Beautiful bibliophile bait

June 23rd, 2018


The Boston Public Library (BPL) has made available online more than 200 high-resolution photographs of its collection of exquisite fore-edge paintings. These are miniature masterpieces painted just inside the edge of the pages on the side of books. Some of them match the subject of the book; others are tributes to the wealthy aristocrats who commissioned them. All of them are gorgeous.

The idea of painting the outer page surface of a closed book took hold in the 17th century and became a popular trend for a while. It continued into the early 18th century but had largely fallen off the radar as the century came to a close. The Edwards family of Halifax, first William Edwards around 1755, followed by his even more innovative sons, revived the medium and turned it up to eleven.

John and James Edwards, sons of William, opened a bookshop on Pall Mall in London in 1784. They also maintained the family shop in Halifax which was much larger and may have been the place where some or most of the actual bookbinding for the Pall Mall shop was done. Both of the Edwards shops had a reputation for the elegance and quality of their bindings, but it was the London store that brought them the most rarified clientele of the age.

They used fine materials like calf leather, colored morocco, silk (for markers and end-leaves) and gold tooling to create expensive prêt-a-porter books and ultra-luxurious custom editions for bibliophiles and collectors from the staunchly respectable (vicars, scholars, assorted professionals) to the highest echelon of Britain society. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Marchioness of Rockingham and Queen Charlotte were repeat customers.

In 1785, James Edwards received a patent for a process to create transparent vellum that would line the covers and couple be painted or printed on the underside. This allowed books to be decorated to order with ink or pencil designs that would never rub off or smudge. The book’s front and back covers could be dusted and wiped clean with a wet cloth without any risk of the drawing on the delicate vellum lining would run. Family crests, monograms and initials were popular personalizations, on their own or accompanying figures drawn from the subject of the book.

The customized artwork of the vellum paintings neatly segued into fore-edge painting. Traditionally fore-edge paintings has been florals and heraldic motifs applied to the flat surface of the edge that could only be seen when the book was closed. The Edwards brothers eschews those limitations and created elaborate miniature widescreen panoramas of grand estates, landscapes, cityscapes, religious scenes, all applied to a thin sliver at the very edge of the pages so the pages had to be ever so slightly fanned out for the image to be seen. The painting became a sort of Easter egg, invisible when the book was closed because the outer surface was gilded; if the book was closed, all you saw was gold.

Their ambitious approach made bibliophiles swoon. Rev. Thomas Hartwell Home of the University of Cambridge described the technique in glowing terms in his 1814 book, An Introduction to the Study of Bibliography, Vol I:

To Messrs. Edwards, the lovers of ornamented books are indebted for a method of gilding upon marbled leaves, and decorating the edges of leaves with exquisite paintings; we have seen landscapes thus executed, with a degree of beauty and fidelity that are [sic] truly astonishing; and when held up to the light in an oblique direction, the scenery appears as delicate as in the finest productions of the pencil.

A Mrs. Thrale wrote about it in a letter to her daughter ca. 1812:

I have seen a newer – to me at least – a newer Method of displaying Elegance, in which, if you do not exceed all Your Competitors, it will be your own fault. Tis in Bookbinding – a White smooth Vellum cover to – [Mason] The English Garden – for example: must be painted with some Device relative to the subject on both sides – and the Leaves apparently gilt, must when you hold them in a particular manner – slanting, exhibit a beautiful Miniature Landscape painted likewise by the Lady; but concealed when the Book is shut. They are ten Guineas each, if you purchase; and Edwards of Pall Mall is the Owner of the Invention; but perhaps I am talking of a well known contrivance, which however surprized me.

We don’t know who painted the Edwards fore-edge mini-masterpieces. There are no signatures. Mrs. Thrale’s attribution of authorship to “the Lady” may have just been a groundless assumption on her part. Other accounts by people more closely connected to the Edwards suggest they were painted by one of the brothers, possibly John who made some of the finest of the vellum binding paintings.

Edwards weren’t the only bookbinders to create beautiful fore-edges. The Boston Public Library’s collection, amassed by Albert H. Wiggin in the second half of the 1940s, is the second largest in the country and the largest public collection. Its 258 volumes feature the work of several bookbinders and some of the most important fore-edge paintings extant, including a few very rare signed works.

Browse through the gallery here or click Browse to look through them by subject, category or title.

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Gold watch from Pulaski wreck stopped at crucial moment

June 22nd, 2018

The exploration of the wreck of the steamship Pulaski has ramped up for the summer dive season and propitious weather conditions have allowed teams to dive for longer periods. They have already recovered more than 150 gold and silver coins and assorted artifacts like thimbles, nails, ceramics and keys. One find, however, stands out for both material and historical value and because it’s like something from an Agatha Christie novel. It’s a solid gold pocket watch stopped at 11:05, five minutes after the boiler exploded and the ship began its rapid descent under the waves.

The watch was found inside a concretion about the size of a grapefruit. An intricate gold chain was visible, threaded through the chunk of hardened sand, rock, shells and marine debris. Only one small curve of the watch emerged from the edge of the concretion. It wasn’t clear until the concretion was removed that it was a gold watch and its fob, still attached as they had been in the pocket of the wealthy gentleman passenger who lost them in the disaster.

“We were shocked,” said Max Spiegel of Certified Collectables Group, which is handling preservation of Pulaski artifacts.

“It’s very unusual to see an artifact with that sort of impression of a historic moment, when a ship sank. Think about how fragile the watch’s hands are, yet they survived in that exact position. It’s one of the most exciting finds we’ve handled, and we’ve done a half dozen shipwrecks.”

Eye witnesses reported that the starboard boiler exploded at around 11:00 PM, but the reports from survivors could be contradictory, not surprising given the chaos of the explosion and sinking. Finding the stopped watch confirms the timeline.

The pocket watch is still in the process of being conserved. It is richly engraved and there are many of those details have yet to be revealed.

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Civil War limb pit found at Manassas

June 21st, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a gristly testament to the horrors of the Civil War at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia: a pit containing the skeletal remains of amputated limbs. This is the first Civil War surgeon’s limb pit ever found and professionally excavated. The pit also contained the complete skeletal remains of two men, the first recorded find of whole bodies and amputated limbs buried in the same grave from the Civil War.

The men of the First and Second battles of Bull Run were left on the field near Manassas rather than collected and buried in cemeteries, so there are human remains scattered throughout the park. The National Park Service maintains many Civil War battlefields as historic sites and as hallowed ground, preserving them rather than exploring them as archaeological sites.

The excavation of the limb pit is a very rare exception precipitated by an inadvertent find of bone fragments in 2014. Park staff suspected the bones might be human and enlisted the aid of experts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to confirm it. They did. After much careful planning, a joint team of archaeologists from the National Park Service and the Smithsonian excavated a small area of the find site between October 19th and the 21st, 2015.

In those two days, the team unearthed the skeletons of the two soldiers, 11 limbs and a few artifacts. The soldiers proved pivotal to determining whether the pit dated to the first or second of the Manassas battles. One of soldiers was found with lead buckshot in his bones and metal buttons running down his chest. The buttons were of a type used in Union sack coats which weren’t in production yet in 1861. The pit is from the Second Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Second Battle of Manassas) took place on August 28-30, 1862. The other soldier was shot with an Enfield bullet that is still lodged high up his femur. Stable isotope analysis revealed that both soldiers were raised in the northeastern United States.

In dialogue with Bies at the Manassas site, and with the aid of military medical logs and other primary sources, Owsley and Bruwelheide pinned down what likely happened. Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, Union battlefield surgeons would have been admitted to the grounds by Confederate gatekeepers, with all but their most rudimentary supplies confiscated (it’s likely that chloroform was unavailable, meaning the procedures described above would have been undertaken with the patients conscious and suffering). There at the site, surgeons would have hastily operated on soldiers who had been baking in the sun and soaking in the rain without food for days on end. “Some of these amputations were probably done in less than ten minutes,” Owsley says.

The exactitude of the amputations under the circumstances was striking. Forensically, Owsley says, “you can read how the doctor’s positioned and how he’s cutting through the bone, and what pace he’s using in different locations. These were done by an experienced surgeon. This was not novice work.” […]

But what of the two full skeletons? Why were those men buried with the severed limbs of their brothers in arms? Owsley says the answer is simple. In the early days of the war, before the advent of sophisticated triage, the categories battlefield surgeons relied on were simple: those worth trying to save by amputation, and those beyond saving. The two men left in the shallow grave with the remains of their peers fell into the latter classification.

The remains of the two soldiers have been transferred in a solemn ceremony to the US Army. They will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery later this summer.

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Monumental Tiepolo back on display after 4-year restoration

June 20th, 2018

Bacchus and Ariadne (1743/1745), a monumental oil-on-canvas painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, is back on display at Washington’s National Gallery of Art after a four-year conservation. The painting is believed to be part of a series of mythological scenes representing the four elements: earth, water, air and fire, only three of which are known to survive today. Bacchus and Ariadne represented earth.

We know from a letter Tieopolo wrote in 1764 that he painted the series to adorn a Venice palace. We don’t know which palace as the only reference in the letter to the owner are the initials “V.E.” Bacchus and Ariadne only decorated V.E.’s palace for 60 years or so before it was bought by a collector and moved out of Venice for good. The meticulous restoration has revealed long-lost original details that were painted over when the work was first moved at the end of the 18th century or lost as the condition deteriorated over time.

The project’s painting conservator, Sarah Gowen Murray, worked closely with colleagues in painting conservation, scientific research, and preventive conservation to treat the painting and conduct analysis of the work. Overpaint removal uncovered tall vertical leaves on the left and right sides of the composition. Infrared imaging—conducted by John Delaney, senior imaging scientist—and analysis of cross-section samples of those areas—examined and interpreted by Barbara Berrie, head of the scientific research department—indicated that the leaves were originally bound together by gold ribbons. A precedent for the ribbons was established in another work by Tiepolo, Castigo dei Serpenti (The Scourge of the Snakes) (1732–1735) at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. These findings, archived documentation images, and other works by the artist were then consulted to reconstruct the missing elements with inpainting.

Other discoveries made during the treatment include indications of significant compositional changes made by Tiepolo, suggesting that Bacchus and Ariadne may have been the first painting of the series. X-radiographs exposed curved forms at the lower-right corner extending beneath the griffin and the jaguar—perhaps initial attempts by the artist to incorporate the composition into the work’s surrounding architecture.

One characteristic feature of Tieopolo’s mature works that has been brought back to life with this restoration is the coolness of his color palette. This set him apart from other Venetian painters of his period and allowed his frescoes and large-scale paintings like this one to convey a realistic sense of daylight. The illumination effect would have been a particularly desirable feature in monumental works intended to decorate the walls of large palaces. Bacchus and Ariadne, for example, were commissioned to hang over a staircase.

X-rays have found that there was a ledge painted along the bottom edge with griffin-like creatures at each end of the ledge. A cornice framed the top of the painting as well, curving down. The right side had a column with a vine of acanthus leaves wrapped around it. These architectural features are thought to have been created to match the location where the painting was originally located. They were painted over, likely after the work was acquired by the Artaria family who hung it in their Como estate. Inventory records note its presence there in 1798. The ledge, columns and griffins were painted out and a figure of Rhea was added to the lower left of the composition. The conservation restored the architectural elements, doubtless much to the relief of the putto on the top left who now has his perch back instead of floating unmoored.

The X-rays also found a great deal of damage to the canvas itself — tears, holes — and areas of inpainting and overpainting from later interventions that were not well done to begin with and had discolored and flaked over the years. The varnish was even worse. Darkened and discolored, the varnish layers had mutated the cool daylight palette of the original to a bilious jaundice. A full relining of the canvas and careful thinning of the varnish layers performed in 1960 was unable to solve the problem, but conservation technology has changed enormously over the past 60 years. The recent treatment has brought back Tieopolo’s light blue sky.

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Graves of two men with severed legs found

June 19th, 2018

An archaeological survey along the route of a highway expansion project in Cambridgeshire, England, has unearthed the skeletal remains of two men with an unusual mutilation and burial. The bones date to the late Roman or early Anglo-Saxon period. Their legs were cut off at the knees and repositioned by their shoulders. It’s not clear whether the amputations were done pre-, peri- or post-mortem, but initial analysis suggests the severed legs were still fleshed, at least partially, before they were placed at the shoulders.

The two bodies were buried at right angles to each other in a T-shape with their heads facing outwards. They were not laid to rest in a formal burial ground; they were interred in a gravel pit.

The best scenario the archaeologists can hope for is that the unfortunate men were dead when their legs were mutilated. It also appears their skulls were smashed in, although that could be later damage.

“Was it to keep them in their graves and stop them from running away?” said Kasia Gdaniec, the senior archaeologist with Cambridge county council. “Or had they tried to run away and was this a punishment – and a warning to everyone else not even to think of it?”

The bones (crushed skulls excepted) are in good condition and even with a smashed skull one of them has an excellent set of teeth. DNA analysis, stable isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating should therefore be possible which will narrow down when the individuals died, their sexes, where they were raised and a number of other details about them.

The unusual burials were discovered in one of the largest excavation projects in UK history. Teams have excavated 40 sites over 350 hectares where the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon is being widened to alleviate congestion. Archaeologists have found a wide array of remains of Bronze Age barrows to medieval towns, but the Roman finds are of particular note, illustrating the progress of occupation, how the landscape and population were bent to the Roman will.

Gdaniec finds the whole site quite sinister. “People talk about the archaeology of conquest, but I have never felt it as strongly as here. The Romans arrive, the people who were here are completely subjugated, everything changes and is never the same again. We are not seeing trade and peaceful co-existence here, we are seeing enslavement.”

The site had been enclosed by a rather wiggly ditch, more a windbreak than either seriously defensive or a statement of power. The Romans then arrived and by stupendous effort drove a huge ditch across it, almost two metres deep and three wide with the spoil heaped up into a huge bank. Despite its size and the labour involved, there was no evidence of large permanent Roman buildings and so the archaeologists believe it was a temporary camp on the march north towards Hadrian’s Wall.

Within the new enclosure, farming became much more organised and intensive, with wheat and other cereals, beans and root crops being grown. […]

The site has also produced scores of pottery kilns, some so tiny the archaeologists joked they must have been for egg cups, others large and sophisticated, producing domestic and storage pottery on an industrial scale. Tonnes of pottery were found along the excavation sites.

“We have some of the pottery they produced,” House said. “It will be interesting to see if we can match it to pottery from other Roman sites. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the pots from this field ended up on Hadrian’s Wall.”

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Virtually palpate Neolithic Scottish balls

June 18th, 2018

About 525 intricately carved stone balls from the Late Stone Age have been found in northern Europe, 430 of them in Scotland, the rest in England, the Orkney Islands, Ireland and Norway. These balls have stymied antiquarians and archaeologists since they were first discovered two centuries ago. They come in a variety of designs, some with abstract carved reliefs, some carved into curious shapes, and their purpose or purposes have yet to be divined. Researchers have hypothesized that they could have been weapons like maceheads or sling projectiles, weights and measures, or symbols of power with religious significance as many of the carvings — circles, spirals, patterns of straight lines — have also been found carved on tombs.

Most of the Scottish balls were found in Aberdeenshire, including the most famous of them all, the Towie ball. It was discovered when a drain was dug near the village of Towie in or before 1860. Made of a hard black stone, the Towie ball has four discs, three of them carved with spirals and wedges, the last left blank. It is considered one of the finest examples of Neolithic art known.

Of the hundreds of Neolithic carved balls found in Scotland and the Orkneys, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has around 140 of them in its collection, the Towie ball among them. Very few of them are on display, however. The museum is making up for this by creating 3D models of 60 of its Neolithic balls and posting them online so that anybody with an Internet connection can see them in far greater detail than they ever could in person.

These models were made using photogrammetry, which uses around 150-200 images of each artifact to produce an exceptionally high-resolution 3D model. The resolution allows you to examine and appreciate these artifacts in unprecedented detail. Indeed, the model of one carved stone ball (X.AS 90) revealed traces of fine concentric circles on one projecting knob that had never been recorded before, despite the artifact having been in the museum for more than 100 years and examined by dozens of scholars. Traces of decoration and working are particularly clear in ‘matcap’ mode, which makes the artifact look like shiny metal, emphasising any irregularities in the surface.

The high resolution has also revealed evidence of how the balls were carved. Several of them show that the design changed as the balls were shaped, perhaps over the course of years of work. They are all relatively regular in dimension, a convenient size that would fit in one hand. It’s likely the stone carver held them in one hand and chipped or chiseled them with harder stone tools in their other hand.

You can examine this remarkable collection of Neolithic Scottish balls one after the other on this page. You can kick things off taking a look at a small group of them and once you get the feel of them, virtually palpate them all, starting with the exceptional Towie ball.

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Chinese vase carried in a shoebox to huge payday

June 17th, 2018

An 18th century imperial Chinese vase carried by its owner to Sotheby’s Paris office in a shoebox sold for €16,182,800 ($25.1 million) at an auction on Tuesday. That’s more than 20 times the pre-sale estimate ($775,000 to $1.1 million) and is the highest price ever paid for a single object at Sotheby’s Paris and sets a new record for Chinese porcelain sold anywhere in France.

The sellers inherited the vase from their grandparents who had inherited it from an uncle. An inventory of the uncle’s apartment after his death in 1947 records the vase and several other Chinese pieces, including a bronze mirror in a carved lacquer box that the sellers also consigned to Sotheby’s for sale. The family treasure was kept in the attic for years until the sellers decided to have some of the old stuff appraised.

“This person [the seller] took the train, then the metro and walked on foot through the doors of Sotheby’s and into my office with the vase in a shoebox protected by newspaper,” Sotheby’s Asian arts expert Olivier Valmier said.

“When she put the box on my desk and we opened it we were all stunned by the beauty of the piece.”

A red stamp on the bottom of the vase is the seal of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736 to 1796), avid collector of Chinese traditional and Western art who had both Chinese and Western artists at his court. The fusion of styles produced innovative designs, colors and perspective particular to his reign.

The vase is a unique artwork, the only known example of its kind. It is a Famille-Rose or yangcai porcelain made in the imperial workshops of Jingdezhen . The whole category is extremely rare, found almost exclusively in museums, and the decoration of this one has no comparables. Around the center of the vase is a beautiful hilly landscape dotted with pine trees, a waterfall and incredibly detailed deer and cranes. Around the neck and bottom are brocade-like borders of floral and pearl designs with gold accents. This kind of object was not part of the workshop’s regular production lines. They were either one-offs or part of a pair, the absolute cream of the artist crop.

The sellers knew it was of some value, but had no idea that it was the antiquities version of a winning lottery ticket. Nor did they know that it was as old as it was or that it bore the imprimatur of a Quin dynasty emperor.

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7th c. inscription found at Tintagel Castle

June 16th, 2018

A team from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit (CAU) have discovered a stone engraved with an extremely rare example of writing from the 7th century at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. It’s not a formal inscription; it was carved by someone doodling or practicing on a window ledge at the castle.

The slate ledge was found under the ruins of the 13th century castle built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III, in an excavation that is part of five-year archaeological survey and excavation commissioned by English Heritage. Digs began in 2016, and archaeologists quickly found the remains of massive stone walls. Fragments of pottery and glass imported from Merovingian France, what is today western Turkey, North Africa, the Aegean are evidence of a thriving trade in luxury products between Tintagel and the Mediterranean from the 5th century until the decline and abandonment of the site in the 7th century.

When the stone was discovered, its importance was immediately evident. It wasn’t until the stone was cleaned that archaeologists saw the wording and realized they had found something of major significance.

The ledge includes what is believed to be a Roman name, Tito, and a Celtic one, Budic. The Latin words fili (son or sons) and viri duo (two men) also appear.

Another intriguing element is a letter “A” with a “V” inside it and a line across the top. The “A” may refer to alpha, which is associated with God. One tail of the symbol morphs into a miniature “A”, which may link back to the word fili. A triangle carved into the slate may be the Greek letter delta. […]

Prof Michelle Brown, an expert in medieval manuscripts at the University of London, was given the task of deciphering the inscription. She said: “The survival of writing from this period is rare and this is a very important find. The text features a mix of Latin script with some Greek letters, and a distinctive monogram [the shape based on the letter “A”]. It suggests a high level of literacy and an awareness of contemporary writing styles associated with the early illuminated manuscripts of Britain and Ireland.

“Other examples of writing in Cornwall and western Britain at this period take the form of monumental inscriptions on stones, but this example is quite different, with a writing style and layout suggestive of a competent scribe from a Christian background, who was familiar with writing documents and books and who was practising a series of words and phrases rather than carving a finished inscription.”

Researchers will continue to study the slate. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis has not found the remains of any polychrome paint, but archaeologists are hoping high resolution scanning will shed more light on the scribe, whether he was left or right-handed, and on the inscription itself, like what tool was used to carve it. The stone has gone on display at Tintagel Castle as of this Saturday, June 16th.

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Another stolen Columbus letter returned to Italy

June 15th, 2018

Yet another rare copy of the letter Christopher Columbus wrote reporting his discovery of the “Indies” has been returned to the institution from which it was stolen. Two years ago the letter, stolen from Florence’s Riccardiana Library before 1990 and replaced with a forgery, was found in the Library of Congress and returned to Florence. Just last week a copy found in a private collection and returned to the the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona. This time it’s the Vatican Library’s turn.

All three of them were replaced by plausible forgeries and the originals smuggled out of the countries of origin, eventually making their way to the United States. The Vatican acquired its copy in 1921 as part of a larger collection of rare books and manuscripts bequeathed by bibliophile Giovanni Francesco De Rossi. They’re not sure when it was stolen, but likely before 2007 when security at the library was massively increased. The forgery was noticed by a rare book and manuscript expert who also spotted similar substitutions in other European libraries and alerted Homeland Security to the thefts in 2011.

It was purchased for $875,000 by the collector, David Parsons of Atlanta, Georgia, from a rare book dealer in 2004. Nine years later, Parsons asked the same rare book expert to examine his volume to determine its authenticity. The expert found that the letter was in a newer binding, but was otherwise identical to the Vatican’s copy. Parsons died in 2014. HSI agents contacted his widow Mary last year about the suspected theft. The rare book expert’s assessment was confirmed when the letter and the Vatican’s volume were compared side by side. The dimensions of the binding and the remains of the original sewing on the letter were a perfect match. Mary Parsons relinquished all property claims and the letter was returned to the Vatican in an official ceremony on Thursday, June 14th.

As in the news stories about the repatriation of the Riccardiana Library’s letter, there is persistent confusion about when the original was written to whom and the copies derived from it. Columbus wrote the letter in February 1493, one of two he sent to his Spanish patrons after his arrival in Palos in March. The persistent error is that the copies were not made from the letter he sent to monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, but rather from the one he sent to finance minister Luis de Santangel. From what we know, the two letters were near duplicates in the content regarding the Indies, but it’s a lazy shorthand to elide the fact that the published letter was not, in fact, written to the monarchs. Ferdinand and Isabella deliberately kept their letter under wraps so we don’t know exactly what Columbus wrote to them. It was never published and the original is lost. It was the Santangel letter that spread like wildfire less than a month after its dispatch.

The Santangel letter was first published in Spanish by Pere Posa in April of 1493, a few weeks after Columbus sent it. The next month a Latin translation of it was printed in Rome by Stephen Plannck. As that edition had a glaring omission in the introduction — Queen Isabella’s name was left out — Plannck quickly printed a second edition. That one included the names of both monarchs. It also changed the name of the recipient from Raphael Sanxis to Gabriel Sanchez, neither of them accurate, the second a mistaken assumption by translator Aliander de Cosco.

Not to be peevish about it, but it’s blatantly clear from the official photograph of the first page of the letter released by the US Embassy to the Holy See that it is a print of Plannck’s second edition, and some of the stories even note that it’s a Plannck II while still claiming it was written to Ferdinand and Isabella. You don’t have to read Latin to identify the tell-tale names, including the recipient who while misnamed, is explicitly NOT Ferdinand and/or Isabella. Also, it wasn’t “copied by hand in Latin.” It was translated into Latin and printed, as in on a printing press. That’s just sloppy.

Here’s a selection of Christopher Columbus’ impressions of the lands, people and resources he claimed for Spain from an English translation of the first published copy of the Spanish letter:

Española is a marvel; the mountains and hills, and plains, and fields, and the soil, so beautiful and rich for planting and sowing, for breeding cattle of all sorts, for building of towns and villages. There could be no believing, without seeing, such harbours as are here, as well as the many and great rivers, and excellent waters, most of which contain gold. In the trees and fruits and plants, there are great diversities from those of Juana. In this, there are many spiceries, and great mines of gold and other metals.

The people of this island, and of all the others that I have found and seen, or not seen, all go naked, men and women, just as their mothers bring them forth ; although some women cover a single place with the leaf of a plant, or a cotton something which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel, nor any weapons ; nor are they fit thereunto ; not because they be not a well-formed people and of fair stature, but that they are most wondrously timorous. They have no other weapons than the stems of reeds in their seeding state, on the end of which they fix little sharpened stakes. Even these, they dare not use ; for many times has it happened that I sent two or three men ashore to some village to parley, and countless numbers of them sallied forth, but as soon as they saw those approach, they fled away in such wise that even a father would not wait for his son. And this was not because any hurt had ever done to any of them : — on the contrary, at every headland where I have gone and been able to hold speech with them, I gave them of everything which I had, as well cloth as many other things, without accepting aught therefor — ; but such they are, incurably timid.

It is true that since they have become more assured, and are losing that terror, they are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts.[…] They took even pieces of broken barrel-hoops, and gave whatever they had, like senseless brutes ; insomuch that it seemed to me ill. I forbade it, and I gave gratuitously a thousand useful things that I carried, in order that they may conceive affection, and furthermore may be made Christians ; for they are inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of all the Castilian nation, and they strive to combine in giving us things which they have in abundance, and of which we are in need.

And they knew no sect, nor idolatry ; save that they all believe that power and goodness are in the sky, and they believed very firmly that I, with these ships and crews, came from the sky ; and in such opinion, they received me at every place where I landed, after they had lost their terror. And this comes not because they are ignorant : on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvellously good account of every thing — but because they never saw men wearing clothes nor the like of our ships. And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force, to the intent that they should learn [our speech] and give me information of what there was in those parts. And so it was, that very soon they understood [us] and we them, what by speech or what by signs ; and those [Indians] have been of much service. To this day I carry them [with me] who are still of the opinion that I come from heaven [as appears] from much conversation which they have had with me. […]

They have in all the islands very many canoes, after the manner of rowing-galleys, some larger, some smaller ; and a good many are larger than a galley of eighteen benches. They are not so wide, because they are made of a single log of timber, but a galley could not keep up with them in rowing, for their motion is a thing beyond belief. And with these, they navigate through all those islands which are numberless, and ply their traffic. I have seen some of those canoes with seventy, and eighty, men in them, each one with his oar. In all those islands, I saw not much diversity in the looks of the people, nor in their manners and language ; but they all understand each other, which is a thing of singular towardness for what I hope their Highnesses will determine, as to making them conversant with our holy faith, unto which they are well disposed.

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YouTube masterclass on the Cosmati pavement

June 14th, 2018

I see from the recent story on the opening of Westminster Abbey’s triforium galleries that I am not alone in my obsession with its Cosmati pavement, the glorious inlaid semi-precious stone, marble, metal and glass mosaic in front of the High Altar. It was commissioned by King Henry III for his rebuild of the less glamorous Abbey built by Edward the Confessor. Odoricus, an Italian mosaicist trained in the geometric, abstract, allegorical Cosmati style, brought tesserae from Rome and combined them with local materials to create a unique pavement.

The mosaic was finished in 1268 and has been the epicenter of monarchical ceremony ever since. Thirty-eight kings and queens have been crowned on the Cosmati pavement. Trod upon for centuries by the softest royal slipper and roughest pilgrim clog alike, the pavement suffered greatly from wear and ground-in dirt. The marble tiles, which Odoricus is believed to have sourced from the remains of ancient Roman floors, likely had a millennium’s head start on wear, and layer upon layer of wax and polish only served to darken and dim a surface that had once been vividly colored and highly reflective.

Concerned about its deteriorating condition, church officials covered most of the Cosmati pavement with carpet in the 1870s. That’s how it remained, revealed in part or on rare ceremonial occasions until 2008 when Westminster Abbey undertook a comprehensive two-year conservation project. The team cleaned the surface, removing the old wax, polish and dirt with specialized solvents. Stone and glass conservators stabilized damaged areas, repairing damaged glass, stone and mortar. The last step was applying a new protective coating to make it possible for the pavement to be displayed safely and to its best shiny, colorful advantage.

When the conserved pavement was finally revealed in 2010, I yearned to write about it but how could I without proper high resolution before-and-after images? That would be just be cruel. Unfortunately, no such photographs were to be found, not from the Abbey’s communications department, not in the press, not from funders like the Getty which is always great about providing high-res pictures when it comes to its own projects, not even in a publication that I could buy. To this day, almost a decade later, as far as I know there are no books whatsoever documenting the conservation.

The recent discussion on the Cosmati pavement view from the triforium drove me to try one more time. I checked a site dedicated to the conservation that the Abbey had put up in 2012, hoping its sad little 500-pixel images had been upgraded, but the site doesn’t exist anymore. Then I checked YouTube.

Y’all, Westminster Abbey’s channel has a playlist of 51, count’em 51, videos covering the history, symbolism and conservation of the Cosmati pavement. These films are absolutely riveting. Interested in the background of Henry III’s commissioning of the mosaic? Done. Curious about the cosmological significance of the design and how the precise date of the end of the world is calculated in the inscription? Keep watching. How about those glass tesserae so atypical in Cosmati style mosaics? Six videos about them enough for you? Want to hear from the stone masons about the Purbeck Marble background repair? The mortar repair? The yellow limestone repair? The black marble repair? Boom, a video for each.

Clear your social calendar for the next few days and make way for the greatest playlist ever played.

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