Rembrandt The Night Watch – being restored!

In September, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the latest stage in the restoration of the Rembrandt masterpiece known as The Night Watch. The huge and imposing canvas is out of its frame and being stretched between metal clamps and protected behind a thick glass screen. It’s a sight to behold!

Layers of varnish are being removed that darkened the painting for centuries – leading it to be falsely called The Night Watch. It’s actually not a dark, nocturnal setting at all. But removing the varnish has been a very worrying process. In taking this gunk off – will the paint strokes of Rembrandt come away as well?

Operation Night Watch – as the museum calls it – has been examining the effect of vibrations on the Rembrandt painting as well as removing the varnish. The work has been undertaken deliberately in public behind the glass screen so that visitors can share the experience. The operation is a collaboration with the Dutch chemicals company AkzoNobel which decades ago merged with the Swedish weapons manufacturer Nobel and its main business today is paint – for consumers and industries.

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Rembrandt The Night Watch – subjected to repeated attacks

As we know in Europe and the United States – attacking art works has unfortunately come back into fashion as a form of protest. It’s nothing new by the way. Though why art and sculpture held in a public institution paid for by taxpayers should be vandalised is beyond me.

Two protestors who threw paint recently at a Van Gogh in the National Gallery in London claimed to be doing so for “the poor”. Without realising that the poor can only ever see these works in such a museum – as opposed to the private collection of a Saudi prince or Russian oligarch. These days, public galleries couldn’t afford to buy a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt. But enough of my ranting on that subject!

The Night Watch was attacked with a knife in 1911 but the thick varnish stopped much damage being done. However, in the 1940s some of that varnish was removed. So when the painting was knifed again in 1975 – in a frenzy this time – it was much harder to restore and evidence of the slashing is still visible if you look closely. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an escaped psychiatric patient sprayed The Night Watch with acid in 1990. Yet somehow the Rembrandt masterpiece has endured!

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torture museums

The world’s museums of torture!

Chicago has just seen the opening of the first dedicated museum of medieval torture in the United States. Eight interactive learning spaces with truly gruesome displays. This is the latest addition to a global network of torture museums that shows no signs of losing steam. People just can’t get information on Spanish racks and thumbscrews!

Whether these reflect the truth of life – and death – in the Middle Ages is open to question. But experiencing (at a safe distance) the painful fate of heretics who rejected the teachings of the church or traitors caught conspiring against the king or queen is clearly irresistible. Otherwise these torture museums wouldn’t keep opening.

So let’s take a look at the new Chicago torture museum and see how it compares to other such delightful venues around the world. The owners are sure they’re on to a surefire winner. The website boasts: “You’ll discover the world’s most detailed collection of confinement and torture devices, instruments of slow death and execution.” The waxworks are certainly lifelike and you’ll probably have bad dreams after glimpsing one poor fellow getting impaled.

Here is a short promo video from our grim buddies in Chicago!

But as I say – there are many of these museums in Europe.

The quaint historic town of Rothenberg in Germany has an Iron Maiden. It’s also got a cage where a baker would be put if caught cheating with the ingredients. There’s also a pillory for grabbing selfies. And a collection of “shame masks”. All contained in the town’s Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.

Back in the 1970s, I went with a schoolmate to The London Dungeon not long after it had opened. Back then it was Madame Tussauds with more bloodshed and gore. Since, it’s evolved into an ‘experience’ where, for example, you are condemned to death and metaphorically hanged.

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Other torture museums vary from the London and Chicago approach with a theme park interactive feel to some which frankly border on the deathly dull. The sort of places that need to keep telling how informative and evocative the exhibits are as you suppress another yawn.

Medieval cities like Prague, Toledo, Bruges and Vienna boast torture museums – just in case the castles and palaces haven’t entertained you enough. And it came as something of a surprise to discover that the tiny country of San Marino – surrounded by Italy – also has a torture museum. Indeed Italy is blessed – if that is the right word – with torture museums in Rome, Siena, Luca, Volterra and San Gimignano.

Must confess – but not under torture – that I’ve visited most of these Italian cities and NEVER thought of going to the local torture museum! But presumably for many tourists they offer a frisson of excitement after a day spent wandering through baroque churches and ancient ruins. They don’t feel that history has been truly experienced until confronted by a wax figure contorted in agony being forced to sit firmly on a chair covered in sharp studs. Each to their own!

Personally, I don’t find the instruments of torture that compelling. Especially as many of them are reproductions. What really puts me in the zone of the afflicted is the very genuine graffiti left by prisoners that I saw this year at Carlisle Castle and the Tower of London. Often incredibly moving pleas or religious symbols to show their faith was unshakable. Getting inside the mind of a prisoner being tortured is way more jarring than gawping at some bone breaking implements.

In 2019, I went to the prison in Palermo, Sicily where the Spanish Inquisition tortured many people for a variety of reasons before executing them in public (Spain ruled Sicily from 1409 to 1713). There were no thumbscrews on display. Instead, the walls were covered in drawings by the inmates using a mix of dirt and their own urine. I filmed what I saw and take a look below. This really brought home to me what people endured at the hands of sadistic torturers.