Arts and Sciences

The Morgan wants you to see Rembrandt’s etchings

History Blog - Sat, 2014-05-24 23:56

The Morgan Library and Museum has an impressive collection of 489 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, the largest and finest in the United States. Pierpont Morgan himself started collecting Rembrandt’s etchings in 1900 when he bought the entire library of millionaire rare book and print collector Theodore Irwin which included 272 Rembrandt etchings. He added 112 more prints in 1906 when he acquired them from the legendary art collection of the late railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, sold by his son George of Biltmore fame.

A hundred and fourteen years after Pierpont bought the Irwin collection, the Morgan owns prints of almost all of the 300 known etchings by the Dutch master in multiple impressions thereof, including very rare ones. Some prints have been published in exhibition catalogs, but other than that, to view these innovative and influential works you had to go the Morgan in New York City where a few selections were on display. As of May 22nd, however, the entire Morgan collection of Rembrandt prints has been digitized and uploaded to the museum’s website.

Rembrandt began experimenting with etching in 1626 when he was a youth of 20 in Leiden. Other painters like Peter Paul Rubens made prints of his work, but he hired printmakers to do all the etching. Rembrandt did all the work himself, seeing it not as a means to mass-produce and publicize his pricier pieces, but as an exciting artistic medium in its own right with its own strengths. They were made by scratching lines on a resin-coated copper plate using a fine needle or the thicker drypoint needle and then dipping the plate in acid. The acid would “bite” the plate wherever the resin had been scratched away, leaving an impression. His early etchings had a relatively straight-forward drawing style. Over time he developed a more painterly style as he used dense thickets of lines and overlays of ink wiped off only in highlighted areas to create dramatic chiaroscuro.

His subjects ranged from self-portraits, often studies of posture and expression rather than formal representations, portraits of family (his mother, his first wife Saskia) and patrons, Biblical scenes, landscapes of the Dutch countryside and even some erotica which has no equivalent in his painted works. He also depicted people at the fringes of society, beggars, peasants, the elderly, the ill, sometimes mixing them up with images of himself in remarkable studies that look like sketches on a piece of paper rather than the work of painstaking engraving on a plate.

Rembrandt’s prints became hugely popular all over Europe, commanding impressive sums. An etching of Christ Preaching, a masterpiece of complex composition drawing from several different Biblical passages, is now known as the Hundred Guilder Print because an elderly patron paid him that much for an impression of it. His biographer Arnold Houbraken wrote that the demand for Rembrandt’s prints was so great people sought out impressions of different states with slight differences for the cachet of having the version of, for example, Woman Sitting Half Dressed Beside a Stove both with and without the stove key.

The largest number of Rembrandt prints that have ever been on display at once was at a British Museum exhibition in 2001 which featured about 100 of his etchings. Now you can enjoy almost three times that many in high resolution from the comfort of your computer. I recommend clicking on All Images and browsing through the whole collection. Click on zoom or on download to examine the details.

Speaking of which, I feel compelled to show love to the obscure but exceptionally innovative Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers. Rembrandt was a big fan of Segers’ work, collecting his paintings and prints, and even remaking one of the latter, acquiring the copper plate of Tobias and the Angel and remaking it into The Flight into Egypt. The Morgan has two impressions of The Flight (this one and this one) and it’s fascinating to the alterations close-up.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Court rules Richard III to be buried in Leicester

History Blog - Fri, 2014-05-23 23:24

After more than a year of legal wrangling, a High Court has ruled that the remains of King Richard III will be reburied in Leicester Cathedral as originally planned. The claimant in this case is The Plantagenet Alliance, an organization created by Stephen Nicolay, 16th great-nephew of Richard III, specifically to contest the burial plans. He and 14 other people descended from Richard’s siblings (the king himself has no direct descendants) wanted Richard’s remains to be interred in York Minster because they believed that to have been wish in life, so they contested the exhumation license granted by the Ministry of Justice to the University of Leicester Archaeological Service (ULAS).

On August 24th, 2012, the first day of excavations under the Leicester Council parking lot that researchers believed was the site of the Greyfriars church, archaeologists uncovered human bone. They stopped digging immediately in accordance with the Burials Act of 1857 and on August 31st team leader Richard Buckley applied for an exhumation license. The application proposed to exhume “up to six sets of human remains for scientific examination” with any excavated remains to be kept in the Jewry Wall Museum with the exception that “in the unlikely event that the remains of Richard III are located the intention is for these to be reinterred at St Martin’s Cathedral, Leicester.”

The license for “the removal of the remains of persons unknown” from the Greyfriars site was granted on September 3rd, 2012. Once they had the license, the ULAS team excavated the bones fully and found two skeletons, one of which had the tell-tale curved spine and sharp force injuries of Richard III. Then came the DNA analysis and other tests that confirmed they had indeed discovered the remains of the last Plantagenet king of England. The announcement of the discovery was made on February 4th, 2013, an unforgettable day here on the blog.

On May 3rd, 2013, The Plantagenet Alliance filed for a judicial review of the exhumation license. Their legal argument was that the Ministry of Justice should have consulted more widely with other interested parties (ie, the descendants) and the public once they realized that the “persons unknown” cited in the license included a king of England. The Secretary of State would seek the consent of relatives of an identified exhumed person in other circumstances, so they should have in this case as well.

The High Court ultimately disagreed. They ruled the MoJ had no duty to consult, that there is no established practice that would require the Justice Secretary to consult with collateral relatives of someone who died 500 years ago. The uniqueness of the circumstances — the excavation of a king of England — is no basis for expanding the law since there could be all kinds of exceptional circumstances that don’t involve kings. The people and institutions who needed to be considered were.

This case undoubtedly has unique and exceptional features which arguably call for special consideration. It is why the claim has reached this Court. The archaeological discovery of the mortal remains of a King of England after 500 years may fairly be described as “unprecedented”. The discovery touches on Sovereign, State and the Church. To the extent that these unique features call for special consideration, it may well be that the decision-maker is required by law to ascertain at least the views of Sovereign, State and the Church. In our view, however, at all material times in this case the Secretary of State was sufficiently aware of the views of Sovereign, State and the Church to be able to make an informed decision.

You can read the entire decision here (pdf), and it’s very much worth it. The court lays out the whole history, from Richard’s life and death at the Battle of Bosworth to how the excavation came together to the discovery, the reburial politics from Council to Parliament and of course the legal challenge. Fun fact: Philippa Langley was talking to the Ministry of Justice about what to do in case Richard’s remains were found starting in January of 2011, believe it or not. She even touched base with the Private Secretary of Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, grandson of King George V, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II and patron of the Richard III Society to see where the Royal Household stood on the question. They supported the excavation in a distant sort of way, with the only locus of concern being that the remains were handled with respect.

The Plantagenet Alliance has not commented on the decision yet but they do have a three week window in which to lodge an appeal. Richard Buckley and the University of Leicester spokesperson are delighted, as is the Dean of Leicester who said at a press conference that they’re aiming for a burial ceremony in spring of 2015.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Continental Currency coin sold for $1,410,000

History Blog - Thu, 2014-05-22 23:20

When it was minted in 1776, the Continental Currency coin didn’t have a denomination. There were silver, brass and pewter versions and numismatists still aren’t sure how they were used because there is no value notation on the coins themselves and no historical records authorizing the coins have survived. There are about 60 of these coins extant, most of them pewter. Only four of the silver Continental Currency coins are known and one of them has just sold at auction for $1,410,000. An impressive result for a coin whose original value is unknown.

On February 10th, 1776, the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the first national currency, paper notes in denominations from 1/6th of a dollar to 80 dollars. The name came from the Spanish dollars, whose reliable silver weight and purity had made them a global currency since they were first minted in 1497, used to back the notes. The design of the Continentals, as the notes became known, was the work of Benjamin Franklin, a long-time advocate for paper money who as early as 1736 had printed paper currency for New Jersey. The obverse of the Continental fractional dollars has the Latin “FUGIO” (I fly) written over a sundial and the charmingly Old Richard-esque legend “MIND YOUR BUSINESS” written underneath it. (It’s not really sure what he meant by that legend, but it probably wasn’t “mind your own business” in the way we think of it today. It’s more likely to have been a literal meaning of business as in see to your money-making. It could have been a rebus with the sundial and FUGIO legend, meaning something like time flies so take care of your business.) The reverse has 13 linked rings, each labeled with the name of one of the colonies, surrounding a sun containing the legends “AMERICAN CONGRESS” and “WE ARE ONE.”

The borders and devices for the Continentals were the work of engraver and artist Elisha Gallaudet who had engraved New York State notes in 1771 and New York City notes, the first currency issued by an American city, in 1774. Elisha Gallaudet also engraved the dies of the Continental Currency coin that just sold. He left his mark — EG FECIT (EG made it) — on the silver coin making it one of very few coins from the colonial period to bear its maker’s signature. Experts believe that the Continental Congress intended the coins to replace the one dollar paper note.

The four resolutions from May 10, 1775 to May 9, 1776 provided for the issue of paper money in various denominations, including the one dollar bill. The six resolutions of July 22, 1776 through September 26, 1778 omitted the one dollar denomination. Thus, it is logical to conclude the pewter pieces were intended as a substitute for the paper dollars in those issues. The coins had minimal intrinsic value, and like the paper bills they replaced, were valued according to the public’s confidence in Congress, who guaranteed their value at one dollar each.

The mintage figures are unknown, but the pewter coins appear with enough frequency to suggest they were produced in substantial numbers. Many of the coins were undoubtedly melted during this period, because Benjamin Franklin observed that pewter was sorely needed for the canteens used by soldiers in the Continental Army. The most reasonable explanation for the brass examples is that they represent dies trials. The silver coins are of full weight and value, suggesting that a precious-metal coinage was contemplated, but the Continental Congress was chronically short of funds and had no reliable supply of silver, so this idea must have been abandoned quickly.

Instead they stuck with the paper notes which were cheap to produce but depreciated at an alarming rate. There were too many of them in circulation, and the British took advantage of their weakness to distribute huge amounts of counterfeit notes, devaluing them even further. Within three years of the first issue Continentals had dropped to 1/5th of their face value. A year later they had plummeted to 1/40th of their face value. A year after that they were no longer being used as currency at all. It wasn’t until the Constitution was ratified that Continentals finally scraped up a little bit of worth: 1% of face value to be exchanged for treasury bonds.

Franklin’s fabulous design got another bite at the currency apple in 1787 when it graced the first official penny of the United States of America, today known as the Fugio Cent after the Latin “I fly” legend.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lewes skeleton dates to Norman Conquest

History Blog - Wed, 2014-05-21 23:06

Skeletal remains previously thought to date to the 13th century have been re-examined and found to date to the time of the Norman Conquest. The radiocarbon dating results and the evidence of his violent death makes this skeleton the only one ever documented that could have been killed in William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

Skeleton 180 was unearthed in 1994 at the site of the cemetery of the medieval hospital of St. Nicholas. It was one of 103 skeletons excavated at the site, only a few which showed signs of a violent death. Those were of particular interest to archaeologists because the hospital was adjacent to the field where the Battle of Lewes was fought on May 14th, 1264. The Battle of Lewes saw the defeat of King Henry III by the baronial faction led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Henry was forced to cede his power to a council led by Montfort, making Montfort de facto king of England for a year (he would be killed in battle with Prince Edward, the future King Edward I, in August 1265), a momentous year for parliamentary democracy since Monfort called the first parliament with elected representatives.

Last year, with the 750th anniversary of the battle coming, the Sussex Archaeological Society commissioned University of York battlefield expert Tim Sutherland and osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst to take a fresh look at the most notable of the St. Nicholas skeletons: skeleton 180. There have been significant advances in battlefield and forensic archaeology since 1994. The society’s hope was that new analysis would determine whether 180′s wounds were received in battle rather than as a result of, say, violent crime or a personal dispute.

As part of the re-examination, the University of Edinburgh radiocarbon dated the skeleton and found to everyone’s surprise that it dated to 1063 with a 28-year margin of error. If skeleton 180 did die in battle, therefore, it wasn’t the Battle of Lewes. The fatal blows are on the back of his skull, six sword injuries inflicted from behind.

Osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst from the University of York, who was commissioned by Sussex Archaeological Society to examine the skeleton, said: “The first injury was probably a cut to the right side of the ear and upper jaw. This was then followed by a series of sword cuts, all delivered from the left hand side behind the victim, in a downward and horizontal motion.”

However she has discovered much more which helps build up a picture of the individual. Malin said: “He ate a diet particularly rich in marine fish, and was at least 45 years old but may have been older. He had some spinal abnormalities and suffered from chronic infection of the sinuses. He showed age-related wear and tear of the joints of his spine, shoulders and left wrist, which might have been uncomfortable. He had lost a few teeth during life, possibly as a result of receding gums. He had two small tumours on his skull.”

His final injury wasn’t the first time he sustained a dangerous head wound. A wound to his left temple incurred up to two years before his death caused a blot clot. It was thoroughly healed by the time he died, however.

There’s still no confirmation that skeleton 180 was killed in battle. He could have been attacked by brigands who slashed at his head until he fell. Further research is necessary and it may not ever be possible to determine whether he was a victim of civilian violence or a battlefield fatality. At the very least it’s a window into the violent period the followed the Norman Conquest.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First Wolverine artwork sells for $657,250

History Blog - Tue, 2014-05-20 23:06

The original artwork of Wolverine’s first appearance in comics sold at auction Friday for a record $657,250. It ties the record for the most expensive comic book art in general — Todd McFarlane’s original 1990 cover art for The Amazing Spider-Man #328 sold in 2012 for $657,250 — and sets a new record for original artwork from the interior of a comic, beating out an iconic image of Batman and Robin drawn by Frank Miller for 1986′s The Dark Knight Returns which sold in 2011 for $448,125.

“We knew when this artwork surfaced that is was, without doubt, one of the most significant pieces of original comic art ever drawn,” said Todd Hignite, Vice President of Heritage Auctions. “It has now brought a final price realized commensurate with that status.”

Penciled by Herb Trimpe and inked by Jack Abel, the drawing introduced the mutant Wolverine in the last panel of the last page of The Incredible Hulk #180 in October of 1974, making this year the 40th anniversary of Wolverine’s first appearance. The story written by Len Wein puts Hulk in the wilds of Canada where he hopes to enjoy a little r&r, only to find himself tangling with the Wendigo. The Canadian government, concerned about the very large green man with anger management issues, sends in a secret weapon to handle him: Weapon X, aka, Wolverine. “If you really want to tangle with someone,” the mutant helpfully suggests, “why not try your luck against – the WOLVERINE!”

Wolverine shared his first cover with Hulk on the next issue (#181) and the two continued their minuet with the Wendigo through issue #182. Wolverine then moved on to the company that would make him famous, appearing in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in May of 1975. He didn’t get his first solo title until 1982.

A year later, Trimpe gave the artwork from that last page of The Incredible Hulk #180 to a young fan who quietly kept it all these years. He wasn’t involved in the collector community, so nobody knew that the work had survived until a few months ago when Heritage Auctions announced that it not only existed, but was going up for auction. The seller, who has chosen to remain anonymous, planned to give the bulk of the after-tax profits to charity, including the Hero Initiative which raises funds to support comic book artists and writers in need.

The buyer is collector and sports card dealer Thomas Fish. According to Heritage Auctions’ website, he’s been amenable to purchase offers on freshly acquired works in the past, so it’s likely an investment piece intended for resale.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman marching camp found in Thuringia

History Blog - Mon, 2014-05-19 23:12

A Roman marching camp from the 1st to 3rd century A.D. has been discovered near the town of Hachelbich in Thuringia. It’s the first Roman military camp found in the eastern German province and the first camp that is more than a day’s travel from the eastern border of the empire on the Rhine. In fact, it’s closer to the Elbe River than it is to the Rhine (the Elbe is about 150 miles east of the site, the Rhine 220 west), a strong indication that the Roman military did not completely withdraw to the Rhine even after three legions led by Publius Quintilius Varus were slaughtered by Germanic tribesmen at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D.

The discovery of a large third century battlefield on Harzhorn hill in Lower Saxony in 2008 confirmed that there was a significant Roman military presence east of the Teutoburg Forest more than 200 years after Varus’ humiliating defeat. Archaeologists estimate about 1,000 Roman soldiers fought (and won) at Harzhorn. The Hachelbich marching camp is about 60 miles southeast of Harzhorn. It covers 18 hectares and was large enough to accommodate an entire legion of around 5,000 soldiers. As a marching camp, it wasn’t a permanent fortress, but rather a protective enclosure built by the legionaries in one evening so they could camp down in a defended position. They wouldn’t have spent more than a few days there while on their way elsewhere, in this case probably east towards the Elbe.

The site was found in 2010 during road work, but it was kept quiet while archaeologists explored the area. They excavated more than two hectares and covered another 10 hectares with magnetometers and aerial surveys. Now that the site has been identified as a military camp, the Thuringian State Office for Heritage and Archaeology has announced the find. They’re keeping the exact location a secret, however, to keep looters from ravaging the place on the hunt for portable Roman artifacts.

A rough rectangle with round corners, the camp is standard Roman military issue. No matter where they were, legions on the move set up a minifortress in the wilderness at the end of each day’s march. At Hachelbich, the meter-deep trenches dug around the camp were the easiest feature to spot in the soil. Two perimeter trenches have been found, each more than 400 meters long.

On the camp’s northern edge, the soldiers built a gate protected by another trench that projected out past the perimeter. “It’s typically Roman—no Germans did that sort of thing,” Kuessner says. The trenches were part of a simple, but effective makeshift perimeter defense: A low wall of dirt was thrown up behind the trench, then topped with tall stakes, to create a defensive barrier almost 3 meters wide and 3 meters high. Erosion wiped away the wall long ago, but it left discolorations in the soil where the trench was dug.

Archaeologists also unearthed the remains of eight bread ovens close to the camp perimeter, which shows an impressive commitment to quality food considering the legionaries weren’t going to be there for long. Some artifacts confirming the military nature of the camp were found: four hobnails from the soles of Roman caligae, fittings from a sword scabbard and horse tackle.

The style of the artifacts places the camp in the first two centuries of the first millennium and radiocarbon dating supports the range, but archaeologists haven’t found anything to narrow it down any further or link to the camp to the reign of a certain emperor. Excavations will continue this year and the next at least. After the crops in the valley are harvested this fall, archaeologists will be able to excavate the farmland. They hope to find coins that will provide a precise date, or an artifact with the legion number on it that would write a new chapter in Roman military history.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mummified fetus found in Egyptian sarcophagus

History Blog - Sun, 2014-05-18 23:28

CT scans have revealed that a small cartonnage sarcophagus in the Wellcome collection at Swansea University’s Egypt Centre contains the mummified remains of a three to four-month-old fetus.

The sarcophagus is just over 20 inches long and painted in the style of the 26th Dynasty (ca. 600 B.C.), with a yellow and blue wig, wide collar, and brick red face. The body features crossing diagonal lines that form diamond shapes with a cream vertical band from collar to feet and two horizontal bands intersecting it. On the bands are painted hieroglyphics that don’t make any sense. Because of this, there have been some questions its authenticity but it’s not unheard of for genuine sarcophagus from this period to have gibberish hieroglyphics. Pioneering Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie posited that the painters of mock hieroglyphics may have been illiterate and included the nonsense words because the presence of hieroglyphics was important for the voyage to the afterlife. The provenance of the piece can’t help because all we know about it is that it entered the collection in 1971.

In 1998, Singleton Hospital X-rayed the sarcophagus and found traces of what could be a small skull, but nothing conclusive. On April 28th of this year, Swansea Univerity’s Clinical Imaging College of Medicine CT scanned the sarcophagus which revealed far more details about what’s inside. The bulk of the space is filled with folded textile, likely linen bandages.

Within those folded strips of material, the CT scan showed a darker area about 3 inches long which researchers identified as a fetus in fetal position and with a placental sac. What could be the fetus’s femur was also identified.

“The length of the femur together with the size of the dark patch is consistent with that of a 12 to 16-week-old fetus,” Graves-Brown said.

“Another dark patch suggests the presence of an amulet and there are several areas with dark circles resembling strings of beads or tassels,” she added.

Strings of beads are fairly common in mummy wrappings from the 26th Dynasty.

The CT scan could not determine the gender of the fetus. The iconography of the sarcophagus suggests he was a boy. The striped wig was typically used on the sarcophaguses of men (although women were known to sport them as well) and the russet face paint is characteristic of male burials.

Fetus coffins are rare but not unheard of. There were two fetuses found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and a whole section of the Eastern cemetery in Deir el-Medina was dedicated to the burial of children, fetuses and placentas. Egyptians believed the placenta was a twin of the self, so when a fetus or stillbirth was buried, the placenta was buried too.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Met releases 400,000 high res images

History Blog - Sat, 2014-05-17 23:04

It seems the Met is feeling generous these days, not just in enhancing its collection but also in sharing it. As part of its new Open Access for Scholarly Content program, the museum is releasing 400,000 high resolution images that can be downloaded directly from its website and used for scholarly purposes without asking for permission or paying a fee.

In making the announcement, [Thomas Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art] said: “Through this new, open-access policy, we join a growing number of museums that provide free access to images of art in the public domain. I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection.”

OASC was developed as a resource for students, educators, researchers, curators, academic publishers, non-commercial documentary filmmakers, and others involved in scholarly or cultural work. Prior to the establishment of OASC, the Metropolitan Museum provided images upon request, for a fee, and authorization was subject to terms and conditions.

To access the images, click on the collection database and either search by keyword, browse the featured artists/topics or browse by material, geographic location, era or departments. For getting lost in beautiful things, I’m partial to browsing by era and culture. Look for the OASC in a little box underneath the picture the left of the My Met link. To download the image, click on the down arrow to the right and save the image to your hard drive in the usual way. They also seem to allow hotlinking but that’s rude and unreliable in the long term so I wouldn’t do that.

Apparently some images that are still under copyright or whose status is unclear are not yet available for free use, but I haven’t encountered any in my browsing thus far. If the photograph is not free for use, it will not have the OASC icon underneath them
The museum will be increasing the number of available photographs as copyrights expire and new digital files are uploaded.

On a tangentially related (at best) note, while enjoying a random browse today I came across this arresting bronze of Roman emperor Trebonianus Gallus (reigned 251–253 A.D.). Almost the entire statue is original, a very rare survival of a complete third century freestanding bronze. Is that tiny head on that large body not the weirdest thing? And that’s an idealized portrayal, or at least the body is. He’s posed like a famous statue of Alexander the Great carved by Lysippos that inspired many a fine figure for centuries. The face, on the other hand, appears to be realistic which makes for an eye-catchingly disproportionate combination. Still, there’s no question the head and body are of a piece. The museum X-rayed the statue and found the head is original to that body.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Met acquires monumental Le Brun portrait

History Blog - Fri, 2014-05-16 23:04

A year ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art only had a few drawings by French baroque master Charles Le Brun, a major hole in their collection since Le Brun was First Painter of King Louis XIV (the king said Le Brun was “the greatest French painter of all time”) and enormously influential for centuries after his death. The gap was filled in April 2013 when the Met purchased The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the 1647 painting by Charles Le Brun that was discovered in the Coco Chanel Suite of the Paris Ritz during renovations in 2012, for $1,885,194. That price set a new world record for a work by Le Brun.

It’s not a record anymore. The Met just broke its own record and broke it hard, acquiring the monumental portrait Everhard Jabach and His Family for an unprecedented $12.3 million. The reason the price is so high this time is that while Polyxena is an early work of a historical theme, Jabach is a group portrait painted around 1660 at the peak of Le Brun’s powers and popularity. It’s a massive work — 7.6 feet by 10.6 feet — of massive artistic and historical significance.

Jabach was one of the great personalities of his age. He was portrayed twice by Van Dyck (1636, private collection; 1641, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), by Peter Lely and possibly Sébastien Bourdon (both ca. 1650, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), and by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1688, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne). Le Brun was one of the sitter’s favorite artists and the two were united—in the words of Claude Nivelon, Le Brun’s earliest biographer—by “friendship and shared interests” (‘il était uni d’amitié et d’inclination’). The family group was one of the few pictures Jabach did not sell to the King of France, and therefore one of the few that did not enter the collection of the Louvre.

The picture is at once a portrait of family relations and of a painter’s relationship to a key patron. The assemblage of objects lying on the floor at the feet of Jabach symbolizes his cultural interests: a Bible, an open copy of Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise, a compass (architecture and geometry), a porte crayon and drawn sheet (drawing), an ancient marble head (sculpture), a book (literature and poetry), and a celestial globe (astronomy). Most prominent among these objects is a bust of Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts. She is identified by her distinctive helmet and the Medusa on her chest. Behind Jabach is the mirror in which we see Le Brun at work.

Le Brun made two copies of the portrait. This one is the first. The second was acquired by the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now the Bode Museum) in Berlin in 1836 but was destroyed in May of 1945 when the Friedrichshain flak tower, where it had ironically been sent for safekeeping along with more than 400 of the museum’s most prized paintings, caught fire at least twice. This was after of Berlin had fallen, by the way, not the result of shelling or bombing. All we have left of it today is an old black and white photograph.

The primary copy was thought lost, but it turns out to have been part of the furniture of the stately home of Olantigh Towers in Kent for almost two centuries. It was brought to the UK by Henry Hope, a wealthy Boston-born, Rotterdam-based Scot who purchased the painting in 1792 from Johann Matthias von Bors, a descendant of Jabach’s. Hope installed it in his Harley Street home after fleeing the continent and the chaos of the French Revolution in 1794. It moved to Olantigh Towers in 1832 when it was bought by John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax.

In 1913, Olantigh Towers was sold to one J. H. Loudon who then sold to his son, F. W. H. Loudon in 1935. The painting was just sold along with the house. No particular mention was made of it. It was rediscovered last year when experts from Christie’s were called in to assess the contents of the home. Christie’s contacted the Metropolitan Museum and negotiated the sale.

Because of the complex composition representing prominent subjects and their relationship to the artist, this portrait has been called “a French Las Meninas,” after the iconic masterpiece painted by Diego Velázquez in 1656. It’s no wonder, then, that the UK didn’t want to let it go. It’s the only Le Brun portrait in the country and in February the government’s Export Reviewing Committee placed a temporary three-month export ban on the painting, giving British museums the chance to raise the $12.3 million necessary to keep it in the country. The ban expired on May 6th with no institutions stepping up to the plate or even raising enough money to make it remotely plausible that they might be able to acquire it should the ban be extended.

And so the Met gets its prize Le Brun, doubling the number of paintings by the artist in the museum, and more than doubling the importance of their 17th century French collection. The portrait will be conserved and framed, a process that will take the rest of this year at least. It will go on display in the Met’s European Paintings Galleries in 2015. They already have the portrait’s entry uploaded to the museum website, however, and it has lots of details about the imagery and significance of the piece.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Early 17th c. telescope found in Delft

History Blog - Thu, 2014-05-15 23:33

The oldest telescope in the Netherlands was discovered during digging for a new subway tunnel in Delft. Just four inches long and heavily corroded, the device was first thought to be an old shell casing, but the city archaeologist saw what looked like glass pieces at both ends and forwarded it to the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden for their experts to examine.

Conservators cleaned the instrument and found under all the layers of corrosion that it was made of tin, the metal used in the earliest telescopes. Its original cap was still attached. Both lenses were removed and cleaned. They’re 12 millimeters in diameter with an irregular shard-shaped perimeter. The eyepiece is flat on one side and concave on the other. while the lens is flat on one side and convex on the other, construction typical of the first generations of telescopes. The quality of the glass is abysmal, full of bubbles with uneven grinding. Only the middle five millimeters of the lenses are ground well enough to function.

Despite their inherent limitations, once cleaned the lenses actually worked. Conservators put the telescope back together and were able to see through it at five times magnification. That would not have been sufficient for military use or for astronomy (in any case it took Galileo for the first looking glasses to be pointed up to the sky). It was a wealthy person’s plaything, basically, used to get a better view at public gatherings, perhaps, or to get a better view of the stage at the theater.

The shapes of the lenses, the bubbles in the glass, the uneven grinding and the use of tin strongly suggest it was manufactured before 1650. After that, tin was replaced by brass and other more durable metals and the quality of glass and grinding were vastly improved. The general appearance of the telescope is also in keeping with prints from the first half of the 17th century. Neither is it likely that the telescope was made later but on the cheap. There are remnants of gilding on the tin, which means when first produced, this piece was an expensive luxury item. Nobody would spend money on a gilded telescope but use primitive lenses in it unless those were the only kinds of lenses available.

The telescope was invented in Middelburg in 1608, but until this find, the oldest one in the Netherlands dates to 1669 (it’s at the Boerhaave Museum along with the next oldest from 1683). Because tin corrodes so easily, none of the earlier ones were known to have survived. This one was found in an old canal where the low oxygen environment kept it from rusting into nothingness. There’s even a very slim chance that it’s the oldest telescope in the world, but it’s highly unlikely. There’s only a tiny window of possibility since Galileo started making his in 1609, the year after the first patents applications were filed in the Netherlands and the Museo Galileo in Florence has two of his from 1609-1610.

The telescope is going on display at the newly renovated De Prinsenhof Museum in Delft for it’s grand reopening on May 23rd.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bones of man killed on the wheel found in Germany

History Blog - Wed, 2014-05-14 23:44

Last October, archaeologists surveying the site of planned road work on federal highway 189 in Groß Pankow, Brandenburg, Germany, unearthed human remains. They had already found some Bronze Age materials on the site — fragments of pottery, a stone axe — from the 1st millennium B.C., but nothing of great note. The rounded grave pit at first glance looked much like the pits from the Bronze Age settlement, but the skeletal remains, on the other hand, were immediately arresting. The bones were oddly positioned, the arms angled sideways up to the neck, the thigh bones turned backwards. They were also brutally broken, all the long bones shattered with many pieces missing.

It was clear the person had died far more recently than 1,000 B.C. An iron belt buckle found in the grave provided a general date of between the 15th and 17th centuries. Further examination revealed the deceased was a man in his mid to late 30s who had been executed on the wheel. His bones are in more than a thousand pieces. This is the first time a skeleton of someone broken on the wheel has been found in Germany, even though judicial execution by wheel was employed in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

This is not a coincidence. The whole point of the wheel was to display the broken bodies until they rotted away entirely, leaving the bones for carrion birds to enjoy. The punishment was reserved for the worst criminals — serial killers, murderers who killed someone during the commission of another crime, killers of kin — and the destruction of the body in a slow, public fashion did double-duty as the most gruesome retribution and as a stern warning to the public.

Death by wheel was usually a two-stage process. First a large spoked wagon wheel would be slammed onto the large bones of the arms and legs, breaking them in two places each. Then the wheel would strike the spine, breaking it. With the body’s skeletal structure in pieces, the condemned was then tied to the wheel, his limbs woven in and out of the spokes. Finally the wheel was raised on a pike and planted into the ground. If the man wasn’t dead yet, and he usually wasn’t unless he was fortunate enough to have been deliberately struck with fatal blows to the chest and abdomen as an act of mercy, he would die in slow unspeakable agony over the course of hours, often days.

In the dead of Groß Pankow for the first time the torture could be accurately documented: A big blow for example, had torn away half his face, as can be seen on the damaged skull.

This could mean that the offender previously received the fatal coup de grace by the executioner. However, this happened rarely. More often the delinquent – before he was dead – fell off the wheel. This was then as God’s judgment, the delinquent was then free.

Obviously that’s not what happened here. He died in a horrific fashion. Why this wheeled man had his bones collected and respectfully buried, we do not know. The place where he was found was an old military road. It could have been a place used for a mobile execution rather than a permanent gallows or regular killing zone. With no police presence, a family member of the deceased or just someone with an ounce of compassion could have removed the broken body and buried it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Artifacts found under London Bridge rail station

History Blog - Tue, 2014-05-13 23:38

As part of an extensive redevelopment of London Bridge Station, the city’s oldest rail station (opened in 1836), archaeologists have had the unique opportunity to excavate underneath the station and its viaduct. The station has a vast footprint and since it was constructed long before archaeological surveys were invented, this is the first chance archaeologists have had to explore the site. Other excavations in the London Bridge area have revealed a great deal about the growth and development of the city from the Roman era on, but the station site was thought to have been either very marshy or fully underwater for much of its history that archaeologists weren’t sure what they’d find.

They found that although the area was certainly marshy and waterlogged it may have been, but it was still extensively developed. Excavations have gone as deep as 20 feet below street level in the massive arches of the station foundations. The earliest finds were traces of the Roman military occupation followed by evidence of the Boudican rebellion and the Roman civilian settlement. The remains of three previously unknown Roman structures were found: a bathhouse, a large waterfront building and what may have been a boat landing platform. Thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged ground along the Thames, rare organic elements have survived, like 17 timbers piles from trees felled between 59 and 83 A.D. which were part of the foundations of the large waterfront building. The landing platform consists of a timber baulk packed with rocks and wood.

Later discoveries include the remains of Saxon defenses and the floors and walls of large townhouses on Tooley Street which the historical record identifies as the abodes of important medieval clerics like the Prior of Lewes. (The remains of other such homes owned by non-London religious orders can be found today at Winchester and Lambeth Palace.) From the late Middle Ages on, the marshy land was extensively reclaimed for industrial and residential purposes. The remains of floors, walls and cellars testify to dense, closely-built buildings packed along a network of small streets.

Hundreds of artifacts were also found mirroring the changing phases of the London Bridge station area. A Penn Tile, made in Penn, Buckinghamshire, between 1330 and 1390, was used as flooring in an expensive building. These glazed patterned tiles became popular in London after the Black Death obliterated local tile producers. Also from the 14th century is a rare white clay flagon, probably made in Cheam, that archaeologists believe was used to serve ale in the townhouse of the Abbot of Waverley. Now it’s on display at the Wheatsheaf Pub in Stoney Street.

Starting in the 16th century in the wake of the introduction of tobacco from the New World there was a bustling business of clay pipe manufacturers in the neighborhood. These were mainly small backyard workshops. Archaeologists found the remains of a pope kiln that had been demolished centuries ago which proved fortuitous from an archaeological perspective because it allowed the excavators to find pieces of the superstructure. They also found many pipes, some whole, some discarded and broken after a failed firing. One pipe is marked with wording that identifies its maker. “JOINER STREET” is written on one side of the stem and “TOOLEY STREET BORO” on the other, indicating it was made by James Minto between 1809 and 1811. That means the clay pipe industry was still producing a couple of decades before the construction of the station.

In the fun category, archaeologists found a rare cribbage board made out of animal bone in the 17th or 18th century. The game was invented in the 17th century, so this piece could be a very early example. I love those concentric circles down the middle. They look just like the marks on much earlier dice, like this one from 13th or 14th century Ireland.

My favorite find is a set of three pewter tankards from the 18th century. They were discovered in a cess pit, possibly because the bends and twists around the lip made them hard to drink from, but they still look great. Two of them are inscribed with the names of the hostelries where they were once used to quaff lukewarm brews. One says “Mary Jackson, Kings head, Tooley Strt,” the other “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”. The best part: the The Old Kings Head is still open for business today, not on Tooley Street but very close by on Borough High Street.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Who was Parmigianino’s Turkish Slave?

History Blog - Mon, 2014-05-12 23:54

The only thing we know for sure is that this iconic beauty was neither Turkish nor a slave. La Schiava Turca was a misnomer applied in the 18th century by a cataloger who interpreted the lady’s headdress as a turban and the gold chain in the slashes of her right sleeve as a symbol of bondage. In fact, her headpiece is a balzo, a wire net covered in fabric and gold thread that was fashionable among Northern Italian noblewomen in the 16th century thanks to trendsetter Isabella d’Este (see her 1534-6 portrait by Titian, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Portrait of a Lady (1520-25) by Bernardino Luini, now in the National Gallery of Art). The chain is expensive gold jewelry and her indigo satin dress, gossamer silk chemise and ostrich plume fan confirm that the sitter was a woman of wealth and position.

She was painted by Francesco Girolamo Mazzola, aka Parmigianino, around 1532 or 1533 when he was in Parma working on two altarpieces for the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata. Its whereabouts for the next century and a half are unknown. It appears again in a 1675 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Leopold de’ Medici in Florence. In the 18th century Parmigianino’s lady was ceded to the Uffizi Gallery along with the rest of the Medici art holdings. In 1928 the Uffizi traded it to the National Gallery of Parma and the portrait went home for good.

Since then, it has rarely left the museum and it has never crossed the Atlantic to delight American audiences. Now for the first time La Schiava Turca is traveling to the US. It is the star of The Poetry of Parmigianino’s “Schiava Turca” which runs at The Frick Collection from May 13th to July 20th and at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum from July 26th through October 5th. There are no portraits by Parmigianino in any public collection in the US and there are two in this show (the other is Portrait of a Man), so this is a unique opportunity.

Art historians have proposed a variety of identifications of the not-actually-a Turkish Slave. Candidates include Giulia Gonzaga around the time of her marriage to Vespasiano Colonna in 1526 when she was 14 years old, a member of the Cavalli family, a member of the Baiardo family whose scion Cavaliere Francesco Baiardo was a personal friend and big supporter of the artist, even bailing him out when he was arrested for breach of contract when he didn’t finish the Santa Maria della Steccata commission.

Another possibility is that she’s not a specific person but a depiction of an ideal figure, perhaps an allegory of love or poetry. The medallion in the center of her balzo could be a poetry reference. It’s an image of Pegasus, the winged mythological horse who created the Hippocrene spring, source of poetic inspiration. The connection between poetry and Pegasus was well-established in 16th century Italy. The prominent poet Pietro Bembo, a contemporary of Parmigianino’s, used Pegasus as his personal symbol.

She’s not the usual Renaissance allegory or muse of poetry, however. From the exhibition press release (pdf):

Her active pose — with her face turned toward the left and her body to the right — is common in depictions of men of the time, but not women. Also, her direct gaze and lively expression stand out when compared to the reserved, aloof expressions often seen in Renaissance portraits of women, in which it was considered appropriate to retain a dignified modesty. Finally, the Pegasus ornament on her headdress is an accessory borrowed from men’s fashion: it is likely a hat badge, an adornment worn almost exclusively by Renaissance men that bears a personal, usually humanist, emblem. With her frank expression, typically “masculine” pose, and an accessory appropriated from male fashion, it seems reasonable to believe that the Schiava Turca was intended to be seen not so much as the passive recipient of male poetic dedication, but to be regarded as a poet herself. After all, she wears on her head — the source of intellect and creativity — an emblem of Pegasus, the symbol of poetic inspiration.

Exhibition guest curator and Columbia University Art History lecturer Aimee Ng discovered another clue while researching the portrait. Parmigianino was known to make many preparatory drawings and studies for his paintings. There are two red chalk head drawings in Paris that art historians believe were studies for the Schiava Turca. Ng’s research found a third drawing in the Duke of Devonshire’s collection at Chatsworth, previously unconnected to any specific painting, that shares significant commonalities with La Schiava Turca and makes the poet image even more explicit.

The pen-and-ink drawing, which had not previously been linked to any specific project, shares the bust-length format of the Schiava Turca (although the woman in the drawing poses with her head facing in the same direction as her body). In the drawing, the woman wears a balzo-like headdress decorated with a wreath of laurel leaves. In the classical tradition, laurel leaves are used to crown accomplished poets. As it shows the artist experimenting with the standard iconography of poetry, the drawing may record an early idea for the Schiava Turca. In the end, Parmigianino’s use of an ornamental badge of Pegasus to mark the Schiava Turca as a poet is a more subtle (indeed, more poetic) solution.

So if she’s a poet rather than an allegory of poetry, which poet is she? Ng proposes one possible candidate: Veronica Gambara, a poet whose works while unpublished were widely circulated in manuscript form by 1530. She was also the ruler of the city of Correggio from the death of her husband in 1518 until her death in 1550, and her good friend Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio because that’s where he was born, was Parmigianino’s former teacher. She traveled to Parma and lived in Bologna when Parmigianino lived there after the Sack of Rome. Pietro Bembo of Pegasus fame was Gambara’s mentor; they had corresponded since she was a teenager.

If it is Gambara, it’s still a highly idealized portrayal. She was born in 1485, so she would have been in her late 40s when Parmigianino painted the portrait. Rolling back the years, or even decades, was a common practice for portraits of nobility (the Titian portrait of Isabella d’Este was painted when she was over 60), so her age doesn’t exclude her.

Aimee Ng will be giving a lecture at The Frick about the Schiava Turca on Wednesday, May 14th, at 6:00 PM. If you can’t make it to New York on time, you can attend virtually here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Washington Monument reopens after three years

History Blog - Sun, 2014-05-11 23:55

The Washington Monument reopens to the public Monday after nearly three years of work repairing damage wrought when an earthquake struck the capital on August 23, 2011. Several historic structures were harmed by the quake, but after initial repairs the National Cathedral and the Smithsonian Castle could remain open. The Washington Monument was not so lucky.

It’s a hollow obelisk 555 feet high made out of three different kinds of marble and 36,000 stone blocks. When the earthquake struck, it whipsawed the obelisk, showering debris on the tourists climbing its vertiginous heights. Thankfully nobody was injured, but the monument was immediately closed for assessment. The National Park Service found one large crack four feet long and one inch wide, more than 150 other fractures and cracks, chipped and gashed stones, lost and loosened mortar, damage to the lightning protection system and elevator.

The estimated budget for repairs was $15 million. Congress voted to fund the work to the tune of $7.5 million but only on condition that the National Park Service secure matching funds. Private equity billionaire and dedicated history nerd David Rubenstein stepped up to the plate and donated the necessary $7.5 million and the repair project began in earnest in early 2012.

It required 2.7 miles of new sealant between stones, and 53 stainless steel “saddle anchors” to bolt in place slabs on the monument’s slanted pyramidion in case of another earthquake.

The slabs had been held in place mainly by gravity, and engineers worried that the slabs could fall off, James M. Perry, the chief of resource management for the mall and memorial parks, said Saturday. [...]

In addition to the earthquake damage, the monument, which was begun in 1848 and finished in 1884, had seen more than a century of rain, snow, sleet and wind. Up close, it was a patchwork of repairs going back decades.

Cracks needed to be filled. Loose hunks of marble had to be dug out and replaced with scores of individual patches called “dutchmen.” Joints had to be smoothed and cleaned. Most of the damage was near the top.

Officials have said 150 dutchman patches were used, so many that work crews ran out of spare marble they had on hand for repairs. But a company was found that had salvaged old marble steps from homes in Baltimore. And that marble had come from the same quarry as some of the monument marble.

The repairs were complete on time and on budget. The Washington Monument will be officially reopened at 10 AM with a ceremony hosted by Al Roker and attended by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, National Mall & Memorial Parks Superintendent Bob Vogel and of course David Rubenstein. Entertainment will be provided by American Idol Season 12 winner Candice Glover, the Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps, the United States Navy Band, and the Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral Choir.

The event will be open to the public and tours of the monument will begin at 1:00 PM. Tickets are first come, first served, so if you want to be in the first wave of visitors to the repaired Washington Monument, you’ll want to line up early. The ticket office opens at 8:30 AM.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hunley begins five year caustic bath

History Blog - Sat, 2014-05-10 23:58

Last Thursday was the first day of approximately 1,825 days the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley will spend immersed in a caustic bath of sodium hydroxide and water. This a watershed step in the conservation of the 40-foot iron submarine, a long bath 14 years in the making. The caustic bath will first remove the concretion, the thick layer of hardened shell and sand that formed on the hull of the sub during the 136 years it spent on the floor of Charleston Harbor since it sank the night of February 17th, 1864. The concretion completely covers the outside of the sub, obscuring the damage that might answer the questions about how and why the Hunley sank after successfully torpedoing the Union warship USS Housatonic.

Michael Scafuri, Hunley archaeologist, said the concretion has been mapped, photographed and recorded with 3-D imaging to make sure they have every bit of information possible from the Hunley’s protective shell.

And now they are ready to see what lies beneath.

“Under that concretion is the possibility of new information about the attack,” Scafuri said.

With the shell and sand removed, Scafuri said scientists should learn more about the Hunley’s design and operations, and may be able to tell what caused the submarine to sink.

The solution of 99% water and 1% sodium hydroxide should begin to loosen the concretion within a few months, giving conservators their first look at the hull in the 14 years since the submarine was raised from the Atlantic seabed. Once the concretion is loosened, conservators will scrape it off the hull, a painstaking process that will take months.

After the scraping, the Hunley will settle in for the long soak. The sodium hydroxide has another important job to do: removing nearly a century and a half of sea salt from the iron hull. That’s the process that will take five years, with conservators regularly draining the 76,000 gallon tank of its 68,000 gallons of solution (large jugs of gravel and water in the tank displace 8,000 gallons) when it gets too salty.

There are risks inherent in this procedure. Sodium hydroxide is a dangerous chemical and this treatment has never been used on so large an artifact. The lab had to be retrofitted for the safety of the space and its occupants. It’s the only way to ensure the long-term stability of the submarine, however. It’s been in a tank of cold water since its retrieval, for 11 years in a custom truss that kept it at the same angle as its had been on the ocean floor, then upright for three years. The water, a mild electric current and the concretion have preserved the hull for these initial conservation stages, but eventually the iron will corrode if the salt isn’t removed.

Once the salt is completely extracted, the Hunley will be able to be displayed outside of a tank for the first time.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mysterious notes in 1504 Odyssey deciphered

History Blog - Fri, 2014-05-09 23:37

On April 24th, the University of Chicago Library announced a contest to decipher mysterious margin annotations in a rare edition of Homer’s Odyssey printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1504. This was only the second edition of the Odyssey in Greek ever printed (the first was published in Florence in 1488) and this particular example passed through many hands, several of which left marginalia in various languages on the pages.

The two-volume book is part of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana (BHL), a collection of rare early print editions of Homer’s works that was donated to the library in 2007 by Michael C. Lang. Lang had noticed that in the second volume of the 1504 edition there were handwritten annotations that had some French words mixed in with what looked like a shorthand. Researchers at the library weren’t able to crack the idiosyncratic script, so they opened it up to public at large with a $1,000 reward offered by Lang for the first person to identify and translate the code. People from all over the world responded to the challenge.

Less than two weeks later, we have a winner. The feat was accomplished Daniele Metilli, a computer engineer, archival science student and general lover of cyphers, with the help of French speaker and stenographer Giulia Accetta. He’s in Italy and couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to view the book in person, so the library sent him high resolution images of two pages from Book XI of the Odyssey that have the annotations in question.

Because the shorthand was mixed with French and because one of the notes contains a legible date of April 25, 1854, Metilli and Accetta started by investigating French shorthand systems that may have been in use in the mid-19th century. The earliest French shorthand methods were created in the 17th century, one by Jacques Cossard in 1651, the next by Charles Alois Ramsay in 1665. Neither of those systems matched the one in the Odyssey. They then turned to 19th century systems but none of those worked either.

It was an appendix in a 1792 book on stenography by Théodore-Pierre Bertin that pointed them in the right direction. The appendix included a table that compared a stenographic system invented by Samuel Taylor in 1786 to a “tachygraphy” (from the Greek word for “swift”) system for the French language invented by Jean Coulon de Thévenot in 1776. The notes in the Homer edition looked very similar to the tachygraphy in the table. Metilli and Accetta located a copy of Thévenot’s manual Tachygraphie des Français, an 1819 edition of Tachéographie ou Tachygraphie française by stenography professor N. Patey and two mid-19th century French translations of the Odyssey and got to work.

In Thévenot’s system, “every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables,” Metilli wrote. “The vertical alignment is especially important, as the position of a letter above or below the line, or even the length of a letter segment can change the value of the grapheme. This explains why most notes in the Odyssey shorthand are underlined—the line being key to the transcription.”

They were able to translate almost of all of page A and some of page B. The mysterious marginalia are French translations of Greek words and phrases, questions about the text, definition comparisons, corrected errors, the kind of notes someone who was studying Greek would take. Most people wouldn’t scribble their notes in the margin of a very rare, very expensive 1504 edition, however. Why not get a cheap mass market contemporary edition if you’re going to write all over it? Also, most people in 1854 weren’t using shorthand that was popular 50 years earlier. Cracking the code has yet to solve the mystery of who this eccentric annotator was.

In his report (pdf) on the deciphering of the marginalia, Metilli proposes three possible hypotheses: 1) the notes were written by a student, 2) by a teacher, 3) by a translator. If 1) were correct, you’d expect there to be more unnoticed errors in the notes. The other two possibilities would explain the competence of the translation, and 3) would be quite likely to be familiar with shorthand systems.

Metilli then had a bit of a coup de foudre:

The main edition of the Odyssey we used as reference was translated by Édouard Sommer and published by Hachette book by book starting in 1848. While transcribing the shorthand, we had noticed how the annotations sometimes seemed to use the exact same wording as the “argument analitique” found in that edition.

The Sommer translation is very accurate and close to the text, just like our annotations. The other translations of the time (Bareste, Leconte de Lisle) look nothing like it. So it finally came to me: which year did Hachette publish book XI of the Odyssey? Which year did the annotator write his notes? The same year: 1854. What if Mr. Sommer were our mysterious annotator?

Sounds downright plausible. It still doesn’t explain why in the world he used the Manutius edition, of course, but that’s some quality Nancy Drewing right there. One thousand dollars very well deserved.

I know from the wonderful responses to the World War I shorthand post that we have several shorthand pros in the house. Be sure to check out Metilli’s report because there are all kinds of details about the system and translated passages in there. You don’t have to read French to enjoy it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Newly deciphered Maya stele identify Bat kingdom

History Blog - Thu, 2014-05-08 23:10

The ancient Maya city of Naachtun is in the jungle of northern Guatemala just over half a mile from the Mexican border. Founded around 400 B.C. in the Preclassic Period, it was one of very few important urban centers in the region to not only survive into the Classic Period, but thrive. At its peak between 500 and 800 A.D., the city had a population of 20,000 people, multiple pyramids, grand public buildings, more than 40 inscribed stele and a massive palace complex spread out over four hectares. The total size of the site is at least 200 hectares, 50 of which were occupied by monumental public structures.

Its location between the great Maya rival powers of Tikal to the south and Calakmul to the north in modern-day Mexico gave the city great strategic importance. Whether they were fighting each other or trading with allied city-states, Tikal and Calakmul had to go through Naachtun, and the city profited ably. According to hieroglyphic inscriptions discovered at this site and others, Naachtun changed sides repeatedly during the Classic Period, an unusually flexible posture in a region that was highly polarized between the two main superpowers. That, along with its uniquely formidable defenses — walls 13 feet high made out of large limestone blocks — allowed Naachtun to prosper during centuries of war.

Its fortunes fell along with those of Tikal and Calakmul. The great regional powers began a precipitous decline in the late 8th century and Naachtun, which had flourished through the upheaval of the transition between the Preclassic and the Classic, declined with them. The city was abandoned around 800 A.D.

It was rediscovered in 1922 by American archaeologists and pioneering Maya scholar Sylvanus Morley. Sponsored by the Carnegie Institution, Morley searched the Petén Basin north of Tikal for lost Maya cities. He enlisted the expertise of the chicleros, the men who collect sap from chicle trees, offering them a bounty for any ancient ruins they told him about. Chiclero Alfonso Ovando had stumbled on the Naachtun site in 1916. He told Morley about it and Morley explored the site, mapping many of its structures and discovering 19 stele.

It was Morley who named the site Naachtun, “far stone” in Mayan, because of how remote and inaccessible it was. That inaccessibility has made archaeological investigations of the site infrequent and of short duration. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the actual Mayan name of the city was identified on a stela as Masuul, and archaeologists are still working on deciphering the stele that Morley discovered nearly a century ago.

Two of those stele have recently borne fruit. Newly deciphered hieroglyphics have revealed the name of the kingdom of which Masuul was the capital: the Suutz, meaning Bat in Mayan, kingdom. The Bat kingdom has been references in inscriptions found on other sites, including Tikal and Calakmul, but until now, archaeologists weren’t sure if it was a more of a regional designation with shifting capitals than a kingdom with a specific urban capital and ruling dynasty. The new text confirms that Masuul was the capital of the Bat kingdom and it was ruled by the Bat dynasty from the second half of the 4th century. (I love how much this sounds like a particularly awesome episode of the 1960s Batman TV series.)

The hieroglyphic texts also place Masuul in the middle of the momentous events of January 16th, 378 A.D., when Tikal was defeated by forces from Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan, a powerful city-state 30 miles from modern-day Mexico City, is almost 800 miles northwest of Tikal, but that didn’t stop general Siyah K’ak’ (Fire Is Born) from killing Tikal’s king Chak Tok Ich’aak (Great Jaguar Paw), conquering the city and installing the six-year-old king Yax Nuun Ayin (First Crocodile), son of a figure known in descriptive non-native glyphs as Spearthrower Owl who was probably the ruler of Teotihuacan. First Crocodile married a daughter of the displaced Tikal ruling family and started a new dynasty. According to the newly deciphered stele, Masuul was an ally of Teotihuacan during this battle for Tikal.

There’s a photo gallery here with the stele, some maps and some breakouts of the glyphs. The labels are in Spanish but you can at least make out the bat features.

EDIT: I originally identified Teotihuacan as modern-day Mexico City, confusing it with Tenochtitlan. Many thanks to Lon for the correction.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Norton Simon Museum to return Bhima to Cambodia

History Blog - Wed, 2014-05-07 23:09

Almost exactly one year ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return a pair of 10th century statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Cambodian archaeological site of Koh Ker in the early 1970s. Seven months later, Sotheby’s, after two years of fractious negotiations and under pressure from the US Attorney, agreed to return a much larger 10th century statue of the warrior Duryodhana that was also looted from Koh Ker in the early 70s. Now, five months after that, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has agreed to return their own Koh Ker loot: a 500-pound sandstone statue of the hero Bhima, Duryodhana’s cousin and opponent in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

The museum purchased Bhima in 1976 from New York art dealer William Wolff. It has been on display since then, labeled “Temple Wrestler.” Cambodia has had more than enough problems to deal with at home since the brutal civil war that claimed the statues of Koh Ker as victims, so it didn’t begin to pursue its stolen cultural patrimony until the past few years.

The museum has previously said that Cambodian representatives had seen the statue on display in California and had not raised any objections. In a statement on Tuesday the Norton Simon said it continues to have “a good-faith disagreement” with Cambodia over ownership of the Bhima, but after sending representatives to Phnom Penh in March to meet with government officials, it has “worked directly with Cambodia to come up with a mutually acceptable solution,” and agreed to give it back as a gift.

In 2007, the pedestals of the Kneeling Attendants and the feet of both Duryodhana and Bhima were discovered in the Prasat Chen temple of the Koh Ker complex by conservators from the German Apsara Conservation Project. Archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient (the French School of Asian Studies) made a study of the pedestals and feet, virtually matching them up to photographs of the statues. They fit like a glove, and indeed you can clearly see the chisel marks looters left on the ankles, knees and feet of these otherwise perfectly preserved 1000-year-old statues.

All four of these statues — the attendants, Bhima and Duryodhana — were part of a group that stood inside the western gopura, one of two monumental towers at opposite entrances to the Prasat Chen temple. The tableau depicted a famous scene from the Mahabharata wherein Bhima duels with Duryodhana under the watchful gaze of seven kneeling and seated attendants. Koh Ker, the new capital of the Khmer Empire under King Jayavarman IV, was founded in 928 A.D., and a whole new style of sculpture was conceived there. The statues of Bhima and Duryodhana were revolutionary for their time, the first freestanding, dynamic figures in Khmer art which had previously been characterized by bas reliefs and static pieces.

Here’s a wonderful computer recreation by the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient of the western gopura and its sculptures:

In an unusual, hell-freezes-over move, Christie’s has bought another one of the attendants from this statue group to return it to Cambodia. The auction house had sold it twice, once in 2000 and then again to an anonymous collector in 2009. Earlier this year, after an internal investigation of a five-year-old sale that apparently determined that the sculpture had been looted from Koh Ker decades earlier, Christie’s contacted the buyer and arranged to buy the statue back. Christie’s will now foot the bill to ship the piece to Cambodia.

That leaves two known statues Cambodian experts believe were looted from Koh Ker still in the United States, one at the Denver Art Museum and one at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Those museums are still in the denial phase right now, but last year so was the Met, the Norton Simon, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Now Christie’s is doing its own investigations and buying looted artifacts back from the buyers (who would ever have seen that coming?), so the arc of this particular history appears to be bending rather strongly towards justice.

[Cambodia's secretary of state] Mr. Chan Tani said that recovering all the statues from the Prasat Chen temple is a national priority. The goal is to reattach the statues to their pedestals, which were left behind by the looters, and place them all together in a special display area in the national museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost Mendelssohn song found in US

History Blog - Tue, 2014-05-06 23:50

An unpublished song written by Felix Mendelssohn that has been lost for 142 years has been found in the United States. The signed manuscript was discovered by the current owner among his grandfather’s papers. The grandfather was a musician and a Mendelssohn fan, but we don’t know how this unique piece of music made it to the States into his collection.

The song is a short 29 bars for alto voice and piano entitled Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht (A Man’s Heart Is Like a Mine). Mendelssohn wrote it in 1842, using the second stanza of the Friedrich Rückert poem Das Unveränderliche for lyrics. The verses describe the human heart as a mine that can produce precious metals or more utilitarian materials but can’t give anything that it doesn’t contain already. Rückert’s poems were very popular with composers like Schubert, Brahms and Mahler. There are more than 120 musical pieces set to his poetry.

This piece was a private commission from Johann Valentin Teichmann, a manager of Berlin’s Royal Theater who had lived in the Mendelssohn’s Berlin home from 1828 to 1831 when Felix was 19-22 years old. The Mendelssohns were a highly literature, cultured family who hosted a salon for artists at their house in Berlin for many years. Teichmann was part of this cultural community and worked closely with artists, playwrights, composers for decades in his management role at the Royal Theater.

Teichmann appears to have been too enthusiastic about the song for Mendelssohn’s taste. The composer wrote him a pointed letter on May 3rd, a few days after he had delivered the musical manuscript, asking Teichmann not to share the song with anyone else “because I have written it only at your request and only for you.” The letter lets him off the hook about having shown it already to one person, bookseller Wilhelm Besser. Mendelssohn says since the cat is already out of the bag that Teichmann can go ahead and give Besser a copy of the piece.

Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht was never played in public, nor even published. It was only known to scholars from records of its sale at two auctions in Leipzig, one in 1862 and another in 1872. After that second sale, it disappeared from the record, only to crop up across the Atlantic nearly a century and a half later. The letter Felix wrote to Teichmann was found with the manuscript.

The owner has put the autographed musical manuscript and the letter up for auction at Christie’s in London. The pre-sale estimate is £15,000 – £25,000 ($25,320 – $42,200).

Whoever buys it, they won’t be able to keep it secret like Mendelssohn wanted. Now that it’s been rediscovered, the music is public record and has in fact already been performed. Alto Amy Williamson and pianist Christopher Glynn had the honor of playing Mendelssohn’s song for its first public performance on BBC Today:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique early 5th c. hoard found in Limburg

History Blog - Mon, 2014-05-05 23:56

A unique hoard buried in the early 5th century in a field in modern-day Echt, in the Netherlands’ southern Limburg province, has been excavated by archaeologists from VU University Amsterdam. The first glimmers of it appeared in 1990, when a farmer working his field found two gold coins. He inadvertently dropped one of them and although he searched frantically, he couldn’t find it again. Twenty-four years later in early 2014, the farmer and his nephew returned to the find site armed with a metal detector. They discovered five more gold coins and alerted the authorities.

University archaeologists excavated the rest of the hoard, getting a rare opportunity to examine the full archaeological context of a late Roman gold treasure. In fact, this is the first hoard from this period of Netherlands history to be thoroughly documented by archaeologists. The hoard is composed of one gold ring, one silver ingot, nine fragments cut from at least three large silverware plates and 12 gold coins, the most recent of which date to the reign of Emperor Constantine III (407-411 A.D.). They are in mint condition, which suggests the hoard was buried soon after 411 since the coins never had the time to get worn by circulation.

The pieces of silver tableware are what is known as hacksilver, artifacts made of precious metals that were cut up to be used as currency. One edge fragment testifies to what high level tableware it came from. It has a beaded rim and is engraved with a gilded horse and rider. The rider holds aloft a spear and the horse appears to be rearing over a lion, so archaeologists believe it was part of a larger hunting scene. Extrapolating from the curve of the outer edge of the fragment, the dish it came from would have been around 28 inches in diameter and weighed nearly five pounds. This kind of tableware was often used as diplomatic gifts to client chieftains or local dignitaries with whom Rome wished to curry favor, see the Traprain Law Hoard from East Lothian, Scotland for a famous example.

This is the first treasure found in the Netherlands to have both gold coins and hacksilver. The latter testifies to the political and economic upheaval of the time when the hoard was buried. The reason Rome was sending out elaborately decorated, expensive tableware to the far reaches of the empire was to buy protection of the borders. A Germanic war leader would get paid in a gilded silver plate more than two feet wide, then he would cut it up for its silver value and either keep it or distribute among his soldiers just like they would any other currency.

The date of this hoard was a particularly dangerous time in the area. Many historians point to the year 406, the year of the Battle of Mainz, as the final nail in the coffin of Roman control of the Rhineland. Germanic tribes, among them the Alans, Suevi and Vandals, defeated the Franks and crossed the border of the Rhine into Gaul. Constantine III may not have been able to keep the migrating tribes out of Roman territory, but he did make some effort. Historian at the time record him distributing gold to Germanic chieftains so they would defend the Rhine border in absence of army regulars. A study of gold finds in the Netherlands support the contention, as there is a remarkable concentration of gold from the reign of Constantine III.

The owner of the Echt hoard may have been the recipient of one of these pay-offs. Constatine III was defeated in battle and executed by his successor, Constantius, in 411. In the subsequent crisis, the hoard owner may have felt the need to bury the shiny new coins and hacked up fancy silverware the former emperor had given him. He seems to have unloaded it on the gods instead.
 
Thanks to the in-context excavation, we know that the shallow pit in which the treasure was buried is the only place in the area where late Roman artifacts have been found. Other archaeological material has been found in neighboring fields, but not Roman pieces from the early 5th century. This indicates there was no settlement or human habitation of the area during that period. Instead, it seems the treasure was deliberately buried in this out-of-the way spot, a marshy, uninhabited lowland perfectly suited for a ritual burial. Had the hoard been buried with the intent of retrieval, it would have been found near a settlement some place where it could rediscovered with relative ease.

The hoard is now on display in the From Neanderthal to City Dwellers gallery of the Limburgs Museum in Venlo.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History