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A Tuscan Return

Judith Stones, Lead Curator, Local History and Archaeology, April 2010

As I set off from Aberdeen Art Gallery on the afternoon of 15 March 2010, I was acutely aware that although I myself had never previously visited the great medieval Italian city of Siena, my companion had once known it rather well, despite not having actually been within its impressive walls for over 100 years. For I was accompanying a beautiful triptych, painted by Sienese master Lorenzo di Pietro ( known as ' Vecchietta', or 'little old woman') around the year 1450, part of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums' collections, to an exhibition of Early Renaissance Art in its 'native' city.
The triptych is enormously attractive, but there are also several fascinating aspects to the background story of its current Italian sojourn. It is particularly apt that it is having a high profile in 2010, which happens to be the 125th anniversary of the opening of Aberdeen Art Gallery in July 1885, as it was among the Gallery's early acquisitions. It was owned by Georgina Forbes, a member of the Forbes family of Craigievar Castle, who lived with her sister at 10 The Chanonry, Aberdeen, but for many years spent the winters in Florence. On the back of the triptych is a hand-written note, in which Georgina indicates her wish that it '..be given at my death or my sister's to the new picture Gallery at Aberdeen'.


Further research may well tell us more, but clearly Georgina acquired this fine work of art during one of her winter stays, either in Florence or in nearby Siena itself. She belonged to a family with strong Episcopalian connections, and would have been aware of the religious significance of the painting. It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin, the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, with angels and saints, including St Francis and St Dominic, and was only identified as being by Vecchietta as recently as 2009.
The journey to Siena, managed by world-wide art transport company Constantine, was lengthy but great fun. From Aberdeen we travelled, the triptych and I, in a large truck, first to Coatbridge near Glasgow and thence to London. The triptych was in a specially- formed wooden crate, tightly strapped in to the vehicle, while I was up aloft, in the compartment above the drivers' cab, from where I was able to enjoy a marvellous view of the world round about, peeking over walls and into gardens, including the Archbishop of Canterbury's at Lambeth palace, not to mention various royal parks. We stopped to pick up another painting in County Durham, and once in London, the paintings were off-loaded into secure and environmentally-controlled storage. My hotel happened to be very close to Tower Bridge, so, before dinner, I took the opportunity to walk across it.
At 5.15 am the following morning I was collected from my hotel to start the next leg of the journey, to Siena. Lengthy, luxurious sleeps are not a standard feature of courier trips, on the whole! At the storage depot, the paintings were once again loaded into a truck and we set off. This time a follow-on car was provided for the couriers - there were paintings from other UK museums travelling in the same consignment. The next stop was the freight depot at Heathrow, where most of the crated pictures were carefully packed on to a pallet, fastened there by straps and netting. Our crated Vecchietta, however, which had to travel flat to avoid it slipping within its specially-built Perspex display box, was placed within an aluminium freight bin on its own. Once this had been done to everyone's satisfaction, the couriers were able to have some breakfast, leaving the Constantine rep to ensure safe transit of the crates to the plane.
The next stage was particularly testing on the nerves! We had been firmly instructed that we must not board the aircraft until we had been informed that our pallets and bins were safely loaded, so we had to sit at the gate through several 'final calls' until we were eventually given clearance. In fact, we were seated on the plane before the crates had quite made it - and through the window were able to observe them entering the hold, and capture the moment on my mobile phone (below).


A very pleasant flight brought us to Rome Fuimicino airport, just a little late, around 4pm. We were met at the aircraft steps by a rep from the Italian art transport company, and set off by car to the freight depot. However, there was a massive traffic problem around the airport, with the autostrada to Rome closed, so we spent the next hour in a solid jam, unable to move even a few centimetres. Contrary to what one might imagine in an Italian context, it was also a very quiet and well-ordered scenario!
In the car we picnicked on what food we had left between us and arrived in Siena around 11pm. In the event, that was a thoroughly practical manoeuvre, as getting the car and the van up the narrow medieval streets to the cathedral square would have been significantly more difficult in the day-time, with the addition of meandering tourists. By midnight, having supervised the unloading of the crates into safe storage, we were at our hotel, a few minutes' walk from the Cathedral and the former hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, now a cultural centre and a magnificent location for the exhibition. The next photo shows the lavishly frescoed pilgrim hall. You can find out more about the building on the centre's website -


The exhibition installation was carefully programmed, and the Vecchietta and I had an appointment for 3.30 the next afternoon. In my younger days I would have exhausted myself trying to 'maximise the potential' of a visit to such a medieval paradise as Siena, but I decided that less might in this case be more and restricted myself to a relatively relaxing sightseeing morning. That included the stupendous cathedral, which would have been quite overwhelming if it had ever been completed. There I particularly sought out the bronze ciborium over the high altar (see next photo), which was also by Vecchietta, who was not only a painter but also produced fine metal objects (influenced by Donatello) and polychrome wood sculptures, such as the poignant pieta which sits adjacent to Aberdeen's triptych within the exhibition.

In the Pinacoteca, or main city art gallery, I was also able to track down the altarpiece by Sienese artist Pietro Lorenzetti which was painted in 1329 to celebrate the granting of privileges to the Carmelite Friars by Pope John XXII. Apart from being what my guidebook described as 'one of the most important pictorial monuments of 14th century Italian art', it also represents a significant feature of my work as an archaeologist, as I have been involved in excavations of medieval Carmelite friaries in Scotland and Israel. The papal bull in question granted to the Carmelites, who had formed as a collection of hermits on Mount Carmel in the later 12th century, the same status as other mendicant (or begging) friars, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. One of the historical images in the predella of the altarpiece (below) shows the friars around the spring of Elijah on the mountain, wearing their distinctive striped cloaks, which they swiftly abandoned when they started to move into Europe lest they become figures of fun. Interestingly, the copy of that papal bull that was sent to the Carmelite Friary in Aberdeen (site of my excavations) still survives among the historical collections of the University of Aberdeen!


In the afternoon great care was taken to place the Vecchietta triptych within the display (see next photo). First of all, I and a conservator checked it over to confirm that it had not suffered even the slightest damage during the journey. I was very relieved that neither of us could identify any change in its condition and gratified that at least for a time its travels were over.


The exhibition is entitled 'Da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello: le arte a Siena nel primo rinascimento' and is open until 10 July. It is definitely worth visiting if you are in the area. Or if you are keen to see Aberdeen Art Gallery's own Vecchietta triptych, it will be back home in plenty of time to take a starring role in our own forthcoming exhibition ' Celebrate! 125 years of Aberdeen Art Gallery', which opens in September 2010.


Of a Cow's Udder, Aberdeen's Past, Medieval Smells and More

Judith Stones, Lead Curator, Local History and Archaeology, November 2009

In 2007 a large and lengthy archaeological dig took place in the heart of the modern city of Aberdeen. Old buildings, dating from the 19th century and later, were taken down and AOC Archaeology Ltd were commissioned by the developer, Land Securities, to undertake the dig, part of an archaeological 'scheme' required by Aberdeen City Council as part of the planning consent.
I should mention that highly productive excavations are not unusual in Aberdeen, which is one of just a tiny group of European towns where soil conditions, often waterlogged, have led to remarkable survival of all sorts of remains from the Middle Ages. Particularly well preserved are organic items such as leather, textiles, animal hair and fur, wooden artefacts and building foundations, not forgetting insects, seeds and even human parasite eggs!
The Bon Accord Centre dig was among the best, both in terms of what was found on site and in what is emerging right now from painstaking work in the labs and offices of AOC Archaeology Group in Loanhead, Midlothian. A taste of how exciting the dig itself was can be gleaned from the following few pictures, showing one of several wood-lined wells (left), and a wattle-covered pit full of discarded wooden building materials and artefacts (right). All these pits were in use at various times between the 12th and the 14th centuries and help to demonstrate that this Gallowgate area of Aberdeen functioned as an industrial zone where leather was tanned and made into everything from shoes to clothing and sword scabbards.


A third pit was best of all. It contained a finely-made stone grinding wheel complete with its wooden handle and was dug out on a wet and wintry Saturday morning by me and my colleague Alison Cameron (see below).


We had heard such impressive accounts of the emerging results from the post-excavation process at AOC , that Alison and I made a day visit there in October to see for ourselves and discuss work in progress. It was an excellent stage to make the trip. We were able to see the extensive range of pottery from the site, which is being examined and analysed by ceramic experts Derek Hall and George Haggarty, with key pieces being drawn by archaeological illustrator Alan Braby. Alison has herself done a lot of work on medieval and later pottery found in Aberdeen, so there was a good deal of scholarly discussion (see below - Alison with Alan (left) and George).


Below is a very appealing little decorative face from a jug that may have come to Aberdeen from the Scarborough area of Yorkshire, followed by an image that depicts the very moment when Alison discovered a Seaton-type flower pot saucer amongst the later pottery!


And then we moved on to look at the leather. Alan Dalton had carefully selected 'the highlights' for us, from a superbly preserved collection which also contains thousands of off-cuts from the leather processing industry which took place on both sides of Gallowgate in the 13th to 14th centuries. The leather is all being catalogued before conservation takes place, so is kept wet (and very slippery) to maintain it, and has a distinctive aroma, very similar to that of sweaty feet!


Alan's selection included two or three more or less complete shoes, with all the intricate pieces that made up medieval footwear still present. Effortlessly, he demonstrated to us the placing of all these fragments - sole, upper, rand, welt, heel stiffener….. and for the first time in my life I really began to understand the medieval shoemaker's craft. Judith-8

There was also an absolutely tiny shoe-sole, which Alan thought might be a craftsman's model.


My leather favourites, however, were two items that I'd never seen before in any shape or form from Aberdeen - a sword scabbard, very rare in Scottish archaeology, and the sleeve of a garment. 'Oh, it's decorated', I said brightly…but Alan went on to suggest that what I saw as a punched design on the leather (below) might in fact be an indication that it had been worn under armour! Very exciting!


And the udder? Well, we never actually saw it. That's for next time, after all the huge range of items found on the dig have been cleaned and assessed and we're invited back to discuss the detailed strategy for the next stage of the post-excavation process. We hope that some of this exciting material will be on show for the first time at Aberdeen Art Gallery from September 2010.
I'm very grateful to colleagues at AOC Archaeology Group for hosting our visit and to Land Securities, funders of the archaeological work at the Bon Accord Centre site.