of the Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, discuss French imperialism, its legacies, and how these everyday objects might be used to reexamine and even decolonize this narrative.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. This week Lyra Kilston discusses Julius Shulman’s photograph of a Richard Neutra school building.
LYRA KILSTON: My name is Lyra Kilston and I’m a senior editor at the Getty Museum.
I’ve just finished shepherding my daughter through another day of online elementary school. She’s antsy now, after hours of sitting in the same chair, with a few breaks in another chair at the kitchen table. The technical difficulties weren’t too bad today, fortunately. Her teacher is patient and trying his best to teach during a pandemic, but it’s still bizarre that she only knows him as a head and shoulders on her computer screen.
When the schools shut down in mid-March last year, we thought it would just be for a few weeks. As the months numbly passed, I paid close attention to news about how schools might reopen safely in our new reality.
I already knew a bit of history about schools during a health crisis. I had written a book that focused, in part, on how ideas about contagion, hygiene, and good health had changed architecture in Europe and the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Buildings from hospitals to housing and schools were designed to be more hygienic and to let in more fresh air and sunlight. These natural elements were believed to both strengthen the body and fight off rampant illnesses like tuberculosis and cholera. This led to what were called “open-air” classrooms that brought the outdoors inside, through lots of glass and open windows, or that let students bring their desks outside to terraces or gardens.
With the safety of school constantly on my mind, I was drawn to photographs of the Corona Avenue Elementary school, designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra. Built in the Los Angeles area in 1935, Neutra’s new wing of classrooms were called “glass-and-garden rooms,” as they each featured a glass wall that slid open onto broad patios and gardens. Students could easily push their own lightweight chairs and desks right outside for lessons on the lawn. The photographs show bucolic scenes—children sitting cross-legged on the green grass, painting at easels, or watching their teacher point to the display board she wheeled outside.
Looking into it further, I learned that while Neutra was well-versed in the latest modern European school design, he was also building on a California legacy. The state’s mild climate had made it a natural center for outdoor school experiments—from Oakland to San Diego—since the turn of the century. These quaint-seeming practices sadly gained new relevance in 2020, and I hoped for an announcement from our school district that they would try something similar. We had the ideal climate and if school yards were too small, there were now acres of empty parks and parking lots.
I’m still fascinated by the open-air school movement, but it was a bittersweet topic to research. I watched schools in the more difficult climates of Massachusetts, New York, and Arkansas forge ahead with outdoor classes while our schools remained locked for months, beneath clear blue skies.
I know the photographs of the Corona school were staged. The photographer, Julius Shulman, probably arranged the students and teacher just so to make it look extra perfect. But 85 years later, classrooms like that are needed again, and so are the forward-thinking architects and school superintendents who made it happen.
CUNO: To view Julius Schulman’s 1953 photograph of Richard Neutra’s Corona Avenue School in Bell, California, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on primo.getty.edu.
“It became Hoefnagel’s task to think of illuminations that were every bit as extraordinary as this amazing writing.”
The exquisite Renaissance manuscript Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, or Monument of Miraculous Calligraphy, is the result of a unique partnership between two different artists working thirty years apart. From 1561 to 1562 the master calligrapher Georg Bocskay created a book in which he demonstrated hundreds of elaborate scripts in many different languages and alphabets. More than fifteen years after Bocskay’s death, the artist Joris Hoefnagel illuminated the pages with lifelike and wondrous illustrations of plants and insects from around the world. Many of the species he depicted were newly known in Europe, reflecting a recent increase in the global exchange of goods and information.
In this episode, retired Getty senior curator of drawings Lee Hendrix discusses how Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta exemplifies Renaissance attitudes toward art, science, and knowledge. Hendrix coauthored the introduction to a facsimile volume, which is now back in print after more than a decade through Getty Publications.