Arts and Sciences

Gaugin exhibition includes $300 million painting

History Blog - Sun, 2015-02-08 03:06

The principles are being cagey about the details, but it seems that a real live Swiss private collection has sold Paul Gaugin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? or When Will You Marry? to Qatar for something in the neighborhood of $300 million. The 1892 painting of two young Tahitian women was sold by Rudolf Staechelin, a former Sotheby’s executive in Basel, Switzerland, who runs the family trust of 20 Impressionist and Post-Impressionists paintings collected by his grandfather, also named Rudolf Staechelin. He would neither confirm nor deny that the buyer was Qatar, but that’s what inside sources have claimed, and the oil-rich state has been famously snapping up artworks for record prices over the past years in its quest to develop a world-class museum collection. The previous record price for a painting was set when Qatar bought Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players for $250 million in 2011.

The grandson said that the works had never been hung in his family’s home because they were too precious and that he saw them in a museum along with everyone else. He has decided to sell, he said, because it is the time in his life to diversify his assets. “In a way it’s sad,” he said, “but on the other hand, it’s a fact of life. Private collections are like private persons. They don’t live forever.” [...]

“The real question is why only now?” Mr. Staechelin said of the Gauguin sale. “It’s mainly because we got a good offer. The market is very high and who knows what it will be in 10 years. I always tried to keep as much together as I could.” He added, “Over 90 percent of our assets are paintings hanging for free in the museum.”

“For me they are family history and art,” he said of the artworks. “But they are also security and investments.”

The Gaugin painting and the rest of the Staechelin collection has been on long-term loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel since the death of the first Rudolf Staechelin in 1946. The main building of the Kunstmuseum is closing this month for a major refurbishment. A selection of its masterpieces will be shown at other museums in Basel and Spain until it reopens in April of 2016. This temporary closing spurred Staechelin to seek a new loan contract with the canton. Talks did not go smoothly, and although the canton tried to get the collection back for the reopening, Staechelin cancelled the loan by invoking a provision that required the works be on public display at all times.

Now Rudolf Staechelin is looking for a new museum in which to house the collection. It has to be a top museum that can afford the security and insurance and that will accept the works on loan without a lending fee. They must also promise to blend the paintings into their permanent collection instead of grouping them together.

As for the $300 million Nafea Faa Ipoipo?, the buyer won’t take ownership until January of 2016. For now it is still in Basel, on display at a Gauguin exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation from today until June 28th. This special exhibition brings together 50 paintings and sculptures by Gaugin from museums and private collections in 13 countries. It took the museum six years to arrange so broad a show that covers Gaugin’s entire output but focuses on his work in Tahiti and the Marquesas (1891 – 1903). In returned for a loan of Picasso works, they secured a spectacular work from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: the monumental D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), which at 4’7″ high and 12’3″ wide almost never travels.

Another star of the show is a 1902 sculpture called Thérèse which disappeared from public view in 1980. It turns out to have been unpublished in a private collection in London. The director of the Beyeler Foundation saw it at the Lefevre Fine Art in London last October and arranged a loan of the figure for the exhibition. Thérèse is a notorious figure from Gaugin’s life. Depicting a Polynesian woman who worked for the Catholic Bishop of the Marquesas Islands Joseph Martin, Thérèse was displayed in front of the artist’s home along with a companion piece: Père Paillard, or Father Lechery. It was no mystery who those sculptures were meant to represent. Père Paillard is written clearly across its base and Monseigneur Martin had a servant named Thérèse who was one of several reputed to have been the recipient of the bishop’s sexual advances. Since the bishop repeatedly admonished Gaugin for his sexual relationships with local women, the artist expressed his opinion of the priest’s moral consistency with this pair of sculptures. Père Paillard is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and will not be part of the Beyeler exhibition with its newly rediscovered mate, alas.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Codebreaking notes, Banbury sheets found in Bletchley hut

History Blog - Sat, 2015-02-07 07:59

After a year of raising £7.4 million from private donors and a large Heritage Lottery Fund grant, in fall of 2012 the Bletchley Park Trust began Project Neptune, a program of restoration on the derelict structures in which Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park team worked to break the German Enigma Code during World War II. Phase One of the project was focused on the restoration of Huts 3 and 6, used to break German Army and Air Force codes, and Block C, an open-floorplan building that held the Hollerith punch-card machines which analyzed encrypted messages. The aim was to restore the Huts and Block to their wartime condition, not new as they were when first constructed in 1939 and 1940.

Block C was used by various government departments for decades after the war and had been divided with internal walls. It suffered significant water damage since it fell into disuse and trees were growing out of the roof. More than 5,000 of the original acoustic ceiling tiles were recovered and another 8,000 period tiles found in the United States to rebuild the roof. The walls were all knocked down to return it to its original floorplan and the water damage repaired. Block C is now a visitor center.

Hut 6, where the Enigma messages were decoded and translated, and Hut 3, where the translated message were analyzed for their intelligence, were close to crumbling. They were built to be temporary structures easily demolished after the war and the fact that they survived at all is a miracle. Hut 6 was particularly battered by decades of weather, with its west side almost entirely rotted. The gutters and downspouts were so damaged rain water soaked into the walls for decade. The rotted wood boards were replaced with floorboards from Fawley Court in Henley on Thames, a historic country estate requisitioned for use as a military intelligence school during the war. Fawley Court also supplied shiplap boarding to replace the siding on the exterior of the huts. The original radiators were restored and reinstalled (connected to new pipes, of course) and paint colors were precisely matched to the original wartime colors.

Block C and Huts 3 and 6 opened to the public in June of last year. Hut 11A, one of the huts that housed the Bombe machines developed to decipher the Enigma code, has been restored and is being outfitted for display. Hut 11, the other Bombe hut, is currently in the process of restoration. (Turing’s office in Hut 8 was restored a decade ago.)

During the work on Hut 6 in September of 2013, restorers discovered crumpled sheets of paper under the roof. In remarkable condition considering the walls around them were falling apart, the notebook pages had been stuffed into the notoriously drafty, uninsulated walls of the hut. All notes related to codebreaking were supposed to be destroyed as per wartime regulations, so it underscores the rudimentary conditions in the huts that the cryptographers violated security protocols to keep out the cold. The papers were immediately frozen to keep them from decaying and then cleaned and conserved for display. The discovery of the documents has been announced now that the conservation is complete.

Bletchley Park’s Director of Learning and Collections, Victoria Worpole, said in a statement:

“It’s quite rare for us to find new paperwork because any that survived is in either our archive, at GCHQ or the National Archive so to find actual materials that were used by the Codebreakers, shoved between beams and cracks in the woodwork is really exciting. We’ve had a conservator work on the materials to make sure we preserve them as best we can. It’s quite interesting to think that these were actual handwritten pieces of codebreaking, workings out. There are some pieces of paperwork that we can’t identify. Nobody seems to be able to work out what they are – we’ve sent things off to GCHQ — and there are a number of items that we’ve yet to understand properly. We’re unveiling a mystery.”

Among the documents were Banbury sheets, used in a system Turing devised to take advantage of a fault in the wheel design of the Enigma. Cryptographers punched holes representing different ciphers in two sheets of paper. They would then put the sheets on top of each other until the holes aligned. This helped reveal the daily rotor setting of the very challenging naval Enigma machine. Turing called the system Banburismus and the papers Banbury sheets after Banbury, Oxfordshire, where the stationary was made. The Banbury sheets found in Hut 6 are the only examples known to survive.

The codebreaking documents and other assorted discoveries made in Hut 6 — parts of an Atlas, a pinboard and an article about fashion — and elsewhere on the property — a fragment of a teapot, glass bottles, bricks from the demolished Block F and a time capsule left inside a door in Hut 11A — are going on display in an exhibition, The Restoration of Historic Bletchley Park, in Hut 12.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

St. Louis Society board resigns over artifact sales

History Blog - Fri, 2015-02-06 03:34

Last fall, the St. Louis Society (SLS) of the American Institute for Archaeology (AIA) caused a stir when it put the Treasure of Harageh up for auction at Bonhams, London. The collection of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and vessels were unearthed by a British School of Archaeology team excavating in Middle Egypt during the 1913-14 season under the direction of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. As the St. Louis Society had contributed to the funding of the dig, in return they received an exceptional group of artifacts from the reign of Pharoah Senusret II (1897-1878 B.C.). The Society had tried to place the objects from Tomb 124 at Harageh in the Saint Louis Art Museum and in the Washington University museum, but were not successful, so most of the time the artifacts were kept in a safety deposit box. The steep costs and suboptimal conservation conditions of the storage and the desire to fund a community archaeology program ultimately spurred the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure.

Most of it was saved at the last minute, taken out of the auction the day before thanks to a private sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest was bought at the Bonhams auction by an anonymous buyer for $44,000. Undeterred by the outcry, the SLS then offered two Mesoamerican artifacts — a Maya effigy vase (550-950 A.D.) from the Quirigua, Guatemala, and a Zapotec seated figural urn (550-950 A.D.) from Monte Albán, Mexico — they received as recompense for funding the fieldwork of American archaeologist and groundbreaking Maya scholar Sylvanus Morley in the 1910s. The effigy vase sold to a university museum for $21,250, the figural urn to an unknown private buyer for $3,750.

The AIA is opposed to the sales of antiquities, believing they should be curated for the public good, conserved by experts and made available for study, but its charter with the St. Louis Society only explicitly prohibits the sale of ancient artifacts of dubious, undocumented origin. The origin of these objects was clear and unblemished. Still, the AIA released a statement expressing its concern over the pending sale and promising an urgent investigation into the situation. The SLS board held there was nothing wrong with the sales, ethically or legally. Obviously the AIA disagreed on the ethics of auctioning off archaeological material, and pointed out that the board had acted unilaterally without consulting the SLS membership which was at the very least divided on the question.

On January 10th, the Council of the AIA held its annual meeting in New Orleans. They discussed the SLS sales and decided on a strong course of action: if the SLS board didn’t resign in its entirety by February 1st, the AIA would revoke the St. Louis Society’s charter. You can read SLS President Michael Fuller’s statement at the meeting here. I’m not prone to agree with cultural heritage organizations selling ancient artifacts to the highest bidder, but I think he made some excellent points, particularly about how the AIA needs an actual policy on the sale of documented artifacts and how the national society could have helped them place the artifacts in museums and prevented this mess from happening in the first place instead of reacting after the fact.

Three days after the AIA passed its resolution, the St. Louis Society held an extraordinary meeting attended by two thirds of the membership. After a vigorous debate, a narrow majority of the members voted to retain the board. On January 25th, the SLS board met again and decided to comply with the AIA resolution. All nine of the board members resigned effective Monday, January 26th. An interim board is in place until new elections are held at the next annual meeting. The AIA is satisfied and the St. Louis Society will remain a chapter in good standing.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Winchester Cathedral opens mortuary chests

History Blog - Thu, 2015-02-05 04:13

The great Gothic Cathedral of Winchester, in Hampshire, England, is traditionally held to be the final resting place of some of the earliest kings of Wessex and England. The remains of kings and bishops from as early as the 7th century are said to be contained in decorated mortuary chests in the church’s Lady Chapel. The chests are inscribed with names, crowns, shields identifying the remains kept in them, but they were made hundreds of years after the original burials in the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster (the original cathedral on the site of the current one from 660 to 1093) so it’s not certain they were ever accurate. On top of that, the chests were interfered with by Parliamentarians in 1642. When the cathedral authorities put the bones back, they were so jumbled up there was no way to separate out individuals.

Over the years the chests have been cleaned and restored, but the human remains and artifacts within have not been examined in forensic detail. As part of a new development program aimed to promote and preserve the Cathedral and to create a better exhibition space in the south transept for the gem of its collection, the 12th century Winchester Bible, the Dean and Chapter of Winchester have commissioned experts to study and document the contents of six of the chests for the first time.

Because modern technology allows for radiocarbon dating of very small samples, Winchester officials decided to date select bone fragments, something they’ve declined to do until now because it would have required the destruction of a some of the remains entrusted to Winchester’s eternal care. The results from the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit found that the tested bones date to the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.

Speaking of this discovery, and the coming project, The Dean of Winchester, The Very Revd James Atwell, has this to say. “This is an exciting moment for the Cathedral when we seem poised to discover that history has indeed safeguarded the mortal remains of some of the early Saxon Kings who became the first monarchs of a united England. Winchester holds the secrets of the birth of the English nation and it does seem that some of those secrets are about to be revealed as future research continues. The presence of the bones in the Cathedral, where they would have been placed near the High Altar and the relics of St Swithun, remind us just how significant the inspiration of the Christian faith was for the foundation of our national life.”

Researchers will also try to separate the jumbled bones to count the number of individuals. Once the remains have been collated, archaeologists hope to be able to determine their age at time of death, sex, stature and physical characteristics of each person. It’s possible that there will be enough circumstantial evidence to be able to loosely match the bones to the royalty and clergy that the chests and the Cathedral’s burial records claim were interred at Winchester. Possible candidates include: Cynegils, King of Wessex (611–643), Cenwalh, King of Wessex (643–672), Cynewulf, King of Wessex (757-786), Ecbert, King of Wessex (802–839), Ethelwulf, King of Wessex (839–856), Eadred, King of England (946–955), Eadwig, King of England and later Wessex (955–959), Cnut or Canute, King of England (1016–1035), Denmark and Norway, his wife Emma of Normandy (d. 1052) (also queen consort to Ethelred II, King of England), William II ‘Rufus’, King of England (1087–1100), Wini, the first Bishop of Winchester (d. 670), Alfwyn, Bishop of Winchester (d. 1047) and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1072).

If any one of these, particularly the early Anglo-Saxon kings, pan out forensically, Winchester Cathedral would be confirmed as the first national mausoleum, akin to the cathedrals of St. Denis and Reims in France.

There’s an intriguing little throw-away line with no follow-up in the press materials.

We have discovered in the chests some unexpected contents which are not mortal remains, and one of the aspects of the next stage of analysis will be to discover why they are there.

Ooh, unmentionable objects of mysterious origin! I’m looking forward to the explanation.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of ancient mound in Ohio found during mall construction

History Blog - Wed, 2015-02-04 05:42

In 2008, a small mound on North Bridge Street in Chillicothe, Ohio, was bulldozed by commercial developers. There was no archaeological survey of the site, despite Ohio’s rich history of ancient Native American mounds, because sadly there are no laws even slowing people down from destroying ancient remains on private property. Whatever development plans were in the works in 2008 never came to fruition and the property lay fallow until this year.

A few weeks ago, Guernsey Crossing LLC began building a mall on the 13-acre site. This time people concerned about the late lamented mound reached out to archaeologist Dr. Jarrod Burks, president of the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, who contacted the developers and struck up a deal: Burks and a team of volunteers would be given three weeks to excavate the site where the mound had once been. They started out with a magnetic survey of the site to identify the perimeter of the mound and the best areas to excavate.

After two weeks, they’ve found a cluster of burned bones that are most likely from a cremation, Burks said, and another set of unburned bones and teeth. In addition, after painstakingly and carefully feathering away the soil a few specks of dirt at a time, they’ve uncovered shards and pieces of prehistoric pottery and a great deal of burned wood that will be able to be dated by its carbonization.

Burks, whose paying job is with Ohio Valley Archaeology in Columbus, said the mound probably dates from between 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Before flattening, it was about 2 1/2 feet high. The area is about 80 feet in diameter.

Archaeologists can’t tell if the burned bone fragments are human or animal, but the uncharred bone discovered next to the burned pieces are human, so it’s likely the burned ones are too. The pottery fragments are the source of the preliminary dating based on design and style.

Basically what’s left is a thin layer of the mound floor, still intact after bulldozing just below the surface. Floors may not sound glamorous, but they’re extremely important archaeologically speaking. These postholes are unusually large, one wide enough to hold a post six to eight inches in diameter. The hole seems to have been deliberately filled in after the post was removed, perhaps during the construction of the mound.

That they’ve been able to find postholes is highly significant because they impart a great deal of information about the construction of the site, and since so many of Ohio’s ancient mounds were destroyed long before archaeological practices paid much attention to, well, holes, this little ex-mound may teach us new things about the architecture of these structures.

The mound is going to be a mall parking lot soon, so the team has to clear out everything they find for further study. The Native American tribes would prefer that human remains not be disturbed, but unfortunately that’s not an option here. Burks is working with the developers to ensure the area isn’t entirely bereft of recognition of its ceremonial and historical importance.

While we’re on the subject of ancient Native American mounds in Chillicothe, things are going gangbusters at the Junction Group Hopewell Earthworks. After a frantic two-week period of fundraising last March, the earthworks, none of which are visible above ground but their foundations are still extant underground, were saved when heritage and ecological preservation non-profits including the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy and Arc of Appalachia rallied to raise funds to buy the archaeological and environmentally important parts of the Stark family farm. Almost 1,000 individual donations were raised in that fortnight of mad activity, enough to allow the coalition to buy 193 acres — earthworks, woodlands and a 1.25-miles stretch river corridor — at auction for $1.1 million.

Most of that purchase price, 75% of it, came from a matching Clean Ohio Fund grant which wasn’t actually granted yet when they bought the land. Arc of Appalachia noted at the time that “we raised roughly $375,000 through the generosity of over 900 donors, funds which we will use to leverage a Clean Ohio grant to pay the remaining balance of acquisition funds needed.” They seemed confident but I was concerned about whether the grant was a sure enough thing to consider the Junction Group Earthworks well and truly saved.

Well, I’m delighted to report that the Clean Ohio Fund matching grant came through and in July of last year, Arc of Appalachia Preserve System director Nancy Stranahan and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy director Bruce Lombardo officially closed on the property. They’re wasting no time on their goal of making the site a public park. The new Junction Earthworks Archaeological Park and Nature Preserve is slated to open this year, perhaps as early as this spring. There are tons of additional expenses involved in making it a proper park facility so donations are still very much open. Click here to donate to the Junction Earthworks Park Development Fund online.

Meanwhile, the same Jarrod Burks mentioned above, who happens to have done the first magnetic survey of the Junction Group site in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the earthworks were was still left undergound, has returned to make a more detailed survey. The original scan covered about 15 acres and with a single hand-held magnetometer, produced relatively low density data. This scan is being done with a four-probe magnetometer on a rolling cart which will collect far higher density data over the same ground thereby identifying smaller features (cooking pits, burials, postholes) the first machine couldn’t detect, and will eventually cover the entire 89-acre field.

Dr. Burks began scanning in November and is still doing it whenever weather permits, which isn’t often this winter. They only had two weeks and three weekends to complete the project in 2005. Now that they own the land, they can afford to take their time. You can see Jarrod Burks at work with his neat four-magnetometer scanner in this aerial footage by drone photographer Tim Anderson. The enclosure ditches, which are not visible above ground, have been marked out by mowing the soybean stalks left after harvest.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Have only surviving Michelangelo bronzes been found?

History Blog - Tue, 2015-02-03 03:00


A pair of bronze statuettes known as the Rothschild Bronzes have been attributed to Michelangelo by an international team of multi-disciplinary experts at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. The bronzes are 16 inches wide by 2 feet 7.5 inches high and depict heroic male nudes riding panthers, likely a Bacchic procession theme. They are not a matched pair — one of the men is a bearded mature figure, the other a clean-faced youth — but they are part of a set. If the attribution is accurate, these statues will be the only known surviving bronzes by a sculptor whose works in marble have become icons of Western art.

As always in cases of disputed authorship, conclusive evidence is hard to come by and these bronzes have already been attributed to a variety of artists known and unknown. The Rothschild Bronzes are so named because they were first recorded in the art collection of Swiss banker Baron Adolphe de Rothschild published in 1878. The works were attributed to Michelangelo at that time, but it was immediately disputed. The undeniably high quality of the bronzes and their style pointed to a 16th century Italian Renaissance origin. With no signature or mark that could resolve the issue, other possible authors like sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino and Tiziano Aspetti, known particularly for his bronze sculptures, were mooted.

After the flurry of interest after the 1878 publication, the pair sank into relative obscurity, remaining in the Rothschild collection until in 1957 they were sold to French collector. They returned with a huge splash at Sotheby’s European Sculpture and Works of Art 900-1900 auction on July 9th, 2002. Attributed non-committally to the “Florentine School, mid-16th century,” the pre-sale estimate of £1 million – £1.5 million ($1.5 million – $2.25 million) suggested strongly that Sotheby’s had an inkling that Florentine school might turn out to be a very prestigious one indeed, although the buzz was more Cellini than Michelangelo. The pair sold to a British collector for £1.65 million ($2,478,000).

They weren’t the only softly attributed sculptures to sell big at that auction. A terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Piazza Navona stole the show. Even though Bernini’s direct authorship was uncertain (one of his students is known to have carved the final marble piece), it was purchased by New York art dealers Salander-O’Reilly Galleries for £1.9 million ($2.85 million), more ten times the pre-sale estimate of £120,000-180,000 ($180,000 – $270,000), because they believed it was so finely figured that it bore the hand of the master himself. The next year Salander-O’Reilly sold the statue to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth where it is currently on display as the work of Bernini.

In 2003, the pair of bronzes were loaned to the Frick Collection in New York City where they were attributed not just to another artist, but a Dutch one at that. The Frick exhibited them as the work of Willem van Tetrode, a 16th century sculptor who studied in Italy and took the Italian Renaissance sculptural approach back home with him. They appeared at the Royal Academy of Arts in London’s Bronze exhibition in 2012 with a new attribution. This time they were 16th-century Italian again, but the work an unknown Roman sculptor in the “Circle of Michelangelo.”

Cambridge stepped into the fray in the autumn of 2013 when art history professor emeritus Paul Joannides noticed that a page of drawings (“Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus” now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier) done in 1508 by an apprentice of Michelangelo’s copying his master’s works featured a drawing of a male nude astride a panther. To investigate further, Joannides collaborated with Fitzwilliam curator Victoria Avery, conservation experts Robert van Langh and Arie Pappot from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Warwick University Medical School anatomy professor Peter Abrahams, art historian Charles Avery, Verrocchio specialist Andrew Butterfield and art critic Martin Gayford.

The team looked into every aspect of the bronzes. Oxford University scientists confirmed using thermoluminescence dating that the statues were cast between 300 and 500 years ago. The Rijksmuseum conservators sent samples from the bronzes’ cores to a neutron imaging lab in Switzerland which found that the thick walls of bronze were typical of 16th century Florentine casting. Dr. Abrahams’ examination of the nudes’ bodies found them anatomically correct down to the peroneal tendon and the transverse arch of the foot. He also found the anatomical detail of the nudes — navels, back grooves, abs — corresponded exactly with features from other Michelangelo sculptures and preparatory drawings from 1500-1510.

The investigation is ongoing, but the findings thus far are strong enough to undergird an attribution to the young Michelangelo, made after he completed the David in 1504 and as he began work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The final report of the research team will be presented at a conference on July 6th of this year. The bronzes will be on display in the Italian galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum from February 3rd through August 9th. There’s a book detailing the research on the figures available at the museum gift shop.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell on display

History Blog - Mon, 2015-02-02 02:05

The only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice is going on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., along with other early experimental recordings from Bell’s Volta Laboratory Associates. The exhibition “Hear My Voice”: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound opened on January 26th and runs through July 1st.

Alexander Graham Bell recorded himself rattling off numbers and concluding with an appropriately historic sign-off (“In witness whereof, hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”) on April 15th, 1885. His voice was engraved on a wax-on-composition-board disc at the Volta Laboratory in D.C. where Alexander, his cousin Chichester A. Bell and scientific instrument maker Charles Sumner Tainter experimented in the early recording and transmission of sound. Bell used prize money he had won from the French Government for the invention of the telephone to found the Volta Laboratory in 1880-1. The work they did for the next six years, much of it improvements in existing technology rather than brand new inventions, resulted in several patents.

To ensure they had incontrovertible evidence of the process should anyone contest a patent, the Volta Laboratory deposited their recordings, documents and devices at the Smithsonian almost as soon as they were made. After the Volta Laboratory patents were transferred to the Volta Bureau where Bell focused on the study of deafness, the original Volta Lab archive remained at the Smithsonian. For more than a century, the Institution had more than 400 of the earliest sound recordings in its archives but because these experimental media and technologies were so delicate they were unplayable, they had no way to figure out what was on the records.

That changed in 2011 when curator Carlene Stephens at the National Museum of American History read that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California was successfully recovering sound from damaged, unplayable early recordings using an optical scanner and digital audio software. The scanner creates a digital map of the surface of a record. The map is cleaned of scratches and skips and then run through software that replicates the movement a stylus would make through the grooves of a disc or cylinder to reproduce the audio on the digital map. The result is a digital sound file of the recording made without adding any trauma to the original medium.

Stephens set up a collaborative project between the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History to scan six of the hundreds of recordings from the Volta collection. That was expanded in 2013 to include another three recordings. The wax disc with Alexander Graham Bell’s voice was one of the three. A written transcript of the contents of the record signed and dated by Alexander Graham Bell confirmed that it was the man himself reciting those numbers.

This video shows the Bell transcript scrolling along with the recording:

The exhibition will place the delicate experimental recordings on display in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. The diverse media Bell experimented with — a glass disc, a green wax disc on a brass holder, a tiny green disc — will be seen in public for the first time. They will be accompanied by original documents, notes, Volta Laboratory technology like the graphophone and sundry objects like the cover of a tin box Bell used to deposit some of his earliest experiments at the Smithsonian in October of 1881.

When the exhibition closes on July 1st, 2015, the National Museum of American History will launch its new space dedicated to the history of American invention. It will open “42,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, hands-on programs, performance spaces and an education center on its first floor.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Sketch of Van Gogh found in friend’s scrapbook

History Blog - Sun, 2015-02-01 02:56

A previously unknown sketch of painter Vincent van Gogh has been found in an album of drawings by his friend Emile Bernard. The album, a collection of the French artist’s sketches cut out of other books and then pasted into a used accounts ledger, has been in the archive of the Bremen Kunsthalle museum in Germany since they bought it from Bernard’s son-in-law in 1970. Even though it’s been in the museum archives for 45 years, the notebook hasn’t been published or even thoroughly researched until now because making heads or tails of it was an immense challenge. The scrapbook is a jumbled mixture of 858 works in a variety of styles, techniques and media, the earliest sketch done when Bernard was 13 years old, the most recent when he was in his sixties.

The subject of the sketch was identified as Van Gogh by Bremen Kunsthalle curator Dorothee Hansen during research for the upcoming exhibition Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity (pdf), the first large retrospective of the artist’s work covering all stages of his output and including works by friends, collaborators and contemporaries like Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh.

Bernard’s hasty sketch captures Van Gogh in a Parisian café, probably in Montmartre. He is drinking with two women, most likely prostitutes. Van Gogh has a short beard, moustache and slightly receding hair. Most noticeable are the piercing eyes. The sketch has spontaneity, suggesting that Bernard drew it while they were out for an evening.

Van Gogh has two bottles prominently placed before him, probably of wine (it is possible that one is absinthe and the other the accompanying water, although this was normally served in a carafe). The Dutchman appears to be clutching a glass. Soon after his departure for Arles, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo: “I’m better than in Paris, and if my stomach has become terribly weak that’s a problem I picked up there, probably due mainly to the bad wine, of which I drank too much.”

Hansen identified him from his features which while roughly sketched are still recognizably comparable to van Gogh’s self-portraits. As no photographs of him as an adult have survived, those self-portraits are our main visual resource for the Dutch artist’s appearance. The face, hair and intense, unsmiling expression in the sketch are very much in keeping with the self-portraits Vincent van Gogh made in the winter of 1886-7, which is when Hansen believes the sketch was made.

Bernard met Van Gogh in March of 1886 at Atelier Cormon, the Paris studio of painter Fernand Cormon who aimed to prepare his students for acceptance into the annual Paris Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This institution was on its last legs in the 1880s, pummeled by two decades of rejecting Impressionists and avant-garde works. The official Salon with its traditional realism and historical/mythological themes was far behind the times and would close in 1890, but even so cutting edge artists like Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard went to Cormon’s school for a while.

Van Gogh and Bernard became good friends. The worked and played together, painting together and hanging out in bars with cheap wine and cheaper women. Other luminaries of the era participated as well. Notes in the ledger indicate there were portraits of two other famous artist friends of Bernard’s — a profile of Pointillist Paul Signac and two caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec — but they were removed and sold privately to collectors before the 1970 sale to the museum. The postcard-sized pen-and-ink sketch of Van Gogh, the wine and the ladies is the only one left in its original context in the scrapbook.

As small and dashed-off as it is, its importance belies its size because there are very few portraits of Van Gogh made by someone who was not Van Gogh. Six others are known:

These are a pastel by Toulouse-Lautrec; an oil painting and a sheet of sketches by the Australian artist John Russell; and sketches by Lucien Pissarro, the English artist Horace Livens and the Scottish artist Archibald Hartrick (the latter probably not done from life, but in the 1930s).

The Bernard album will be on display at the Kunsthalle exhibition starting February 7th, but it won’t be opened to the Van Gogh sketch until March 31st. Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity closes two months later on May 31st, 2015.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British Columbia library acquires 13th c. Papal bull

History Blog - Sat, 2015-01-31 08:55

The University of British Columbia Library has acquired what may be the oldest document of its kind in Canada: a Papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. The ink on parchment manuscript was signed by the Pope and 13 cardinals, among them Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, recently appointed Cardinal-Deacon of the titular church of St. Nicola in Carcere and future Pope Nicholas III. Accompanying the parchment is the lead seal (bulla in Latin, which gives the decree its name) at the end of a tassel of blue ribbon and red and yellow silk cords. It’s no longer attached to the document, but it’s otherwise in excellent condition.

The bull is a beautiful document. It’s 2 by 1.8 feet in dimension and penned in a glorious hand on sheepskin or calfskin parchment.

Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem.

It was purchased last year from London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for $15,000 to strengthen the library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. These documents are invaluable teaching tools for the university’s English and History departments because, in addition to the information they contain, they give the students a tangible connection to the past they’re studying. Although it was in good condition when it arrived, the bull

had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

You can see the difference by comparing the photographs in this post to the digitized version of the document.

The First Council of Lyons was the least attended church council yet with 150 bishops, but that sparse attendance was actually a ramification of how politically significant it was. Pope Innocent IV was on the run from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, stupor mundi, whose troops were besieging Rome. He escaped through Liguria reaching Lyons, which was conveniently located just outside of Frederick’s territory, in December of 1244 and in the beginning of the new year called an ecumenical council for June. Although Frederick sent three representatives of his own, many of the prelates from his German and Sicilian territories were too intimidated to attend. Turmoil in the east kept many others away. In the end attendants were primarily from France and Spain.

On the agenda at this council was the dignity of the Church (the rule that cardinals had to wear red hats was first promulgated at Lyons), reconquest of the Holy Land, dealing with the Mongol Empire’s invasions of eastern and central Europe, and last but most certainly not least, addressing the conflict between papacy and empire. On July 17th, the council issued the bull Ad Apostolicae Dignitatis Apicem which excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II on the grounds that he’d broken oaths he made to the Church, forcibly detained delegates on their way to an earlier council and was probably a heretic anyway, complete with a harem, eunuchs and Saracen guards.

The bull at the UBC Library was issued on July 30th, three days after the pope excommunicated and deposed the Holy Roman Emperor. It confirmed the benefices and properties of the Poor Clares in the church of Saint Michael in Trento, placing them under the direct protection of the Holy See. As minor an issue as this may seem compared to the excommunication of an emperor, it was all part of the rich tapestry of flipping Frederick the bird.

In 1027 Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II had established the Bishopric of Trent, an area roughly equivalent to the modern autonomous region of Trentino, as an ecclesiastical principality. Conrad deemed bishops less likely to cause trouble than German princes and Trentino was strategically important because two transalpine Roman roads connecting what is today southern Germany to northern Italy crossed through it. The Bishops were strong allies of the Emperor against local lords for two centuries. In 1236, Frederick II deposed the bishops and reclaimed direct imperial authority over Trento, appointing his personal friend Ezzelino III da Romano as viceroy.

Meanwhile, Abbess Palmeria of the Poor Clares had received the church of Saint Michael in Trento and its associated benefices from Bishop Gerald Oscasali in 1229. In 1237, the year after Frederick deposed the Bishop of Trent, Pope Gregory IX wrote to the secular authorities in Trento to complain about them harassing the sisters and levying taxes on donations to the convent. By placing the Saint Michael convent under the protection of the Holy See, the 1245 Papal bull was drawing yet another line in the sand between Church and State: this is ours and your laws/taxes/claims don’t apply.

As an aside, the question of donations was a thorny one from a religious perspective as well, since whether the Poor Clares could own property was a raging debate. Clare herself was still alive and not yet a saint when all this was going down. There was no Rule yet. The Clares lived according to strictures drawn up by Gregory when he was bishop. Innocent IV’s bull asserted their right to financial self-sufficiency, to possessions, one of a series of similar decisions from a number of popes that would materially alter the original brief of the mendicant orders.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient Siberian trepanation recreated

History Blog - Fri, 2015-01-30 07:08

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Russian Academy of Science’s Siberian branch, have recreated the ancient trepanation technique of the nomadic people who inhabited the Altai region of western Siberia between the 6th and early 2nd centuries B.C. A neurosurgeon, a radiologist, anthropologists and archaeologists examined three skulls with antemortem trepanation holes excavated from grave mounds in the Altai mountains and then attempted to perform comparable surgeries using a period-accurate tool on a modern cadaver’s skull.

All three skulls were unearthed from humble graves. The grave goods and associated burial rites indicate the interred were of relatively low social status, which means at least some of the poorer Altai nomads had access to quite high level health care. The types of graves and funerary rituals are all different, suggesting the subjects came from diverse cultural groups. One of the skulls was excavated from mound three at the Bikeh III burial ground. It belonged to a male between 50 and 60 years old and dates to the 5th–4th centuries B.C. A second skull, excavated from a cyst grave in Kyzyl-Dzhar IV mound two, is that of a woman who died at around 30 years of age. The last is from an undercut, timber-frame grave in Kyzyl Dzhar V mound three and is the skull of a man aged 40-45. Both date to around the 4th-3rd centuries B.C.

Using multi-slice computer tomography scans, researchers first examined the skulls in minute detail to identify any damage or defect that led to the surgeries and to analyze the methods and tools used by the ancient surgeons.

The skull of the 50-60 y.o. male showed no visible evidence of head trauma, but rather that he suffered from a congenital skull deformation — a flattening of part of the occipital bone caused by an improper closing of the lambdoid suture. This was not a dangerous or painful condition at this point in his life and there’s no sign of trauma or tumors, so it’s not obvious why surgical intervention was attempted. Whatever was ailing him, it didn’t leave tell-tale signs on the cranium. The skull of the woman bears evidence of severe trauma: fractures in the right temporal bone and at the base of the middle cranial fossa, possibly caused by a fall from a height. The skull of the 40-year-old man indicates he suffered significant head trauma causing damage to his left temporal and parietal bones. That injury resulted in a hematoma — bleeding in the brain that forms a clot — which would have inflicted a variety of painful symptoms including headaches, vomiting and difficulty moving his right limbs.

Both men had pieces of their left parietal bone removed. The older gentleman’s skull has a semi-oval hole that is 45 by 52 mm (1.8 by 2 inches) at the outer perimeter with an inner hole of 22 by 34 mm (.87 by 1.34 inches). The younger fellow’s skull has a round hole that is 63 mm by 64 mm (2.5 inches) on the outside, 40 mm by 41 mm (1.6 inches) on the inside. The young woman’s skull has an irregular round trepanation hole in the back of the parietal bones centered on the sagittal suture. It’s 39 mm by 36 mm (1.5 by 1.4 inches) on the outside, 23 mm by 16 mm (.9 by .6 inches) on the inside. The inner and outer measurements are a result of a two-stage process: first a larger surface layer of bone was cut out with a sharp tool leaving a thin layer of skull, then a hole was cut into the thinned out bone with short, frequent movements.

The men’s skulls both have extensive bone regrowth at the surgical sites, which means they survived and went on to live for years after the operation. The woman was not so lucky. She died either during surgery or right after it, and little wonder since her surgeon did an atrocious job. The surgeons who operated on the men cut holes that were just large enough to address the problem (remove the hematoma from the younger man; possibly remove parasites from the older one) and at a safe distance from the sagittal sinus, into which all the major veins from the top of the skull open. The woman’s trepanation hole is right above the superior sagittal sinus, so it’s a fair assumption that she died from massive bleeding.

The two successful surgeries were performed with distinct finesse by knowledgable surgeons. They may have developed this knowledge independently, perhaps developed from expertise in embalming, from the fast and thorough butchering of stock and game that a nomadic existence requires, or from making objects out of animal bone, a craft that was extensively practiced by the Altai nomads in the 5th century. There’s also a chance they may have had contact with western medical practices during war, trade or travel. Hippocrates wrote the treatise On Head Injuries in the 5th or early 4th century B.C. which specifically addressed the importance of avoiding the blood geyser areas of the brain when digging holes into the skull.

Since even with today’s technology scraping or cutting or grinding bone leaves particles from the tool on the bone, the team tested the new bone growth on the two men who survived the operation for material that would identify which kind of tool was used. X-ray fluorescence and mass-spectrometric analyses discovered particles of copper and tin, which means the skulls were cut with a bronze instrument. The lack of arsenic further narrows it down to stannic bronze which at the time of the burials was being used in the Minusinsk Basin. The Martyanov Museum in Minusinsk has a large collection of stannic bronze tools — knives, saws, lancets, tweezers, probes — that archaeologists have posited had a surgical purpose. Unfortunately they were not excavated in context (looters sold them to the museum in the late 19th, early 20th century), so it’s hard to pinpoint a date of manufacture.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Aleksei Krivoshapkin first tried to use one of the blades from the museum on a skull, but it was too soft and couldn’t get purchase on the bone. Archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky made an experimental knife out of a brass alloy of copper, tin and zinc. That addition of zinc made for a functional skull-cutting tool that the team could test on a cadaver skull.

Here’s the most amazing part of this fascinating foray into ancient brain surgery: the operation took 28 minutes. Using a freaking brass knife and Altai cutting techniques, it took Dr. Krivoshapkin less than half an hour to make a two-inch hole in a skull. I was just reading the other day about how Cervantes’ father was a surgeon and it was seen as a low job, akin to a butcher, but look at the incredible skills that butcher heritage brought to the surgical table. I hope Cervantes Sr. was all “Yeah, that’s right. I’m an amazing butcher. You wish you could do with living tissue what I can do in 28 minutes. Haters to the left.”

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Coffin initialed “M.C.” found in Cervantes search

History Blog - Thu, 2015-01-29 04:33

The team of archaeologists and anthropologists searching for the remains of Miguel de Cervantes in the crypt of Madrid’s Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians have found fragments of a casket with the initials “M.C.” on one of the pieces. The partial casket was found in one of the niches in the north wall along with rocks and some bone fragments. The initials are formed with half-inch tacks pressed into the wood. The tacks are made of an unknown metal and are corroded to a green color.

When researchers first examined the niche with an endoscope microcamera, they saw bone material, but they appeared to be a mix of at least 10 different individuals, including the remains of at least one infant. The mixture of skeletal remains and their position at the foot of the enclosure suggested this was not a primary burial but the result of a reinterral. After the forensic team removed the bones, they recovered the fragments of the coffin.

The discovery was made on Saturday around noon. Earlier that morning the press had been allowed into the crypt to take pictures and observe the CSI-style team at work (hence this story). There was some excitement at the time when a group of researchers gathered around one of the gravesites found 4.8 meters under the floor which was outlined by a perimeter of bricks. Those remains turned out to be those of a young child under seven years of age at time of death.

It was Sunday when the team realized upon close examination of the coffin pieces that while moisture and insects had caused the coffin to fall to pieces, a significant piece from the head of the wooden casket had survived. Because sometimes in life luck happens, that piece had the initials tacked into it.

As suggestive as this find is, it doesn’t allow anything like a conclusion right now. There could have been another individual with the initials M.C. buried in the convent crypt. It could have been Cervantes’ coffin but his bones may have been lost in transit. It could be his coffin and his bones but we’ll never know because the remains are insufficient to determine identity.

The forensic anthropologists are now separating out all the bones exhumed from the niche. First the bones of children, which are easily distinguished from those of adults, will be isolated from the pile. Then the team will arrange the rest by sex and examine any adult male remains for indications that they once formed the endoskeletal structure of the great writer of the Spanish Golden Age: atrophy in the metacarpals of the left hand and bullet wounds in the chest from shots Cervantes took at the Battle of Lepanto, advanced tooth loss, kyphosis (aka, a hunchback) brought on by severe arthritis.

In addition to osteological evidence, researchers are also looking at the coffin itself to see if its consistent with the coffin that would have held Cervantes. The wood can be radiocarbon dated, or maybe even tree-ring dated if their luck holds, and textile fragments amidst the decaying organic material may be identifiable as part of the Franciscan religious habit in which Cervantes, who joined the Third Order of St. Francis shortly before his death, was buried.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Spain planned to invade Australia with an armada

History Blog - Wed, 2015-01-28 06:15

Documents discovered in the archives of the Spanish navy reveal that Spain planned to invade the nascent British colony in Australia in the mid-1790s. Chris Maxworthy, vice president of the Australian Association for Maritime History (AAMH), found the documents detailing a plan of attack approved by King Carlos IV to fire “hot shot” cannons, cannons that fired heated balls that could set wooden ships and buildings on fire as well as blow large holes in them, on Port Jackson, modern-day Sydney Harbour.

“The plan was to attack Sydney from the Spanish colonies in South America with a fleet of 100 medium-sized boats armed with cannons and ‘hot shot’,” [Maxworthy] told The Australian Financial Review.

“The goal was the complete surrender by the British and their expulsion from the Australian land mass … The effect [of the hot shot] would be to not only impact the targets ashore but also create multiple fires in the wooden buildings of that era in Sydney, particularly if the plans occurred during the hot summer months.”

Governor Arthur Phillip had established the first British colony on the continent at Port Jackson in January of 1788, 18 years after explorer James Cook landed there and named the harbour after Admiralty official Sir George Jackson. The convicts started coming right away, as the prisoner transport system to Britain’s colonies had been painfully cut off since 1776 by the Revolutionary War and subsequent independence. By 1792, there were more than 4,000 convicts populating Sydney, but since food was scarce and disease was rife, they would not have been able to put up much of a fight against a Spanish armada. Any Spanish victory would likely have been of short duration, however, as Britain had a much stronger navy and army and could have reclaimed the colony with minimal effort.

Spain’s concern was that a British colony in the Pacific would be a grave threat to the crown’s holdings in South America and the Philippines, a concern first articulated by Spanish naval officer Francisco Muñoz y San Clemente only months after the colony was founded. He reported that the convict colonists would be well positioned to act as privateers and harry Spanish shipping between the Philippines and the Americas. Once it had developed a full naval presence, the Australia colony would be able to launch a full-scale invasion of Spain’s holdings.

That same year, 1788, Italian nobleman, explorer and Spanish naval officer Alessandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante y Guerra proposed a Pacific expedition modeled after Cook’s. The government approved the expedition and each man had a corvette custom-built for the voyage. It also added a stop to the expedition’s itinerary: Port Jackson, so the explorers could see first hand how valid Muñoz’s concerns were.

Bustamante and Malaspina departed from Cadiz in 1789. Over the next five years, they traveled from the east coast of South America around Cape Horn to the west coast and up north to Mexico, then detoured to Alaska on orders to search yet again for the mythical Northwest Passage. From Alaska they went back to Mexico, then west to Manila and south to Doubtful Sound on New Zealand’s South Island. In March of 1793, the expedition landed at Port Jackson where they mapped the coast and studied the local flora and fauna.

Malaspina confirmed Muñoz’s impressions in his report to the crown. Port Jackson was indeed a danger to Spain’s overseas possessions because

with the greatest ease a crossing of two or three months through healthy climates, and a secure navigation, could bring to our defenceless coasts two or three thousand castaway bandits to serve interpolated with an excellent body of regular troops. It would not be surprising that in this case — the women also sharing the risks as well as the sensual pleasures of the men — the history of the invasions of the Huns and Alans in the most fertile provinces of Europe would be revived in our surprised colonies. … The pen trembles to record the image, however distant, of such disorders.

All those prostitutes, forgers and pickpockets wouldn’t just band up with the regular troops to make a formidable invasion force, but then they’d settle down and have lots of reproductive sex just like those German barbarian ancestors of the British monarch did.

Despite the trembling of his pen, Malaspina did not advocate a military response to this threat. He believed the worst case scenario could be prevented by opening trade between Chile, the Philippines and Sydney. Why fight lusty convicts when you can do business with them and make it very much in their interest not to interrupt the flow of Chilean beef and Philippine spices? Malaspina had witnessed firsthand how hard-scrabble an existence the colonists eked out. They had little livestock, pulled their own carts and plows, and rarely ate meat. Spanish products would prove addictive, he thought, and instead of spending money trying to squash the colony, the crown would profit handsomely while achieving its ultimate goal of defanging the Australian menace.

From Port Jackson, Malaspina and Bustamante made one last stop — Tonga — before returning to Cadiz in September of 1794. King Charles IV and Manuel de Godoy, the king’s prime minister and puppet master (and probably the queen’s lover), welcomed Malaspina back, promoting him to fleet-brigadier for his efforts. The good vibes didn’t last. In late 1795 Malaspina was caught conspiring to overthrow Godoy and the next year was tried for plotting against the state. Although the trial did not result in a conviction, in April of 1796 Charles IV stripped him of his naval rank and sent him to jail in the fortress of San Antón in La Coruña, Galicia, where he remained imprisoned until 1802.

Bustamante did not share in his colleague’s disgrace. He was promoted to navy brigadier after their return and remained in the crown’s good graces. In 1795, Spain was compelled to declare war on Great Britain by its ally France. Even if Malaspina hadn’t gotten on Godoy’s shitlist, his proposal for a mercantile approach to Australia wasn’t suited to the new circumstances. Instead, in 1796 Bustamante was appointed governor of Paraguay and Commander General of the fleet of Río de la Plata, in charge of the military defense of Spain’s South American colonies, and, as we now know, a pre-emptive military attack on Port Jackson.

The archival documents show that Jose de Bustamante y Guerra, the deputy commander of the Spanish expedition, subsequently proposed an invasion of the colony to King Carlos IV and his ministers. The government sent Bustamante to a new military post at Montevideo in Uruguay and he began to build a small fleet of attack vessels.

“As the military and naval commander, Bustamante was tasked to both defend South America from an anticipated British invasion, and to take the fight to the British in the Pacific,” Mr Maxworthy said.

Although Spain remained a French ally and enemy of Britain until the Battle of Trafalgar turned the tide on October 21st, 1805, neither side ever did get around to invading each others’ colonies. When Godoy switched allegiance to Great Britain after Trafalgar and then back to France after Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1807, it made King Charles IV look like even more of a weakling than everyone (including court painter Francisco de Goya who consistently depicted him as a rotund, confused country squire better suited to hunting than absolute rule) already thought he was.

Charles’ son Ferdinand favored an alliance with Britain and after one attempted coup by the Crown Prince and several riots by his supporters, on March 19th, 1808, King Carlos IV abdicated in favor of his son who became King Ferdinand VII.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Samuel Morse the artist

History Blog - Tue, 2015-01-27 04:17

Before Samuel Morse developed the code that bears his name and patented the electromagnetic telegraph, he was a painter and a successful one at that. His teacher, Washington Allston, known today primarily for his Romantic landscapes, took the 20-year-old Samuel to study painting in England in 1811. In London he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts where instruction was focused on copying the works of the Renaissance Old Masters, drawing casts of ancient sculptures and live figure drawing. Morse’s works from this period were heavily influenced by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael and were often mythological in theme, like 1812′s Dying Hercules.

Morse and Allston spent four years in England as the War of 1812 raged. When Morse returned to the United States in 1815, he made a name for himself as a portrait painter, receiving commissions from wealthy socialites and dignitaries like former President John Adams and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. He hit the road again in 1830, traveling through Italy, Switzerland and France to learn from observing the original works of the Old Masters he had studied copies of in London.

When he was in Paris in September of 1831, Morse conceived a monumental painting of the Salon Carré in the Louvre that would include dozens of the museum’s masterpieces. The works aren’t actually arranged in the one room when he painted them; this was a gallery picture, a fantasy arrangement of art in a single scene. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre is the only major example of a gallery picture in American art history.

He squeezed 38 paintings and two sculptures from the Louvre collection into the six-by-nine-foot canvas, plus additional figures of museum visitors and copyists. Anthony Van Dyck and Titian have the most works on display with four apiece. Other artists represented are Tintoretto, Veronese, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Poussin, Raphael, Rembrandt, Reni, Watteau, Correggio and Caravaggio. Click here (pdf) for a complete key to all the works and people in the painting.

He worked assiduously between September of 1831 and August of 1832 to copy the works he wished to include, some of which were positioned high on the walls. He built a moveable scaffold and lugged it around the vast halls of the Louvre so he could be at eye level with his subjects. Morse painting on his scaffold became something of a tourist draw in its own right. He also had to do a fair amount of math in composing this work. He had to calculate the proper scale and to figure out how they should be arranged on the canvas.

Then he had to put shoutouts to his people among the visitors. The trio in the back left corner are Morse’s good friend James Fenimore Cooper (who he hoped would buy the completed work) and Cooper’s wife and daughter. The woman sketching an art work in the center of the composition is Morse’s daughter, Susan Walker Morse. The man behind her giving her pointers is Morse himself. That sweet scene was symbolic of his purpose in creating this piece: to teach American artists and audiences about the important works of European art. He was also underscoring the value of a great public museum of art to artists and regular people, an institution that the United States lacked.

(Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805 by artist and collector Charles Willson Peale, among others, but its collection at the time was casts of ancient sculptures. Coincidentally, the first major acquisition of the museum was a work by none other than Washington Allston: his monumental 1816 work The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha. They had to mortgage the building to buy it.

The first public art museum in the United States was the Wadsworth Atheneum, founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, a great patrons of the arts, who seeded the new museum with many works from his personal collection.)

When the Louvre closed its doors for its yearly August vacation, Morse rolled up the canvas and packed it until his return to the United States in late 1832. He applied the finishing touches to the painting in late 1833 and exhibited the finished work in New York and New Haven. Morse hoped it would be a sensation, drawing huge crowds to pay the price of admission and securing him a much-desired commission for a painting in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. It was not. The exhibitions lost money, and within a few years Morse had given up painting to focus on the telegraph.

It was purchased for much less than Morse had hoped in 1834 by George Hyde Clarke for his neoclassical mansion Hyde Hall in Ostego County, New York. After Clarke’s death, Gallery of the Louvre was purchased by former mayor of Albany John Townsend. From him it passed to his daughter Julia Townsend Munroe of Syracuse, New York. She loaned it to Syracuse University in 1884 and then donated it to the university in 1892. Ninety years later, Morse’s dream finally came true. Chicago businessman, art collector and founder of the Terra Foundation for American Art museum, Daniel J. Terra, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs, bought Gallery of the Louvre from Syracuse University for $3.25 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for a piece of American art. It’s been at the Terra Foundation ever since.

In 2010 Gallery of the Louvre underwent a six-month conservation by experts in American painting restoration Lance Mayer and Gay Myers. They discovered that Morse was as inventive in his painting as he was in communication technology, sometimes to their chagrin. He mixed varnish and oil paint together instead of painting with oils and then sealing the canvas with varnish. This was problematic for the conservators because varnish discolors. When it’s a layer on top of the paint, it can be removed with appropriate solvents that won’t damage the oil paint beneath. When conservators did a solvent test on Gallery of the Louvre, they found that all of them damaged the combined varnish and paint.

The Terra Foundation documented the conservation with a video, A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre”, which is not available online in its entirety but there are six clips from it below.

The conservation was successful, bringing out details that had become obscured over time. After it was complete, the painting was subject of three symposia — at the Yale University Art Gallery in April of 2011, the National Gallery in April of 2012 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in April of 2013 — which generated scholarly essays on the work by art historians, professors, curators and conservators. Those essays have been published in a book that is a companion piece to a new traveling exhibition of the painting, Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention.

The exhibition opened Saturday at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. It will be there until April before moving on to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (May 23rd, 2015 – September 7th, 2015), the Seattle Art Museum (September 22nd, 2015 – January 10th, 2016), the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (January 2016 – April 2016), the Detroit Institute of Arts (June 2016 – September 2016), the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (October 2016 – January 2017), the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (February 2017 – June 2017), the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut (June 2017 – October 2017), and finally the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in Stanford, California (November 2017 – January 2018).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Were Cervantes’ bones under piles of old books?

History Blog - Mon, 2015-01-26 04:53

Last April, the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid, burial place of Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, one the most important books in the Western literary canon, was scanned with ground-penetrating radar in the first phase of a search for the iconic writer’s body. Cervantes was buried in the convent in 1616, and while the location of the grave was known at the time, when the convent was enlarged in 1673 the burials were left unmarked. Hoping to be able to provide a memorial marker worthy of Spain’s greatest writer and a locus for literary pilgrims to pay their respects, historian Fernando de Prado raised funds from the city of Madrid and private donors to sweep the convent for possible burial sites.

The initial GPR sweeps detected anomalies consistent with graves in three spots in the crypt under the transept of the convent church. Historical records indicate there were at least two other people buried in the same area where Cervantes was interred, making the discovery of three graves particularly noteworthy. In a poetic twist, the space had been rented to a publishing company for years, so before the team could examine it they had to remove piles of old books and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Now a team of archaeologists and forensic anthropologists has broken ground in the crypt. The small crypt has been turned into a lab for the time being, with up to 20 experts working in it at the same time (there are 30 people in the team). They will examine the human skeletal remains for evidence that points to Cervantes.

Because Cervantes has no living descendants, even if DNA is recoverable from the skeletal remains, comparisons will be tricky if not impossible. His sister Luisa de Cervantes was buried in a marked grave in a convent 20 miles out of Madrid so there’s a chance her remains might provide a means for comparative DNA analysis, but there’s no guarantee the convent will allow her bones to be exhumed and even if it does, there’s no guarantee a testable sample of 400-year-old DNA can be extracted.

Researchers will most likely have to rely on physical evidence like the marks of wounds he received while fighting aboard the galley Marquesa during the Battle of Lepanto on October 7th, 1571. He was shot twice in the chest and once in the left arm. The bullet to his arm broke both radius and ulna and severed a nerve. He was a young man of 24 when he was wounded; he never used his left hand again. Should they find a left arm bearing signs of having been shot, broken and atrophied from 45 years of disuse, this will be strong evidence that they’ve found the remains of the author.

Cervantes asked to be buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians because he had a profound connection to them. The convent’s order, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives, was founded in the 12th century to help ransom Christians taken captive during the crusades or by non-Christian pirates. When Cervantes and his younger brother were captured by Algerian pirates in 1575, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity helped his family raise the ransom to free them after five years of slavery in Algiers.

Since the convent was a small, poor one, few people chose to be buried there. Cervantes’ debt of gratitude to the order inspired his choice. Given the small number of burials, what are the odds there will be the remains of a completely different person, also an adult male of around 70 years old at time of death, with the same injuries? Last year the figures bandied about were a dozen to 15 people buried in the convent, but the crypt has about 36 burial niches in the wall. That corresponds to the number of chaplains the convent has had over the centuries before the niches in the north wall were plastered over. The thin layer of plaster, already peeling, will be removed. Any writing on the niche doors identifying who was buried there will be documented and endoscopic cameras will be threaded through holes to examine the remains.

The real hope is in the three grave sites under the terracotta tile floor, but if they prove fruitless, there are four other possible locations about two meters under the floor of the church that the GPR sweep indicated as possible grave sites.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mons Meg leaves Edinburgh Castle for tune-up

History Blog - Sun, 2015-01-25 04:19

Mons Meg, the six-ton 15th century cannon that guards the parapets of Edinburgh Castle, has left her post for the first time in 30 years. Before dawn on Monday, January 19th, a crew of specialists strapped Meg up so she could be gingerly lifted out of her carriage by a crane, loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to an off-site facility where Historic Scotland experts will give her a thorough examination and do necessary conservation work. The oak and iron carriage that has been supporting her since 1934 also went along for the ride.

Here’s a neat timelapse of Mons Meg being lifted off her carriage while dawn breaks:

Richard Welander, Head of Collections for Historic Scotland said: “Mons Meg undergoes regular ‘health checks’ each year and is lifted off its carriage every five years for a closer inspection.

“This time it’s getting a major service, which means it must leave the castle for the first time for 30 years. The last time Mons Meg left was in March 1985, when she went to the Royal Armouries research establishment in Kent for a short technical examination.

“We’ll be using state-of-the-art equipment to examine the cannon and carriage inside and out, to assess their condition. Then we’ll commence with treatment and restoration, which is a delicate and specialist task.”

There have been a great many technological advances since the last time Mons Meg got the full treatment. Historic Scotland conservators will laser-scan the cannon and create a 3D model to reveal issues not visible to the naked eye. The current paint will be stripped using a pressure wash system and bead blasting. That will expose the iron surface for proper conservation. Once Meg is cleaned and dried, she will be re-coated in protective paint.

Historic Scotland is hoping their conservation analysis will also shed some light on the history of the cannon. Much legend has grown up around her over the centuries, so this is an exciting opportunity to fill in a few blanks. Mons Meg was made in 1449 for Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to present as a gift to King James II of Scotland, Phillip’s grand-nephew by marriage. (James’ queen consort was Mary of Guelders, daughter of Catherine of Cleves, whose mother Marie of Burgundy was Phillip’s elder sister.) It was constructed by Phillip’s artillery master Jehan Cambier in Mons, County of Hainaut (modern-day Belgium), out of iron staves clamped together by iron hoops. Its massive 20-inch barrel, still one of the largest cannon calibre in the world, could fire 330-pound balls up to two miles.

James II took delivery of Mons Meg, known at the time just by variants of “Mons,” in 1454. Sixteen years later, he had the giant cannon transported 50 miles south to aid in the siege of Roxburgh Castle, one of the last remaining English strongholds in Scotland. The Scottish forces were successful — they ultimately took the castle once and for all — but James was killed in action when one of his own bombards (not Meg) exploded. His wife Mary ordered Roxburgh Castle razed.

The records of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland note an expenditure of 18 shillings on July 10th, 1489, to have “Monss” carried by command of King James IV, James II’s grandson, to besiege Dumbarton. There James IV deployed Meg’s might against an insurrection led by Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, and Robert Lyle, Lord Lyle. That venture was less successful. The siege was broken by a negotiated surrender of the rebellious lords on condition that a new Parliament be convened.

James used Mons Meg again in 1497 at the siege of Norham Castle in northern England. Meg did her part — the castle took a lot of damage — but the two-week siege ended when English reinforcements arrived.

Meg was kept in fighting condition for a few more decades. Her last military service was in James V’s navy, after which, from the 1540s or so, she was retired from active engagement but was fired on important ceremonial occasions like the signing of the treaty of marriage between five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, and three-year-old Francis, Dauphin of France, in July 1558. She was fired for the last time on October 14th, 1681. Here’s a description of the event from the Domestic Annals of Scotland (1859) by Robert Chambers. The quote within the quote is from Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs (1848) by Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall.

The Duke of York paying a visit to the Castle of Edinburgh, the huge cannon called Mons Meg was fired in his honour. The charge, which was done by an English cannoneer, had probably been too large, for it caused the piece to burst. This “some foolishly called a bad omen. The Scots resented it extremely, thinking the Englishman might of malice have done it purposely, they having no cannon in all England so big as she.”

I am trying really hard not to snicker at the obvious phallic competition inherent in this struggle. Trying and failing.

With the burst hoop exposing her internal staves, Mons Meg could never be fired again. She still starred in several tugs of war between England and Scotland, though. In the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, in 1754 Mons Meg, now rusted, busted and sitting on the ground without even the dignity of a carriage, was confiscated along with other weapons to keep them out of reach of potential rebels. She was moved to the Tower of London, but she didn’t go quietly. The Tower records list a demand for compensation from the owner of the ship that brought her to London for damage to the vessel and mooring rope.

In 1829, George IV had Mons Meg returned to Edinburgh as a result of a campaign by Sir Walter Scott and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Scott believed fervently in a legendary Galloway origin story for Mons Meg.

When James the Second arrived with an army at Carlingwark, to besiege the Castle of Threave, the McLellans presented him with the piece of ordnance now called ‘Mons Meg.’ The first discharge of this great gun is said to have consisted of a peck of powder and a granite ball nearly as heavy as a Galloway cow. This ball is believed, in its course through the Castle of Threave, to have carried away the hand of Margaret de Douglas, commonly called the Fair Maid of Galloway, as she sat at table with her lord, and was in the act of raising the wine-cup to her lips. Old people still maintain that the vengeance of God was thereby evidently manifested, in destroying the hand which had been given in wedlock to two brothers, and that even while the lawful spouse of the first was alive.

Even without having amputated Margaret de Douglas’ hand, Mons Meg was and is still beloved. She was escorted back to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 by three cavalry troops and a regiment of foot, and remains today a great favorite with visitors to Edinburgh Castle.

The conservation is expected to be complete and Mons Meg back in place outside St. Margaret’s Chapel by the end of February.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tut’s beard glued back on like a bad craft project

History Blog - Sat, 2015-01-24 07:59

The AP reported on Thursday that the false beard on the gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun, probably the single most recognizable ancient artifact in the world, had come off and was reattached with a sloppy mess of irreversible epoxy glue. Cited in the article are three conservators at the Cairo Museum, all unnamed due to fear of reprisals, who had different stories about what happened to the beard — it was either knocked off when the mask was mishandled during cleaning of the display case or deliberately taken off because it was loose — but agreed that it was reattached hastily with epoxy.

By their accounts, museum officials ordered the beard reattached as quickly as possible because obviously it’s a massive tourist draw and they didn’t want it taken off display for any length of time. Epoxy dries almost instantly while a cautious conservation approach would use an adhesive that dries slowly over the course of at least 24 hours so adjustments could be made if necessary. It would also be reversible to allow future conservators to remove it if necessary without damage to the artifact.

“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said.

“The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added.

The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”

There are also visible scratches. A conservator says he witnessed a colleague scrape dried epoxy from the mask with a spatula leaving scratches on the gold. Steel yourself for the picture.

The AP secured a photograph from a tourist named Jacqueline Rodriguez who was at the museum on August 12th, 2014, and took a picture of a museum worker holding the beard in place waiting for the glue to set.

The director of the Egyptian Museum Mahmoud Halwagy denied that there had been an accident damaging the mask, but it was a very weak, CYA denial that “no damage had occurred to the mask since he took over leadership of the museum last October.” He did admit that the thick, gross layer of epoxy is “very visible” (making sure to note that it could have been applied before his arrival) and that he has a committee of experts working on a report.

Qatari news site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has a different take on the disaster that it published on the same day as the AP’s story. I suspect they were the first to break the news because they have boots on the ground, so to speak. (Before the AP, that is. There were rumblings in the Egyptian press as early as November that conservators had sent a memo to the Antiquities Minister demanding “immediate investigations regarding the odd appearance of the mask after the restoration work it encountered in August.”) They sent reporters to the museum on a tip about the botched repair. Al-Araby reporters found the lighting in the room unusually dim but they were able to detect despite the penumbra that there was a thick line of glue visible and scratches on the left side of the mask. Their sources told them that the mask was damaged during cleaning in October, not August, and that the beard was reattached in the conservation lab, not in front of visitors.

Here’s the worst part:

“After the expert restorer Abd al-Latif glued on the false beard it was obvious that it no longer appeared the same. The adhesive had spread to the sides of the mask and it was clear that there was further damage,” the witness said.

“A couple of weeks later the adhesive on the mask was noticed and a number of curators complained about what had been done.

“So the head of the conservation department removed the glass display case, with the approval of the museum director, and removed the epoxy resin from the sides by using a metal scalpel. This is what scratched the mask.”

The source says that after this, the museum director Mahmoud al-Halwagi ordered the lights in the mask room to be dimmed.

Halwagy denied to Al-Araby that the mask was ever damaged. He blames disgruntled employees angry over a department shakeup for making up stories. When Al-Araby pointed out they have a picture of the beard looking like it was glued on by kindergarteners, Egyptian antiquities department head Yusuf Khalifa said that could have been a picture of a replica, a deception perpetrated by biased sources.

Not surprisingly, the story exploded on social media. Most of the reactions are outrage at the shoddy work, but Al-Araby is seen by some as having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, so neither its story nor the AP’s are considered reliable by pro-government Egyptians on Twitter and Facebook. Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, went to see the mask in person and is mad as hell. Her Twitter account is very much worth following to keep abreast of the developments.

Hanna told the AFP that Egypt’s Heritage Task Force is going to file a complaint with the public prosecutor. There’s a law in Egypt against destruction, damage, defacement or alteration of antiquities. Anyone convicted of taking part in such activities will be sentenced to five to seven years in jail and fined between 3,000 ($400) and 50,000 ($6,700) Egyptian pounds.

So that’s where things stand as of now. The Antiquities Minister is apparently planning an urgent press conference to address the situation, although I’d be stunned if any actual information, as opposed to denials and justifications, came from it.

Finally, after reading/viewing a metric ton of news about this debacle, I am compelled to dedicate special opprobrium to CNN for this absurdity of a report. The laughter, fixed smiles, the omg-aren’t-word-stumbles-hilarious digression and the ridiculous and offensive comparison of a cultural patrimony calamity to a viral joke make me want to outspit a llama.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman Silenus bed fitting found in Denmark

History Blog - Fri, 2015-01-23 03:03

A metal detectorist has discovered a bronze figure of Silenus on the island of Falster in southeastern Denmark. When she first unearthed the bust of a togate, bearded figure, the metal detectorist thought it was a modern piece because it was so finely crafted and in such good condition. It wasn’t until she showed it to experts at the National Museum of Denmark that it was properly identified as a Roman bronze from the 1st century A.D.

The figure is small at just 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) high and depicts Silenus, the tutor and boon companion of Bacchus. Silenus is portrayed as an old man, bald and bearded, with thick lips and a squashed nose. He is the wisest of the god’s followers and, appropriately, also the drunkest, so drunk that he is usually shown riding a mule or being supported by satyrs.

The Romans often used Bacchic themes in their dining room decoration and this Silenus was originally part of a lectus, the couch or bed on which diners reclined. Lecti had s-shaped headrest supports called fulcra (plural for fulcrum) on both sides. Usually made of bronze, fulcra were richly decorated, inlaid with precious metals and/or ivory. Each end of the fulcrum culminated in a sculpted figure. Satyrs and sileni were popular for one end, while the other end was often topped with the head of a donkey or mule, a reference to Silenus’ preferred form of transportation. The British Museum has a beautiful pair of intact fulcra with satyrs and mules on the ends. You can see how the Falster Silenus’ turned position matches the satyrs’.

Originating in Greece, the lectus reached its peak of popularity in the early Roman Empire. No wealthy person’s triclinium (dining room) was complete without three lecti arranged in a U shape at right angles to each other. In fact, the “tri” in triclinium is a reference to the three lecti. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a complete set of bronze lectus fittings from the late Republic, early Empire that they have put together with modern wood elements so you can see the architecture of the frame. In its day, it would have been topped with a mattress and sumptuous textiles and cushions.

These furnishings were expensive, highly prized pieces, so much so that they would sometimes be buried with their owners. That’s unlikely to have been the case with the Falster Silenus. It probably was separated from its bed long before it wound its way into the soil of Denmark. The Roman furniture fittings that have been discovered in Denmark thus far appear to have been individual objects rather than part of a larger piece, brought to the area as art works or war booty.

The number of Roman finds in the Danish islands south of Zealand may indicate an active trade network moving goods from southern Europe to Denmark, and there is some documentary support for contact during the early empire. In a passage from the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, an autobiographical summary written by Augustus during his lifetime for use on funerary inscriptions after his death, he dispatched ships to the peninsula of Jutland and established friendly relations with the locals.

My fleet sailed from the mouth of the Rhine eastward as far as the lands of the Cimbri to which, up to that time, no Roman had ever penetrated either by land or by sea, and the Cimbri and Charydes and Semnones and other peoples of the Germans of that same region through their envoys sought my friendship and that of the Roman people.

Fulcrum fittings weren’t a big part of that friendship, though. This is the first one that has ever been found in Denmark.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Letters read on carbonized Herculaneum scrolls

History Blog - Thu, 2015-01-22 05:50

When the wealthy town of Herculaneum was buried in pyroclastic flows from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., organic materials like wood, food and large quantities of poop were instantly carbonized by the superheated gases and ash, sucking all the water out of them and preventing their decay. Subsequent pyroclastic flows buried the city in 60 feet of hard volcanic rock that preserved the city and its contents for 2,000 years.

Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre and Charles, the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies, funded the first excavation of the site. In 1752, excavators unearthed the first carbonized papyri in a large villa that may have been owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, father of Julius Caesar’s last wife Calpurnia of prophetic dream fame. Two years later, the excavation discovered a whole library with 1,800 scrolls tidily arranged on wall shelves. This is the only surviving complete ancient library in the world. The house was named the Villa of the Papyri after this unique discovery.

The few scrolls that could be opened were and found to be philosophical texts on Epicureanism, but the opening process damaged the scrolls, often destroying them. Researches have been trying ever since to find a way into the carbonized papyri that doesn’t obliterate an irreplaceable ancient artifact. The development of imaging technology like X-ray and CT scanning holds tantalizing promise for a non-invasive exploration of the texts, but there have been problems making it work.

From 2007 through 2012, the Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration (EDUCE) program at the University of Kentucky attempted to read some Herculaneum scrolls in the collection of the Institut de France using a micro-CT scanner custom built for reading papyrus as opposed to human innards. They had some success at creating virtual models of the scrolls, revealing how dense and wavy the layers were and unwrapping them to their full length using image algorithms, but the lettering was a tough nut to crack because the carbonization made it all but impossible for the scanner to differentiate between the carbon-based ink and the papyrus.

Here’s a video of the EDUCE team scanning a Herculaneum scroll in 2010. You can see the results at the end and the one letter they point to is just a slightly darkish blur unreadable.

Now a new study published in Nature Communications reports that a similar imaging technique, X-ray phase-contrast tomography, has been able to pick out letters from the scrolls. The research team, led by Vito Mocella of the Italian National Research Council, took a fragment from an unwrapped scroll and one intact scroll from the Institut de France to Grenoble where the European Synchrotron particle collider lives. The high-energy beams from the synchrotron reflect back from the ever-so-slightly raised letters (carbon-based ink doesn’t soak into papyrus; it sits on top of it) at a different phase than they do from the papyrus. researchers measured the phase difference and were able to recreate the letters.

This video gives a quick glimpse into the scanning process, but you can’t really discern the letter here either because the actual identification is done after the scan.

Mocella and his team show that they were able to make out two previously unreadable sequences of capital letters from a hidden layer of the unrolled scroll fragment. The team interprets them as Greek words: ΠΙΠΤΟΙΕ, meaning “would fall”, and ΕΙΠΟΙ, meaning “would say”. Even more exciting for scholars, the team was able to pick out writing on the still-rolled scroll, eventually finding all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet at various points on the tightly bundled document.

Even though the current scans are mostly a proof of concept, the work suggests that there will soon be a way to read the full works on the rolled scrolls, the team says. “We plan to improve the technique,” says Mocella. “Next spring we have an allowance to spend more time at the Grenoble synchrotron, where we can test a number of approaches and try to discern the exact chemical composition of the ink. That will help us improve the energy setting of the beam for our scan.”

They’ll also collaborate with University of Kentucky computer scientist Dr. Brent Seales who spearheaded the EDUCE project. His work in mapping out the physical structure of the scrolls will be invaluable in helping place the letters in their proper order so the texts can actually be read rather than individual letters identified.

This is an important breakthrough for exploring other kinds of historical texts as well, like medieval palimpsests that have inaccessible writing in the binding or between glued pages, but if it does prove effective in reading Herculaneum’s carbonized scrolls, it could strike a motherlode of ancient sources. The scrolls that have been read so far all came from one room and they’re all in Greek. Archaeologists believe there may be a second library of Latin scrolls. If that’s true and more scrolls are found, a non-invasive means to read them could rediscover any number of lost ancient books. A virtual reality model of the Villa of the Papyri created at the UCLA’s Experiential Technologies Center conveys how large the structure is and how much is left to excavate.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Drone Indiana Jones maps ruins of Italian town

History Blog - Wed, 2015-01-21 03:21

It’s the first month of the new year and we already have a fine addition to my collection of Pompeii metaphors used to describe archaeological sites that are nothing at all like Pompeii. This time it’s the town of Cerreto Sannita in the southern Italian region of Campania being made to wear the Pompeii colors. The connection is that both cities were struck by a horrific cataclysm, but the comparisons pretty much end there. The town was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in the 17th century and a new Cerreto Sannita was built next to the ruins (to distinguish it from the new town, the site of the medieval ruins is called Cerreto antica). Little of the old city is visible today. Whatever is left is underground.

To ferret out the remnants of Cerreto antica, archaeologists have deployed a drone named Indiana Jones. With its onboard laser and videocamera, Indiana Jones is surveying the site above and below ground. Indiana’s lidar data will be the jumping off point for a hands-on archaeological excavation. The site will then be secured and any structures exposed will be stabilized. Artifacts recovered during the dig will be catalogued, and finally, the drone and dig information will be used to create a 3D model of the complete site. The “Medieval Cerreto” model won’t be just a virtual recreation, but a starting point for exploring the terrain, history and traditions of the town.

The Cerreto project is part of an initiative funded by Ministry of Education, Universities and Research that seeks to addresses issues of structural security while developing methods to integrate the protection, oversight and sustainable redevelopment of historical sites. The aim is to bring added safety and value to sites of cultural interest in seismically active areas, and boy is this area seismically active.

The towns, like Cerreto Sannita, in the environs of Benevento have a long, storied past of earthquake-induced upheaval. In fact, Cerreto itself once prospered mightily from an earthquake that drove residents out of the nearby town of Telesia. For centuries a regional administrative center under Lombard and Norman authorities, Telesia was seat of a bishopric from the 4th century A.D. until a massive series of earthquakes struck the central Apennine regions for an incredible seven months, from January until September of 1349. Sinkholes and landslides filled up with stagnant water, soil became swampy and volcanic fissures that emanated carbon dioxide and sulfur fumes made the air close to unbreathable. Telesia was abandoned and much of the population moved to Cerreto.

This gave the town a major economic, political and demographic boost. In 1593, Bishop Cesare Bellocchi instituted the diocesan seminary in Cerreto Sannita. After his death two years later, the new bishop, Eugenio Savino, moved into a palace in Cerreto donated by a local nobleman and made it the new official seat of the diocese which was renamed the Diocese of Telese or Cerreto Sannita. The town was now an important religious center, replete with churches, monasteries and convents.

Karma struck on June 5th, 1688. Cerreto Sannita was the epicenter of an earthquake estimated by seismologists to have been more than 7.0 on the Richter Scale. More than 4,000 people, half the population of the town, died and the entire town was razed to the ground. Six days later, Bishop Giovanni Battista de Bellis wrote to the head of the Congregation for Bishops reporting on the disaster.

“I am forced, crying, to advise you of the horrific spectacle of desolation in this my diocese, for the earthquake that struck at five the night before Pentecost while I was left weeping for my misery and that of my people. … Telese from ancient times was abandoned and my predecessor bishops moved to Cerreto, already populous, and there built a church, extremely beautiful, and to this church they transferred the services of the Cathedral where 15 Canons officiated. In this land of Cerreto there was the Church of San Martino, parochial and collegial, with 11 Canons and the Archpriest. There was a monastery of Conventual friars, a distinguished place of study, a monastery of Capuchin friars, a convent of the Nuns of the Order of Saint Clair where there were 65 nuns and converts.

Now this land with the churches, monasteries and everything, in the time it takes to recite a Credo, collapsed all, all, all, without there remaining standing even one house to take refuge in, something that anyone who did not see it would scarce believe it.”

The response was sympathetic but laconic. The Bishop went over the Curia’s head and appealed straight to Pope Innocent XI, explaining how the entire town had been leveled, that only three small dwellings belonging to a potter had survived the quake at all, and their walls were either crumbling or about to collapse, listing the numbers of dead in every convent, monastery and church, and asking that Rome help with emergency funds. He received no response. Only with the election of Pope Alexander VIII, a man known for his magnanimity, in 1689 did the diocese receive financial support for the reconstruction of the cathedral.

Unlike Telesia, Cerreto was not abandoned. It was rebuilt from scratch. Count Marzio Carafa stopped residents who were already beginning to rebuild their homes using the rubble and instead turned to royal engineer Giovanni Battista Manni to plan a town with particular attention to seismic stability. Also aided by his bother Marino and Bishop de Bellis, Marzio Carafa moved the city center downvalley onto a broad, low hill that was significantly more stable than the land the old town had been built on. It was all private property which the Count claimed through a sort of medieval version of eminent domain.

He also took out a loan of 3,000 ducats to build one and two-room houses that he sold to residents for manageable sums of 50 to 184 ducats. Since they had lost everything, the Count authorized his debt collector to extend loans for the purchase of the houses with interest-free repayments for three years and 6% interest the fourth. Eight years after the earthquake, the new town was complete and every resident owned his own new home with seismic design features like split support windows.

Inspired by Roman urbs, the new Cerreto Sannita had two major streets (decumani) parallel to each other with one-way traffic in opposite directions running down the length of the town and a number of small streets (cardini) connecting the two arteries. There were no defensive walls, no cramped and crooked alleys. It remains to this day one of the only surviving examples of a pure planned city from the late 17th century.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Better. Stronger. Faster.

History Blog - Tue, 2015-01-20 10:00

As previously threatened, I am officially marking The History Blog’s passing the six million pageviews milestone with a Steve Austin reference. That’s really the only reason I’m even announcing this particular milestone. One million I announced because it’s a big deal; five million because we got there a lot faster than I expected. The six million figure only means anything to me because to this day I remain inordinately fond of the Six Million Dollar Man, especially the intro. Also, that Lee Majors wore the hell out of suits both track and leisure.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History