Arts and Sciences

Will of 12th c. Georgian king on display for the 1st time

History Blog - Tue, 2017-01-03 23:46

The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, Georgia, has put on display the only surviving fragment of the last will and testament of the 12th century King of Georgia, David the Builder. The Georgia’s Medieval Treasury exhibition “showcases Georgian Christian art that reflected the unity and continuity of cultural traditions and formed the basis of the Georgian statehood and the national identity.” It opened in June but the objects on display are constantly changing and the will only went on display a week ago. It is the first time this priceless relic has been on public display.

David the Builder is Georgia’s greatest national hero. Just 16 years old when his father abdicated in his favor, David fought the Seljuk Turks for more than 20 years, chipping off territories under their control from 1101 until 1123 when he wrested their last stronghold of Dmanisi from them and unified the country. According to Arabic scholars like Badr al-Din al-Ayni, David the Builder respected other faiths, granted legal protection to Muslims and Jews living in the kingdom as well as adherents to minority Christian denominations like the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In 1125, King David wrote a will and determined the orderly succession of his kingdom. He died on January 24th of that year. He was just 53 years old but had reigned for 36 years. His son Demetrius succeeded him. The Georgian Orthodox Church canonized him a saint for his dedication to the faith.

Together the reigns of David the Builder and his granddaughter Tamar (r. 1184–1213) are considered the Georgian Golden Age, a military, political and cultural Renaissance in the east hundreds of years before Western Europe got around to it. The Golden Age didn’t long outlive Queen Tamar. First the Mongol invasions of the 1230s and 40s broke Georgian independence, rendering it a vassal state. In the late 14th century Timur (Tamerlane) devastated the country and forced the king to pay tribute. By 1466, the Kingdom of Georgia no longer existed even in name only; it disintegrated into several small kingdoms and principalities. It was carved up some more by neighboring powers — Persia and the Ottoman Empire, then the Russian Empire which absorbed it in 1801.

Even after centuries without a functional Georgian state, Georgian cultural identity still held on strong and David the Builder was widely revered. On display along with the fragment of the will is a glass negative of the whole document made in 1895 by photographer and Georgian nationalist Alexander Roinashvili. He took numerous photographic portraits of prominent Georgian public figures and of important sites and objects of Georgian cultural heritage. So dedicated was he to sharing and promoting Georgian history that he conceived the idea of a mobile museum of Georgian antiquities that would feature both photographs and historical artifacts — weapons, silverware, coins — he’d collected for years. In 1887, Roinashvili finally got his museum off the ground and took it on tour. The museum never did travel as far and wide as Roinashvili had hoped, but it’s thanks to his unwavering committment to documenting Georgian culture that we have a copy of David the Builder’s will.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

2,300-year-old Chinese sword found still sharp and shiny

History Blog - Mon, 2017-01-02 23:08

Archaeologists have unveiled an ancient bronze sword from the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) that is still sharp and glossy after 2,300 years. The sword was discovered in tomb No. 18 in Xinyang city in China’s central Henan Province. It was found still snug in its scabbard inside a wooden coffin. Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology filmed the reveal of the sword and released it on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo.

As the moniker suggests, the Warring States period saw constant wars between the seven leading states of fragmented Zhou dynasty China, plus a handful of smaller states pulled into the conflict at different times. Most of what is today Henan Province was one of the minor states in the struggle, its cities allied with the larger states. By the end of the period, states large and small had all been conquered by one of the leading seven: the Qin state under its king Ying Zheng. When the last competing state, Qi, fell to Ying Zheng, the former king of Qin became the emperor Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of a unified China and founder of the Qin Dynasty.

The sword is a jian, a double-edged straight sword first documented in Chinese sources from the 7th century B.C. They were first made in bronze, then as Chinese metallurgy advanced, iron and steel. The Warring States period was a transitional era for the jian; swords of bronze, iron and steel have been found from the period. Bronze jian were made with different alloys, their properties employed to the weapon’s best advantage. The central spine and core of the sword was made with high copper content bronze, making it pliant but strong and less likely to break. The edges were made from high tin content bronze for optimal sharpness.

If it seems incongruous for a 2,300-year-old bronze sword to be so shiny and sharp after all this time, consider the Sword of Goujian which dates to the Spring and Autumn period (771-403 B.C.). It was found in 1965 in a tomb where it had been submerged in water for at least 2,000 years, and yet, when the blade was unsheathed from its wood lacquer scabbard, it shone like gold and its edge was still keen. Chemical analysis found traces of sulfur which combats tarnish.

The recently discovered sword will be thoroughly studied, documented and conserved. Testing will hopefully answer questions about its composition and confirm its authenticity. There’s a significant market for fake “ancient” jian, and the condition of this sword is so extraordinary there have been some justifiably skeptical reactions on Weibo. Henan Archaeology officials insist it is authentic, discovered undisturbed in its proper archaeological context. Once it is stabilized, it will go on display, likely in the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Doodle found under Dutch Golden Age painting

History Blog - Sun, 2017-01-01 23:06

The Choir of the Saint Bavo in Haarlem (1636) by Dutch Golden Age artist Pieter Jansz Saenredam is an architectural perspective of the interior of the Gothic church of Saint Bavo. Known as the portrait painter of Dutch churches, Saenredam’s specialty was capturing the complex geometries and soaring heights of church interiors to convey their light, stillness and grandeur. Saint Bavo was one of his favorite subjects. He made about 30 drawings and 12 paintings of the church.

Saenredam took a rigorously mathematical approach to his church portraits. He usually made at least two preparatory drawings, one a pencil sketch done freehand in the space to establish the composition, the other a detailed graphite rendition of the scene made with a straight-edge and compass using precise measurements taken of the church by a surveyor.

An exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C., explores how the artists of the Dutch Golden Age employed drawing as part of their painting processes. The exhibition displays almost 100 drawings plus finished paintings by 17th century Dutch masters including Saenredam, Rembrandt van Rijn, Aelbert Cuyp and Jacob van Ruisdael. To prepare for the exhibition, Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, conservators at the NGA examined the paintings with infrared reflectography (IRR) which can reveal underdrawings made with black chalk against a white background. (Red or white chalk underdrawings cannot be detected with IRR.)

IRR revealed an unexpected surprise in the underdrawing of The Choir of the Saint Bavo in Haarlem: a doodle of a horse carrying four men on its back and a little stick figure in balloon pants underneath them. Drawn on the left pillar in the foreground, the whimsical figures are a marked contrast to the somber whitewashed interior of the post-iconoclasm church. There’s no way Saenredam intended to paint the doodle in the final version, so he must have just been having fun knowing he’d paint over it.

The drawing of four men on horseback is recognizable as a scene from a Charlemagne romance. The oldest extant version of the chanson de geste Quatre Fils Aymon was written in Old French in the 12th century. It recounts the legend of the four sons of Duke Aymon of Dordogne: the chivalric hero Renaud de Montauban and his brothers Guichard, Allard and Richardet. Aymon presents his sons to Charlemagne at a royal tournament with Renaud wins. For his bravery and skill in battle, Charlemagne awards Renaud a magic horse named Bayard. The gift comes in extra handy when Renaud kills one of Charlemagne’s nephews in a fight over a chess game and is forced to flee. Magical Bayard is so big he can carry all four brothers on his back. In the end, the hero Roland convinces Charlemagne to pardon the brothers which he does on condition that Renaud expiate his sins on Crusade.

The Four Sons of Aymon was immensely popular for hundreds of years. Prose versions began to be written in the 14th century in France and the story was translated in multiple languages. The earliest known English version was printed by William Caxton around 1489. The earliest surviving Dutch translation dates to 1508. In this version it’s Duke Aymon who gives Bayard to Renaud and Renaud kills Charlemagne’s son, not his nephew.

The image of Bayard carrying the four brothers on his back appears in art and sculpture, particularly in northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, from the 12th century through the 20th. Not in religious art, though, and certainly not on church pillars. The Bayard doodle conveys the playful side of an artist like Saenredam almost four centuries after he covered it up.

Monday is the last day of the exhibition, so if you’re in D.C. take a long lunch and pop over to the NGA to see the paintings, the IRR images and the related drawings before they move on to the Fondation Custodia in Paris. The rest of us can at least have a little fun sliding between the paintings and their underdrawings as revealed by IRR on the National Gallery of Art’s website.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Year in History Blog History

History Blog - Sat, 2016-12-31 23:13

This year The History Blog celebrated its 10th anniverary. The Six Million Dollar Man didn’t make an appearance at this party like he did at the Six Millionth View party last year, but we made up for it with a really great comment thread. I love when readers who rarely (or never!) comment mingle with the regular commenters to say nice things about the blog. It’s downright invigorating. (No, that is not a prompt for more of same in the comments on this post. Okay it kind of is. Not that you need prompting.)

It’s the on-topic posts that capture people’s attention on the larger web. The article about the 17th century silk gown found on the Texel shipwreck was the runaway most visited of the year with 11,555 views. The story of the murder of Joe the Quilter and the discovery of the remains of his cottage was the second most popular of the year with 6,276 views. It was also one of my favorites. The tragic story, Joe’s outstanding artisanship, the rare survival of a labourer’s cottage from the 1820s and my first encounter with the Beamish Museum all captivated my attention. Then the modern Joe the Quilter topped it all off by commenting.

That wasn’t the only murderous story of the year. I was particularly interested in the story of Martha Brown, the woman who killed her abusive husband and was hanged for it. Among the thousands of people who attended her execution was a 16-year-old Thomas Hardy. Years later he would write Tess of the d’Urbervilles about a woman who kills her abuser and is hanged for murder. The century-old cold case of the Fontaubert bones only has the legend of a gloriously lurid murder behind it, but maybe the new forensic investigation will turn up something if not equally interesting, at least mildly so. Then there was the first known boomerang victim, killed in the 13th century by a fighting boomerang, a heavy, sharp-edged wood weapon that cut through his bone like metal. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that the remains of the victim of a huge 17th century royal sex scandal have been found, but the odds are slim.

I allowed myself some shameless photographic indulgences this year. The Australian quilts were probably my richest haul in a single post, but in sheer size and beauty, the Dream Garden Tiffany mosaic gets very high ranking in the end of the year summary even though I only just posted it a couple of days ago. Another December entry gave me my greatest source of photographic gluttony, however. It’s the boxwood miniatures. When the Art Gallery of Ontario gave me access to their folder of high resolution photographs, I seriously got a rush. It’s because the carving is so, so small. Having gigantic pictures where the details could be seen in extreme close-up totally made my year.

Along similar lines, I love how high resolution 3D scans of artifacts and remains are becoming more common. This year alone we saw 3D scans of Chinese oracle bones, the Dandaleith Pictish stone, a Pictish cross slab, an Anglo-Saxon name stone found at Lindisfarne, bones and objects from the Tudor flagship Mary Rose, the first church where Norway’s Viking saint king Olaf II was buried and the irrepressible charm of the Skara Brae “Buddo” figurine.

Some of my favorite finds of the year were inscriptions. There was the Etruscan stele found in the foundations of an ancient temple in Tuscany, later found to include the name of the goddess Uni. Newly discovered Etruscan inscriptions are always cause for celebration, and this one is very long and very old. I also loved the two from modern-day Turkey, the 2,000-year-old horse racing rules and the amazing 2,200-year-old lease contract. It’s a contract! Literally carved in stone! And thus metaphor becomes literal.

With no particular thread connecting them other than my personal interest, I got a big kick out of discoveries from all over the world. There was that group of small ceremonial iron weapons found in Oman, the small fragment of 13th century pottery from Teruel, Spain, decorated with a unique depiction of a Jewish man, the Tuscan villa of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a 4th century senator and one of the last politically prominent adherents of traditional Roman religion to fight for its preservation, that freaking huge gold torc found in Cambridgeshire and the unbearable cuteness of the Canaanite “Thinker” figurine.

In the ephemera category, the only copy of Utrecht’s first newspaper, published in 1623, was found in a hand-bound anthology in the City Archives and Athenaeum Library in Deventer, the Netherlands. The news wasn’t fresh (even our Dutch-speaking readers struggled to follow it), but the history of newspapers was entirely unknown to me before I researched the find. Fascinating subject. The account of another battle of Thermopylae, this one between invading Goths and a combined Roman-Greek force during the 3rd century Gothic wars, discovered in a palimpsest in Vienna is a stand-out of the year. It’s a previously unknown passage in the Scythica, a history of the wars written by Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus who lived through them. Only a few fragments from this history survived quoted in later books. The palimpsest gave us by far the longest surviving passage, and a riveting one at that.

Denmark may win the award this year for most exciting finds in one country. There was the wee gold pendant found by a metal detectorist that is the earliest figure of Christ found in Denmark, the lead amulet invoking elves and the Christian Trinity, the rediscovery of the long-lost Ydby Runestone, the stabby beauty of the Viking treasure hoard found in Lille Karleby, the
two pounds of Viking gold bangles, the Viking toolbox unearthed at Borgring, and that amazingly smooth giant Neolithic flint axe. But of all the great and wondrous treasures Denmark has brought us this year, the greatest of them all was the 17th century bishop’s turd. The title alone made me laugh for a solid two days.

The hoards of the Danes had sturdy competition this year from Spain and Switzerland. The sheer quantity, 1,300 pounds of Roman coins, found in Tomares outside Seville, Spain, would have been impressive enough on its own, but they came in custom matching amphorae of a type never seen before. Researchers are still going through the tens of thousands of coins from the late 3rd, early 4th century. It’s not cash or pounds of gold, but the Roman lamp hoard found in Switzerland stands next to these glories with its head held high, just because it’s so pristine and unique.

I think the highlight of the year, maybe the highlight of the first decade of The History Blog history, was the chilling Halloween three-parter about the Harrison Horror (part I, part II, part III). I’d been thinking about writing a serial for years, and a long-form treatment of the body-snatching of John Scott Harrison and Augustus Devin for at least two years. I finally did it and it was so, so worth it. I’m warning you, though, there is no way I’m even trying to top it next year, not for Halloween anyway. Maybe some other theme will inspire me, or maybe it’ll just be something that I randomly stumble across. Stay tuned to find out!

I wish you all the very best of New Years, full of prosperity, peace and nerdery. I will continue to do my utmost to contribute to the last of those.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

3,800-year-old wetland potato garden found in Canada

History Blog - Fri, 2016-12-30 23:56

Archaeologists have discovered a prehistoric garden with 3,800-year-old tubers still in situ near Vancouver, Canada. This is the first direct archaeological evidence that the Holocene hunter-gatherers of the northwest coast cultivated plants as well as hunting and gathering it. The site, discovered during road work, was low-lying wetland 6,000 years ago. The anaerobic soil preserved the remains of an astonishing 3,768 wild wapato tubers (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Indian potatoes.

Wapato tubers were a dietary staple among the indigenous people of the Fraser and Columbia rivers — the garden site is in what is now the Katzie First Nation territory — and were recorded by early ethnographers. Harvested between October and February, the tubers provided much-needed sustenance during the coldest of the winter months when supplies were scarce. The newly discovered ones long predate any such records, of course, and even the waterlogged soil couldn’t keep them in eating condition for close to 4,000 years. They’re black and brown now, although some the starchy interiors of some of the roots have survived.

Adjacent to the wetland garden is a dry site on a sandy ridge that contains the remains of two rectangular dwellings dating to the Middle Component (5,300–4,250 years before the present) and a fire pit that was so actively used during the Middle and Late Component (4,100–3,200 B.P.) that archaeologists unearthed more than 12 metric tons of fire-altered rock (FAR). Late Component artifacts were also found at the dry site, including more than 90,000 stone beads.

The tubers were wild plants, not domesticated, and wapato plants can grow deep underground all on their own. It’s an assemblage of rocks that makes it clear that this site wasn’t just a very prolific wild potato patch, but a cultivated wetland garden ingeniously customized by the indigenous people of the area to enhance harvest yields. The key evidence of cultivation is the rock pavement which is too uniform and densely packed to have been the result of natural processes like water carrying small stones to the lowest lying land. Archaeologists also found fragments of 150 fire-hardened wood tools, some still embedded in the rock pavement, used to harvest the tubers en masse.

The rock pavement controlled the depth to which the wapato rhizomes could penetrate, allowing harvesters to more easily locate and release the tubers from the mucky substrate. The context, breakage pattern, and direct association with the rock pavement suggest that the wooden tips are the distal ends of digging sticks. Their stratigraphic provenience and orientation imply that wapato harvest involved pushing or thrusting digging sticks into the pavement, where a prying or rocking motion was used to break the wapato tubers free from the mat of rhizomes and muddy substrates. Once released, the tubers would float to the water’s surface. When thrust through the pavement or caught between the pavement stones, some of the digging sticks broke and the tips of the fractured sticks were left in situ or discarded in the adjacent midden area.

The rock pavement in the garden is made of mixture of fire-altered rock and cobbles. It’s likely that the FAR were first used in the large hearth pit on the dry site and then recycled after they’d been shrunk by fire to too small a size for use in roasting. This was nothing if not an efficient system. Radiocarbon analysis of the fire-hardened wood found at the wetland garden indicate it was in use 3,800 years ago. By 3,200 years ago, it had been abandoned, thousands of tubers left in their watery garden for archaeologists to find.

You can read the full report on the site published in the journal Science Advances here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tiffany’s glass mosaics get their own show

History Blog - Thu, 2016-12-29 23:52

The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) in Corning, New York, will present the first exhibition dedicated to the intricate glass mosaics made by Louis Comfort Tiffany‘s glassworks. Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics combines works in the CMoG collection with ones from The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass and pieces loaned from other institutions and private collections. Almost 50 mosaics made from the 1890s through the 1920s will be displayed, from small decorative objects to massive installations made of thousands of glass tiles.

The exhibition will reveal the process of creating a mosaic at Tiffany’s studios—through detailed watercolor studies and drawings to surviving glass sample panels and examples of completed work. Museum visitors will gain insight into the labor-intensive processes, including the selection of individual pieces of glass, which played a vital role in the overall aesthetic of the final product. Drawing on The Neustadt’s archive of Tiffany glass, objects on display will also include original examples of colored sheet glass, glass “jewels,” and glass fragments made for specific mosaics.[...]

“Although Louis C. Tiffany is best known for his pioneering leaded glass windows and lamps, his mosaics are the culmination of his experimentation and artistry in glass,” said Lindsy Parrott, director and curator at The Neustadt and co-curator of Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics. “Indeed, the mosaics represent an exciting synthesis of his work in both leaded and blown glass. Using a rich variety of materials, including multicolored opalescent glass and shimmering iridescent glass, accented with three-dimensional glass ‘jewels,’ Tiffany’s innovations in glass established a bold new aesthetic for mosaics and contributed a uniquely American character to the centuries-old art form.”

The exhibition will also explore how Louis Comfort Tiffany used his showroom to market his portfolio to wealthy clients, driving up perceived value by letting buyers get a peek behind the curtain at how the wizards in Tiffany’s workshop made every piece by hand.

“Tiffany’s successful combination of art and business coincided with the rapid development of consumer culture in the United States,” said Kelly Conway, curator of American glass at CMoG and co-curator of Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics. “His impressive New York City showroom and clever, gorgeous displays of the company’s mosaics at world’s fairs, coupled with strategic marketing, sparked consumer interest and drove demand for high-priced luxury objects for the home.”

That was just the beginning of the Tiffany mosaic business, however. As the mosaic workshop became increasingly well-established at the end of the 19th century, religious and educational institutions commissioned Tiffany mosaics on a grand scale. While individual mosaics, mostly portable, have been on display before, this exhibition is the first to display the full breadth of Tiffany’s mosaic oeuvre. The museum has created custom digital displays that will allow visitors to explore the minute details of large-scale architectural mosaics in churches, libraries and universities that cannot be moved for exhibition. Mosaics at 12 different locations in New York State, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago have been photographed in high resolution by the CMoG team for the virtual displays.

Here is a magnificent example of that photography. It’s a mural in the Curtis Publishing Company Building in Philadelphia, a huge wonderland of glass tiles that looks completely different from a distance than it does up close, like one of those magic eye posters.

EDIT: Extremely relevant information I left out for some unknown reason is that the exhibition runs from May 20th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Calvatone Victory rediscovered at the Hermitage

History Blog - Wed, 2016-12-28 23:51

An ancient Roman bronze statue lost since World War II has been rediscovered at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The gilded bronze statue of Nike, goddess of Victory, was created in the second century A.D. to commemorate the victory of co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus against the Parthians in the war of 161-166.

The Victory was found in four pieces: the body, torso, right hand and the sphere. The head was discovered first, churned up in February 1836 by farmers working the fields of a private estate near the town of Calvatone outside Cremona in Lombardy, northern Italy. The estate’s owner, Luigi Alovisi, was fascinated by the golden head and had people keep looking for more parts. On March 14th, 1836, they found the body, missing the left arm and leg, and a sphere with both of her dainty feet perched upon it. The inscription on the sphere — VICTORIAE AVG. / ANTONINI ET VERI / M. SATRIUS MAIOR — identified its age and that it was dedicated by local dignitary Marcus Satrius Maior to the emperors.

Italian restorers put the existing pieces back together, revealing a statue 170 cm (5’7″) in height. Even though it was incomplete, its size, quality and the elegant balancing of the winged Victory atop a sphere immediately classified it among the masterpieces of antiquity. Very few ancient bronzes survived melting down, and the Calvatone Victory not only managed to avoid the forge, it kept a large proportion of its gilding.

In December of 1841, Luigi Alovisi sold the Victory to King Frederick William IV of Prussia for 12,000 Austrian lire and a noble title. German restorers picked up where the Italian ones left off and all the statue’s missing parts — left arm, left leg, wings — were recreated and attached. Now complete, it became a favorite subject for artists to draw and sculptors to copy. A plaster cast of the sculpture was created in 1871 and another eight made after the turn of the century. Some of the copies are in museums in Berlin, Rome, Cremona and Moscow even today.

Up until 1939, the Calvatone Victory was on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Along with many other precious works, it was moved to the cellar of the new Royal Mint building for its protection when World War II broke out. It remained (relatively) safe there while its former home at the Altes Museum was destroyed by Allied bombs. It was in the chaotic aftermath of the Battle of Berlin in 1945 that the Victory disappeared, one of thousands of artifacts lost to looting by German Army deserters and Red Army troops.

Its whereabouts were unknown for the next 70 years. Recent research by Hermitage staff into declassified Soviet files and newly discovered documents found that the Victory was specifically targeted for removal from the mint cellar by a Russian expert in ancient art. The cellar had flooded in the waning days of the war, and the Calvatone Victory was one of many pieces stored there to suffer damage. Packed into one of 40,000 cases full of art, the Victory wasn’t assigned an inventory number. By the time it arrived at the Hermitage in 1946 and was entered into inventory there, its real identity was lost and it was mistakenly assessed to be a 17th century French sculpture.

The statue is not in great condition. The heavy gilded iron wings attached by the Berlin restorers in the 19th century fell off during its wartime service in the cellar, and there is evidence of damage from bombs and water.

Hermann Parzinger, the director of the SPK, and Michail Piotrowkij, the general director of the Hermitage, have agreed to collaborate on the sculpture’s restoration.

Parzinger thanked the Hermitage for its transparent handling of the research, and for a history of successful collaborations on exhibitions surrounding works displaced from German museums during World War II. “With the Victoria of Calvatone sculpture, our successful and mutually trusting scholarly collaboration has gained another milestone to mark.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of 2000-year-old cats found in Denmark

History Blog - Tue, 2016-12-27 23:01

Danish archaeologists have found the skeletal remains of three ancient housecats in Aalborg, northern Jutland. At 2,000 years old, they are by far the oldest domesticated cat remains ever discovered in Denmark. The cat bones were found during an archaeological survey before construction of a new university hospital in Aalborg East. The bones of two of the three cats could be dated from their archaeological context to the 1st century. They will be radiocarbon dated to confirm their age.

The settlement was located on the foreland at the narrowest point on the Limfjord, an area which today is considered a marginal area for agriculture. During the Iron Age it was rich pasture land, however, and the settlement took advantage of the excellent grazing to raise livestock. The remains of longhouses from that period have been found at the site, with rare surviving chalk floors and equally well-preserved animals bones, teeth and other zooarchaeological material.

Excavations took place in 2014-2015, but they found so many different kinds of animal bones that scientific analysis identifying them were only completed this year. Most of the bones came from sheep and/or goats, cattle, horses, livestock that would have been raised, slaughtered and eaten in the settlement. A large number of fish bones attest to the sea-side settlment’s use of marine resources. No remains of game were found, suggesting hunting was not a major source of food for the Iron Age residents.

There are comparable animal remains at other settlements on the fjord, but the cats are unique. The Limfjord was an important thoroughfare during the Iron Age. Trade networks moved weapons, luxury goods and exotic animals from the south and west of Europe to what is today Denmark. The cats almost certainly came from the Roman Empire.

A genetic study reported in the journal Nature this September suggested that cats, all of ancient Egyptian lineage, spread over Europe in waves, reaching northern Europe by making themselves useful to the seafarers of the Viking era.

Cat populations seem to have grown in two waves, the authors found. Middle Eastern wild cats with a particular mitochondrial lineage expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean. Geigl suggests that grain stockpiles associated with these early farming communities attracted rodents, which in turn drew wild cats. After seeing the benefit of having cats around, humans might have begun to tame these cats.

Thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt spread rapidly around Eurasia and Africa. A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century bc to the fourth century ad was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time. Sea-faring people probably kept cats to keep rodents in check, says Geigl, whose team also found cat remains with this maternal DNA lineage at a Viking site dating to between the eighth and eleventh century ad in northern Germany.

The discovery of the three cat skeletons in an Iron Age settlement on North Jutland poses a challenge to that view. Of course, the scenarios are not mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible cats were introduced to the fjord via trade with Rome, direct or otherwise, but didn’t establish themselves until a thousand years later.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient tomb with vibrant frescoes found in Jordan

History Blog - Mon, 2016-12-26 22:55

Workers expanding a waste-water sanitation system in the village of Beit Ras in northern Jordan have unearthed a Roman or Byzantine-era tomb decorated with vibrantly colored frescoes. In rich reds, greens, yellows and pinks, the oil frescoes depict people and their animals in daily life, agricultural workers, grape vines and scenes from mythology. There are Greek inscriptions above the While some areas are eroded, on the whole the art is remarkably well-preserved and provides a unique insight into the funerary rituals of the city of Capitolias in late antiquity.

The tomb includes a cave with two burial chambers. The larger chamber contains a basalt stone rock-cut tomb decorated with raised etchings of two lion heads and with several human bones enclosed. [...]

The inscriptions and some artifacts found in the tomb are being analysed to give a more accurate time-frame of when this tomb was built and who it was built for. [...]

Her Excellency Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ms. Lina Annab, following a visit to the site, confirmed that the Department of Antiquities will continue to excavate, expand and prepare the site for future visitors. Her Excellency also confirmed that due to the tomb’s archaeological value, the site has been closed off to visitors and on-lookers to protect the archaeological integrity of the tomb as more tests are being run to ascertain more information about its significance.

The ancient city of Capitolias was founded in the 1st century A.D. under the reign of either Nerva or Trajan. The planned city, dedicated to and named after the god Jupiter Capitolinus, prospered. By the 2nd century it was encircled by a defensive wall and continued to grow in regional significance. It was one of the cities of the traditional Decapolis, a group of 10 cities that were centers of Greek and Roman culture in the Levant. Capitolias was populated through the Umayyad period in the 10th century, and there are records of Latin titulars assigned to the city as late as the 14th century.

The site wasn’t thoroughly excavated until the 1980s, and there were limitations on how much of the area could be explored without interfering with the modern village. Very few structures have been found — a smattering of the surface remains of the city walls, a marketplace, a colonnade, an aqueduct — but there’s little left of most of them. The largest single surviving ancient structure is the 2nd century Roman theater.

Other archaeological finds, large numbers of glass fragments from the 3rd-5th century which are evidence of a major secondary glass production industry in Capitolias, indicate Capitolias was economically prominent in the region well into the Byzantine era. The newly discovered tomb may fill in more blanks about this same period.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

A little treat

History Blog - Sun, 2016-12-25 21:49

I saved this just for today since I knew I wouldn’t have time for a full post. Remember the wonderful video from last year of the Historic Royal Palaces conservators lovingly cleaning the massive Mortlake February tapestry? Several comments on that article wished to see a picture of the tapestry after it was cleaned. Well, there are no direct before-and-after comparison images that I could find, but there is another great video, this one showing the cleaned tapestry re-hung by textile conservators in the Privy Chamber of Kensington Palace.

They take the same care hanging such a large and delicate tapestry as they do washing it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tudor Christmas Cookalong

History Blog - Sat, 2016-12-24 17:25

Looking for last minute holiday feast ideas? Historic Royal Palaces has some suggestions from the Tudors whose feasting prowess was legendary. They’ve posted two Tudor Christmas Cookalong videos hosted by food historian Robin Mitchener who is part of the crack team in the Hampton Court Palace kitchens that recreate period foods for the visitors to the palace.

The first video in the series is for a dish called Sauge made from leftover white meat, so maybe more of a post-Christmas dish unless you still have turkey in the freezer from Thanksgiving. It’s like a combination of chicken and egg salad, only without mayonnaise or oil. The yolks get mashed up in a monster marble mortar and pestle with spices, herbs and vinegar, though, so it does get somewhat creamed. Please note around the 2:40 mark how slickly Robin Mitchener deploys his blade.

Next is Cormarye, a marinated pork loin dish that looks legitimately delicious. In Tudor times the entire loin was roasted on a spit in one of the ginormous Hampton Court fireplaces, but the food historian has modified it to use readily available and easily pan-cooked loin steaks.

The whole YouTube channel is a treasury of cooking videos. This one from six years ago offers a Tudor-style alternative to the traditional Christmas mince pie. It’s called Ryschewys close and fryez (watch the video to learn how to pronounce it) and is a pasta parcel filled with fruits and nut paste and fried.

This one isn’t Christmas themed per se. It’s a savory cheese pie filled with all the rich dairy you’re not supposed to eat at Lent, hence the name Tartes owt of Lente. I’m sure it’s very tasty and looks relatively simple to prepare, but the key part of the video as far as I’m concerned is the unimpeded view of Robin whipping out his trusty scimitar from his hip holster. Watch out cowboys; we history nerds are coming for you.

Merry Christmahannakwanzika, all!

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Texel shipwreck yields another great textile

History Blog - Fri, 2016-12-23 23:59

The 17th century ship that sank in the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel off the coast of North Holland has already yielded a remarkable trove of well-preserved textiles. A beautiful silk damask gown was identified as having belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria and governess to three of her children with King Charles I. Buried under the sand for centuries, the gown survived in stunning condition, as did some of her other garments — a jacket, several silk bodices embroidered with gold and silver thread, woven silk knee socks — and pieces like a silver-embroidered red velvet pouch that would normally have disintegrated over time.

Now to that record we can add 13 fragments from an extremely rare carpet. Woven from silk and wool, the carpet has intricate flower and animal designs. One fragment features a striking scene of a lion attacking a cow.

Art historians have studied the fragments, examining the weaving and knotting techniques, the colors, patterns and figures. They believe the carpet was likely manufactured in Lahore, then part of the Mughal Empire that ruled over modern-day Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It dates to the second quarter of the 17th century, a time when the Dutch East India Company’s exports of Indian textiles to Europe was kicking into high gear.

Since the ship was a baggage ship for Queen Henrietta Maria’s royal retinue, the carpet may or may not have originated from the Dutch East India Company. The company traded all over Europe, and several Mediterranean objects were found on the wreck, so the carpet might have come to Holland via the south as well.

The highly prized carpets with their stylized botanicals and dynamic animal figures were very popular among the wealthy in the Dutch Golden Age. Yet, almost none of them have survived.

“It’s almost like having the fragments of an original Rembrandt in front of you,” textile researchers Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis and Hillie Smit, who examined the carpet, said in an emailed statement from the museum.

The fragments are now on display at the at the Kaap Skil museum, where the damask dress is on display, in Diving into Details, an exhibition about the latest research into the shipwreck. The exhibition runs through mid-February, after which the fragments will be sent to the Hilde House in Castricum, the archaeological museum of the Province Noord-Holland, for further study and conservation.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Secrets of 16th c. boxwood miniatures revealed

History Blog - Thu, 2016-12-22 23:38

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum, is hosting a groundbreaking exhibition that explores the mysterious beauty of 16th century miniature boxwood carvings. The AGO is home to the Thomson Collection of European Art which includes 12 boxwood carvings (10 prayer beads and two altarpieces), the largest collection in one place. There are only 135 known miniature boxwood carvings known to survive, so the AGO has almost 10 percent of the world’s total. Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures brings together the Thomson Collection pieces with another 50 loaned by other museums and private collections.

The miniature boxwood carvings were made during a very brief window, between 1500 and 1530, in Flanders or the Netherlands. It’s possible that only a single workshop, perhaps two, carved them all. The rise of a new moneyed merchant class with money to spend on expensive and showy objects created a market for high-end, portable religious carvings. Come the Reformation, rosaries, altarpieces and beads would go most decidedly out of fashion in Northern Europe and the window shut.

The prayer beads, also known as prayer nuts because their exteriors resemble a very symmetrical walnut shell, were devotional objects worn on a belt or on the end of rosary. About the size of golf balls, the beads open to reveal intricate, deeply layered Biblical scenes and inscriptions from the Vulgate. Their rich imagery and detail were meant to inspire contemplation and prayer. They had the ancillary benefit of being a religiously correct way to show off one’s wealth. A dense wood like boxwood holds its shape well and gives carvers the opportunity to create tiny details, but it also takes a huge amount of work and time. That makes it expensive. Features like copper or silver cases, often themselves engraved with elaborate scenes, added to the display of riches.

The space the carvers had to work in was so small and the wood so hard, that it seems almost impossible they were able to achieve such complex scenes, many with dozens of figures, human, heavenly and demonic, architectural elements, trees, symbols, all in the space of a single inch. They used specialized tools two inches long to dig deep into the wood, creating tiers of characters and landscape.

How exactly the craftsmen were able to create these elaborate compositions has been a mystery for 500 years. They must have used magnification because you can’t see how they’re put together with the naked eye. The curators and conservators of the AGO, Met and Rijksmuseum sought to break new ground in the study of the miniature marvels. X-rays weren’t enough to show how the sausage was made because the parts were too tiny. The AGO experts turned to micro-CT scanning to find the answers. The beads were carved from one piece of boxwood. The layers of the scene were carved in sections and then the discs set into the sphere with boxwood pins smaller than a seed of grass. The overlapping discs added depth and complexity to the miniatures.

Some of the carvings in the exhibition have never been seen before in North America. One of the ones making its North American debut in Toronto is the Chatsworth Rosary (ca. 1509–1526), an astounding masterwork of miniature carving which was originally owned by King Henry VIII and his devout Catholic wife Catherine of Aragon. The eleven beads are each carved on all sides with prompts for prayers, and the largest bead features Henry and Catherine at mass barely visible behind a pillar. It may have been a wedding present, and it seems Catherine kept it in the divorce. All for the best given that Henry outlawed rosaries in 1534.

The exhibition runs at the AGO through January 22nd, 2017. It opens at the Met Cloisters on February 21st, 2017, and moves to its last stop, the Rijksmuseum on June 15th, 2017. If you can’t make it to the shows, or even if you can but want to have your mind blown by the details in these pieces, the AGO has created a dedicated page with the whole collection available to peruse in extreme closeup. The zoom tool gives you an amazing view of every last nook and cranny. If that isn’t enough to slake your thirst, check out the wonderful videos below from the AGO.

Deciphering how the miniatures were made:

Micro CT scan of prayer bead:

3D Animation compiled from the Micro CT scans of the St. Jerome Boxwood Prayer Bead:

3D Animation of the Last Judgement Prayer Bead:

3D Animation of the Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Celtic harness fitting converted into Viking brooch

History Blog - Wed, 2016-12-21 23:12

This summer, a metal detectorist scanning a field at Agdenes farm on Norway’s Trondheim Fjord unearthed a piece of bronze jewelry. The well preserved object is a bird-like figure with intricate designs representing fish or dolphins on each wing. The decoration identifies it as being of Celtic origin, probably Irish, made in the 8th or 9th century. The Irish craftsmen made it as a fitting for a horse harness, but at some point it was converted into a brooch, as attested by a hole at the bottom and rust from where the pin was attached to the back. This second stage was the work of Vikings who often converted loot from their raids into jewelry for their loved ones.

It was almost certainly buried with a woman. Similar pieces have been found before, almost all of them in women’s graves from the first half of the 800s, the early years of the Viking incursions on the British Isles. Unfortunately the grave itself was not found. The object was ploughed up and scattered in the 1200 years since it was buried, and the grave in all likelihood has been destroyed.

Experts at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum analyzed the brooch and found traces of gilding, so the green bronze was once shiny gold, a coveted prize for a raider, and a very fine present for any raider’s lover or family member.

Being part of the early Viking raids brought status and prestige to the individuals who participated, but also to their families. The men who returned alive from the dangerous journeys gave the objects they had stolen as gifts to female family members who waited for them at home. The fittings were then turned into jewellery, and were worn on traditional Norse clothing as brooches, pendants or belt fittings.

“As a result, it became clear to everyone that those women had family members who had taken part in successful expeditions far away. There are traces of gold on the surface of the jewellery, so it was originally covered in gold. That made it appear more valuable than it actually was. In addition, each piece of jewellery was unique, so the owner did not risk having the housewife next door turn up with the same piece of jewellery,” [NTNU doctoral student Aina Margrethe] Heen Pettersen says.

Jewellery of this kind has typically been found in women’s graves with relatively few other burial gifts. This suggests that many of the Vikings who took part in raids far away did not represent the top layer of the social hierarchy. Instead, they were “nouveau riche” farmers and fishermen who got the opportunity to climb the social ladder by taking part in Viking raids.

The area where the brooch was found is mentioned in some of the sagas as a rallying point for ships and raiders setting out from the south end of the mouth of the Trondheim Fjord for the British Isles. The remains of a 12th century harbour built by King Øystein have been found next to Agdenes farm, so the location was of signficant strategic importance by then. The discovery of the brooch confirms that the site was populated and benefitted from raiding wealth centuries before Øystein’s harbour was built in the dawn of Viking engagement with the British Isles.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Getty acquires beautiful, storied intaglio

History Blog - Tue, 2016-12-20 23:42

I sometimes daydream about what it would be like to be the Getty with its wondrously Midas-like resources. Imagine going to an auction looking to buy an object estimated to sell for $10,000-15,000 and being able to walk out with it even though the final hammer price with buyer’s premium is $508,765. The J. Paul Getty Museum did just that with an exquisite 1st century A.D. Roman intaglio gemstone sold earlier this month at Sotheby’s London.

The gem—made of sard, a reddish-brown translucent quartz—is exquisitely engraved. The identity of the artist is uncertain, although the scholar Marie-Louis Vollenweider has suggested it is the work of Aulos, one of the finest engravers working in the circle of the imperial court of Emperor Augustus in the late first century B.C., who signed several other gems of related style. The beautiful gilt mount dates from the eighteenth century.

“The gem’s superb quality, impressive size, and excellent condition will enhance our holdings of engraved gems, one of the strengths of the Museum’s antiquities collection,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “It will go on view in the Villa’s reinstalled galleries alongside other engraved gems, including our amethyst Apollo attributed to the engraver Solon and the engraved gem of the head of Demosthenes signed by Apelles.”

The figures have been identified as pretty much every couple in Greco-Roman mythology at various times — Paris and Oenone, Phaon and Sappho, a muse and comic poet. The Getty is leaning towards Aphrodite and her handsome lover Adonis. Sotheby’s stayed on the safe side describing it simply as a “Standing youth conversing with a seated maiden.”

This piece has an illustrious and adventurous history, which at least in part explains the crazy price. Its first documented owner was Pierre-Jean Mariette, an 18th century Parisian art dealer who wrote the first modern sale catalogue. From Mariette it passed into the fabled collection of cameos and intaglios assembled by Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, and his son, also named Charles, who enlarged the collection. One of the George Spencers, it’s not known which one, bought this particular intaglio. The collection of engraved gems and cameos was so important that the 4th Duke of Marlborough gave them pride of place in a monumental family portrait by Joshua Reynolds on display in the Red Drawing Room of Blenheim Palace. The Duke holds a large cameo in his hand, while his son, standing to his left, carries a red morocco leather case under his arm, one of ten such cases that held the gem collection.

The Marlborough Gems remained in the Spencer-Churchill family until 1875 when money troubles compelled the 7th Duke to sell the entire collection, more than 800 pieces, to wealthy colliery owner David Bromilow. After his death, Bromilow’s daughter Julia Harriet Mary Jary sold the collection piecemeal at a Christie’s auction in 1899. The great collection was dispersed so widely that scholars are still trying to track down more than 500 of the pieces.

This one could so easily have disappeared too, but its ownership history is remarkably well preserved. It was acquired by Frankfurt industrialist and art collector Friedrich von Gans. He died in 1920 and by that time the intaglio was in The Hague in the newly established art gallery of Kurt Walter Bachstitz, a Jewish German-Austrian dealer. Bachstitz’s business was very successful, with offices in New York and Berlin. He and his wife moved from Germany to The Hague in 1938 fleeing Nazi persecution.

It wasn’t a long reprieve. Come the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Bachstitz was quickly targeted by Hans Posse, director of the Sondernauftrag Linz, the organization in charge of stealing/coercing art and antiquities for Hitler’s Barbie Dreamhouse museum in Linz. Posse bought the intaglio in 1941 for far less than its market value. It was stashed in the salt mines of Altaussee, Austria, along with thousands of other priceless pieces including Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. The intaglio was found there by the Monuments Men who, in accordance with Allied policy, returned it to the Netherlands Art Property Collection even though it was privately owned when the Nazis snatched it.

Kurt Walter Bachsitz petitioned the Dutch government for restitution of his property, but except for one painting Jan Steen, the government kept everything. Their position was that Bachsitz was well-connected (his Protestant wife’s brother was Hermann Göring’s art buyer) and was not subject to Nazi coercion in 1940-1, so all the stuff Posse bought at bargain-basement prices was just normal business. Bachsitz’s heirs are still fighting to find and reclaim his lost artworks today. The intaglio was restituted to his heirs this year and they put it on the auction block. The hammer price must have been a pleasant surprise for them.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Crappy original of epic botched restoration found

History Blog - Mon, 2016-12-19 23:42

It feels like an eternity has passed since the halcyon days when octogenarian Cecilia Giménez took a poorly executed, flaking wall painting of Christ with the crown of thorns and transformed it into the global phenomenon that is Ecce Mono, aka Monkey Jesus. It was August 2012 when the painting by Elias García Martinez in the Sanctuary of Mercy in the town of Borja, outside Zaragoza in northeastern Spain, was found altered beyond all recognition. At first it was thought to be the work of vandals. The Martinez family lodged a complaint and conservators bemoaned the terrible fate of the 1895 work. There was even talk that the 81-year-old church volunteer and amateur painter might be criminally charged.

The possibility that there might be some attempt to restore the painting was bandied about, but there was so much paint loss before Ms. Giménez brought her simian vision to life that any restoration would have been more like a recreation. The root of the problem Elias García Martinez didn’t make a fresco. He just applied oil paints directly on the wall of the church instead of using water-soluble pigments on a layer of wet plaster. The oil paint doesn’t adhere and the moisture problems of the old church exacerbated the paint loss.

Then the news, and most importantly the picture, of the reconceived Ecce Homo hit the Internet. The story went viral; Monkey Jesus became a beloved meme; petitions were started demanding that Cecilia Giménez’s version remain untouched. The painting quickly became so popular, that sleepy, economically depressed Borja boomed into an overnight tourist attraction. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Sanctuary of Mercy to pay their respects to the glorious botched restoration. It has graced t-shirts, mousepads and local wine labels. The story was made into an opera that debuted in the town this August, four years after Giménez picked up her paintbrush and had a date with destiny. Instead of getting arrested, Giménez got a cut of the merchandising revenue.

The town’s good fortune doubtless blunted the sting of the loss of the wall painting for the locals. Perhaps the Martinez family may find some solace now because an oil-on-canvas Ecce Homo painted by Elias García Martinez the year before he made the mural has been discovered. Zaragozan antique dealers Ostalé and David Ricardo Maturén found it in an Aragonese private collection.

It’s the same size as the church painting — 55 by 45 centimeters — and is believed to be the same in all other aspects as well. Since Martinez is known to have spent a mere two hours painting the one in Borja, perhaps he copied from his own canvas. Or maybe he didn’t even need it with him. The subject was a common one, a clothed version of Baroque master Guido Reni’s 1630 copper panel painting Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns. By the late 19th century it was so widely used an image, mass-produced on every medium from souvenir plates to postcards, that most any artist would have known how to crank it out given a couple of spare hours.

For now the canvas is being kept in an art gallery out of public view. The plan is to have a grand opening where the painting can be viewed alongside its more evolved primate cousin. Naturally the guest of honor will be Cecilia Giménez.

The art dealers insist the painting is not for sale but has already attracted interest from art collectors around the world.

“The painting should stay in Borja,” explained Ostalé. “It could be exhibited in the sanctuary next to that of Cecilia Giménez. At the moment, Borja’s Ecce Homo is one of the most visited paintings in the world and, in that sense, it is one of the most genuinely popular works we have in Spain.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest copy of Silent Night found in Vienna

History Blog - Sun, 2016-12-18 23:37

The oldest known copy of the Austrian Christmas carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night in English) has been discovered in an antique shop in Vienna. The pamphlet entitled Four Beautiful New Christmas Songs was printed by one Joseph Greis in the small Upper Austrian town of Steyr in the early 19th century. The full lyrics of Silent Night, the six original verses, are printed on pages seven and eight of the pamphlet. It was found by an antiquities dealer in June of 2015. Experts from the University of Vienna and the Silent Night Society in Salzburg examined it and confirmed it was the oldest known printed edition of the blockbuster.

The song began as a poem written by Josephus Franciscus Mohr in 1816. Mohr was born in Salzburg the illegitimate son of an embroiderer and an army deserter who abandoned his pregnant girlfriend before Joseph was born. The poverty of his early childhood was given a reprieve when Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, the vicar and musical director at Salzburg Cathedral, recognized the boy’s talent and sponsored his education. Mohr entered the seminary (he had to secure a special dispensation because of his illegitimate birth) and was ordained a priest in 1815.

These were turbulent times. With the end of the Napoleonic wars and the new boundaries established by the Congress of Vienna, the former ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg was divided into two sections, one given to Bavaria, the other Austria. Trade was disrupted and the associated industries — transportation, ship building, heavy lifting — suffered. Mohr witnessed this widespread economic uncertainty, political upheaval, troop withdrawals and the fallout from years of war in his first job as assistant priest at Mariapfarr in the Lungau region of Salzburg where he wrote Silent Night.

It didn’t become a song until two years later. Mohr was then assistant priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. Legend has it mice had eaten through the church organ making it impossible to play, so on Christmas Eve, 1818, Mohr gave choirmaster, organist and schoolteacher Franz Xaver Gruber his two-year-old poem and has him to write a melody suitable for two solo voices, a choir and a guitar. A few hours later, Gruber was finished and Stille Nacht was performed for the first time. Mohr played the guitar and sang the tenor role; Gruber sang bass.

The parishioners loved the simple song, and very soon the rest of the world would too. Just a year later it was already being performed in Tyrol by the popular Rainer Family Singers. In 1822 they performed it in front of Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tzar Alexander I of Russia. The Rainer Singers brought the song Stateside in 1839 and performed it for the first time on American soil in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in the cemetery of Trinity Church in New York City. An English translation was written in 1859 and by the turn of the century there were translations on every inhabited continent.

Today Silent Night is sung in more than 300 languages and dialects all over the world. It is by far the most popular Christmas carol ever, with 733 copyrighted recordings since 1978. Bing Crosby’s 1935 version of the song is the third best-selling single of all-time. (His White Christmas is number one).

Despite its almost immediate local and regional prominence, there is no original manuscript of the poem or of the composition. The printed version previously believed to be the oldest extant was published by A. R. Friese in Dresden in 1833, part of pamphlet entitled Four genuine Tyrolean songs. The recently discovered pamphlet is not dated, but Silent Night Society researchers believe it significantly predates the Friese publication because Joseph Greis, the publisher, ran a printing business in the early 1800s. He opened a bookstore in 1827 and died in 1835. There are no Greis printings after 1832, so even if Four Beautiful New Christmas Songs was one of the last things he did, it still beats the Dresden edition.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tycho Brahe was gilded

History Blog - Sat, 2016-12-17 23:04

In 2010, the astronomer’s coffin was exhumed from his tomb in Our Lady Before Tyn Church in Prague. Several samples of hair, teeth, bone and textile were taken and the remains were reburied four days later. Researchers from Aarhus University, the University of Southern Denmark and the Nuclear Physics Institute in Prague have been analyzing the samples ever since. In 2012 they confirmed that Brahe did not die from Mercury poisoning, an idea that had been floating about since a 1901 exhumation found elevated levels of mercury in his remains. It turns out, they weren’t particularly elevated at all right before his death or in the years leading up to it.

But it was another element that was found in surprising abundance: gold. The latest analyses have found that Tycho Brahe had gold in hair and lots of it. Tests of three different hair samples had gold content 20 to 100 times higher than the norm today.

There are no natural sources that could explain this high level of exposure to gold, such as soil or water, which means that Brahe must have been regularly exposed to gold in his everyday life.

“It may have been the cutlery and plates of gold, or maybe the wine he drank contained gold leaf. It’s also possible that he concocted and consumed elixirs containing gold, or that he worked with alchemy,” [University of Southern Denmark professor Kaare Lund] Rasmussen said.

Diane de Poitier, mistress of King Henry II of France, took a daily dose of gold for years. The theory was that gold’s purity and incorruptibility would be conveyed to Diane, keeping her young and beautiful. Instead it made her bones and hair brittle. When she died in 1566, 35 years before Tycho Brahe, the concentration of gold in her remains was 500 times greater than in a lock of her hair cut when she was a young woman. It may well be what killed her.

Brahe probably wasn’t taking gold to capture eternal youth. His exposure was more likely scientific. Samples from his hair, beard, eyebrows and bones were tested for another 14 elements and the results also showed higher-than-average concentrations of iron, cobalt, arsenic and silver. All of those would have been commonly used in alchemical experiments and in the preparation of medicines.

The concentration of metals is lower in the younger parts of the hairs, which allows the researchers to conclude that he was not exposed to these metals approximately the last 2 months before his death. The reason for that may be that he was too weak to work in his laboratory in his final weeks and months.

“What this tells us is that he did not suffer from an acute and fatal poisoning. This is not a particularly unusual cause of death in a period where the toxicity of metals was still unknown. Sir Isaac Newton, for instance, was subjected to mercury and lead poisoning,” Rasmussen explained.

So we still don’t know Tycho Brahe’s cause of death, but we can cross poisoning off the list. Researchers also found no evidence of metabolic diseases. The study has been published in the journal Archaeometry and can be read in its entirety here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Art historian donates unpublished Velázquez to Prado

History Blog - Fri, 2016-12-16 23:45

A previously unpublished painting by Diego Velázques has been donated to the American Friends of the Prado Museum by art historian William B. Jordan and is now going on display at the Prado Museum in Madrid as a renewable long-term deposit. Jordan bought it in 1988 but only recently submitted it to the Prado experts for extensive testing and authentication.

Mr. Jordan acquired the painting in London at an auction of Phillips, where it was mistakenly labeled, both in terms of its subject matter and author. While the work ostensibly represented Don Rodrigo Calderón, “it was very obvious to me that it was” King Philip III, Mr. Jordan said. The work was also wrongly auctioned as painted by somebody from the circle of Justus Sustermans, a Flemish painter. Mr. Jordan also initially made a wrong assumption that the portrait was a fragment of a larger painting rather than a preparatory oil sketch.

The portrait is a preparatory painting for The Expulsion of the Moriscos, a large-scale historical work Velázquez made for a contest in 1627. According to Jusepe Martínez, a painter and friend of Velázquez’s, when some artists dismissed Velázquez as someone who can “do nothing but paint heads,” King Philip IV proposed a pictorial competition to settle the matter. His four court painters, Carducho, Caxesi, Nardi, and Velázquez, would create a monumental work on a historical theme. As a subject Philip IV chose the Expulsion of the Moriscos.

On April 9th, 1609, King Philip III decreed the expulsion of the Moriscos, the descendants of Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity in the early 16th century, from Spain. Five years and one entirely predictable financial collapse later, hundreds of thousands of Moriscos had been expelled, mainly to North Africa. The Church and nobility saw it as a heroic act of Christian kingship, and it became a popular subject for painters.

The theme did give Velázquez the opportunity to paint some heads, most notably that of Philip III, but unlike the portraiture that he was already famous for, this portrait was of someone he had never seen who was dressed in period clothing. The sea-side setting was also unfamiliar to the Madrid-based painter. He overcame all obstacles of theme, setting and format. The judges, Dominican friar Maino of Toledo and Italian painter Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, ruled that Velázquez was the winner. His winning painting was found a place on the walls of the Royal Alcázar palace in Madrid.

References to it appear in the palace Inventory of 1686, in the will of Charles II (1701), and in the third volume of Antonio Palomino’s compendium of Spanish artists in 1724. There is no extant record that mentions the work. It was destroyed in the fire that reduced the palace to rubble in 1734. Velázquez’s groundbreaking and endlessly influential Las Meninas came close to sharing The Expulsion of the Moriscos‘ fate. It was saved only by being taken out of its frame and thrown out the window.

In the century between its creation and destruction, no copies of it were made that have survived. There aren’t even any sketches or drawings known. All we know about the painting is from written descriptions. The preparatory painting does seem to fit with the descriptions, which is one of the reasons Jordan became convinced of its identity and attribution. There are other reasons as well.

Philip III appears to be aged around 40 in the painting, his age in 1609 when the moriscos were expelled from Spain.

Stylistically, the work necessarily dates from later than 1609. It must have been produced between 1623, when Velázquez arrived at court and introduced a new style of royal portrait that corresponds to that of this work, and 1631, when he returned from Italy and adopted a notably different portrait style.

The fact that Philip III is in profile and looking up indicates that this is not a portrait (in which the sitter normally looks straight ahead) but an image to be included in a narrative scene.

The fact that the work’s characteristics are not comparable to the styles of the other portraitists working at the court in the 1620s, such as Van der Hamen, Maíno, Diricksen, etc.

A study of written descriptions of The Expulsion of the Moriscos suggest that the portrait of Philip III in that scene had a similar expression to this one and was looking in the same direction.

The Prado’s technical study of the work confirmed that the canvas, preparation and construction are all comparable to the those used by Velázquez in paintings from around 1627 and before his first trip to Italy in 1629. The modelling of the faces and is also similar in method and style to royal portraits Velázquez made in the late 1620s.

The addition of this work to the Museum’s collections as a long-term deposit will contribute to completing its representation of Velázquez as a royal portraitist, given that it is a work of outstanding quality and previously unpublished in the scholarly literature. As such, it will help to cast light on one of the key works of the artist’s early period at court.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Poland in talks to buy The Lady with Ermine

History Blog - Thu, 2016-12-15 23:24

Things were looking up for the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1790. After having been reduced to little more than a Russian protectorate in the late 17th century and less than two decades after the First Partition of Poland had divvied up much of it territory between Austria, Prussia and Russia, the Commonwealth was headed towards more independence than it had been in centuries. King Stanislaus II August supported liberal reforms and with Austria and Russia busy fighting the Ottomans, the Constitution of 3 May, 1791, was passed, creating in Poland a constitutional monarchy along the same lines as the British system.

A great patron and lover of the arts and well aware of how effectively culture can stimulate national pride, King Stanislaus commissioned English art dealers Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noël Desenfans to buy high-end artworks and create a royal collection of fine art worthy of a new Polish national gallery. The partners worked for five years towards that lofty goal, and then it all fell apart. Polish nobles opposed to the new constitution asked Queen Catherine the Great of Russia to send troops, which she was all too glad to do.

A war (lost), the Second Partition of Poland (Russia and Prussia took almost everything, leaving only a feeble rump state) and a reformist revolt led by Tadeusz Kościuszko ensued. The revolt failed due to the overwhelmingly superior numbers of Russian and Prussian forces and in 1795, the Third Partition destroyed the last sad vestige of the Polish state. Stanislaus abdicated and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth died. The dream of a Polish national gallery to rival those of the great European powers died with it. The works collected by Desenfans and Bourgeois became the core of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first public art gallery in the UK.

Into the devastating breach stepped one Princess Izabela Czartoryska. A writer and collector who hobnobbed with the cream of Enlightenment society — Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire — and advocated progressive reformist politics, Princess Izabela together with her husband Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski made the Czartoryski Palace Pulawy a center of Polish art, philosophy and politics in the 1780s. Pulawy earned the moniker the Polish Athens thanks to the flouring of intellectual life at the Czartoryski Palace.

After the Third Partition annihilated what was left of Polish independence, Izabela had the palace, burned and looted by Russian troops in retaliation for the Czartoryskis support of the Kościuszko Uprising in 1794, rebuilt by architect Chrystian Piotr Aigner and installed a museum of Polish royal and national memorabilia. The nascent collection included Turkish trophies captured by King Jan III Sobieski at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, heirlooms purchased from and donated by Poland’s greatest noble families.

In 1801, Izabela opened the Temple of the Sibyl, also known as the Temple of Memory, on the Czartoryski Palace estate. The Temple, designed by Chrystian Piotr Aigner after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, held the collection of Polish historical and cultural artifacts salvaged from royal castles, a growing collection of books, historic archives (including King Stanislaus II’s) and art. It was the first museum in Poland. Izabela’s son Adam Jerzy Czartoryski expanded the art historical significance of the collection geometrically during a 1798 trip to Italy when he purchased The Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci and Portrait of A Young Man by Raphael.

The collection was endangered by the November Uprising of 1830. The Russian army suppressed the uprising and the Czartoryski Palace holdings. Princess Izabela successfully hustled many of the museum’s treasures, including the Leonardo, out of danger before the Russians came. The family was forced into exile in Paris and Izabela’s son Adam installed the collection at the Hôtel Lambert. The Czartoryski collection returned to Poland in 1878 where it reopened in a new Czartoryski Museum in Kraków.

The Nazi depredations of World War II did a number on the Czartoryski museum. The Lady with an Ermine and Portrait of A Young Man were stolen practically the minute Germany invaded Poland. The Leonardo was brought back to Poland in 1940 because the Governor General Hans Frank wanted to hang it in his office. Allied troops found it at the end of the war and returned it to Poland. Many other works stolen by the Nazis from the Czartoryski collection were eventually rediscovered and returned. The Raphael is still missing to this day.

The Czartoryski Museum was nationalized after the war and administered by the Communist government. The museum and library collections were officially returned to Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski as the rightful owner in 1991. Since then, the Czartoryski Museum has been one of the most visited institutions in Poland, thanks largely to the enduring charm of Leonardo’s beautiful Lady and her muscular ermine.

It’s still privately owned, however, which means in theory The Lady with Ermine and everything else in the collection could leave the country. Poland most assuredly does not want that to happen. The Polish Culture Ministry announced Wednesday that they are in talks to buy the Czartoryski collection for the state.

“The Polish state and thus the Polish nation will own one of the world’s most valuable art collections, including this work, which many art historians deem superior to the ‘Mona Lisa’,” Selin said, quoted by the PAP agency. [...]

The ministry told AFP on Wednesday that Minister Piotr Glinski had “announced steps to finally set the status of the collection,” which requires a deal with the president of the foundation, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, who lives in Madrid.

This would bring together King Stanislaus II August’s long-thwarted vision and Princess Izabela’s dogged determination to keep Poland’s history and cultural prominence alive. Whether it can actually happen remains to be seen. The deal would be in the billions of dollars — the Leonardo alone is insured for $350 million — and there is a question whether the terms of the Czartoryski Foundation allow it to be sold in whole or in part.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History