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ID bracelet of World War I officer returned to son

Sun, 2014-06-22 23:19

The silver ID bracelet of World War I Lieutenant Oscar L. Erickson was returned to his son Don almost a hundred years after it was lost on the Western Front. The bracelet, inscribed “Lt. O. L. Erickson, C of E, 78th Batt. Canadians,” was discovered by military historian Peter Czink who found it in a box of junk silver slated to be melted down. Czink put the bracelet aside and a few months later decided to research the bracelet’s owner. He discovered that Oscar Erickson was the father of famous Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson.

Arthur Erickson had died in 2009, but with such a prominent figure in the family, Czink realized that finding surviving relatives would be a relatively simple matter. Indeed, Arthur’s younger brother Don is still alive. He’s 85 years old now and was genuinely moved to have this precious memento of his father.

After the Battle of the Somme (July 1st – November 18th, 1916) claimed more than 24,000 Canadian casualties, Canada ramped up its recruiting program. It wasn’t terribly effective. The Military Service Act was passed at the end of August, 1917, to allow conscription. Oscar Erickson didn’t wait to be drafted. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 8th, 1917, when he was two months shy of his 27th birthday.

Erickson was sent to the Western Front as a Lieutenant in the 78th Canadian Infantry Battalion (also known as the Winnipeg Grenadiers). As part of the 4th Canadian Division, the 78th Battalion fought in a crucial turning point of the war: the Battle of Amiens. Launched on August 8th, 1918, the offensive would finally see Allied forces actually advancing into enemy territory and end the stalemate of trench warfare. The CEF had a great first day of the battle, claiming 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), more than 5,000 prisoners of war and all but destroying two German divisions.

The next day, August 9th, the Germans reinforced their position with eight divisions. The CEF still advanced another five kilometers, but Lieutenant Oscar Erickson would pay a heavy price. He was wounded in both legs so severely that they had to be amputated. His actions on that day earned him the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry.

I doubt that was much consolation to him. He wrote to his fiancée Myrtle Chatterson that they could no longer get married upon his return. Don Erickson tells the story:

“He said, ‘We are engaged to be married but it’s impossible for us to go through with this, I’m only half a man’,” said Erickson.

“She wrote back and said, ‘You promised me you would marry me and you’re going to live up to it.’”

And he did. If he hadn’t, Don and his brother Arthur would never have been born. Oscar wore prosthetic metal legs the rest of his life. He remained involved in veterans’ affairs, writing a monograph in 1944 that doubtless drew from his own war experience: Rehabilitation of the Personnel of Canada’s Fighting Forces. I think he may have been awarded an OBE, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire medal, for his efforts in World War II, but I couldn’t confirm this is the same Oscar L. Erickson.

The sweet moment Czink gave the bracelet to Don is captured in this news story:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Early medieval gold coin hoard found in Netherlands

Sat, 2014-06-21 23:28

Two metal detector enthusiasts searching in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province have discovered 47 gold coins from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The treasure consists of gold solidi minted in Constantinople, Rome, Ravenna and Laon, in northern France. Most of the coins, 38 of them, are Byzantine and depict the emperor Justinian. The most recent coin dates to 541 A.D. It’s rare to find loose gold coins from this period in the northern Netherlands; a coin hoard is unique. The last time gold treasure was unearthed in Drenthe was 1955.

The gold solidi each weigh more than four grams for a total of more than 200 grams, making the find the greatest amount of 6th century currency by weight ever found in the Netherlands. One coin is the only example of its kind discovered on Dutch soil. It’s a Frankish coin minted by the Merovingian King Theudebert (534-548), the first king to issue characteristic Merovingian coinage bearing his own image rather than the Byzantine emperor’s.

To prevent treasure hunters flocking to the site, no information is being divulged about the exact find area. We thus don’t know much about the context, but whoever buried the coins is likely to have been a high ranking personage in the local ruling elite.

That there was such a huge amount of money in circulation, according to an archaeologist involved means that Drenthe was an important political factor. [...]

The money may have been a diplomatic payment, probably a pay-off to keep the Drenthe people away from the boundaries of the Merovingian kingdom. That kingdom then was from the South of France to the major rivers in the [central] Netherlands.

Very little is known about the Netherlands of the 6th century and few archaeological remains from the period have been unearthed, so this find would be nationally significant even if it weren’t a flashy stash of gold solidi.

The discovery was made this spring, and the finders reported it promptly to the province’s government archaeologists. The find was announced to the public on Friday. The treasure was acquired by the Drenthe Museum which put the coins on public display starting Saturday. The hoard now takes its place as one of the most important exhibitions in the museum. Museum director Annabelle Birnie, as quoted in the Drenthe province’s press release:

“We are very pleased with our newest addition. It’s a great addition, and of great importance to our archaeological collection. In addition to the gold treasure of Tomahawk from the 5th century and the coin treasure Nietap from the 7th century, we now have a masterpiece in the 6th century, a period about which relatively little is known. This acquisition, combined with further research can give us new insights into this period of the Early Middle Ages.”

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Who is hidden under Picasso’s Blue Room?

Fri, 2014-06-20 23:13

Infrared imaging confirmed what experts have long suspected about Pablo Picasso’s 1901 work The Blue Room: there’s a whole other painting underneath, a portrait of a bearded man in a bow tie. A conservator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which has owned the painting since 1927, first noted that the brushwork was atypical in 1954. X-rays in the 1990s confirmed that there appeared to be something underneath The Blue Room, but it wasn’t until 2008 that infrared imaging revealed a clear picture of a bearded man in a bow tie and jacket resting his head on his hand, and the revelation wasn’t announced until now.

“It’s really one of those moments that really makes what you do special,” said Patricia Favero, the conservator at The Phillips Collection who pieced together the best infrared image yet of the man’s face.

“The second reaction was, ‘Well, who is it?’ We’re still working on answering that question.”

Scholars have ruled out the possibility that it was a self-portrait. One possible figure is the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who hosted Picasso’s first show in 1901. But there’s no documentation and no clues left on the canvas, so the research continues.

Picasso made several portraits of Vollard, a highly influential figure in the art world of late 19th, early 20th century Paris. He was a great supporter of the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, and the young Picasso was eager to join the dealer’s roster of talent. Vollard loved to sit for his artists, and Picasso knew it would behoove him to flatter his vanity. He would pursue a contract with Vollard for decades, but although Vollard was glad to buy and sell individual pieces, Picasso never did secure his services as his primary dealer.

In 1901 when Picasso had his first show at Vollard’s gallery on rue Lafitte, the artist was just 19 years old. That show was full of color and vibrant themes, for instance Crazy Woman with Cats. Vollard considered the showing a failure with many works left unsold. Picasso’s art took a drastic turn that year as he launched into his now-famous Blue Period. Influenced by Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec and his own depression after the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas, Picasso chose subjects that emphasized human misery — the elderly, infirm, prostitutes, beggars, drunks — with the color blue dominating the works. The Parisian critics and buyers weren’t fans at first. Vollard himself didn’t start buying Blue Period paintings until 1906, two years after the period’s end, and then only because influential collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein had begun to collect them.

Another possible candidate for the sitter of the hidden portrait is Spanish writer Pío Baroja. He published his first novel in 1900, and Picasso is known to have drawn him for an issue of Arte Joven (Young Art), a magazine Picasso co-founded with his friend Francisco de Asís Soler in Madrid in early 1901 which published only five issues before folding in June.

Based solely on the timing and the beard, I’d propose fellow artist Jaume Andreu Bonsons as a possible subject. There’s a drawing of the two of them Picasso did upon his return to Paris in late winter, early spring of 1901 (nobody is quite sure when he returned to Paris from Spain that year). Tenuous, I know, but what the hell, right? You can tweet any ideas you have to the Phillips Collection, #BlueRoom, or comment on their blog.

The Blue Room is on tour in South Korea through early 2015, but research proceeds apace. Conservators plan to employ additional imaging technology to attempt to identify the colors used in the portrait. In 2017, the painting will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit that will cover both The Blue Room and the bearded gent beneath it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Volunteer finds first gold coin at Vindolanda

Thu, 2014-06-19 22:02

Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, is a huge motherlode of archaeological discoveries, with its nine rebuilds, related civilian communities and near continuous use from 85 A.D. until the 9th century. Most famously, the anoxic waterlogged ground has preserved an unprecedented collection of correspondence written in ink on thin postcard-sized pieces of wood in a cursive Latin. More than 700 have been recovered and transcribed (see the full collection including high resolution pictures on the Vindolanda Tablets Online database). The Vindolanda tablets are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and a remarkable primary source of information about life at the northern border Roman Britain before and after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

The site has been excavated regularly since 1970. The first tablets were found in 1973 and every year new discoveries are made. The Vindolanda fort has produced the greatest collection of Roman footwear anywhere in the Roman Empire, delicate textiles, altars, brooches, rings, gaming pieces, extensive structures including two bathhouses, one before Hadrian, one after, temples, a granary, officer’s houses and soldier barracks. Thousands of coins have been unearthed by professional archaeologists and by the more than 6,400 volunteers who have dug alongside them since 1970. None of them, however, have been gold.

Until now. On June 3rd, 2014, the first gold coin at Vindolanda was found by a French volunteer.

Volunteer Marcel Albert, from Nantes, France, who has been taking part at the Vindolanda dig since 2008, described his discovery simply as “magnifique,” and with the knowledge that although 1000’s of coins had already been discovered at Vindolanda but none of them were gold he said “I thought it can’t be true, it was just sitting there as I scrapped back the soil, shining, as if someone had just dropped it.”

The well worn coin was soon confirmed by the archaeologists as an aureus (gold coin) which although found in the late 4th century level at Vindolanda bears the image of the Emperor Nero which dates the coin to AD 64-65. This precious currency, equating to over half a years’ salary for a serving soldier, had been in circulation for more than 300 years before being lost on this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.

The coin features the laureate head of Nero in right profile with the inscription “NERO CAESAR” on the obverse. On the reverse is an image of Nero standing radiate, holding a branch and a globe on which stands a small figure of Victory. It bears the legend “AVGVSTVS GERMANICVS.” Nero had these aurei issued in the wake of his monetary reform of 64 A.D. To make a dollar out of fifteen cents, Nero reduced the weight of the gold in the coins so he could mint more with less. Silver coins fared worse, being not just shortweighted but also less pure. Bronze, copper and brass coins he cranked out in vast quantities. Nero was the first emperor to debase the coinage, but he wouldn’t be the last.

You can tell from its condition that the aureus went through a great many hands in its long life as legal tender. It was unearthed at the fort itself, not in the village that grew next to it. Gold coins are very rare in Roman military sites. They were just far beyond the level of currency exchanged in military outposts. Chances are, this is the only aureus that will ever be found at Vindolanda.

The coin will be studied in greater detail, along with the panoply of other artifacts discovered during this season’s dig (April 7th – September 19th). Once it has been researched and documented, the aureus will likely go on display at the site’s Roman Army Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British Guiana stamp sells for record $9.5 Million

Wed, 2014-06-18 22:00

The rarest stamp in the world, the only known surviving example of the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, sold for a record $9,480,000 (including buyer’s premium) at a Sotheby’s auction in Manhattan on Tuesday. The pre-sale estimate was $10 – $20 million, so they were expecting the new bar to be set significantly higher, but still leaves the previous record-holder — the Swedish Treskilling Yellow sold in 2010 for an undisclosed amount that was at least as much as the $2.3 million record it set in 1996 — in the dust. At one-thousandth of an ounce and 1 5/32 x 1 1/32 inches, the stamp is now the most valuable object in the world by weight, volume and size.

This rather plain stamp printed in black ink on magenta paper was an emergency issue by the postmaster of British Guiana when an expected shipment of English postage failed to arrive on time. The printers of the Royal Gazette newspaper in Georgetown ran a small contingency supply of stamps: one-cent magentas, four-cent magentas and four-cent blues. They were printed with a simple outline design of a three-masted ship and the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return).

About 200 of the four-cent stamps have survived, but the only one-cent known to exist was rescued by a 12-year-old boy who found it among his uncle’s papers in 1873. He collected stamps, so when he saw this one that he didn’t have in his collection, he cut it off the envelope and put it in his album. Because it wasn’t a pristine copy (the original issue was square; this one has cut corners), young L. Vernon Vaughan sold it another collector, Neil McKinnon, to buy some newer, prettier issues. The One-Cent Magenta left British Guiana in 1878 when McKinnon sent it to Scotland for appraisal.

The stamp passed through several hands after that, including those of Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary of Paris, a legendary philatelist, and textile magnate Arthur Hind of Utica, N.Y. Hind bought it in 1922 at auction for $35,250, a record at that time, and reportedly outbid avid stamp collector King George V for the little red stamp.

“Arthur Hind had never intended to even bid on the British Guiana,” the Sotheby’s catalog said.

But an encounter with a stamp dealer in London changed his mind, and owning the stamp changed his life. Mr. Hind later acknowledged that the stamp “had caused him to be ridiculed,” the Sotheby’s catalog said. “A London journalist described the 1856 British Guiana as ‘cut square and magenta in colour’ and himself as ‘cut round and rather paler magenta.’”

Hind was also rumored to have secured a second One-Cent Magenta only to light his cigar and the stamp with the same match, ostensibly to ensure the value and rarity of the one survivor would remain untarnished. The source for this story was an anonymous letter writer, so who knows if it’s true.

The last time the stamp was sold was 1980. The buyer was du Pont chemical fortune heir John E. du Pont who spent a then-record $935,000 for it. In 1997, du Pont was convicted of murdering Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz and was sentenced to a term of 13 to 30 years in prison. He died in prison in 2010. It’s his estate that sold the stamp.

For more details on the incredible journey of this wee stamp and the history of British Guiana, see the Sotheby’s catalogue multi-part exploration.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Plans for Richard III’s tomb, reburial finalized

Tue, 2014-06-17 23:44

As there has been no appeal lodged to contest the ruling of the High Court that the remains of King Richard III are to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, plans for the reburial have been finalized. The Cathedral Fabrics Commission for England have approved the tomb design of architects van Heningen and Haward. There’s no inlaid marble white rose of York underneath the raised platform in this version. Instead, a plinth made of black Kilkenny marble will seal the tomb beneath the Cathedral floor. Richard’s name, dates and motto will be engraved into the sides of the plinth — the nature of the marble will make the lettering appear white in contrast with the dark color of the smooth surface — while his coat of arms is inlaid in marble and semi-precious hard stones at the top foot of the plinth.

On top of the plinth will be a large rectangular block of Swaledale fossil stone, quarried in North Yorkshire, deeply incised with a cross along its full length and breadth. The fossil stone is so called because it is peppered with visible fossils, once-living beings long dead whose remains have been brought to light and immortalized in stone, a metaphorically significant analogy to Richard’s fate.

Underneath the plinth, Richard’s remains will be laid to rest in a lead ossuary which will be placed in an oak coffin which in turn be placed in a brick lined vault under the Cathedral floor. The precise design of the wooden coffin is still being worked out and will be announced at a later date, but the carpenter who will make the coffin has been selected already. It’s Michael Ibsen, Richard’s sixteenth grand-nephew, a direct descendant down the maternal line of Richard’s sister Anne of York whose mitochondrial DNA helped identify the King’s remains. He’s a cabinet and furniture maker by trade, so it’s a fitting commission in every way. Ibsen accepted the work offer with alacrity, calling it “a very appropriate gift to offer to [his] royal ancestor.”

The oak coffin will play an important role in the reburial ceremony. The ossuary will be placed in the coffin at the University of Leicester and the coffin will then be transported to the Cathedral along a public route that will follow what we know of King Richard’s movements on the last days of his life. It will be received formally by Cathedral officials accompanied by the medieval service of Compline. The coffin will then lie in state covered with a pall that will feature scenes from Richard’s life and death. The public will be invited to pay their respects at this time.

The reburial service will not be a funeral as Richard had one of those already. Instead it will be a special service designed according to detailed research of medieval reinterment rites (reburials were quite common back then, and there are extant sources describing the services). The service will conclude with the coffin being lowered into the brick vault. The tomb will be sealed overnight with the stone plinth and the sarcophagus-like Swaledale fossil stone marker.

The tomb and marker will be installed in an ambulatory (an open walking space) between the new Chapel of Christ the King and the sanctuary under the tower, the most holy place in the Cathedral where the main altar stands. It will be a peaceful, quiet spot, separated from the main worship area of the Cathedral by the relocated Nicholson screen, an ornately carved screen created in the 1920s by ecclesiastical architect and baronet Sir Charles Nicholson to separate the nave from the chancel.

Cathedral officials hope to start the construction work this summer so the building can be finished by early 2015 in time for a Spring reburial. The total budget for this project is £2,500,000 ($4,240,000). The Diocese of Leicester will contribute £500,000 ($848,000) and £100,000 ($170,000) has already been collected in donations. Much of the rest will come from large grants from trusts, foundations and private donors. There will be a fundraising appeal later this year targeted to the Leicester community, giving local residents the opportunity to fund a specific element of the reburial project. Meanwhile, donations are open. If you’d like to contribute, you can do so online here or you can print out this pdf form for sending in a donation by mail.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Make your own 19th c. patent medicines

Mon, 2014-06-16 23:22

During an archaeological survey before construction of a new hotel at 50 Bowery in New York City, archaeologists unearthed a trove of 19th century bottles from when the space was occupied by a German beer garden. Atlantic Gardens offered beer and live entertainment from 1858 until it closed in 1916, leaving behind all kinds of dishes and bottles. Among the latter were bottles of patent medicine, nostrums made from combinations of herbs and alcohol or even narcotics like opium, that claimed to cure a wide variety of ailments.

One of the bottles was a small green glass cylinder labeled “Elixir of Long Life.” Two bottles of Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters were also discovered at the site. With the empty vessels in hand, the experts of contractor Chrysalis Archaeology decided to seek out recipes and recreate the products that once sold briskly at taverns as well as at apothecary shops and from street vendors.

After researching the brands in German, the team found that The Elixir of Long Life is a fairly straight-forward collection of ingredients from the herbalist handbook — aloe, an anti-inflammatory, gentian root, a digestive aid — combined with lots of alcohol. Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters went a bit further afield:

The Hostetters recipe is a bit more complex, containing Peruvian bark, also known as cinchona, which is used for its malaria-fighting properties and is still used to make bitters for cocktails, and gum kino, a kind of tree sap that is antibacterial. It also contains more common ingredients, including cinnamon and cardamom seeds, which are known to help prevent gas.

But it too was proportionally dominated by grain alcohol, so even if the herbs didn’t cure what ailed you, the rest of it would make you forget about how sick you were. In fact, although Dr. Hostetters bitters may not be sold as medicines anymore, its cousins like Angostura and Aperol are popular ingredients in cocktails and are often consumed before or after meals because they’re still considered digestive boosts, a hangover from their days of being sold at taverns to quell the stomach demons.

But why should the archaeologists have all the fun? Here are the recipes to make your own Elixir of Long Life and Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters in the comfort of your own home.

Elixir of Long Life:

Aloes – 13 grams
Rhubarb – 2.3 grams
Gentian – 2.3 grams
Zedoary (white turmeric) – 2.3 grams
Spanish saffron – 2.3 grams
Water – 4 ounces
Grain alcohol (vodka, gin) – 12 ounces

Squeeze out the liquid from the aloe and set aside. Crush the rhubarb, gentian, zedoary and Spanish saffron (for a modern twist, use a blender for this part), and mix them with the aloe liquid, water and alcohol. Let the mixture sit for three days, shaking frequently. Then filter it using a cheesecloth or coffee filter, and serve. Be careful with the liquid — the saffron can dye your hands or other kitchen items.

Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters:

Gentian root – 1 1/2 ounces
Orange peel – 2 1/2 ounces
Cinnamon – 1/4 ounce
Anise – 1/2 ounces
Coriander seed – 1/2 ounce
Cardamom seed – 1/8 ounce
Un-ground Peruvian bark (cinchona) – 1/2 ounce
Gum kino – 1/4 ounce
Grain alcohol (vodka, gin) – 1 quart
Water – 4 quarts
Sugar – 1 pound

Mash together the gentian, orange peel, cinnamon, anise, coriander, cardamom and Peruvian bark. Mix the crushed ingredients with the gum kino and the alcohol. Let the mixture sit in a closed container for two weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain the mixture, add the sugar and water to the strained liquid and serve.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Picasso curtain will move to NY Historical Society

Sun, 2014-06-15 23:38

The biggest Picasso in the United States will be leaving its home on a wall at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York for what one hopes will be greener pastures at the New York Historical Society. RFR Holding, owner of the historic Seagram Building where the Four Seasons and the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain have lived together in harmony since 1957, planned to remove the work last year. It claimed the wall on which it hung was structurally unsound due to a leaking steam pipe and informed the New York Landmarks Conservancy, owner of the painting since it was donated to it by Vivendi Universal, then owner of the Seagram Building, in 2005, that the curtain would be coming down immediately.

The Conservancy challenged the plan in court. They said the curtain was far too fragile to be moved, especially by rolling the canvas up “one click at a time” and transporting it in a rental van. At the last minute, the court sided with the Conservancy and issued a temporary restraining order. Since then, RFR Holding and the Landmarks Conservancy have been locked in a struggle over the fate of the historical curtain. The discussions have now apparently borne fruit, and the front cloth painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 for a production of the Ballets Russes’ Le Tricorne will be moved to the New York Historical Society, conserved and put on display, all at RFR’s expense.

To move the Picasso, workers will mount hydraulic lifts to detach the top of the curtain from the wall. It will then be wrapped around a wide roller, starting at the bottom. The curtain will first go to a conservator, for cleaning and restoration work. The historical society plans to have it installed for an exhibition in May.

That process sounds a lot like the original “one click at a time” plan which the Conservancy deemed far too dangerous. The art mover agreed that the painting could “crack like a potato chip” under the strain. The Conservancy isn’t too thrilled about it, judging from their press release, but they will have conservators on the ground during the removal and transport stages.

The impetus for this compromise is the looming defeat in court the Conservancy expected. The donation was made on the condition that the curtain remain where it was at the Four Seasons, but that wasn’t going to be able to trump RFR’s solid legal position. From the Landmarks Conservancy press release:

We did our best to maintain it in place. But our only leverage was that the Curtain is specifically included in the current restaurant lease. It was made clear to us that the Curtain would not be included in whatever new lease is negotiated. So, if we had prevailed in Court, the most a judge could grant is that the Curtain stay until the end of the current lease.

Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, purchased and installed the curtain in 1957. She’s not in favor of this plan.

“It sort of breaks my heart,” she said.

Vivendi bought the Seagram company, including its large art collection, in 2000, around the time Mr. Rosen bought the Seagram Building. Later, the financially ailing Vivendi moved to sell the entire Seagram art collection, but Ms. Lambert persuaded Vivendi to bequeath the Picasso to the conservancy.

Lambert has every reason to be bummed. The curtain is an iconic part of what has become a beloved and famous interior. However, the Conservancy had few options here, and it’s undoubtedly better for its long-term prospects for the painting to be in the hands of a museum instead of a company owned by a man who once called the curtain a “schmatte” (Yiddish for “rag”) and who appears to be keen to install works from his own modern art collection in the space. The pressing issue is how to ensure the least possible trauma in the removal and transportation.

The New York Historical Society is thrilled to have it. They plan to make Le Tricorne the centerpiece of the second-floor gallery.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Maya council house found in Guatemala

Sat, 2014-06-14 23:14

Archaeologists have discovered a 700-year-old council house, a space dedicated to political and religious purposes, in the ancient site of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Petén, Guatemala. The house is a square about 164 feet by 164 feet. The interior has two collonaded halls that were once decorated with animal sculptures — the carved heads of a reptile (snake or crocodile) and a parrot were found in the home — built next to each other, and two altars.

A Mayan group called the Chakan Itza would have used this council house as a place to hold meetings, worship gods, make alliances and officiate marriage ceremonies.

“Basically almost every political and religious ritual would have been held there,” [Queens College professor Timothy] Pugh told Live Science in an interview. The leaders who gathered there would have held power in the community and perhaps the broader region. Among the artifacts is an incense burner showing the head of Itzamna, who was the “shaman of the gods,” Pugh said.

The house was devoted to its role between 1300 and 1500, after which it was deliberately destroyed by the Chakan Itza and the seat of power moved. This was part of the process of transition from one calendar period to the next. The ritual required that the altars be demolished and the house covered with a thin layer of ceremonial dirt representing burial.

The city of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ was a thriving metropolis when the council house was built. Its importance was confirmed by the discovery of a vast Mayan ball court, the second largest ever found. The first largest is at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The Chakan Itza people claimed the Chichen Itza builders as their ancestors (hence the name), that they had migrated from what is today Mexico and settled in Guatemala.

They only had a few centuries to enjoy their new surroundings. In the 17th century, the Spanish conquered Petén, bringing death from war and disease to the Chakan Itza who were close to extermination. There are still Itza people today, but their language is almost extinct. Only a handful of surviving people still speak it. The rest speak Spanish.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Shriver relatives reinterred in Causten Vault

Fri, 2014-06-13 23:23

Timothy Shriver, son of Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother of journalist and former California First Lady Maria Shriver, attended a memorial service Wednesday for relatives he didn’t know he had. They were prominent people in their day, but over time their final resting place in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery had fallen into disrepair and was in dire need of restoration. Since the brick vault could not be repaired while the remains were still inside, in 2009 Douglas Owsley, head of the Natural History museum’s Physical Anthropology Department, was asked to excavate it and identify the remains for future reburial. After years of research and restoration, the skeletal remains of 16 people were reinterred in the tomb attended by a small group of Shriver relatives.

The Causten Vault was built in 1835 by lawyer and international diplomat James H. Causten after the tragic death of his first son, Charles Isaac, who passed away just days short of his second birthday. According to his obituary, little Charles “was a child of uncommon intelligence and excited the admiration and affectionate regard of all that knew him. His family have much cause to regret the early fall of one so interesting and promising.”

James Causten would outlive all but one of his children, and his daughter Josephine only outlived him by four years. His eldest daughter Henrietta Jane was the Shriver connection. She married Joseph Shriver, scion of an important Baltimore family that included a signer of the 1776 Maryland Constitution. Henrietta died in 1863 of a sudden heart attack when she was 52, “leaving both families overwhelmed in grief at this loss of their richest jewels.” She was buried in the vault, joining her daughter Josephine Shriver who had died 14 years before her mother at the age of four.

After his death in 1874 at the age of 86, Causten was buried in the family vault, which was already so sadly well-populated by then. It would eventually hold the remains of 22 members of the extended family, and that’s not counting the eight temporary residents who were placed in the vault while arrangements were made for permanent burials elsewhere. One of them was First Lady Dolley Madison. Her niece and adopted daughter was Annie Payne Causten, wife of Dr. James H. Causten Jr., the founder’s son. After Dolley died in July of 1849, she was buried in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery ostensibly just until arrangements could be made to bury her by her husband’s side at his Virginia estate Montpelier. Unfortunately her gambling, alcoholic wastrel son, whose endless debts were a major reason for her poverty in old age, set aside no money for her burial. When he died of typhoid fever less than three years after his mother, she was still in the Public Vault. A month later, Annie Payne Causten had Dolley’s remains moved to the Causten Vault. Unfortunately she died a few months later aged just 33, so Dolley’s remains stayed in the vault for another six years. Finally the Caustens saw to it that she was buried in Montpelier.

The last burials in the Causten Vault were at the end of the 19th century. After that, the fate of the vault matched the fate of the Congressional Cemetery. It stopped being a fashionable place for Washington politicos and society figures to be buried and gradually fell into neglectful decay. Vaults crumbled, headstones broke, drug dealers and prostitutes plied their trades amidst the historical dead. In 1976 the non-profit Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery took over management of the cemetery, but it wasn’t until the '90s when volunteers and innovative programs began to boost restoration projects. Its inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1997 brought it fresh attention, including, finally, some maintenance funding from Congress.

Restoration is an ongoing process. The Causten Vault became a priority in 2009 because its mortar was crumbling and the barrel roof was on the verge of collapse. When Douglas Owsley and his team opened the tomb, they found that the interior was in even more dire condition. Over the years the shelves that held coffins had fallen apart, pancaking caskets and human remains in a chaotic pile several feet thick. The remains were carefully removed and transported to Owsley’s lab at the National Museum of Natural History.

Over the past five years, a team of archaeologists and anthropologists analyzed the skeletons taken from the vault, the hardware on the coffins (which helps date the caskets) and personal artifacts found inside. Bones provide all sorts of information, Owsley said, from gender and age to lifestyle (years of heavy labor, for example, take a toll), diet and probable cause of death.

In the final tally, the remains of 16 people were found. The six people known to have been buried in the vault whose remains were not found are thought to have been buried near the bottom of the vault where the damp conditions caused brushite to form on the bones and eventually disintegrate them. The remains of the 16 were identified and placed either in white boxes or in their original cast iron coffins, several of which survived in usable condition. They have all now been reinterred, with their family in attendance, in the Causten Vault.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

One of Vermeer’s first paintings authenticated

Thu, 2014-06-12 23:14

Saint Praxedis, an oil painting depicting the 2nd century saint cleaning the blood of a decapitated martyr, was first attributed to Johannes Vermeer in 1969. That year it had gone on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Florentine Baroque Art from American Collections as a work by Felice Ficherelli, aka Il Riposo. It was thought to be a second version of a nearly identical 1640-5 work by Ficherelli, but University of London art historian Michael Kitson proposed a very different hand was behind the copy. In his opinion, the signature “Meer 1655″ on the bottom left of the painting “correspond[ed] exactly to those on Vermeer’s early works, particularly the Maid Asleep.” He also thought the treatment of the historical subject had elements in common with Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, namely its “breadth of form and handling and a similar gravity (though not sickness) of mood.”

Kitson’s tentative attribution wasn’t widely accepted. Saint Praxedis was an unusual subject in Dutch painting in general and for Vermeer in particular, even though he did start out treating historical scenes like Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and Diana and her Companions, both of which were painted during Vermeer’s earliest productive years (1654-1656). Also, this would be the sole example of Vermeer copying the work of an Italian master, or anybody else for that matter.

In 1986, Arthur Wheelock Jr., the influential curator of Northern Baroque painting at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, boosted Saint Praxedis‘s fortunes. Wheelock agreed with Kitson that there were stylistic similarities between Saint Praxedis and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. He also suggested that the painting of the saint’s face was characteristically Dutch in modeling, comparable in its downcast posture to the young woman in A Maid Asleep. Wheelock noted a second potential signature on the right side. It’s barely distinguishable, but Wheelock posited that it said “Meer N R o o,” originally “[Ver]Meer N[aar] R[ip]o[s]o” or “Vermeer after Riposo.”

Wheelock’s arguments were controversial. Several important art historians and experts in Dutch painting thought the brushwork, lighting and quality had little in common with Vermeer’s known works. One of them couldn’t even find the so-called second signature, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have found it persuasive since it’s the only example of a signature shouting out the original artist. Many experts were convinced Saint Praxedis was of Florentine origin, painted by a student of Ficherelli’s, and that the signature was a later addition referencing an artist named Meer or van der Meer.

The painting was purchased the year after Wheelock’s first publication by Polish-American art collector Barbara Piasecka Johnson. She died last year, and works from the fine collection she and her husband Johnson & Johnson co-founder John Seward Johnson I put together will be going up for auction at Christie’s London on July 8th (view the catalogue here). With a potential pre-sale estimate of $11,000,000-$13,000,000 if she could be shown conclusively to have been painted by Vermeer’s hand, Christie’s enlisted experts from the Rijksmuseum and Amsterdam’s Free University to test Saint Praxedis.

The results are pretty spectacular. From the Christie’s catalogue:

Particles of lead taken from samples of lead white pigment used in Saint Praxedis were submitted for high precision lead isotope ratio analysis at the Free University, Amsterdam. The results placed the lead white squarely in the Dutch/Flemish cluster of samples, establishing with certainty that its origin is north European and entirely consistent with mid-seventeenth century painting in Holland. Two separate samples from the picture have been tested to certify this result. This provides incontrovertible scientific proof that the picture was not painted in Italy. Furthermore, a lead white sample taken from Diana and her Companions was tested in the same manner to allow for comparison between Saint Praxedis and a work from the same approximate date that is universally accepted as by Vermeer. The outcome of this was extraordinary, providing an almost identical match of isotope abundance values between the two samples. They relate so precisely as to even suggest that the exact same batch of paint could have been used for both pictures.

As for why Vermeer would copy a work by a second-rate Italian artist on a subject of little resonance in Dutch Protestant culture, the simple answer is that it was a learning project. We don’t know very much about Vermeer’s life, but there is no solid evidence that he was ever apprenticed to or tutored by an established artist. Vermeer appears to have taught himself to paint, amazingly enough, and as a highly knowledgeable fan of Italian art and as a recent convert to Catholicism, the 22-year-old artist had reason to appreciate Ficherelli’s original even if his contemporaries did not. Saint Praxedis was a particular favorite of Jesuits in the late 16th century, and Vermeer’s mother-in-law lived next to an order of them in Delft.

This is one of only two works attributed to Johannes Vermeer that is privately owned, so even though Saint Praxedis doesn’t look much like the works Vermeer is famous for today, the incredibly rare chance to buy any piece by Vermeer could drive the price through the stratosphere.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest handmade model skull attributed to Leonardo

Wed, 2014-06-11 23:17

A new study provides fresh evidence that a small anatomical model of a skull was made by Leonardo da Vinci. Since the 1990s, the model has been examined by doctors, art historians and geologists, among others, who have provided solid evidence in favor of the attribution, but Belgian researcher Stefaan Missinne’s take on it contributes highly significant additional information, including for the first time a date of ca. 1508.

[Names have been edited per comment from Dr. Missinne below.] Winfried and Waltraud Rolshausen came across the piece in an antiques shop in Homburg, Germany, in 1987. Winfried is a medical doctor, so they purchased the skull for 600 German marks ($415 by today’s conversion) and he put it on display in his office. In 1996, Prof. Dr. Roger Saban of Paris, then director of the museum housing the massive anatomical collection of Paris Descartes University’s medical school, recognized that it was not just a decorative sculpture, but a remarkably accurate 1/3rd scale anatomical model of a skull. Saban’s conclusion:

“A striking, unusual and rare fact for a sculptor to create this very precise, proportional 1/3 scale model, which breathes a scientific spirit wanting to conserve a three-dimensional piece, which is easier to transport in secrecy than a human skull originating from a burial site or an exploration.”

Secrecy was essential for anatomists since human dissection was against the law and custom, and Leonardo was a pioneering anatomist. Saban noted the skull model bears a remarkable similarity to one of the seminal images in the history of anatomy: Leonardo da Vinci’s 1498 drawing of a sectioned cranium, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. The Windsor skull drawings on three pages, back and front, are groundbreaking innovations in anatomical illustration. RL 19059 recto was probably the first of the series (although we can’t be certain because Leonardo’s notebooks were dismembered and sold off piecemeal), and he helpfully dated it to April 2, 1498. RL 19058 and RL 19057 follow. They were Leonardo’s first forays into accurate observation-based views of human anatomy (or at least the first known to have survived), and the first anatomical drawings to employ the kind of section views used in architectural design.

Like the miniature model, the skull on the verso (back) of RL 19057 has no lower jaw and depicts the outer features of the skull at the same level of knowledge. Both are missing the inferior orbital fissure, and both place the sutura coronalis — a connective tissue joint that separates the front and back bones of the skull — in an unusual position at the back of the skull; other features on the cheekbones and eye sockets match as well.

There’s also a philosophical commonality between the drawings and model. According to the notes accompanying the drawings, Leonardo was studying the skull in an attempt to locate the sensus communis, the place where all the senses, all intellectual and creative faculties, come together in the brain. That spot, Leonardo theorized, was the locus of the soul. He points to the spot in the recto of RL 19058. It’s where all the lines intersect in the plane he has tilted so the seat of the soul could be seen best.

The model, which is not anatomically accurate on the inside because for structural purposes it couldn’t be as hollow as the skull actually is, does include the optic canals, the openings through which the eyes send visual information to the sensus communis where the optic nerve picks up the info and sends it to the brain. Thus the optic canals are the means by which “the visual power passes to the sensorium,” as Leonardo put it. No other skull known includes this morphological detail linked to the sensus communis.

What Saban got wrong is the material. He thought it was carved out of marble. A 2003 X-ray fluorescence analysis found that the skull was made of an “agate alabaster” extracted from the Cipollone mine just 50 miles from Florence. Missinne found an anomaly in the results: the presence of the rare metallic element iridium which does not naturally occur in alabaster from the Cipollone mine or anywhere else that we know of. That means the iridium was added, and that the skull wasn’t carved so much as modeled, created out of a mixture of ground agate, calcium and river sand (the source of the Ir) that Leonardo called “mistioni.” This was his own invention, the product of research between 1503 and 1508 mentioned in several of his surviving notebooks. He made artificial pearls with this modelling material, and in Manuscript F and the Codex Atlanticus he writes that he can use it to produce agate. That’s as close to a signature as we’re likely to get.

There are references to model skulls in Leonardo collections after his death. The first is a “detailed engraved skull made from fine calcedonia stone” listed in the 1524 inventory of Leonardo’s student and heir (and possible lover) Andrea Salai. A 1584 catalog of the Villa Riposo in Florence describes one object as “by Leonardo da Vinci there’s a skull of a dead man with all its minutiae.” There are also descriptions of a model of “a child’s skull” in a Habsburg collection in Prague and Innsbruck, which could be an interim step between its Florentine origin and rediscovery nearly 500 years later in southwestern Germany.

Read about Leonardo’s anatomical drawings in the Windsor collection in this catalog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1981 exhibition of the Windsor drawings, Leonardo da Vinci: Nature Studies. The entire book is available free of charge to view online or download as a pdf.

 

Reference: Missinne, S.J. (2014). The oldest anatomical handmade skull of the world c. 1508: ‘The ugliness of growing old’ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift. The full paper can be purchased or accessed via institutional login here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Register of St. Osmund misplaced for 34 years

Tue, 2014-06-10 23:42

The Register of St. Osmund, a 12th century manuscript recording the foundational documents of Salisbury Cathedral, has been returned to the Cathedral after 34 years. It was a filing mishap that saw one of the Cathedral’s most important historical records leave its home to spend almost four decades in the County Record Office. The book belongs to the Cathedral Chapter under the purview of the Dean of Salisbury, but somehow wound up in the archives of the Diocese, under the purview of the Bishop, instead.

In 1978 the General Synod of the Church of England passed the Parochial Registers and Records Measure which stipulated that non-current parish records should be transferred to the records offices of local authorities where they could be properly cared for by experts. The measure protected the records, ensuring they would be kept in proper archival conditions and handled by professionals rather than church employees who may or may not have any special knowledge in this area, and made church documents accessible to the public for historical and genealogical research.

In keeping with the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, in 1980 the Diocesan archives were moved from Wren Hall in the Cathedral Close offsite to the County Record Office, now the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. The misfiled Register of St. Osmund went with them, nestled amidst the parish’s collection of baptismal records and historical wills from 1540 to 1858.

It was archivists at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre who finally recognized that the Register belonged in the Cathedral Library and Archives.

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, said “I am delighted to see this ancient document, which somehow got confused with my predecessors’ records, returned to the cathedral. One of the glories of Salisbury Cathedral is the integrity and continuity of its ancient records and it reflects great credit on Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre that they recognized this particular document’s true home and encouraged its return.”

The Register of St. Osmund was not, as its name implies, compiled by the Saint himself. It’s named after him because it’s a compendium of charters, rules, statutes and rites that he instituted when he was Bishop of Salisbury from 1078 until his death in 1099. Salisbury was called Sarum in his day, and the Sarum Use, the practices regulating the Divine Office, mass and liturgical calendar that Osmund put together from pre-existing Norman and Saxon sources, became hugely influential. It was in widespread use in churches all over the country. Even after the Reformation, the Sarum Use was with some modifications employed in Church of England practices and in fact still is to this day.

The original manuscript drawn up by Osmund (he was a dedicated bibliophile and did a great deal of copying and book binding personally, so he could have literally put the first register together himself, or he could have ordered it put together by scribes) was lost. The Register includes the earliest surviving copy of Osmund’s Consuetudinary (a book containing the forms and ceremonies of a particular church or monastery), written around 1222-1240 for use in the new Salisbury Cathedral built on the property of Richard Poore when he was Bishop of Salisbury.

The influence of the Sarum Rite inspired a movement to canonize Osmund as a saint and father of the English church. The first papal bull establishing a preliminary inquiry into Osmund’s potential sainthood was promulgated on May 30th, 1228, by Pope Gregory IX. The inquiry took another 250 years, the repeated interventions of at least two kings of England (Henry V and Henry VI), and the Salisbury chapter to come to fruition. Osmund was canonized on January 1st, 1457.

Given the major historical import, therefore, of the Register, it’s kind of crazy that they ever lost track of it. Let’s just be grateful it wandered into the county archives for all those years and that it’s back in the Cathedral library now.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mausoleum of Romulus reopens after 20 years

Mon, 2014-06-09 23:26

The Mausoleum of Valerius Romulus, son of the Roman Emperor Maxentius, reopened to the public Monday after 20 years of restoration. The large circular structure was built by Maxentius in the early 4th century, probably as a family tomb, on the Appian Way. When his young son died around 309 A.D. — he is said to have drowned in the Tiber — he was buried in the mausoleum.

The tomb was part of a large imperial complex that included Maxentius’ palace and a circus for chariot racing. Little of the palace is still standing, while the mausoleum has lost its second level but is still an impressive structure, inside and out. It is surrounded by a quadroporticus on the outside with its main entrance on the Via Appia and two smaller entrances facing the palace and the circus. On the mausoleum itself, the main entrance facing the Appia was walled up centuries ago. It has now been reopened in the recent restoration. Inside, the crypt has a large central pillar with a circular corridor onto which open niches where the sarcophagi of the royal family would have been deposited. A spacious vestibule connected to the corridor probably once led to the second floor.

There’s an 18th century brick home attached to the back of the mausoleum that was originally a farmhouse for use when the property was dedicated to agricultural purposes. It was later converted into a home for personal use by the princely Torlonia family, who owned the land before it was requisitioned by the Fascist government in 1943.

The circus, while in ruins, is the best preserved of its kind, with pieces of all its major architectural components extant. Two of its gate towers have survived, as have the remains of the starting gates, the spina (the central median around which the chariots turned), and a triumphal arch. It’s also the second largest circus after the Circus Maximus at 500 meters (1640 feet) long and 90 meters (295 feet) wide. There was room in the stands for as many as 10,000 spectators to watch the races.

Parts of the circus were excavated by archaeologist Antonio Nibby in 1825, who unearthed a marble inscription dedicating the inaugural games to the deified Valerius Romulus, clarissimus puer (most highly regarded boy), nobilissimus vir (most noble man), twice consul of Rome, son of Maxentius the undefeated Augustus, grandson of the divine Maximian. Before that discovery, the circus was thought to have been Caracalla’s doing.

Maxentius would have been very put out to find his construction project attributed to another emperor. The Appia complex was part of a major effort on his part to legitimize his usurpation of the throne through the revival of great building in the city of Rome. In the years before the Praetorian Guard made Maxentius, formerly a Caesar or junior emperor, Augustus, emperors like Diocletian, Maximian and Galerius had focused imperial construction on other cities: Nicomedia for Diocletian, Milan for Maximian, Salonica for Galerius. They brought the imperial court and administration to these cities, diminishing Rome’s political and architectural importance.

With that in mind, Maxentius moved to build anew in Rome. The Appian Way complex was intended to be a new administrative center, not just a compound for private fun. The choice to place it on the Appia, outside of the formal boundary of the city of Rome where the tombs of the wealthy had for centuries dotted the roadside, was a break with tradition. He may have decided to build out there because he wanted his dynastic tomb to be part of the complex, and according to Roman custom, all bodies had to be buried outside the city.

You can take a look around the complex via satellite on Google Maps. To the right of the red marker are the circus ruins. Slightly up and to the left is the mausoleum.


View Larger Map

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

1733 portrait of freed slave acquired by Yorktown museum

Sun, 2014-06-08 23:25

A previously unknown portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773), an aristocrat from what is today Senegal who was sold into slavery in 1730 but made his way back home through a series of fortunate events, has been acquired by Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Along with its companion piece by the same artist, this is the earliest known portrait of a slave from the 13 colonies and the first Western portrait of a named African sitter. Its ultimate destination is the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown which is slated to open in 2016, but it will be on display at the Yorktown Victory Center from June 14th through August 3rd.

Ayube Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon in England, was the scion of a wealthy family of Muslim clerics and rulers in the West African Kingdom of Futa. While on a mission to the Gambia River to barter two slaves in exchange for supplies, Diallo was kidnapped and sold into slavery himself. He told the British slavers who bought him from his Mandingo kidnappers that his family would ransom him, but when the message didn’t get to his family in time, William and Henry Hunt loaded him into the ship and sold him to a dealer in Annapolis, Maryland.

He wound up the property of one Mr. Tolsey, a tobacco farmer on Kent Island, Maryland, who first attempted to put Diallo to work in the fields. He couldn’t hack it. This was back-breaking labor, and Diallo was a soft scholar. He was assigned to tending cattle instead, which he was a little better at. After being mocked by children for his prayers, in June of 1731 Diallo ran away. He was soon captured and put in prison in the Kent County Courthouse. There he met a British lawyer named Thomas Bluett whose curiosity was piqued by Diallo’s fine carriage and composure.

Bluett enlisted a translator and found out Diallo came from a wealthy family of important people. Tolsey, keen to derive some kind of profit from this liability of a slave, allowed Diallo to write a letter back home and then gladly allowed an official from the Royal African Company in London to buy his freedom. Diallo and Bluett sailed to London in March of 1733 where the cleric, nobleman and former slave made a social splash. He was commissioned by the future founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, to translate Arabic manuscripts in his library. He was introduced at Court by the Duke of Montagu. And he had his portrait painted by William Hoare.

Bluett describes the painting of the portrait in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, one of the earliest slave narratives (albeit not written in first person):

JOB’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr. Hoare. When the Face was finished, Mr. Hoare ask’d what Dress would be most proper to draw him in; and, upon JOB’s desiring to be drawn in his own Country Dress, told him he could not draw it, unless he had seen it, or had it described to him by one who had: Upon which JOB answered, If you can’t draw a Dress you never saw, why do some of you Painters presume to draw God, whom no one ever saw?

Hoare figured it out in the end, painting Diallo in a white robe and turban, wearing verses from the Qur’an in a pouch around his neck. The use of national dress makes this portrait unique. Other prominent named Africans would be painted after Diallo, but they were depicted wearing English dress and wigs.

Hoare painted two versions of this portrait, although for centuries only one was known and it was long thought lost. The only evidence of it was a 1750 print. It turns out to have been in the same family since 1840 and was rediscovered in December 2009 when the owners put it up for auction at Christie’s in London. The Qatar Museums Authority purchased it for £554,937.50 ($932,517). The Culture Minister put a temporary export block on the painting to give the National Portrait Gallery a chance to raise the money by the end of August 2010. They came within £60,000 of the goal on August 12th, 2010. I was unable to discover if they actually managed to raise the full amount on time, but either way, the NPG made the QMA a purchase offer which it refused. The QMA did withdraw its export application, however, and eventually negotiated a long-term loan with the National Portrait Gallery.

The publicity from the NPG’s fundraising campaign brought attention to the portrait, inspiring the owners of the second version to engage in private sale negotiations with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., purchased the oil-on-canvas painting with funds raised privately, including a lead gift from Foundation trustee Fred D. Thompson, Jr., of Thompson Hospitality, the country’s largest minority-owned food service company. “This portrait is a powerful symbol of the diversity of colonial America’s population, which included people from many different African cultures,” says Thompson. “Diallo – his image and story – is an ideal teaching opportunity for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries.”

“For approximately three years now, the Foundation has been in confidential negotiations to acquire this important portrait,” says Thomas E. Davidson, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation senior curator. “Diallo’s visage speaks for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who remain largely unknown, yet who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population.”

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Swedish city returns ancient textiles to Peru

Sat, 2014-06-07 23:56

After years of negotiations, the City of Gothenburg in southwestern Sweden has agreed to return its collection of 89 textiles from the Paracas peninsula to Peru. The 2,000-year-old textiles are in extremely fragile condition, so they will be repatriated in phases. The first four pieces arrive in Peru next week and will be unveiled on June 18th. The rest will be transported over the course of seven years until the whole collection is returned by 2021.

These extraordinary embroidered textiles first came to archaeologists’ attention in the early 20th century when they began to appear in private collections. Their intensity of color, size, design and composition were unique, unlike any textiles from known Peruvian cultures. Realizing that the textiles had to have been looted from an unknown site, Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello hired professional looter Juan Quintana to guide him to the find spot in 1925. He led Tello to Paracas, a desert peninsula on the southern coast of Peru, where Tello’s team excavated the remains of a civilization that flourished from around 700 B.C. to the second century A.D. when it became assimilated into the Nazca culture.

The people of the Paracas culture were able fishermen, farmers and craftspeople. They made obsidian tools, ceramics, hammered gold jewelry, basketry and most gloriously of all, complex and beautiful textiles. Made from the wool of camelids (llamas, alpacas and vicuñas) and cotton, the textiles were colored in more than 200 different bright shades using natural dyes. Every fabric was embroidered by hand with cactus thorn needles, and when you consider that textiles have been found that are 34 meters (112 feet) long, you can imagine what an incredibly labor-intensive process it was. Archaeologists believe it took years to produce a single such masterpiece.

Creating such intricate and large textiles was a collaborative effort, the work of many people working at once. The textiles had important religious significance and indicated a person’s status in the community. The most exceptional examples were discovered by Tello on October 1st, 1927, when he encountered a vast funerary complex he named the Wari Kayan necropolis. There 429 people were found buried wrapped in layer after layer of textiles. The dead were adorned in their most prized possessions — jewelry, clothes, headbands — and seated in fetal position in a basket. Grave goods, food and sacrificial objects were added, and then the entire basket was wrapped in layers of fine embroidered textiles with a rough cotton cloth on the outermost layer. That’s why the large textiles were needed, because by the time they got to the outer layers, the bundles got big, as much as five feet high and seven feet wide.

When Tello unearthed these marvels, they had been kept in pristine condition by the arid desert climate and the lack of oxygen and light in the underground burials. As soon as they were excavated, the textiles started to degrade. All the Paracas finds were sent to museums in Lima for study and conservation. In 1930, the dictatorship of Augusto B. Leguía was overthrown in a military coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro. The subsequent social and political upheaval and war with Colombia left the Paracas textiles vulnerable to depredation. Looting and smuggling increased dramatically.

It was during this chaos that 89 Paracas textiles found their way to Sweden. They were smuggled out of Peru in the early 1930s by Sven Karell, then the Swedish Consul General in Peru, who acquired them on the black market and shipped them back home into the appreciative arms of the Ethnographic Department of Gothenburg Museum. They went on display in November of 1932, but they were exposed to UV light, varying levels of heat and moisture, and repeated handling, all of which contributed to their decay.

In 1939 the museum was renovated. To prepare for their new exhibition, the Paracas textiles were sewn onto linen or dyed cotton and framed in glass. In 1963 the textiles were mounted vertically onto panels that could be pulled out. This turned out to be a disaster, as the vibrations from the pulling out damaged the increasingly delicate pieces. Finally in 1970 the textiles were taken out of public view. The museum moved to a new building in 1992, by which time the textiles had been installed in custom-built display cases. Then the Paracas collection moved again in 2001, this time to the Museum of World Culture. Because the fibers were in such poor condition, the textiles were moved on air suspended truck.

They remained out of view until 2008, when after careful analysis the textiles which were found to be able to withstand movement were put on display. They were laid out horizontally and transported the short distance from the archives to the Museum of World Culture in vibration-free cases. A crane lifted them into the gallery through a window. The exhibition ran for three years. When the textiles returned to the museum archives, there was more fiber damage even with nothing but the utmost of caution employed in their transportation and display.

It was that 2008 exhibition that spurred the repatriation talks. Not only did the museum not deny that the textiles had been smuggled by the Consul General, the exhibition was entitled A Stolen World and detailed the whole saga without flinching. It’s quite remarkable, really. I’ve never seen a museum so directly confront its complicity in the traffic in looted antiquities. Peruse the museum’s dedicated Paracas website to see how they handle the issue and to view some exquisite photographs of the collection.

In December of 2009, Peru contacted the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally requesting the return of the purloined Paracas textiles. Since the museum had just opened an exhibition whose catalog included copies of the letters between Karell and the Gothenburg Museum officials overtly plotting the receipt of stolen goods, there was none of the usual nonsense about “good faith” and “anonymous Swiss collections.” Peru’s legal right was undisputed. The main question was whether the textiles could stand transportation across the globe when they could barely stand to be transported a mile or so from storage to the display galleries.

Now those issues have been dealt with as responsibly as possible, and the first four Paracas textiles are on their way home. One of them is a particularly exceptional example, a cloak about 104 by 53 centimeters made of squares with 32 different figures of animals, humans, plants and tools. Paracas textiles usually employ single motifs repeated over and over, so this tiled design is unique. Archaeologists believe it represents the movement of time, like a gorgeously embroidered Advent calendar. According to the felicitously named Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony, the Paracas calendar textile is “the most important textile from Peru and one of the most important in the world.”

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

5,000,000!

Fri, 2014-06-06 23:44

Just a short note today to announce that when I wasn’t looking, The History Blog passed 5,000,000 total pageviews since I installed the counter in September 2009. I posted about crossing the threshold of the first million in September of 2011, so stat-wise we’re moving along at a vigorous pace despite certain setbacks. This time I missed the moment the odometer flipped by more than 100,000, but I figured it’s still worth taking a moment to plant the 5 million flag.

Thank you all so much for your eyeballs and your comments and your hot tips and your kind words and for sharing my nerdy enthusiasms.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Harvard confirms book bound in human skin

Thu, 2014-06-05 23:49

Scientists have confirmed that one book in Harvard’s Houghton Library — Des destinées de l’ame (The Destinies of the Soul) by French poet and essayist Arsène Houssaye, first published in 1879 — is bound in human skin. The book belonged to Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a doctor and book collector from Metz in the northeastern French province of Lorraine who combined his professional vocation with his interest in books and book binding in a rather macabre way. Arsène Houssaye was a personal friend of his. He gave the doctor a copy of his new book and Bouland had it rebound. A handwritten letter signed by Bouland found inside the book describes the new binding:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”

There used to be a typed document with the book that elaborated on the source of the skin. The original is gone, but we know from notes that the skin came from “the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.” The second book Bouland refers to that uses the same skin is now in the Wellcome Library, and according to a 1910 article in a French magazine, Bouland got the piece of skin when he was a medical student at a hospital in Metz. He received his medical degree in 1865, which means he held on to that poor lady’s skin for decades before sectioning it for use in binding at least two books.

The note Bouland wrote on the flyleaf of De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis, a 1663 edition of the influential book by Doctor Séverin Pineau that described the hymen in great anatomical detail (little of it accurate compared to the modern understanding of that intriguing membrane) and provided valuable instruction on how to tell if a virgin had been “corrupted,” is a creepier version of the Des destinées de l’ame explanation:

“This curious little book on virginity, which seemed to me to deserve a binding in keeping with its subject matter, is bound with a piece of woman’s skin that I tanned myself with some sumac.”

As far as Bouland was concerned, a book on the immortal soul and one on hymens were equally well-suited to be bound in the skin of a destitute mentally ill woman who had the misfortune to die of a stroke in the hospital where he was studying.

Two other books at Harvard, one in the Law School Library, one in the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine, had inscriptions identifying them as examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy (the official term for book binding using human skin). The Law School book is Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, a treatise on Spanish law by Juan Gutiérrez published in Madrid in 1605. A dramatic inscription on the last page of the book claimed:

“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

The book’s binding was DNA tested in 1992 but the results were inconclusive, most likely because of the tanning process. A year after that, a new analytical technique called peptide mass fingerprinting was developed. Peptide mass fingerprinting breaks proteins up into component peptides whose masses can be measured by mass spectrometer and the results compared to a database of known proteins. Two months ago, peptide mass fingerprinting conclusively proved the binding to be sheepskin, not the product of Jonas Wright’s flaying.

The Countway Library book is a 1597 French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which has a faint inscription in pencil on the inside cover stating simply “Bound in human skin,” but experts doubted its accuracy because the binding doesn’t look like other confirmed human leather bindings. Peptide mass fingerprinting proved that it too had a sheepskin binding.

With two of the three claimed human skin bindings proved false, peptide mass fingerprinting was enlisted once again to test the binding of Des destinées de l’ame. This time the peptide mass fingerprint matched the human references, but while it eliminated the usual suspects like sheep and cow, it couldn’t conclusively exclude other primates because we don’t have the comparison data for them.

Although unlikely that the binding was made from a primate source, the samples were further analyzed using Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS) to determine the order of amino acids, the building blocks of each peptide, which can be different in each species.

“The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” said [Director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory Bill] Lane.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Beached whale revealed in 17th c. Dutch painting

Wed, 2014-06-04 23:44


View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen seemed like an unassuming beach scene when conservator Shan Kuang first began to work on it. Painted in 1641 and donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873 along with a group of other Dutch landscapes by patron Richard Kerrich, View of Scheveningen Sands was sent to the museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for conservation while the Dutch Golden Age gallery was closed for a year-long refurbishment. Its resin varnish coating had yellowed over time, so Kuang was tasked with removing it to freshen up the painting for the grand reopening of the gallery.

Kuang began to painstakingly clean the canvas. Her work soon revealed an incongruous lone figure of a man standing on the horizon. There was only sea underneath him and sky above, so it was unclear how he fit into the composition. More cleaning of the area next to him exposed a dark grey triangular shape, which led Kuang to speculate that the man might be in the rigging of a sailboat that had been overpainted. She could see that the ocean in that spot was more crudely painted than in the rest of the painting.

After much discussion with Hamilton Kerr conservation experts and Fitzwilliam curators, they decided the overpaint was not the work of van Anthonissen. Its thick impasto and inferior quality indicated a later alteration done in the 18th or early 19th century. By the time the painting was donated in 1873, nobody knew it had been overpainted. Removing it was still a risky prospect. It’s difficult to take away just the paint layer that was added without harming the original paint, and you never know what ugly surprises might be concealed by the overpaint.

They decided to take the plunge, and Kuang set about removing the thick overpaint with a scalpel and a few carefully chosen solvents. To ensure she didn’t damage the original, she viewed the work under the microscope. Under the paint she found not a ship, but a beached sperm whale.

The man who seemed to be standing on the horizon is, in fact, balanced on the whale’s back where Kuang suggests that he might even be measuring its length.The chosen focus of the painting resonates with a surge of public interest in whales: contemporary records show many instances of whale beaching on the coastline of the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. While the Anthonissen painting seeks to represent the whale in a realistic manner, some prints from the period portray whales as rampaging monsters of the deep and omens of disaster.

Realistic depictions of beached whales and viewing them as omens of disaster was not mutually exclusive. The Dutch Republic in the late 16th, early 17th century was experiencing the religious and political upheaval of the Eighty Years’ War, a period that coincides with the heyday of the beached whale in Dutch art, literature and political writing. The appearance of a whale was seen as a portent of defeat in battle or a sign of God’s displeasure at the prospect of a truce between religious factions. A 1602 engraving by Jan Saenredam of a beached whale at Beverwijk has a long Latin note underneath detailing the exact measurements of the mammal (60 feet long, 14 feet high, 36 feet in circumference, 14-foot tail, 12-foot lower jaw) while above the tableau is a frame of allegorical references to earthquakes, eclipses and the passage of time. There are also more anatomically correct details of the whale after decomposition gases caused it to explode and Death shooting Amsterdam with a plague arrow.

By the time Anthonissen painted his beached whale landscape, the trend was losing steam. Negotiations between Spain and the Dutch Republic began in 1646, and a Treaty formalizing Dutch independence was signed in 1648. The prophetic vision of beached whales no longer bedeviled the stable, confident Republic. With the interest in the subject long faded, someone decided to hide the dead whale altogether, perhaps to make it more palatable to a wider market as an innocuous beach scene.

View of Scheveningen Sands, with a Stranded Sperm Whale is now on display in the reopened Dutch Golden Age gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gilded female figurine illuminates Viking garb

Tue, 2014-06-03 23:17

A metal detectorist scanning a field near Revninge in eastern Denmark discovered a rare gilded figurine of a woman. Experts from the Østfyns Museums confirmed that the figurine is of Viking manufacture and dates to around 800 A.D. She is a petite 4.6 centimeters (1.8 inches) high and made of solid silver under a top layer of gold. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun around a three-dimensional head. The body, on the other hand, is two dimensional. This is a very rare combination, as most figures from this period are flattened 2D in their entirety.

It’s the clothing and jewelry on the body that is of particular interest to archaeologists. She wears an ankle-length gown with long sleeves and elaborate decoration. Each part of the dress has a different pattern illustrating different textile-making approaches: nesting V-shapes at the neck, radiating lines or furrows on the torso, horizontal cuts on the sleeves, lines of raised squares on the left and right of the skirt, stamped circles in between them. Around her neck hangs a necklace made out of circles that could represent pearls or a gold chain. Two long strands that may be pearl ribbons fall down the skirt from a three-lobed jewel in the center of the waist.

Trefoil shaped brooches have been found before in Viking burials and settlements (see this example from a slightly later period unearthed in Zealand), but they’re usually placed on the chest. The figurine testifies to the fact that these artifacts were worn at the waist during life, or at least worn there on occasion. She holds her hands on her abdomen, thumbs out on either side of the trefoil.

There’s a hole between the ear and the bun which indicates the figurine was worn as a pendant. Her facial features and the piercing underneath her bun are strongly reminiscent of the gilded silver 3D valkyrie found in central Denmark last year. Both figurines date to the same period and feature prominent women, but unlike the valkyrie, Revninge Woman is not carrying any weapons or a shield. It’s possible she’s a representation of Freya, the fertility goddess. The position of her hands at her abdomen and the lobed brooch/buckle may be references to pregnancy or fertility.

Revninge Woman went on display at the Viking Museum of Ladby on May 28th. She will remain on display at least through the end of the summer.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History