Arts and Sciences

How to wash a 17th c. tapestry

History Blog - Fri, 2015-08-14 20:25

I’ve found a whole new subset of tapestry porn courtesy of the consistently entertaining Historic Royal Palaces YouTube channel: tapestry washing! The tapestry in question is February, one of a series depicting the 12 months that was commissioned by the future Charles I (then Prince of Wales) from the Mortlake Tapestry Works in 1623. At 13 feet (398 centimeters) by 11’4″ (347 cm), it’s one of the largest tapestries in the collection of Hampton Court Palace and, like the ones in the Kunsthistorisches Museum we just oogled, is in a perpetually delicate state of conservation.

Washing any antique tapestry is a conservation challenge, and washing the monumental ones is an immense logistical challenge as well. Hampton Court Palace experts have built a custom tapestry bath to handle their giant textiles. They use de-ionised water, a special detergent and a phalanx of lab-coated conservators to ever so gently lower the tapestry into a shallow pool where it’s washed with utmost tenderness and care. Once the tapestry is rinsed, conservators dry it by blotting with towels and then surround it with fans. Watch the magic happen:

That video seriously has everything. It combines my childhood adoration of carwashes with my adult adoration of antique textiles and the nitty-gritty of conservation that usually takes place exclusively behind the scenes. Also, I love how gently the conservators sponge the surface like they’re bathing a gigantic wool, silk, gold and silver baby in a massive bassinet.

February really is a baby compared to one its siblings: the tapestry of May and June which is a double-wide, each month represented in vertical sections divided by a border. It’s more than 13 feet high and almost 16 feet wide. I’d love to see that one gingerly unrolled into its megabath.

The series was commissioned by Charles I when he was still Prince of Wales. His father James I established the royal tapestry manufacturers in 1619, inspired by Henry IV of France who had founded the first royal tapestry workshop in Paris in 1607 as part of a program to revive production of French luxury goods that had declined so precipitously during the Wars of Religion. James enlisted Sir Francis Crane to set up the shop and then scoured the Low Countries for the greatest tapestry weavers he could poach. Apparently James missed his calling as a recruiter, because 50 top weavers were ensconced in the new workshop on the Thames at Mortlake, just outside of London, before the Netherlandish authorities knew they were gone. They didn’t hear about it until the ambassador reported in a 1620 letter that the tapestry manufacturing capabilities of the Low Countries were threatened by the alarming number of their best weavers suddenly in London.

Aided by apprentices James insisted be selected from London’s city hospitals/orphanages so that pauper boys could learn a lucrative trade instead of living in penury the rest of their lives, the Flemish weavers hit the ground running. They set to work on royal commissions from the king, Prince Charles, James’ favorite the Duke of Buckingham and other aristocratic buyers. Charles ordered the Twelve Months set from Madrid where he was engaged in very controversial negotiations to marry Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. He wrote to his people in London that they should pay £500 for the set, quite a modest sum considering that in the same letter he directed them to pay £700 for some tapestry cartoons from Italy.

The Prince of Wales became King Charles I in 1625 and patronized the Mortlake Tapestry Works even more than his father had. He subsidized it to the tune of thousands of pounds a year as well as commissioning some of the greatest tapestries in the royal collection. It was Charles I who bought the Raphael cartoons and commissioned tapestry designs from masters like Rubens and Van Dyke. After Sir Francis Crane’s death in 1637, the tapestry works became official property of the crown.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

15th c. monster raised from Baltic Sea

History Blog - Thu, 2015-08-13 16:16

Sweden sees your 17th century gun carriage, England, and raises you a 15th century sea monster. On Tuesday before a crowd of fascinated thousands, divers lifted the wooden figurehead of a late 15th century Danish warship from the Baltic Sea off the coast of Ronneby in southeastern Sweden. The figurehead weighs 300 kilos (661 pounds) and is carved out of the last meter of a 3.4-meter-long beam. The design is a fierce toothy monster of indeterminate nature.

“Last time it looked at the world, Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus were still living,” Johan Ronnby, professor of marine archaeology at Sodertorn University, said as the ferocious-looking figurehead, which was intended to scare the enemy, was brought to the surface.

“It’s a monster. It’s a sea monster and we have to discuss what kind of animal it is. I think it’s some kind of fantasy animal – a dragon with lion ears and crocodile-like mouth,” Ronnby said.

“I’m amazed, We knew that it should be a fantastic figure, but it was over our expectations when we saw it now. It’s a fantastic figure, unique in the world.”

There’s something in his mouth, too, something or someone being devoured by this fearsome beast. It reminds me of the biscione on the Visconti family coat of arms.

The wreck was first found by sport divers in the 1970s, but archaeologists only learned about it in 2001 when artifacts from the ship surfaced. They took a wood sample from one of the ship’s exposed timbers and dendrochronological analysis revealed the oak tree that made that timber was chopped down in northeastern France during the winter of 1482-83. That means the ship was likely constructed in Flanders or the Netherlands. In collaboration with local divers, archaeologists explored the wreck, retrieving a number of artifacts including nine carriages for iron breech-loading guns which are now on display at the Blekinge Museum. They found that the ship was constructed using carvel planking, with hull planks laid flush next to each other rather than with the slight overlap of earlier clinker-built vessels,

Researchers have identified the ship as the Gribshunden, the flagship of King Hans of Denmark which sank while anchored off Ronneby in 1495. Historical sources report that the ship was on its way to Kalmar, Sweden, where King Hans would meet with the Swedish regent Sten Sture the Elder to discuss Sweden’s increasing withdrawal from the Kalmar Union. For unknown reasons, the ship caught fire and sank, killing many men but not the king, who witnessed the horrific demise of his flagship and its crew from a nearby boat. He cancelled his trip to Kalmar in the wake of the disaster. (Two years later King Hans defeated Sten Sture in battle and secured the Swedish throne.)

The location of the wreck, off the coast of Ronneby near the island of Stora Ekön, matches the historical accounts of the Gribshunden‘s sinking. The ship’s large size (at least 35 meters or 115 feet long), the tree ring dating, the carvel construction all support the identification. Also archaeologists were able to recover some mortar from the hold of the ship and found that the lime came from the Danish island of Saltholmen near Copenhagen.

The Gribshunden is the oldest armed warship ever found in Nordic waters, and while most of the wreck is still buried in the seabed, archaeologists believe it may be the world’s best preserved 15th century ship. The study of the unique wreck is of international significance because it dates to such an important period in the history of navigation and may reveal new information about the construction of Age of Discovery ships.

The figurehead is now at the Blekinge Museum where it will spend the next few months in a bath of sugar water. That will leach the corrosive sea salt out of the wood in preparation for long-term conservation. The water-saturated wood will have to be dried very gradually to ensure it does not crack and warp. Conservators will decide which method to use once the desalination is complete. Freeze-drying is a prime candidate.

People can see the figurehead inside its water bath at the Blekinge Museum when the artifacts laboratory is opened to visitors every Thursday afternoon. On August 30th, Archaeology Day, experts will be on hand to answer questions about the figurehead and the wreck.

For an in depth explanation of the wreck’s history and archaeology, read this exceptional post by Rolf Warming of Combat Archaeology who participated in the salvage operation.

Here’s video of the wreck in situ filmed this June:

This news story shows the raising of the figurehead:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Intact gun carriage raised from 17th c. shipwreck

History Blog - Wed, 2015-08-12 18:19

Archaeologists have successfully recovered an intact wooden gun carriage in excellent condition from the wreck of the 17th century warship the London in the Thames estuary. The gun carriage, sized to hold a cannon nine feet long, is the only complete one of its kind from this period known to survive.

Alison James, a Historic England maritime archaeologist, said: “This 350 year old gun carriage is in near-perfect condition. It’s a national treasure and the key to new knowledge of our social and naval history. We had to recover it quickly or it would have broken up and been lost forever.

“It’s complete with all the implements that the gunner would have used to make the cannon fire — all the archaeological material is there with it so it’s hugely exciting. Until now, it’s been well preserved, enclosed in an anaerobic environment, oxygen-free mud, safe from all the creepy-crawlies that would normally erode it. We’ve even got the 350 year old rope going through the pulley block. But as parts of the gun carriage recently became exposed, we had to act fast to save this rare piece of our history from the ravages of the waves and biological attack,” she said.

The London was one of three Second Rate ships of the line built in 1656 during the Commonwealth by command of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. (That’s why there’s no HMS in front of it, because there was no HM when it was built.) Larger, updated versions of the Jacobean Great Ship, the Second Rates would have been a formidable addition to the Commonwealth Navy, but while the order was for 10 ships, only three were completed, and only the London survives in any form at all. The other two burned to ashes before the century was out. Cromwell must have rolled over in his soon-to-be-unquiet grave when the London was part of the fleet that brought the restored King Charles II back to England from the Netherlands. It carried the king’s brother, the Duke of York, the future King James II of England.

Just five years after the restoration of the monarchy, the London met a sudden explosive end. Freshly outfitted for action in the second Anglo-Dutch War, the London was sailing from the shipyard in Chatham to the Hope where it would pick up its commander Sir John Lawson and meet destiny as flagship of the Red Squadron. Just before reaching its destination, the London suddenly blew up. We don’t know the exact cause of the explosion. Historians believe that the crew was preparing a 17-gun salute to welcome their commander when something went horribly wrong and the 300 barrels of gunpowder on board ignited blowing the ship in two.

Diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the event with sorrow in his March 8th entry.

This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London,” in which Sir J. Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower [a Thames Estuary sandbank], she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round-house above water. Sir J. Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them.

There were men, women and children on board who were not part of the crew; they were guests attending the launch, including much of Lawson’s extended family. Pepys’ estimate that there were 300 people on the London could be extremely low, therefore. There could have been as many as 500 on board, and only 25 survived.

The wreck of the London was rediscovered in 2005 during an archaeological survey in advance of the London Gateway Port development on the north bank of the Thames in Thurrock, Essex. Three years later it was designated a Protected Wreck Site and English Heritage (now renamed Historic England) contracted Wessex Archaeology to explore and document the wreck. The Port of London Authority moved the shipping channel to keep from disturbing the wreck, but it wasn’t enough. Starting in 2010, expert Thames Estuary diver Steven Ellis, who was licensed by the government to dive the wreck, and volunteers under his guidance monitored the London regularly. They found that erosion and movement of the sediment around the wreck were making the ship unstable and artifacts were being dislodged and lost in the murky waters.

An initial project of artifact recovery began in 2012 and last year Historic England received funding for a two-year evaluation of the site that would ensure the recovery of archaeological remains deemed in danger of loss, damage or destruction, study the structure of the wreck and determine how best to keep the London safe from environmental threats like erosion, the warming ocean and woodworm. The team includes experienced divers like Steve and Carol Ellis and professional maritime archaeologists from contractors Cotswold Archaeology. Ellis’ team found the gun carriage exposed on the seabed last year. After eight months They determined the gun carriage was in immediate danger from woodworm and decided to raised it.

As for the cannon that used to ride that carriage, it may still be below or may have been recovered. Five bronze cannons have been retrieved from the site since its rediscovery in 2005. Three of them are Dutch weapons that were taken from ships captured during the first Anglo-Dutch War in 1653 and then loaded onto the London. Two of them are English, one bearing the coat-of-arms of the Commonwealth weapons, one an extremely rare piece made in 1590 by London royal gun founder Peter Gill, and are now housed at the Royal Armouries in Portsmouth. The three Dutch cannons were illegally sold to a private collector in Florida by an unscrupulous diver/looter who lied about finding them in international waters. Since carriages were custom-made to fit a specific gun, if it held one of the five known cannons on the London, experts might be able to match them up. It’s a long shot, if you’ll pardon the pun, because the London was fitted with 76 guns. Nine were salvaged before 1700, their whereabouts now unknown. That means there could be as many as 62 of the ship’s cannons still embedded in the silt of the Thames Estuary, or they could have been destroyed in the explosion, dragged elsewhere by the currents or, sadly, looted.

The gun carriage will be conserved in York, a process that could take years, before going on display at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s Museums Service.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mozart autograph manuscript returns to Salzburg

History Blog - Tue, 2015-08-11 15:34

A rare autograph manuscript of a piece of music transcribed by Wolfgang Mozart in around 1773 when he was 17 years old has been acquired by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation and is now on display at the Salzburg Festival. A transcription of Stabat Mater a 3 voci in canone (Stabat Mater with three voices in canon) by Marchese Eugenio di Ligniville, musical director of the royal court of Tuscany, the manuscript is 12 pages long and is in the hand of Wolfgang Mozart with annotations by his father Leopold. It has been in private collections since the 1920s. The Foundation was able to buy the manuscript for £167,000 ($256,796) when it came up for auction at Sotheby’s London in May thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor.

Time for a little digression through the labyrinth of European political history. Remember Anna Maria de’ Medici, Electress Palatine, who saved Florence’s artistic patrimony after the last Medici grand duke died leaving the grand duchy in the hands of the future Holy Roman Emperor Francis I? The Medici had ruled Florence off and on since the 15th century, but after the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, the Medici’s enemies took advantage of the chaos to overthrow the family and reinstall a Republic with rotating leadership. When Pope Clement VII, born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, made peace with Charles V in 1539, Charles agreed to reclaim Florence for the pope’s family. It took 11 months of siege to do it, but in 1530 Florence fell. Tuscany became a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope’s illegitimate nephew Alessandro Medici was installed as its ruler. Charles made it official by stipulating that from then on, Tuscany would be ruled in perpetuity by the male heirs of the Medici family.

So, when Gian Gastone, Anna Maria’s brother and the last male direct descendant of the main family branch, died, a more distant relative had to be installed. There were several strong candidates — the Medici married and bred very well and very copiously — but Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI wasn’t a principled genealogist seeking the closest male heir. He had other priorities, placating the deposed King of Poland Stanisław Leszczyński, father of the Queen of France, being one of them. Getting his daughter and heir Maria Theresa married to someone he liked who could support her in the inevitable succession war after Charles’ death was an even bigger one. Tuscany was the stone with which he hit both those birds.

Francis, Duke of Lorraine, scion of an ancient noble French house and second cousin to the Holy Roman Emperor, could claim descendance from Catherine de’ Medici, at various times queen consort, queen mother and regent of France, through her daughter Claude of Valois. Relying on the female line, his claim to the throne of Tuscany was one of the weaker ones. It was strengthened immeasurably by the fact that Charles wanted Francis to marry his daughter.

In order to marry Maria Theresa, Francis would have to give up the Duchy of Lorraine, something he was extremely reluctant to do. His family was vociferously opposed to him giving up his birthright, not even for an empire. In the treaty negotiations after the War of the Polish Succession, France would only agree to support Charles’ Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 (the edict that allowed women to inherit Hapsburg lands and titles) if the fiance’ of the woman in question gave the Duchy of Lorraine to Stanisław Leszczyński for his lifetime, after which it would become property of the French crown. To sweeten the deal, Charles VI offered Francis the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in exchange for his lost Lorraine. He took it.

Grand Duke Francesco only alighted in Florence once for three months in 1739. The rest of the time the grand duchy was ruled by his viceroy Marc de Beauvau, Prince of Craon, who was married to Anne Marguerite de Lignéville. After Francis’ death in 1765, his son Peter Leopold became grand duke of Tuscany. Eugenio di Ligniville, a relative of the former viceroy’s wife and one of many nobles from Lorraine who moved to Tuscany after Gian Gastone’s death in 1737, became director of music to the court of Tuscany in 1768. Ligniville was not a professional musician. He had served as the grand duchy’s postmaster general until retiring in 1767. He was an accomplished composer and music theorist nonetheless with an international reputation as a master of counterpoint.

The Stabat Mater a 3 voci in canone was first published in 1767 and was acclaimed as the pinnacle of art of counterpoint by Franciscan friar and leading composer of the period Padre Giovanni Battista Martini. Martini wrote a letter to Ligniville in March of 1767 complimenting on his canon. He wrote that he considered counterpoint to be the hardest and most essential exercise for any musician truly seeking to improve their abilities and understanding of composition, and lamented its falling out of favor in the education of musicians of their century.

In his role as music director, Ligniville arranged for Leopold and the 14-year-old Wolfgang Mozart to visit the Tuscan court in April of 1770. Father and son were received by the Grand Duke at Palazzo Pitti on April 1st. The next day the grand duke sent his carriage to transport them to his summer villa of Poggio Imperiale where Wolfgang performed. The performance was stellar, according to the Wolfgang’s father Leopold, and their ample reward from the Grand Duke of 333.6.8 Lire or 25 gold zecchini supports the contention. From a letter he wrote to his wife in Salzburg:

“Everything went off as usual and the amazement was all the greater as Marchese Ligniville, the director of music, who is the finest expert in counterpoint in the whole of Italy, placed the most difficult fugues before Wolfgang and gave him the most difficult themes, which he played off and worked out as easily as one eats a piece of bread. Nardini, that excellent violinist, accompanied him.”

After that, the pair traveled around Italy, until reaching Bologna in July where Wolfgang took lessons in counterpoint from Padre Martini for three months. The lessons obviously kept going even when they returned to Salzburg, because the transcription of Ligniville’s Stabat Mater was done in 1773. One of things that makes the manuscript so important is that it captures the young artist in the very act of mastering the finer technical points of the composer’s craft. From the Sotheby’s catalog note:

The importance of the manuscript lies particularly in the light it sheds on Mozart’s contrapuntal studies, complementing as it does the scattered complex of manuscripts … in which Mozart wrestled with the puzzle canons from Padre Martini’s Storia della musica. When in 1785 Joseph Haydn famously stated to Leopold Mozart, then visiting his son in Vienna, that Mozart possessed ‘taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition’, he was stating no more than the truth. [This] autograph … is a testament to the fact that such knowledge was not acquired easily by Mozart, but rather was the result of painstaking and concentrated effort.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

From Monster Soup to beautiful microscopic sirens

History Blog - Mon, 2015-08-10 18:57

Microscopes had been used by scientists before Anton van Leeuwenhoek perfected the lenses that allowed him to see the unseen in the late 17th century, but it was Leeuwenhoek who first viewed animalcules in a drop of water. For almost two centuries after him, the microscope remained the province of the scientist and the wealthy amateur. Advancements in technology and mass-production in the 19th century made the microscope more widely accessible. If you didn’t have your own, a traveling showman would let you enjoy his, for a modest fee, of course. That meant regular people could peer into a drop of water and find it teaming with creatures.

This was disconcerting at first. In 1828, after the Commission on the London Water Supply reported that the Thames, supplier of drinking water for the capital, was contaminated by raw sewage, William Heath illustrated people’s reaction at their impure water with a caricature in which a woman views the “Monster Soup commonly called Thames water” through a microscope with horror. In the United States, even as late as 1846 the thriving social life in a drop of water from New York’s recently built Croton Reservoir alarmed the erudite gentlemen of Scientific American.

Yet, just a few years after that, with microscopes getting stronger, cheaper and more portable every day, the “creatures of malignant and voracious propensities” in the Croton reservoir that had so disturbed Scientific American were seen as a source of viewing pleasure, live entertainment for anyone with the technology to enjoy them. Amateur naturalist Agnes Catlow, author of books on botany, entomology, zoology and shells, wrote Drops of Water: Their Marvelous and Beautiful Inhabitants Displayed by the Microscope in 1851 specifically for the beginner.

General interest and literary magazines stepped on the microscopy bandwagon as well, for instance Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Worlds. Dickens published his own serialized works in the magazine as well as the work of other writers like his protegé Wilkie Collins. He wanted this to be a family periodical — uplifting, wholesome, socially responsible – and exerted total control over its content. In keeping with this ethos, the Microscopic Preparations article published in the fall of 1857 showed readers how, from the comfort of their own homes, they could enjoy the fascinating world of microorganisms while unconsciously improving their understanding of nature.

The popular English philosopher and polymath Herbert Spencer went further, insisting that an active exploration of the natural world was necessary not only for the development of reason and the intellect, but for the development of aesthetic understanding as well. In “What Knowledge Is of Most Worth,” first published in the Westminster Review then with three other related essays in an 1860 book Education: Intellectual, Moral and Physical, Spencer wrote:

The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded. Whoever has not in youth collected plants and insects, knows not half the halo of interest which lanes and hedge-rows can assume. Whoever has not sought for fossils, has little idea of the poetical associations that surround the places where imbedded treasures were found. Whoever at the seaside has not had a microscope and aquarium, has yet to learn what the highest pleasures of the seaside are.

Those who seek truth and understanding from the study of history, art and literature while ignoring science, Spencer believed, are bogged down by surperficialities and minutiae, depriving themselves of the greatest form of poetry: “that grand epic written by the finger of God upon the strata of the Earth.”

And thus seaside microscopy became a popular hobby in the second half of the 19th century. In less than 15 years, the tiny creatures in water went from malignant to beautiful to edifying to the greatest thing a beach vacation has to offer, and that was just in non-fiction. The January 1858 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (the now-venerable magazine’s third issue ever), featured a story by Irish author Fitz James O’Brien called The Diamond Lens in which a microscopist speaks to the spirit of Leeuwenhoek through a medium and gets instructions from the master on how to craft the perfect microscope: by using a 140-carat diamond lens bombarded with electro-magnetic currents. With this ultimate microscope, our hero sees past the “grosser particles” of the animalcules into a radiant paradisiacal realm where he finds the most beautiful wee blond lady ever. He names her Animula and of course falls madly in love with her.

I find it fascinating that microorganisms transformed in the public imagination from voracious beasts to otherworldly naiads just as people were beginning to figure out that there actually IS stuff in the water that can kill you. For example, pioneering epidemiologist John Snow had some understanding that something in water caused cholera. He didn’t know what exactly, but he thought water contaminated with the feces of cholera victims transported material to the digestive tracks of healthy people, material that would then reproduce itself avidly infecting its hosts with cholera. He published his first paper on the subject in 1849 and nobody believed him. They didn’t believe him five years later when he helped end an 1854 cholera outbreak by having the handle of the Broad Street water pump located in the thick of the infection zone removed. Miasmas (putrid fogs emanating from decomposing tissue) were still widely believed to be the transmitters of disease.

The official report (pdf) of the government committee tasked with studying the cholera epidemic of 1854 went out of their way to reject Snow’s unappealing idea, twisting the facts he had established to fit the miasmic theory.

The water was undeniably impure with organic contamination ; and we have already argued that, if, at the times of epidemic invasion there be operating in the air some influence which converts putrefiable impurities into a specific poison, the water of the locality, in proportion as it contains such impurities, would probably be liable to similar poisonous conversion. Thus, if the Broad Street pump did actually become a source of disease to persons dwelling at a distance, we believe that this may have depended on other organic impurities than those exclusively referred to, and may have arisen, not in its containing choleraic excrements, but simply in the fact of its impure waters having participated in the atmospheric infection of the district.

In fact, the very year cholera hit Broad Street, anatomist Filippo Pacini at the University of Florence isolated the cholera bacillus from the intestinal muscosa of one of its victims. He published his discovery that year, but it got no traction in the international scientific community, nor did his several subsequent studies connecting to the pathogen to the pathology. Thirty years later, Robert Koch made the same discovery independently and, even though the miasma theory was still predominant for a few years, eventually Koch’s ideas were accepted. Pacini finally got wide credit for being the first when his last name was added to the bacillus — Vibrio cholerae Pacini — in 1965.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Threads of Power: superb tapestry porn

History Blog - Sun, 2015-08-09 19:26

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has one of the greatest collections of tapestries in the world thanks largely to the Imperial collection of the Hapsburg dynasty. Most of the tapestries are kept in careful storage for conservation purposes and are too delicate to be on public display. Now the museum has placed select rare masterpieces of 16th century Belgian tapestry on display in Threads of Power, an exhibition that explores how the elite used the expense, subject matter and sumptuous materials of tapestry as propaganda tools to broadcast their status and wealth. The 14 tapestries will be on display along with preparatory sketches, cartoons, woodcuts, engravings, etchings, oil paintings on canvas, coins and other artworks associated with the tapestries from July 14th through September 20th, 2015.

With the exception of one tapestry made in the early 1700s from a 16th century design (the tapestry makers kept original cartoons and drawings of their most popular pieces for decades, even centuries, so entire series could be reissued upon request), all of the tapestries were manufactured in Brussels during the 16th century. Influenced by Raphael whose cartoons for Pope Leo X in 1515 ushered in the era of prestigious artists drawing for tapestries, top court artists like Barend van Orley and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen created the designs that were woven into textiles by the greatest Brussels workshops.

Using precious materials like gold and silver thread, silk and wool, weavers took years to make a single wall hanging. Tapestries were far more expensive than paintings, the exclusive province of the most moneyed nobles and royals. The subjects depicted on these large, luxurious canvases matched the size and importance of the medium. Scenes of royal courts, battles, Biblical stories, mythological figures were idealized versions of the grand personages and who commissioned the works to decorate their walls.

And not just their walls, either. The tapestries were used on state occasions, hung on a dais or as a baldachin over the throne. One of the tapestries in the exhibit, An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta, is a 1712-21 reissue of one of 12 tapestries in a series first commissioned in 1546 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to celebrate his capture of Tunis from the Ottoman Turks 11 years earlier. The Conquest of Tunis series was designed by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen and woven by Willem de Pannemaker’s workshop in Brussels. The contract between Charles and Pannemaker stipulates in detail which materials were to be used: 63 colors of silk from Granada, worsted thread from Lyon, seven kinds of gold thread and three of silver provided directly by Charles V. Charles required that Pannemaker employ seven weavers to work on each tapestry all day. It still took them five years to complete the series for a total cost of 26,000 pounds ($1 million today).

The full series traveled with Charles V and was unfurled at every state occasion and religious ceremony. They were draped in the royal receiving rooms of the Brussels palace and in Madrid’s Alcázar palace under Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain. They were so famous and so well-used that they had to be retired for their own preservation less than a century after they were made and replacements ordered from the original cartoons.

But let’s face, this post is really all about the textile porn. The Kunsthistorisches Museum has been kind enough to provide lovely pictures of some of the tapestries on display at the exhibition. I wish the photos of the complete tapestries are larger (it’s rare that even a high res picture of a monumental piece fully satisfies me), but coupled with extreme close-ups of details, you can get a real sense of the glorious materials and exquisite craftsmanship of Low Country Renaissance tapestries.

Heracles Decapitating the Lernaean Hydra, Tapestry from the series “The Labours of Heracles,” produced under Michiel van Orley, Oudenaarde, c. 1550/65, wool, silk; 418 x 544 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband.

Mercury with the Zodiac Sign “Cancer” (June), Tapestry from the series “The Twelve Months,” produced in Brussels, c. 1560/70, wool silk, metal threads; 419 x 468 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta, Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V” design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46, produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721, wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm.Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Tapestry Featuring the Arms of Emperor Charles V, produced under Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, c. 1540, wool, silk, metal threads; 197 x 273 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Fortitude, Tapestry from the series “The Seven Virtues,” design: Michiel Coxcie (c. 1499 – 1592), produced under Frans Geubels, Brussels, before 1549, wool, silk, metal; 352 x 469 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

The Apostle Paul before King Agrippa, Tapestry from the series “Scenes from the Life of the Apostle Paul,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), c. 1529/30; produced under Paulus van Oppenem, Brussels, c. 1535, wool, silk, metal; 423 x 453 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Acedia, Tapestry from the series “The Seven Deadly Sins,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), c. 1533/34, produced under Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, c. 1548/49, wool, silk, metal; 456 x 708 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Vertumnus Approaching Pomona Disguised as a Vintner, Tapestry from the series “Vertumnus and Pomona after Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), Brussels, c. 1544, produced in Brussels, between c. 1548 and 1575, wool, silk, metal threads; 425 x 503 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

The Triumphal Procession Continued: Displaying Captured Arms and Armour, Tapestry from the series “Deeds and Triumphs of Dom Joao de Castro,” design: c. 1550/57, produced under Bartholomeeus Adriaensz (?), Brussels, after 1557, Wool, silk, metal; 354 x 473 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Throne Canopy, design: Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527 – c. 1606) and Michiel Coxcie (c. 1499 – 1592, figures), Brussels, c. 1561 (dated), wool, silk, metal threads; back: 419 x 271 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

For more details about the tapestries and related artwork on display, read the exhibition booklet (pdf). Here’s an introductory video from the museum about the show. Keep your eye open for an amazing close-up view of gold metal threads around the 1:40 mark. Click the CC button for English subtitles.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

WWII vet gets back wallet lost in Austria in 1945

History Blog - Sat, 2015-08-08 18:39

This June, Dr. Josef Ruckhofer was renovating the farmhouse near Salzburg his late grandfather had left him when he discovered an old leather wallet hidden underneath some floorboards. The wallet had no money in it but there were family pictures, some stamps, money order receipts and most fortunately, a military ID card which identified the wallet’s owner as Eligio Ramos of Texas. Ruckhofer searched through Texas telephone directories online but wasn’t able to find an Eligio Ramos. When he expanded the search to all of the United States, he found an Eligio Ramos born on the proper date (August 27th, 1923) at an address in Fresno, California.

On the morning of June 18th, Eligio Ramos, now 91 years of age and living in a Fresno VA hospital, was having breakfast with his 72-year-old daughter Sylvia Gonzalez when she opened a letter from Salzburg, Austria. It was from Dr. Ruckhofer asking if the Eligio Ramos at this address could be the one who left his wallet behind after spending a night in an Austrian farmhouse in 1945. He including some copies of the military ID card and family photos.

“I was having breakfast at home with my dad like our usual routine three days out of the week, and I was reading through the mail when I stumbled upon the letter,” Gonzalez, 72, said. “I said, ‘Dad! Look! Somebody found your wallet you lost in 1945 in Austria.”

It turns out Eligio Ramos and his platoon of the 250th field artillery had been in the Salzburg area in 1945 while going town to town liberating prisoners in the slave labor subcamps of the vast Mauthausen-Gusen complex. Ruckhofer’s grandfather offered Ramos and his comrades a place to stay for the night. Ramos secreted his wallet under the floorboards but forget to retrieve it before the soldiers left the next morning. Over the decades he forgot about the wallet he’d lost in Austria, until it all came back to him the morning he received Dr. Ruckhofer’s letter. Eligio Ramos is now the only surviving member of his battalion.

Ramos’ son Rosando emailed Ruckhofer and confirmed he’d found the long-lost wallet’s owner. They made arrangements for the precious memento to be sent back to Eligio who was able to hold it in his hands for the first time in 70 years.

The wallet contains a “treasure-load” of family photos, including baby photos of relatives now in their 70s who showed up at a special reunion celebrating the lost-and-found at Fresno VA Hospital, [VA public affairs specialist Carmichael] Yepez said. [...]

“Everything in the wallet is of sentimental value,” vet’s son said at the reunion.”He had a ton of pictures in his wallet in case he didn’t make it back. He wanted to have his family with him in his heart.”

The family plans to have the wallet and its contents framed so they can display this personal and historic treasure with pride on their walls.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Spanish Armada artifacts recovered off Irish coast

History Blog - Fri, 2015-08-07 14:01

This April, the remains of a shipwreck began washing up on the long sandy beach of Streedagh Strand in County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. A man walking along the beach found a weathered piece of wood and alerted authorities who identified it as the rudder from one of three ships from the Spanish Armada known to have wrecked off the Streedagh coast on September 21st, 1588. The wrecks were discovered in 15 to 30 feet of water in 1985 and have remained untouched, protected by layers of sand, on the seabed ever since. Severe winter storms over the past two years are believed to have dislodged some of the looser objects from the wrecks while the remains of the ships themselves are still safe under their cover of sand.

To ensure the artifacts would not be looted or washed out to sea, Ireland’s Department for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht sent a team of divers to recover them from the seabed. Recovery operations ended last week and they were remarkably successful. Divers retrieved nine bronze cannons, a gun carriage wheel, cannon balls, a ship’s cauldron and numerous smaller objects. The artifacts appear to be in excellent condition and will be conserved by experts at the National Museum of Ireland for future display. The conservation process will take at least two years, however, so they won’t be on public view for a long time.

The coast of Ireland is something of a graveyard for the soldiers and sailors of the Spanish Armada. When King Philip II’s purportedly invincible fleet of 130 heavily armed ships was defeated by the English navy and its deadly fireships, the Armada fled north, sailing around the coast of Scotland and over to western Ireland into the North Atlantic where it was welcomed by a particularly brutal storm season. As many ships had had to cut away their anchors in their hasty flight from the English fireships in Calais, they were unable to drop anchor somewhere protected and weather out the storm. An estimated 5,000 men of the Spanish Armada died from drowning, starvation, disease and execution by English soldiers in Scotland and Ireland.

Around 1,000 sailors and soldiers were aboard the three ships that fell victim to one of those North Atlantic storms off of Streedagh. They were hugging the coast, trying to avoid the worst of the Atlantic storm, but the storm won, battering the ships so viciously that within an hour all three had sunk. Out of the 1,000 soldiers and crew, 140 men made it to shore only to be killed by the English garrison at Sligo. Others were killed by Only a handful of men managed to make it out alive, protected by local Irish chieftains who, although threatened by the English authorities with execution should they attempt to lend succor to any Spanish survivors, were more than glad to risk their lives to stick it to the hated (Protestant) English by supporting their (Catholic) enemies.

One of those survivors, Franciso de Cuellar, captain of the 24-gun galleon San Pedro, wrote of his experience in a letter, a remarkable testimony that has thankfully survived for our edification. A quick bit of context: he writes in the beginning of the letter of being condemned to death unjustly. That’s because he was accused of disobedience when the San Pedro broke from the rest of the fleet in the North Atlantic to get some sleep and repair his ship, was sentenced to die and transferred to the galleon San Juan de Sicilia for execution. They never got around to killing him before the storm cast him ashore at Streedagh with 300 other Armada survivors, most of whom were not survivors for long. With all his talk of savages (the native Irish) and misadventure after misadventure, it reads like something from Gulliver’s Travels.

The enemies and savages, who were on the beach stripping those who had been able to reach it by swimming, did not touch me nor approach me, seeing me, as I have said, with my legs and hands and my linen trousers covered with blood. In this condition I proceeded, little by little, as I could, meeting many Spaniards stripped to the skin, without any kind of clothing whatsoever upon them, chattering with the cold, which was severe, and thus I stopped for the night in a deserted place, and was forced to lie down upon some rushes on the ground, with the great pain I suffered in my leg. Presently a gentleman came up to me, a very nice young fellow, quite naked, and he was so dazed that he could not speak, not even to tell me who he was; and at that time, which would be about nine o’clock at night, the wind was calm and the sea subsiding.

His silent companion died soon thereafter, but Cuellar, thanks to the help of “savages” and Irish lord Sir Brian O’Rourke of Leitrim who would in 1591 be executed for lending aid to Spanish Armada refugees, eventually made it to Scotland and thence to Flanders and home. Not before surviving one more shipwreck, though, when his vessel was attacked by the Dutch off the coast of Dunkirk.

Two of the Streedagh shipwrecks were identified in the 80s as the 25-gun La Lavia and the 18-gun Santa Maria De Vison, and the third was thought to be merchant vessel La Juliana commandeered by King Philip II for his fleet and outfitted as a 32-gun warship, but there was some question that it might be Cuellar’s galleon the San Pedro. The recently recovered artifacts prove that it is indeed what remains of La Juliana. One cannon in particular is the smoking gun, so to speak. The bronze cannon is decorated with the image of Saint Matrona of Barcelona, a saint venerated in Barcelona and in other towns of Catalonia, and is stamped with a date of 1570. La Juliana was built near Barcelona in 1570.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Brussels’ Manneken Pis tested for authenticity

History Blog - Thu, 2015-08-06 23:03

Manneken Pis, a small bronze statue of a little boy urinating in perpetuity in the historic center of Brussels, has become an iconic representation of the city’s irreverent spirit. Reproductions flood souvenir shops, candy shops, delicious Belgian chocolate shops. The little fellow is dressed in new outfits several times a month and is a magnet for tourists as well as the beloved “first citizen of Brussels.” The one micturating in place right now is a reproduction, but the original is on display in the nearby City of Brussels Museum. Or is it?

The original statue Manneken Pis was made in 1619 by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder, a native son of Brussels who had made a name for himself making sculpting statues and features for churches which had been stripped of all adornment during the Protestant iconoclasm that cut a destructive swath through the Low Countries in 1566. It is said to have been the donation of a rich burgher whose lost son was found urinating on the spot where the statue now stands. It is said to have been inspired by a little boy who put out the fires of a besieging army by pissing on them. It is said to have been inspired by a boy who urinated on a fuse preventing explosives from destroying the city.

One of the many origin stories doesn’t get bandied about so often anymore, but it was just as popular as the lost child, fire and fuse extinguishing legends. It ties Brussels’ favorite son to an ugly side of Brussels history that was celebrated for almost 600 years, a so-called miracle centered around a classic medieval Blood Libel horror show. In 1370, so the libel goes, a wealthy Jew from Enghien bribed a Jewish convert to Christianity to steal consecrated hosts for him to desecrate. When the rich man was killed under mysterious circumstances, his scared wife gave the purloined ciborium to the Jews of Brussels where they assembled at the synagogue on Good Friday, no less, to profane the hosts. When they stabbed the wafers, blood miraculously poured from them. The Brussels congregation were duly terrified and paid an another Jewish convert to Christianity, a woman this time, to pass the hot potato on to the Jews of Cologne. She ratted them out to her parish priest.

On her testimony, the rulers of Brabant, Wenceslaus I of Bohemia and his wife, the actual heiress to the duchy, Duchess Joanna, sentenced all those involved in the stabbing of the hosts to death and banished every other Jew from Brabant. Six were burned at the stake. All Jewish property was confiscated. The Holy Hosts were reclaimed, the ostensibly pierced ones set in bejeweled remonstrances and carried in a great annual procession through the city. From the 16th century the yearly processions of the Blessed Sacrament of Miracles were official state events. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had 10 stained glass windows installed in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula depicting the Blood Libel/miracle. In the 19th century Kings Leopold I and II of Belgium and other nobles added another five windows depicting the growth of the Cult of the Miracle. The 500th anniversary of the miracle was celebrated with great fanfare in 1870.

World War II brought it all to a halt. In the aftermath of the mass-murder of Belgian Jews in the Holocaust, the immolation of Jews in the 14th century suddenly didn’t look like a quaint local custom worth celebrating. After the Papal decree of Nostra aetate promulgated in 1965 officially repudiated all anti-Semitic acts, beliefs and displays as inconsistent with the spirit of one particular Jew the church is very fond of, the Brussels Archdiocese derecognised the Cult of the Miracle. Since the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula couldn’t very well take down their stained glass windows like they took down the tapestries, in 1977 Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens installed a bronze plaque in the former chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (now the treasury) abjuring the so-called miracle.

With the Cult of the Miracle holding so prominent place in the history of Brussels, it seems inevitable that a story would be conjured up connecting it to the first citizen of Brussels, Manneken Pis. In this version of the origin story, an old Jewish man kidnapped a beautiful Christian boy from the very spot where the fountain now stands during the first procession of the Hosts. The kidnapper planned to crucify his victim, but the boy’s father prayed fervently to another local miracle, the statue of the Virgin Mary in the church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Good Succor), and the old man got scared. He dropped off the child in the same place where he had taken him. The boy’s parents found him there, urinating against the wall. In gratitude, they had the fountain built and added a topper to the church’s dome in the shape of the pyx that held the hosts.

Unsurprisingly, this story is internally inconsistent nonsense. The church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours wasn’t even built until the 17th century. Although there was a small church on the site in the 13th century, it was dedicated to St. James the Great and was a step on the pilgrim road to Compostela. The wish-granting statue of Mary was discovered there in 1625 and quickly became such a popular object of veneration that less than 50 years later the old St. James church was replaced with the new Baroque church dedicated to the miraculous Mary.

Even Manneken Pis’ more recent history is nebulous. It was hidden in 1695 to keep it safe during King Louis XIV of France’s bombardment of Brussels and was returned after the fires were extinguished. It was looted by English troops in 1745, damaged by French troops in 1747 and stolen by pardoned convict Antoine Lycas in October 1817. Lycas was arrested in November and sentenced to hard labour for life for the theft. The statue, or one that looked like it, was put back in its place the next year. It was stolen again 1963 and found in Antwerp. The last theft was in 1965 and it was the most damaging of them all. It was found in 1966 in a canal in two pieces.

After that, a replica statue was installed in the fountain while the putative original statue was given over to the care and feeding of the City of Brussels Museum. It was extensively restored in 2003 and is now in one piece again, on display along with a myriad replicas showing off the many cute outfits Manneken Pis has sported over the years.

Researcher Géraldine Patigny of the Free University of Brussels believes the original may never have been recovered after the 1817 theft. The history of the statue’s whereabouts relies mainly on news stories and folklore. With war and theft leaving large holes in the historical record, there is little relevant documentary evidence that would allow researchers to trace Manneken Pis’ steps. They’re hoping science can fill the gap.

Using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, the research team will analyze the metal composition of the statue. If the bronze alloy contains nickel, that will be strong evidence that it was made in the 19th century. If not, that increases the likelihood that the statue is original but of course can’t confirm its age. Researchers will also take tiny samples from the surface and interior of the statue to examine the erosion pattern and patina for clues to the statue’s age. Comparisons with samples of bronze from the period and workshop might help determine if Manneken Pis we know now is the one made by Jérôme Duquesnoy in 1619.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Can you decipher the inscription on this sword?

History Blog - Wed, 2015-08-05 14:31

I’m asking for a friend. (The British Library is my friend, right?) On display at the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition is a medieval double-edged sword made of steel with an inlaid gold wire inscription on one side. The inscription appears to read:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

Experts haven’t been able to decipher this mysterious assortment of letters, so the British Library’s phenomenal Medieval Manuscripts blog is opening up the floor to the Internet. Some think it was a religious dedication of some kind using the first initials of words. There are inscribed crosses on the other side and an inlaid crescent near the point on both sides which may be the maker’s mark.

The sword was discovered in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July of 1825 by workers widening and deepening the river just below the lock to make room for larger vessels. The Bishop of Lincoln gave the sword to the Royal Archaeological Institute which in 1858 donated it to the British Museum. It dates to around 1250-1330 and has a straight cross guard with a wheel-shaped pommel atop the grip. Weighing 2 lb 10 oz and measuring 38 inches long, the sword was a killer, capable of cleaving a man’s skull in two.

This kind of sword was a classic knightly weapon of the 13th century and is depicted in many an effigy and illustration. Here’s an example from the British Library’s 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France in which French knights besiege Rouen in 1203/1204 during King Philip Augustus’ invasion of Normandy.

In fact, the sword was believed to have a very close connection to French knights from that turbulent period. When the sword was first discovered, workers found other armature — swords, daggers, chain mail — in the muck of the riverbed leading to speculation that these were the remains of French knights who had drowned in the river after the Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. When the First Barons’ War broke out between King John and his nobles in 1215 after John refused to abide by the terms of Magna Carta, the barons invited Prince Louis of France to take the throne of England. He accepted and turned up with an army in May of 1216. Louis waltzed into London unopposed and was proclaimed king in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He doesn’t make the official king list because he was never crowned, but for a while in 1216-1217 the Dauphin of France actively occupied half of England.

The tide turned when King John died in October of 1216. Even though John’s son Henry was only nine years old, barons who had sided with Louis switched sides in droves. William Marshal, “the greatest knight that ever lived,” was Henry’s regent and fought at the head of his army, drawing more knights to abandon Louis for Henry. On May 20th, 1217, forces loyal to the nine-year-old King Henry III of England attacked the city of Lincoln, then held by the French. The English held Lincoln Castle, however, so while Marshall’s army took the north gate of the city, Falkes de Breauté deployed his crack crossbowmen along the castle ramparts to rain a hellfire of bolts into the French occupiers. It was a rout, followed by a very thorough pillaging of the city that has gone down in history as the Lincoln Fair. French knights who weren’t killed or captured fled, some of them sailing down the Witham. Some of the ships, laden with men, arms and armour, sank drowning the flower of French chivalry and, ostensibly, leaving their stuff behind for canal diggers to find 600 years later.

Without identifying marks connected to specific knights, this story is impossible to prove. Still, the design and period of the sword make it relevant as a weapon very much like those used during the battles between the English crown and its unruly barons. It’s neat to think that it may even go a step further and be an actually relict of the First Barons’ War.

If you have any ideas about what the inscription might mean, join the party in the comments on the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry where smart people are saying smart things.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Makeup heir buys rare medieval panel for National Gallery

History Blog - Tue, 2015-08-04 18:01

An extremely rare early 14th century panel painting by Giovanni da Rimini has been purchased by the National Gallery with funds donated by cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder. The work is an oil and tempera painting on gilded wood depicting Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints by Giovanni da Rimini, an important artist in turn of the 14th century Rimini. It is the left panel of a diptych and is the only work by Giovanni da Rimini in the UK. In fact, there are only two other easel paintings conclusively attributed to Giovanni da Rimini: the right panel from this diptych in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini) and The Virgin and Child with Five Saints in the Pinacoteca Comunale of Faenza.

Giovanni was the leading artist in a group of artists from the northern Italian city of Rimini whose innovative approach combined the devotional intensity and symbolism of Byzantine iconography with the more naturalistic figural depictions that would follow. The works of the Rimini school are therefore important transitional pieces that bridge the gap between late medieval fresco masters like Giotto and the early Renaissance.

This left panel of the diptych is the greatest of the three known works by Giovanni da Rimini. The right panel is more traditional, divided into six squares of equal size which depict scenes from the life of Christ in chronological order. The left panel takes a more creative approach in composition and subject. The top two thirds is divided into two vertical quadrants with the right quadrant divided into two again. That bottom third is divided into two scenes but the border line between them is further to the right than the centered vertical of the top section. This gives the panel a more dynamic design and allows the artist to introduce variety of composition. The double-height section in the upper left depicts the Apotheosis of Saint Augustine. Since there’s so much space, Giovanni was able to create a temple-like empty tomb for Augustine with a heavenly host of angels above and a crowd of astounded onlookers around it. Augustine is in the middle of the angels wearing the mitre.

The two scenes to the right of the Apotheosis are the Crowning of the Virgin up top and a celebratory crowd of saints and angels beneath, a sort of flipped version of Augustine’s scene. Notice the angel with his back to the viewer in the center of holy crowd. Those wings are an early example of foreshortening in medieval art. The left of the bottom third of the panel is dedicated to the Dispute of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, when the Emperor Maxentius deployed 50 of the greatest philosophers in Rome to defeat her in debate. She won and a bunch of the philosophers converted. The last scene on the bottom right shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata in front of John the Baptist with a seraph above them.

The panel arrived in England from the collection of 19th century Neoclassical painter Vincenzo Camuccini. Considered one of the greatest academic painters in Rome during his lifetime, Camuccini was showered with portrait commissions, appointments and titles during his lifetime. He spent his fortune collecting the 16th and 17th century Italian masters he used to copy when he was a student, accumulating more than 70 highly praised pieces before his death in 1844. In 1853, his heirs sold the entire Camuccini collection to Algernon Percy, 6th Duke of Northumberland, who installed the artworks in the family seat of Alnwick Castle.

Giovanni da Rimini’s panel remained on the walls of Alnwick Castle adorning the boudoir of the duchess until July of last year when the current Duke put it up for auction at Sotheby’s London. The pre-sale estimate was £2-3 million ($3,428,000 – 5,142,000) and the hammer price including buyer’s premium was £5,682,500 ($9,739,237). When the anonymous buyer asked for an export license, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the work to give UK institutions a chance to raise the purchase price and keep the one-of-a-kind piece in the country.

Aidan Weston-Lewis from the [Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] said:

This jewel-like, exquisitely preserved, seven hundred-year old panel is by a good margin the most important example in the UK of the seminal Riminese school of painting. Although this country can boast impressive collections of early Italian art, there is nothing comparable to this in any British public collection.

With the clock ticking, Ronald S. Lauder, son of beauty industry mogul Estée Lauder, struck an unusual deal with the National Gallery: he’d donate the £4.919 million necessary to for them to buy the painting as long as the museum agreed to loan him the panel for his lifetime. He would then loan it back to the museum for display, first in 2017, then up to once every three years after that. After Lauder’s death (he’s 71 years old), the painting would physically join the National Gallery’s permanent collection. The NG took the deal with alacrity.

This isn’t the first time one of the Camuccini paintings from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection was saved for the nation after a sale that would have taken it out of the country. In 2003 the National Gallery had to scramble to raise a crazy £34.88 million ($54 million) to acquire Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks after the Duke accepted an exorbitant purchase offer from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A temporary export bar that was extended several times gave the museum a year to raise the huge sale price from grants and private donations. The hard-won masterpiece has been on loan to the Minneapolis of Arts from the National Gallery since March. The exhibition ends on August 16th, so if you’re anywhere near Minneapolis you should hustle to catch the $50 million Raphael before it returns to London.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bronze Age knife found on Isle of Wight beach

History Blog - Mon, 2015-08-03 15:47

When Oxfordshire couple Christopher and June Preece vacationed last month on the Isle of Wight, they didn’t just bring sandals and sunscreen with them. Christopher packed his trusty metal detector too, so he and his beloved could take romantic walks on the beach sweeping the sand, yearning for a sweet serenade of loud beeps. The dream came true when they found a few metal artifacts under a slab of clay as they explored Sandown Beach: one wedge-shaped blade and one round token.

Chris said: “We love searching for items with our metal detectors and were walking on Sandown Beach when it buzzed and we noticed that the objects looked unusual.

“I have a keen interest in history and immediately thought they were very old, because the knife has a green colour which is often found on old copper. The shape also gave me an indication it was an historical artefact.

“We decided to take it to the visitor centre in Newport so that it could be passed on and identified.”

The staff at the visitor centre in the Newport Guildhall called the local finds liaison officer, Frank Basford, to examine the objects. He found that the blade was late Bronze Age knife made of copper alloy. It is incomplete and the break is very old so it’s probably been this way a long time. The tang, collars and blade survive identifying it as a chisel-like implement that was used to work leather. Just two inches long from curved cutting edge to the tapered end of the tang and weighing half an ounce, the tool’s small size was practical for the crafting of leather; it wouldn’t have made much of a weapon or chopping blade. It’s a rare piece, but others of similar design have been found before. The style dates it to around 1,000-800 B.C.

The metal button is also made of copper alloy. It was made in one piece with an integral drilled shank (most of which is now missing leaving just the stub behind) that would have been sewn to the garment. The front of the button is stamped or punched with a border of small circles. Inside each circle are incised patterns of parallel lines. In the center of the button is a saltire (a diagonal cross) with a little circle nestled in each angle. This piece too was dated from its style. Other buttons of this type date to the 17th century, so it’s likely this one does too. It is 1.2 inches in diameter, which means the 17th century button is more than half the width of the Bronze Age blade.

Because they’re made of copper alloy rather than gold or silver, it’s likely neither piece would have met the threshold to be declared official treasure at a coroner’s inquest. That means the finders would get to keep the artifacts instead of the Crown claiming them and giving a local museum the chance to acquire the pieces in exchange for a reward to be paid to the finders in the amount of the fair market value of the artifacts. The finders are avid history buffs, however, so they forewent the whole rigmarole and just straight donated the blade and button to the Newport Roman Villa museum.

June added:

“To be told the knife is several thousand years old is just incredible. We never thought what we found was so old.

“As it was found on the Island, we are very keen for residents and visitors to enjoy it and were happy to donate it to the council’s museum’s service so it can go on display.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Buzz Aldrin’s travel voucher to the moon

History Blog - Sun, 2015-08-02 18:10

Buzz Aldrin, who you might know from his outstanding guest starring roles in the classic Deep Space Homer episode of The Simpsons and in that 30 Rock where he and Liz Lemon yell at the moon, also did this other thing once where he was the second human being to walk on the moon. In addition to being a history-making space pilot, explorer of new worlds and a reliably phenomenal cameo, Aldrin also doth bestride the narrow world of Facebook and Twitter like the Colossus. Today he allowed we petty men to walk under his huge legs and peep about at the marvels of space travel bureaucracy.

Behold, Buzz Aldrin’s travel voucher for his trip to the moon aboard Apollo 11:

Please not the “points of travel” entry that notes Colonel Aldrin’s departure and arrival spots from Houston, Texas, to Cape Kennedy, Florida, to Moon, to Pacific Ocean and the USS Hornet, to Hawaii and then back to Houston. It’s so deliciously dry.

Equally delicious and equally dry is the expense reimbursement form:

If there is a more bureaucratic way to describe a Saturn V rocket than “Gov. Spacecraft,” I don’t know what it is. Also, lol @ “Government meals and quarters furnished for all the above dates.” Tang, baby! (Not really. Tang wasn’t used on Apollo missions, but it was on some Mercury and Gemini missions. Buzz Aldrin, who piloted Gemini 12, is not a fan. The Apollo 11 astronauts actually had quite fancy meals, including shrimp cocktail, bacon, coffee, chicken stew, ham sandwiches and bite-sized brownies.)

Because Buzz (if that’s his real name) is the greatest, he interacts with people on social media (it is essential to read the comment threads on Facebook and Twitter for more Aldrin gems) and responds to questions. After he posted his travel voucher, Aldrin was asked if he had to fill out a customs form for the samples they brought back from the moon on Apollo 11. The answer, of course, is yes.

Cargo: moon rock and moon dust samples. I wonder what Honolulu airport Customs Inspector Ernest J. Messer (?) thought when he signed off on that form. The declaration of health section is interesting too, namely how under “any other condition on board which may lead to the spread of disease” they wrote “to be determined.” They determined there was no other condition on board by quarantining Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins for 21 days.

And now, here is Buzz Aldrin making a ham spread sandwich on the lunar module:

Oh, and because I can’t not post it:

“I walked on your face!”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mary Vetsera’s suicide notes found in Vienna bank

History Blog - Sat, 2015-08-01 12:30

When the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was found dead in a hunting lodge alongside the dead body of his 17-year-old mistress, it set off a chain reaction of confusion and cover-up that still continues to make the truth of what happened that tragic day elusive. The bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and Baroness Mary Vetsera were discovered in the imperial lodge of Mayerling on the morning of January 30th, 1889, by the prince’s valet Loschek and his hunting companion Count Joseph Hoyos. Vetsera’s cold body was laid out on the bed; the prince’s was either sitting on a chair or lying down by her side.

Loschek thought the prince had died from strychnine poisoning because he’d bled from the mouth, a misconception that would engender a lost-lasting rumor that Mary had poisoned Rudolf and then killed herself. That was story number one. There would be many, many more. And little wonder, since the immediate reaction of the imperial administration was to have the lodge sealed, Mary’s body hastily removed and buried in secret at the Cistercian monastery in nearby Heiligenkreuz. The public announcement from the Emperor stated that Rudolf had died from a heart aneurism. That was story number two. Mary was not mentioned.

Rudolf’s body wasn’t examined by a doctor until that afternoon, and his determination that the Crown Prince had died from a gunshot wound to the temple, not poison, only made it to Franz Josef the next morning. With the press swarming and word getting out that there had been a mistress involved, the imperial PR machine churned up another announcement. Rudolf had killed Mary and then himself in a suicide pact. That was story three. Since it was rumored that the Emperor and Prince had had a huge fight in which the father demanded his son break up with his nouveau-riche teenage mistress (a rumor actively spread by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck), the star-crossed lovers choosing death rather than lose each other seemed plausible. The police closed the investigation, such as it was, right quick.

The Emperor secured a dispensation from the Pope so that his unshriven murderer/suicide son could be buried in the Imperial Crypt of Vienna’s Church of the Capuchins. In August of 1890, Franz Josef had the lodge rebuilt into a Carmelite convent, with the altar right over the spot where Rudolf and Mary were found dead. With the bodies moved and quickly buried, witnesses limited and/or compromised and the scene of the crime destroyed, there were few facts to support or contradict the official story, a lack of hard evidence which only increased suspicion and gossip about what really happened.

We can’t know how history would have unfolded if he’d survived, but Rudolf’s death had a tremendous impact on his family and on European politics. He was the only son of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and Empress Sisi. His death splintered his parents’ already troubled union and injected instability into the Hapsburg line of succession. Franz Josef’s younger brother Karl Ludwig became the heir to the imperial throne, and, after his death in 1896, his son Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir presumptive. When Franz Ferdinand insisted on marrying the woman he loved, Countess Sophie Chotek, even though she did not match the stringent genealogical requirements of marriage into the imperial line, Franz Josef only allowed it on condition that the marriage be morganatic, ie, that none of Franz Ferdinand’s titles pass to his wife or children. That’s how committed Franz Josef was to the ancien régime strictures of his crown, so much that he would rather destabilize the succession again at a critical and dangerous time than allow a non-royal womb to bear future emperors. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, igniting the powder keg that blew up into World War I and broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire for good, the succession passed to Karl Ludwig’s second son Otto’s son Karl. He would reign as Charles I from 1916 until the end of the war in 1918.

Rudolf was politically liberal, unlike his archconservative father Emperor Franz Josef, and was more willing to grant political rights to the plethora of ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary. Bismarck was apparently quite happy that he wouldn’t have to deal with a Rudolfian Austro-Hungarian empire, but people hoping for a less autocratic monarchy were crushed. Given the central importance the question of ethnic self-determination would have in the post-war carving up of the empire and in the collapse of the Hapsburg dynasty, an Emperor Rudolf could have completely altered the map of Europe as we know it.

Little wonder, then, that double murder in the service of shadowy political interests was a popular theory, especially as Europe’s fragile power balance imploded into war. One of Rudolf’s aunt’s was sure they’d both been murdered by French agents because Rudolf refused to participate in a French plot to overthrow his father and install him on the throne because the liberal prince would be more amenable to an alliance with France rather than conservative Germany.

After World War II, the Red Army opened Mary Vetsera’s grave and monks claimed to have seen a tiny skeleton inside of the coffin when they closed it. That led to the theory that Mary might have died from an attempted abortion. When a Dr. Holler examined her remains in 1959, he found no bullet hole in her skull. The bones were in pieces from the Soviet interference, though, so his finding wasn’t conclusive. Holler asked for the Papal records of the event and apparently they noted that only one bullet was recovered from the scene, bolstering his failed abortion idea.

When Mayerling conspiracy theorist and furniture maker Helmut Flatzelsteiner secretly exhumed poor Mary’s remains in 1991 to perform his own autopsy, he insisted that it wasn’t even her body, but rather that of a relative who had died a century earlier. When he was caught trying to sell the remains in 1993, police confiscated Mary Vetsera’s bones and had an actual forensic specialist examine them for the first time. He confirmed that they were about 100 years old and belonged to a young woman who had died around age 20. No bullet hole was found in what was left of her skull, but because the skull was so fragmented that didn’t mean much. The cause of death remained unknown.

Now thanks to a remarkable find in a bank vault, we finally have some direct evidence of what happened. A brown leather-bound folder of documents discovered in the vaults of the private Schoeller Bank includes three signed and sealed suicide notes by Mary Vetsera to her mother Hélène, her sister Hannah and her brother Franz. The folder was found during an audit by the bank’s archivist, Sylvia Linc. It was deposited in a safe by persons unknown in 1926 and contains a number of Vetsera documents including her baptismal certificate and a copy of her death certificate and a long letter to her best friend Hermine Tobis.

The farewell letters were written in Mary’s hand from Mayerling and still in the original envelope bearing the seal of Crown Prince Rudolf. A translation of her final note to her mother:

Dear Mother –
Forgive me what I have done. — I could not withstand love. In accordance with his wishes I want to be buried beside him in Alland cemetery. — I am happier in death than I was in life. Yours
Mary

Hélène wrote about the suicide notes in a 148-page memorandum to ensure that everything she knew about the events would survive the cover-up. After the bodies were found, Hélène had been told on by Count Eduard Taaffe, a close advisor of the Emperor’s, that her daughter had poisoned the unsuspecting Prince and then herself. Taaffe pressed her to put the blame for the tragedy on Mary’s shoulders with this poison story, claiming Mary had been seen at a lecture about poisons. He then suggested she leave Vienna but not go to Mayerling where, had she attended to her daughter’s body as she wanted, Hélène would surely have seen the hole in her head. Hélène thought his advice kind and well-intentioned, so her brothers went to Mayerling to see to the secret burial. Only upon their return did Hélène discover the truth, that it was Rudolf who had killed her daughter, not the other way around.

Several copies of the memorandum are known to have survived, but this is the first time documents mentioned in it have been found. The only other primary document relating to the Mayerling Incident known to have survived is Rudolf’s farewell letter to his wife, now in the collection of the Austrian National Library, in which he says his death would be better for everyone, but does not come right out and say he’s going to kill himself and his girl. The discovery of Mary Vetsera’s original suicide notes, therefore, is of great historical import in a case that was muddied and obscured from the very beginning.

The bank has given the documents to the Austrian National Library (ONB) on permanent loan where they will be conserved, catalogued and digitized. As of this month, the Vetsera documents will be made available for scholarly research. Next year some of them will go on public display for the first time in an exhibition at the library dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Emperor Franz Josef’s death.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Charles Mitchell v. John L. Sullivan draw belt

History Blog - Fri, 2015-07-31 14:22

Title belts in boxing today are the ostentatious displays of official victors, but it wasn’t always thus. In the 19th century, before the rules for title championships were encoded, both the title and the waist accessory were more loosely assigned. John L. Sullivan was considered the first heavyweight champion of the world, even though any consistent standard would give English boxer Jem Mace that honor for his defeat of Tom Allen in 1870. Why not, then, have a belt made to celebrate one fighter’s triumph even when said fight resulted in a draw?

The draw in question was a brutal contest between John L. Sullivan and English fighter Charles Mitchell. Nobody saw it coming. The opponents were evenly matched in some ways. They were close in age (Sullivan was 29, Mitchell 26) and close in height (Sullivan 5’10 1/2″, Mitchell 5’9″). Both had championship titles. Both had winning records, although only Sullivan was undefeated. The big difference was weight. Rarely weighing more than 160 pounds, Charley Mitchell was a welterweight, a middleweight on a good day. John L. Sullivan was a heavyweight who was 190 pounds at his leanest and who regularly crossed the 200-pound mark. (He weighed 238 pounds when he knocked out 170-pound middleweight Jack Burke in 1885.)

The weight of his punch was in keeping with his physique. Sullivan had defeated Paddy Ryan in 1882 to claim the title heavyweight champion of America and kept it for a decade until Gentleman Jim Corbett relieved him of it by knock-out in 1892. Ryan would later describe being hit by Sullivan as feeling as if “a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways.” Sullivan was expected to knock out Mitchell, who pound for pound was one of the hardest hitters in the ring. Pound for pound being the salient issue. Mitchell had a reputation for being fast and avoiding blows — in his memoirs Sullivan called Mitchell a “bombastic sprinter boxer”) — but despite his proven ability to hit and run, Mitchell was considered simply too puny to take out Sullivan.

Mitchell wasn’t intimidated. Not only did he want this fight, he actively picked it for five years. Mitchell and Sullivan first went at each other in a bout at Madison Square Garden in 1883. Police stopped the fight after the third round, three rounds that Sullivan dominated with one glaring exception: Mitchell had knocked him down in the first round with a left hook to the chin. Sullivan had never hit the floor before in his career and he didn’t take kindly to it. Mitchell vociferously demanded a rematch and one was actually proposed for the next day but Sullivan would not accept it. A rematch was scheduled for June 30th, 1884, but it was cancelled when Sullivan turned up drunk.

The beef was not squashed, only refrigerated. When Sullivan traveled to London in November of 1887 to fight in front of the Prince of Wales, Mitchell taunted him, telling the press that Sullivan was afraid to fight him because he’d knocked him down four years earlier. One reporter described Mitchell as “snarling out challenges to [Sullivan] by the dozen.” Sullivan, who fought more than 50 exhibitions during his two months in England as Mitchell goaded him relentlessly, was livid. He agreed to fight Mitchell on March 10th, 1888.

When this fight took place, bare-knuckle prizefighting was illegal in all 38 states and several countries. Bouts had to be arranged in secret locations and even so were often broken up by the police. Fighters and promoters were regularly arrested and fined, sometimes sentenced to prison. Fleeing the state or country in disguise after a fight was commonplace. The thorny search for a location was resolved when Baron Gustave de Rothschild offered to host the fight on the grounds of his Château de Laversine, a stately home on the banks of the River Oise three miles north of Chantilly in the Picardy region of northern France.

The 24-foot ring Mitchell had insisted on (as opposed to the 16-foot ring Sullivan wanted to help corral Mitchell’s avoidance tactics) was erected outdoors near the stables. The fight began at 12:50 PM. At first it seemed to be going as expected, with Sullivan pummeling the bejesus out of Mitchell, knocking him down repeatedly in the first eight rounds. Mitchell landed some good ones, though, and as time passed, his running game served him well and he seemed to be getting stronger while Sullivan’s strength faded. It started raining during the sixth round or so, and soon the rain turned torrential, transforming the ground to swampland which sapped Sullivan’s energy all the more. Again from John L.’s memoirs:

Running and dropping was [Mitchell's] game, and to such an extent did he practise the former that, when the fight was over, a track like a sheep run was to be noticed all around the ring. Once he dropped without a blow and received a caution, and after this he went down a number of times for a mere tap.

After three hours and 11 minutes and 39 rounds, both sides agreed to call it a draw, but the fact that the English fall-taking sprinter boxer held out so effectively against the Irish-American Boston Strong Boy felt a lot more like a stinging defeat to Sullivan and his fans. Reams of newsprint were dedicated to musings on how this could have happened. Back in England, Mitchell was hailed as a conquering hero.

To show their appreciation for his having managed to avoid being beaten unconscious, a group of English supporters presented Charley Mitchell with a championship belt.

[A] truly breathtaking belt crafted from British sterling and velvet for presentation to Sullivan’s plucky challenger. The pertinent details are artfully printed on the center plate:

“Presented to Charles Mitchell to Commemorate His Gallant Fight with John L. Sullivan for the Championship of the World on March 10th 1888 near Paris Resulting in a Draw, 39 Rounds being Fought, in 3 Hours 11 Minutes.”

Framing this center plate are portraits of Mitchell and Sullivan in relief, followed by British and American flags topped by a figural lion and eagle respectively, and then further figural plates completing the design against a backing of royal red velvet. On the final plate on the left side, the interior is engraved with the names of the gentlemen who funded this quite clearly expensive token of esteem. A second such engraved plaque is affixed to interior of center panel, though we suspect it was originally attached to the final plate on right. The velvet is well worn and the silver exhibits some tarnishing and storage wear, but the aesthetics remain spectacular after nearly thirteen decades.

This ornate trophy was a slap in Sullivan’s face. He had already had to deal with belt nonsense the year before when Richard K. Fox, editor of the National Police Gazette and holder of a very long grudge against Sullivan for having snubbed him in a saloon once, declared the undefeated Irish-American heavyweight Jake Kilrain the new world champion and gave him a silver championship belt on behalf of the Gazette. Sullivan’s supporters responded by giving him a championship belt of 14-carat gold engraved “Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L. Sullivan, by the Citizens of the United States.” Sullivan’s name was spelled in diamonds, 397 of them, no less. It was the most expensive belt ever given to a fighter. Mitchell’s was the second most expensive. The latter has now sold at auction for $55,000, which is quite modest, really, considering it cost $10,000 to make.

Kilrain, incidentally, was a witness to the Mitchell-Sullivan fight in Chantilly. He had a great vantage point from Mitchell’s corner, and Mitchell would be in his when Kilrain went up against Sullivan for the world heavyweight title in Richburg, Mississippi, in 1889. This would be the last title match fought with bare knuckles under London Prize Ring Rules and it was one for the ages. Fought in the noon sun of a Mississippi July, the bout lasted two hours, 16 minutes and went 75 rounds. Kilrain had to be carried to his corner by the 17th round. Sullivan vomited in the 44th. Scheduled to run 80 rounds, the bout was finally stopped when Kilrain’s cornerman Mike Donovan, very much against his fighter’s wishes, threw in the towel because he was sure Kilrain, who could barely stand by this point, wouldn’t survive a 76th round.

John L. Sullivan and Charley Mitchell died the same year, 1918. Sullivan preceded his old rival by two months to the day, dying of a heart attack at age 59 on February 2nd. Mitchell died at the age of 56 suffering from locomotor ataxia, a progressive neurological disorder of the spinal column which causes jerky and unbalanced gait. Also known as tabes dorsalis, it is a symptom of late-stage syphilis but is not fatal on its own. It’s the underlying condition that killed him. I wonder if he’d have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s or ALS today. Jake Kilrain outlived them both, dying of complications from diabetes in 1937 at 78 years old.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

French student finds 560,000-year-old tooth

History Blog - Thu, 2015-07-30 05:47

A French art history student has discovered an adult human tooth around 560,000 years old in the Arago Cave in Tautavel, southern France. It is one of the oldest human fossils ever found in Europe (the oldest is a 600,000-year-old jawbone found in Germany in 1907), and the oldest human body part ever found in France by 100,000 years. Its significance is bolstered by the scarcity of human remains in Europe from this period. There’s something of a gap in the record between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago and very little new material has been found. This one tooth is therefore of outsized importance.

Volunteer excavator Valentin Loescher, 20, one of more than 30 young people from France and around the world participating in this season’s excavation, discovered the tooth the afternoon of Thursday, July 23rd, in a section of the cave liberally sprinkled with animal remains. The volunteer digging next to him, Camille Jacquey, 16, was on a break when he found it. When she returned, they showed the find to Amélie Vialet, the paleoanthropologist leading the excavation team, who identified it as an adult human incisor from a lower jaw. Its age was determined by stratigraphic analysis; the layer in which the tooth was found has been dated with a variety of methods to confirm its range, so researchers are satisfied that the tooth is at least 550,000 years old, and maybe as much as 580,000 years old.

Yves Coppens, professor of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France, who was part of the 1970s team that discovered the remains of the famous early human ancestor known as Lucy in Ethiopia, told France Info radio: “A tooth can tell us a whole range of things. Its shape and wear and tear tells us about the eating habits of the person in question; the tissue reveals a lot of information. The DNA can give an idea as to who this person was.”

If there’s any tartar on the tooth, they might be able to do stable isotope analysis on it to determine the ancient person’s diet.

There have been volunteers excavating the Arago Cave yearly since 1964. Thousands of people have given their time and dedication to the site for the past 50 years and they’ve been exceptionally productive. More than 600,000 prehistoric objects and remains have been unearthed since excavations began, most famously 140 bones and bone fragments from a single 450,000-year-old Homo erectus known as Tautavel Man. In a blissful historical coincidence, one of the volunteers in the 1979 excavation that unearthed a piece of Tautavel Man’s skull was Camille Jacquey’s mother.

This season only began in May and the team has already made thousands of finds. Besides unearthing the tooth, the team has been able to determine what kind of pollen and vegetation were in the area, even the source of the flint knapped by the cave’s users (it’s a site about 20 miles away). They know the area was a treeless, arid steppe around the time the individual left the tooth in the cave, cold, snowy, windblown. Researchers hope the tooth may fill in some of the missing information about the people of who navigated this harsh landscape.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Jamestown remains identified as four early leaders

History Blog - Wed, 2015-07-29 12:29

When the Virginia Company sent the first batch of 104 settlers to colonize the New World, they chose Jamestown Island, marshy and mosquito-ridden with virtually no farmland, bad hunting and no fresh water but secure from any potential attack by Spanish ships, as the site for their new colony. They built James Fort, a triangular wooden palisade, within two weeks and the first Jamestown settlement was established inside its perimeter. It was small, but soon contained at least a storehouse, several houses and one church, the first Protestant church in the New World.

Built in 1608, the church served the community for almost decade. Secretary of the colony William Strachey described it as “pretty chapel” 60 feet long and 24 feet wide with a cedar wood chancel. In 1614 Pocahontas married tobacco planter John Rolfe there. Within three years of that wedding, the church had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned when a new church was built nearby as the settlement expanded eastward from the original confines of Fort James. Over time the location of the first fort and its church was lost.

It was Strachey’s description that helped archaeologists identify the remains of the church when they were discovered during a 2010 excavation of the rediscovered Fort James site. The structural posts matched the dimensions documented by Strachey, as did the structure’s orientation in the middle of the fort. At the eastern end of the building, archaeologists found four graves. This space was the cedar chancel Strachey mentioned, the area in the front of the church with the altar which was reserved for the most important people during services. Only people of very high status were honored with burial under the chancel.

Since the archaeological site of Jamestown is open to visitors, the church remains were refilled for safety. Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists, working with forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, returned in November of 2013 to fully excavate the graves in the hopes they might be able to identify the people buried there. The remains were under threat, as is the entire Jamestown site, by rising sea levels, and one of the skeletons had been significantly damaged by workers in 1938 (when the location of the fort was still unknown) unwittingly dug a trench through the chancel to install electric cable. The excavation revealed one body had been buried only in a shroud (the others had wooden coffins) and two of the people were buried with artifacts that could help identify them.

The team carefully unearthed and documented the graves, using a precision laser tool to record the positions of the graves, skeletons, coffin fragments and artifacts. Then the Smithsonian’s outstanding 3D Digitization Program Office did their magic, laser scanning the entire site, collecting millions of data points and high resolution photographs that would allow them to create an interactive 3D model of the burials. I won’t embed it because the last time I did it caused some loading problems, but here’s the 3D model of the chancel graves on the Smithsonian website.

The skeletal remains were then removed to the lab for analysis. Time and environment had not been kind to them — only 30% of each skeleton was recovered — but the bones could still speak through science. All four were men who were between their early 20s and their 40s when they died, and all four were found to have carbon and oxygen isotope values indicating they were raised in England. None of them show the tell-tale osteological signs of strenuous labor, but the teeth of two of them were in bad shape with numerous cavities and abscesses. That was a clue that those two men may have been in America longer than the other two and had thus been exposed to a potentially tooth-rotting sweet corn diet for a few more years. High levels of lead in the bones of two of the men suggested they were high-born since in the 17th century the wealthy and noble ingested more lead than the poor courtesy of lead-lined and pewter tableware.

The artifacts proved as challenging to study as they were revelatory. In the southernmost grave, archaeologists found a textile made of silk cloth, silver threads and silver spangles between the rib cage and left arm of the skeleton. A near-miraculous survival, the artifact was too fragile to be excavated and was removed in a soil block. X-rays found the hundreds of silver threads and spangles in the soil block. Micro CT 3D scanning revealed the object was a captain’s sash decorated with bullion fringe.

The two artifacts found in the other burial were placed in the grave outside the coffin. One was an iron fragment three inches long that turned out to be the finial below the tip of a ceremonial spear known as a leading staff. The other was a silver box placed on top of the coffin. The box was corroded shut, so the research team turned to X-ray and CT scanning in the attempt to see what might be inside. With help from increasingly higher resolution microCT scanners, gradually the silver box gave up its secrets. It’s a reliquary containing a lead ampulla, a vial used to hold holy water, oil or the blood of a saint, broken in two pieces and seven fragments of bone, also probably holy relics. Their final scans were so detailed they were able to 3D-print reproductions of the contents for examination.

Reliquaries are Catholic and like other Catholic devotional objects they were outlawed by Elizabeth I and her successor James I. This box may be evidence of a crypto-Catholic presence in the colony, which is also supported by other more modest finds made elsewhere in Jamestown like pilgrim’s tokens, crucifixes and rosary beads.

Thanks also to copious documentary research on likely candidates, the Jamestown Rediscovery team was able to identify the four men as:

  1. The Reverend Robert Hunt, the former vicar of Reculver, England, who arrived with the first settlers in 1607 and died aged around 40 between January and April of 1608.
  2. Captain Gabriel Archer, a bitter rival of Captain John Smith (he once called for his execution), who explored the interior along the James River valley. He died during the horrific “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610 at the age of 35. The reliquary is his, and since his parents were Catholics, once fined for non-attendance of Anglican services, he could very well have been as well, only on the downlow.
  3. Sir Ferdinando Wainman, the earliest English knight known to have been buried in the New World, arrived in June of 1610 with his relative, the first governor of Virginia Thomas West, Lord De La Warr. He was appointed Jamestown’s master of the ordnance and cavalry, but he didn’t have a chance to serve for long as he died between July and August of 1610. He was 34.
  4. Captain William West, another relative of Lord De La Warr’s who arrived in June 1610 only to die within months. He was killed in battle against Powhatan warriors in the fall or winter of 1610. The glorious sash is his.

The two men with the high lead levels were Wainman and Archer.

The Historic Jamestowne website is excellent, packed with information on the history of the site and its ongoing archaeology. I strongly advise starting on the chancel burials page and clicking through the large icons which will lead to pages with other large icons beneath. In addition to detailed information on the four men, they have many videos related to this find, all short enough to binge on like popcorn one after the other.

This one about the church has footage of the 2011 excavation and shows how respectfully the site was refilled with mounds and crosses marking the four burials:

The 2013 excavation of the burials:

Overview of the discovery and identification of the skeletal remains:

Flythrough of a 3D rendering of the chancel burials:

Captain West’s fabulous silk and silver sash:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost Guercino found by Sopranos actor on display in US

History Blog - Tue, 2015-07-28 13:48

A long-lost painting of Saint Sebastian by 17th century Baroque master Guercino that was found by actor Federico Castelluccio, aka mobster Furio Giunta on The Sopranos, is going on display in the United States for the first time. Its exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum is only the second time the painting has been on display since its rediscovery. It made its world debut at an exhibition dedicated to depictions of Saint Sebastian at the Castello di Miradolo museum in Turin last October. Guercino’s work scored top billing over the likes of Titian and Rubens as the cover picture of the show.

Castelluccio, who in addition to his acting credits is also an accomplished realist painter in his own right and a collector of Renaissance and Baroque Italian paintings, found this masterpiece the way they’re found in art nerd fairy tales. He was driving through Frankfurt in 2010 when a window filled with paintings caught his eye. It was the Dobritz auction house, a small local shop crammed with works scheduled to be sold at an auction in two weeks. In a stack of paintings on the staircase to the second floor of the shop, Castelluccio saw the Guercino. It immediately leapt out at him as the work of the Baroque master, the fine chiaroscuro belying the auction house manager’s lackluster description of the piece as “an 18th-century Italian holy painting of Saint Sebastian.”

It was estimated to sell for between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros ($1,100 – 1,657), which obviously Castelluccio was more than glad to pay on the spot, but the manager insisted that he attend the auction and bid for it like anyone else. When the actor actually showed up, flying back to Frankfurt from his home in New York specifically to bid on that Saint Sebastian, the manager got an inkling that they might have something a little more interesting than some anonymous 18th century holy painting. Someone else apparently had a similar inkling, because Castelluccio wound up in a duel with a phone bidder that drove the final hammer price up to 49,000 Euros ($54,000). Castelluccio and his business partner put in the winning bid.

Then came the hard work. Castelluccio instinctively believed the painting was an authentic Guercino, not the work of his studio or a later reproduction, but one man’s good taste is not an accepted authentication standard. First the painting was cleaned, conserved and suitably framed. This painstaking process took years during which Castelluccio did assiduous research on the painting’s history. Art historians and leading Guercino experts David Stone of the University of Delaware and Nicholas Turner, the former curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were enlisted to thoroughly examine the work. They used X-rays, infrared reflectography and chemical pigment testing to determine the painting’s age and to compare its bones to those of known works by Guercino. They authenticated it as painted by Guercino’s hand around 1632-34.

There are only two other life-size, three-quarter view Saint Sebastians by Guercino known: a 1641 version now in the Moscow’s Pushkin Museum and one in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. The newly rediscovered one is the earliest of the three. While Castelluccio and his partner wound up spending about $140,000 total in acquiring, conserving, testing and researching the painting, if they were to sell it now it would certainly make millions. A King David by Guercino sold at Christie’s in London for close to $8 million (including buyer’s premium) and that was in 2010. The Christ and the Woman of Samaria bought privately by the Kimbell Art Museum that same year is thought to have gone for more than $10 million.

He and the co-owner may eventually sell the portrait, [Castelluccio] said, ideally to a prestigious institution.

A few of its previous owners have been identified, including the German countess Maria von Maltzan, a Resistance fighter during World War II who hid Jews and other escapees from the Nazis.

Once the painting was authenticated, art dealer Robert Simon, to whom Castelluccio had shown the work before it was cleaned, arranged for its loan to the Castello di Miradolo where Guercino’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was seen in the public again after 350 years in obscurity. Castelluccio got it back after the exhibition closed in March and then Princeton reached out to him to see if he’d be amenable to a more local exhibition. He was and now the painting is on display at the Princeton University Art Museum as a special installation until January of 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of soldiers in mass grave show toll of Napoleon’s Russian campaign

History Blog - Mon, 2015-07-27 12:15

In late 2001, workers doing construction on the site of a former Soviet Army barracks in a northern suburb of Vilnius discovered a mass grave which fragments of military uniforms identified as the final resting place for more than 3,000 soldiers and support staff of Napoleon’s Great Army who died during the horrific retreat from Russia in the winter of 1812. The grave was excavated in two stages in 2002 and the preliminary results of the study of the skeletons were published in February of 2004 (pdf). Thanks to two new studies on the skeletal remains, we now know more about the geographical origin and diet of some of the men and women who died in Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign.

First an infographic. I get emails all the time from people asking me to post their ostensibly history-related infographics and I decline because they tend to be marketing gimmicks that are very light on content. This one is different. Created in 1869 by French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard, a pioneer of statistics relayed in graphic form, this chart plots the advance of the Great Army into Russia and its devastating retreat. The width of the line marks the size of the army at any given time. The beige line, obese with troops in the beginning, thins out to a quarter of its original size when the army reaches Moscow. The black line then shows the retreating army as it doubles back in the sadly vain attempt to make it out of the Russian winter alive. By the time the black line reaches where the beige line begins, it’s pencil-thin. The 422,000 invasion troops are reduced to 10,000 in retreat, starving, frozen, defeated on an unthinkable scale by a brutal Russian winter and overly extended supply lines.

The deceptively simple chart captures six variables: the size of the army (represented by the thickness of the line), the longitude and latitude of the army (represented by the position of the line), the direction of the army (represented by the two different colored lines), the location of the army on certain dates and, in a line chart underneath the main graphic, the temperature during the retreat. Many cartographers and graphics experts today consider it the greatest information graphic ever made. (Click here for a much larger version translated into English.

The immensity of the disaster that Minard’s graphic conveys so adroitly is exposed on a more human scale by the bones of the fallen. Buttons found in the two trenches of the mass grave identified soldiers and officers from around 30 regiments, most of them infantry, some cavalry, dragoon and foot artillery. There were uniform remains from Italian, Polish and Bavarian regiments as well as the Imperial Guard. There are female skeletons in the mass grave because since 1805 the French army had an official cadre of women working as cooks, laundresses, nurses and sellers of goods like tobacco and alcohol which accompanied the Grand Army in every campaign. Archaeologists were able to determine the sex of 29 female skeletons, but there were probably more women buried with the men as the remains of 1317 individuals were impossible to sex.

The two new studies by University of Central Florida researchers used stable isotope analysis to find out where some of Napoleon’s dead came from and what, if anything, they ate. In one of the studies (pdf), oxygen isotopes in the bones revealed that none of the dead tested were from Vilnius. Of the eight males and one female tested, five of the men were from central and western Europe, three from the Iberian peninsula. The woman was most likely from southern France.

The other study (pdf) took specimens from the bones of 73 men and three women for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis. Carbon isotopes revealed that most of Napoleon’s troops ate wheat in their youth and a few, perhaps from Italy, were raised more on millet. More than a third of the specimens were found to have exceptionally high nitrogen isotope values. While that’s often an indication of a diet high in protein (Richard III, for instance, had a diet rich in game, meat and sea fish and the nitrogen values to prove it), it’s also a reaction to the exact opposite: protein deprivation dramatically raises nitrogen isotope values. Disease can spike nitrogen values as well.

Napoleon’s men were not in good health, even before their ill-fated stop in Vilnius. Research on the teeth of the soldiers in the mass grave showed rampant dental cavities and indications of stress during childhood, and over one-quarter of the dead had likely succumbed to epidemic typhus, a louse-borne disease. A febrile illness like typhus could cause increased loss of body water through urine, sweat, and diarrhea, which may also cause a rise in nitrogen isotopes. And, of course, historical accounts detail how troops fruitlessly scoured the countryside for food and how many of them ate their dead or dying horses.

Consumption of seafood is unlikely to be the cause of the high nitrogen since the frozen Vilnia River wasn’t producing and there were no salted stores to be had. Canning was still in its infancy as French brewer Nicolas Appert had only devised a method to seal food in glass jars in 1809. He did so specifically for the French army, incidentally, after Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc reward to anyone who could solve the military’s thorny supply problems. Glass doesn’t transport well and while a metal can system was invented by Peter Durand in 1810, Durand was British and his patented food preservation products went straight to the Royal Navy, not the Grand Armée.

The culprit is almost certainly prolonged nutritional stress.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Five oversized Bronze Age axes found in Jutland Christmas tree farm

History Blog - Sun, 2015-07-26 19:53

Just before Easter of this year, Christmas tree farmer Esben Arildskov asked a metal detecting friend Bent Rasmussen to survey a field on his farm in the village of Boest near Nørre Snede in Jutland, Denmark. Bronze artifacts had been found on the field before, and Arildskov wanted to be sure any historic artifacts were recovered before he cleared the area for planting. That responsible choice proved prescient. Rasmussen’s metal detector alerted to a large metal find and when he dug down, he found two large bronze axe heads. He immediately stopped digging and notified experts at the Museum Midtjylland of the find.

The two axes Rasmussen unearthed are 30 and 26 centimeters (one foot and 10 inches) long. The larger one weighs almost a full kilo (980 grams, 2.16 pounds); the smaller weighs 650 grams (1.4 pounds). Bronze Age axes are usually half this size, so the museum’s archaeologists were excited by the find. They examined the site and realized there was more to be found underneath the surface. They had to wait until after Easter to get started so on April 7th the official excavation began. Archaeologists, museum curators, journalists, neighbors and interested observers made the dig something of a party, complete with coffee and homemade cake. They had good cause to celebrate when three more oversized axes were unearthed. The axe hoard was painstakingly buried, each axe placed deliberately on top of the others inside a pit that was padded with grass.

Radiocarbon dating found the axes were made between 1,800 and 1,500 B.C., a period bridging the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. This places them among the earliest bronze artifacts ever discovered in Denmark.

Bronze axes from this era are so rare only five of them have been found before in Denmark, Sweden and northern Germany. That means the Boest find has in one fell swoop doubled the number of these Bronze Age axes in the archaeological record of northern Europe. When you consider that
Bent Rasmussen and his brother, enlisted by Bent during excavations to cover more ground with their metal detectors, found another four smaller axes and a spear tip, it’s clear that this field in Boest was an important place during the early Bronze Age.

The would-be Christmas tree lot continued its archaeological hot streak when rows of large postholes were discovered. Four parallel rows of holes so large the posts they held would have been at least the height of a man. At first archaeologists thought they might be the remains of a dwelling or a fence, but as they kept excavating they kept finding more postholes. Ultimately they were able to follow an uninterrupted path of postholes for 109 meters before it disappeared into the forest. Now they’re thinking it may have been a processional route leading to burial mounds known to be on the property. This find is unique in Danish history, more akin to the pre-stone standing structures of Avebury and Stonehenge. Archaeologists hope to be able to excavate the entire processional in the near future, but first the funding has to be secured.

At the end of April, archaeologists unearthed another treasure across the post rows and slightly to the right of the axe hoard: two gold bracelets, one gold finger ring and two flint blades. The bangles weigh 21 grams (.74 ounces) apiece while the ring weighs a massive 16 grams (.56 oz). Modern wedding rings weigh a single gram, so this ring is exceptionally heavy. The gold deposit also dates to the transitional period between the Stone and Bronze Ages.

The axes are being conserved at the Museum Midtjylland after which they will be sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen for further analysis. Museum Midtjylland hopes the axes will be available for display this summer. Esben Arildskov has accepted that he won’t be planting Christmas trees on this land anytime soon, but he’s consoled by the fact that he’s the owner of a Bronze Age ceremonial center with huge axes and gold rings the weight of 16 regular rings buried hither and yon. He, his wife Birthe Rosvig and two daughters (aged five and eight) are thrilled to have found actual treasure in their back yard.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History