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The Daughter of Dawn dawns!

Sun, 2015-08-16 13:16

It’s been three years since I first wrote about the rediscovery of the lost silent film The Daughter of Dawn and while there have been some public screenings here and there, the long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray release seemed to be in a holding pattern. I contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society last May asking for an update on the release of the movie and they didn’t know when it would be available. They were in the process of having it rescanned in high definition and it was taking longer than expected. As they recommended, I’ve been keeping an eye on the OHS store where it has yet to appear. It’s not on Amazon, in DVD, Blu-ray or streaming. It’s not on Hulu.

It is, however, suddenly available on Netflix! I don’t know when this happened, but it’s recent, that’s for sure, because I check all the time like a proper nerd. An article this April reported The Daughter of Dawn was being released in DVD and Blu-ray later this year. Milestone Films, the independent distributor of art and classic films that came on board in 2013 to distribute the movie, has an institutional DVD and Blu-ray available on its website for $300 with a home video release scheduled for fall of 2015. I guess Netflix got first crack.

The film is in outstanding condition. It’s complete, no gaps or stills used as placeholders. Some of that is doubtless due to the high definition scanning and restoration, but there are movies this old that have never been lost that are so scratched, speckled and faded they’re hard to watch even after restoration. The five reels of The Daughter of Dawn were kept in a garage for two decades before being given to a private detective in lieu of payment in 2005. We don’t know where they spent the six decades before that, but unless it was a subarctic bunker, it’s beyond belief that the reels survived at all, never mind in such fine fettle. According to Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, some parts of the film were in precarious condition, spliced together with masking tape. Milestone Films breaks out the condition issues in more detail in their press release (pdf):

Reel number one felt “tacky,” a symptom of eroding nitrate; reel number two had emulsion damage, from unwanted water or chemical reactions; reel number three was damaged along the edges; reels four and five had sprocket damage, but nothing more.

Watching the movie I only saw maybe two total minutes with significant bubbling around the edges and noticeable damage to the scene, including a handful of frames where for a fraction of a second the very clear outline of a white fingerprint covers the shot (there are several around the 30, 31 minute mark).

Another rare feature of this film is that it’s has a native widescreen aspect ratio. That gives the panoramic shots a grandeur you don’t often see in the ubiquitous 4:3 aspect ratio of the silent movie era. While there appears to have been some cropping of the black borders which doubtless helped achieve this most delightful effect, there is no distortion of the film as shot. It fills up the viewing area of my television perfectly. Such a special treat.

The title cards are sparingly used throughout, but the first few introduce the characters and also name the actors: Chief of the Kiowas played by Chief Chain-To (aka Hunting Horse), Black Wolf played by Sanka Dota (aka Jack Sankadota), Daughter of Dawn played by Princess Peka (aka Esther LeBarre), Big Bear, Chief of the Comanches, played by Chief Cozad (aka Belo Cozad). The romantic lead White Eagle, played by White Parker, son of the famous undefeated Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, does not get one of those title cards, even though a shot of him on a bluff scouting for buffalo opens the movie. A cast listing in the end credits compiled by the researchers working on the restoration of the film notes the tribe of the leads and the names and tribes of everyone else they could identify.

The first Kiowa buffalo hunt (starts around 14 minutes in) requires a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief not to look like a very sad commentary the extermination of the great wild bison herds of the Plains and of the peoples whose livelihoods largely depended upon them. White Eagle spies this thin little herdlet grazing against the majestic backdrop of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma, and reports back to the chief: “My eye have gladdened at the sight of many buffaloes.” There are, like, 30 max, more than a few of them juveniles. At least they actually lived where they were filmed. Fifteen years earlier there wouldn’t have been any at all to film. They’re transplants, the product of a deliberate attempt by the American Bison Society to return the bison to its ancestral lands. In 1907 the Society secured 15 head of bison from the Bronx Zoo, then under the directorship of bison conservation pioneer William Temple Hornaday, and moved them to the Oklahoma plains. It worked, to a very modest extent, and today there are 650 bison in the Wichita Mountain area descended from those 15. That means the petite herd filmed in 1920 is actually more than double the size it was 13 years earlier, which isn’t bad at all, considering.

There is no actually hunting shown, by the way, just the chase, which is great. The high-speed bareback riding is amazing. That one fellow who falls off his horse after one of the baby bison shoots like a blur in front of him and then chases down his mount to get back on (13:53) is double amazing. Really all of the riding is riveting, even the quotidian stuff. I could watch them get on and off their horses for the whole movie. They just grab a blanket and hop on up.

Every skill and craft the Comanche and Kiowa actors brought to the film is showcased beautifully: the clothes, especially the women’s dresses with long knotted fringe, the tipis, the feathered and beaded accessories, shoes, weapons, the dancing (which the Federal government had outlawed by this point but was allowed just for the movie). The famous Tipi with Battle Pictures, home of the Kiowa chief and his daughter, The Daughter of the Dawn, is exquisite, even with its many colors flattened into a sepia tint. Another tipi decorated with paintings of bison with birds standing on their backs makes a lovely showing in the background of several scenes. The interiors of the tipis look fantastic too because you can see the conical sapling structure and the sun illuminating the striations of the textile walls. Also there’s so much space in there!

The chiefs in particular appear to me to be using hand gestures more than just casually, see for instance starting at 15:35 when the Comanche chief plans their raid on the Kiowas. I wonder if they’re at least in part using the sign language they adopted to communicate with foreigners. An article in The Topeka Daily Capital of May 16th, 1921, reports that Chief Chain-To, in town for the showing of the movie, spoke no English and was converted by a Baptist missionary who had learned their sign language. Obviously they’re talking amongst themselves so there’s no need for them to sign in the film, but maybe it was a performance choice? Like a way to convey information to predominantly Anglo viewers? Or it could have just been a habit, I suppose. Anyway it’s cool.

Local newspapers report screenings in small markets around where it was filmed — Tulsa, Oklahoma, Joplin, Missouri, and Topeka, Kansas, for instance — at least one of which (Topeka) was shown by the American Legion. I found one notice of a screening as far afield as Edgefield, South Carolina. It’s interesting that even in March of 1921 the movie was being promoted as historically significant. It got a bit of Bill Cody-style promotion as well. Here’s a notice in the May 19th, 1921, issue of the Joplin Globe:

Chief Chain-To and five other full-blood Kiowa Indians, including the chief’s grandson, Little Pony, will appear today, Friday and Saturday at the Electric theater in connection with a motion picture, “The Daughter of Dawn,” in which they appear in the cast of characters. The Indians will give exhibition before the screen in Indian dances and songs. Chief Chain-To will give a short lecture in connection with the picture, telling how he likes the “movies” and giving a brief history of the play.

Presumably that lecture, like the one in the Topeka church, would be translated live by an interpreter. I sure would love to know what he said. Alas, if there was any reporting on what he said about how he lives the “movies” and the story behind the film, I haven’t been able to find it.

Final verdict: ten stars. On a scale of four. It’s 80 minutes long, there’s no dialogue, precious little verbiage at all and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It really is living historic preservation. I’ve already watched it twice and will doubtless add to that count.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Settlement Era longhouse found in Reykjavík

Sat, 2015-08-15 22:41

The ruins of an early Viking longhouse have been discovered under an empty lot on Lækjargata, a street in downtown Reykjavík. The lot was excavated in advance of construction of a four-star hotel because it was known to have been the site of a turf farm built in 1799. Archaeologists did find the remains of the farm as expected soon after excavations began in April, and then completely unexpectedly found the remains of the longhouse in June. All of the Settelement Era (874-930 A.D.) remains found in Reykjavík before this one were further to the west. The discovery of the Lækjargata longhouse indicates that early Viking-era Reykjavík was either larger or more spread out than scholars realized.

The longhouse was at least 20 meters (66 feet) long and 5.5 meters (18 feet) wide — the remains extend into the neighboring property so the full perimeter has not been established — and had a central fire pit 5.2 meters (17 feet) long, one of the longest ever discovered in Iceland. A separate cooking pit was unearthed with the remains of animal bones inside and stones that were heated and used to keep water hot or to cook food over. An area of red earth and blackened material is likely evidence of an uncontrolled, destructive fire. Archaeologists believe the fire occurred just after the abandonment of the home or, more likely, was the impetus for said abandonment.

Early settlement archaeology in Reykjavík relies on layers of volcanic tephra ash deposited around 871 A.D. by an eruption in the Torfajökull volcano complex 250 miles southeast of Reykjavík to help date sites. Based on the ash found in the remains of the turf walls of the longhouse, Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir believes it was built around a century after the 871 tephra fall. Spindle whorls found in the longhouse bracket its age on the other end; they disappear from the Icelandic archaeological record after 1150 A.D.

The discovery generated much excitement among archaeologists and the general public. The excavation drew crowds who peppered the archaeologists with questions about the longhouse and the fate of the site. The original plan was to salvage whatever archaeological material was found, removing it from the site to a museum, but that was before they knew there were so significant and ancient remains there. The hotel developers suggested there might be some way to integrate the archaeological site into the hotel, something that has been done successfully before elsewhere.

This week Reykjavík’s environment and planning committee took an important step in ensuring the preservation of the longhouse. It called for the prompt establishment of an advisory committee on how to handle the longhouse site and other recently excavated remains near the harbor.

The resolution from the planning committee says that the new advisory committee should formulate proposals on how best to preserve the sites in question for the future and how best to display them openly to the public.

The committee should set to work quickly and include the city culture, tourism, environment and planning committees in its work; as well as the city council cabinet. It is very important to preserve these sites, the resolution states.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

How to wash a 17th c. tapestry

Fri, 2015-08-14 19:25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

15th c. monster raised from Baltic Sea

Thu, 2015-08-13 15:16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This news story shows the raising of the figurehead:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Intact gun carriage raised from 17th c. shipwreck

Wed, 2015-08-12 17:19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mozart autograph manuscript returns to Salzburg

Tue, 2015-08-11 14:34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

From Monster Soup to beautiful microscopic sirens

Mon, 2015-08-10 17:57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Threads of Power: superb tapestry porn

Sun, 2015-08-09 18:26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

WWII vet gets back wallet lost in Austria in 1945

Sat, 2015-08-08 17:39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Spanish Armada artifacts recovered off Irish coast

Fri, 2015-08-07 13:01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Brussels’ Manneken Pis tested for authenticity

Thu, 2015-08-06 22:03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Can you decipher the inscription on this sword?

Wed, 2015-08-05 13:31

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Makeup heir buys rare medieval panel for National Gallery

Tue, 2015-08-04 17:01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History