Researchers to seek DNA in USS Houston trumpet

February 5th, 2016

The USS Houston, a heavy cruiser that was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite ship, was the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet not once but twice. FDR visited it no fewer than four times, logging thousands of miles of travel on board. It was even retrofitted with special elevators and handrails for the President’s disability. The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast, as the USS Houston was known, saw its last action in a battle against a Japanese invasion fleet of 12 ships the night of February 28th, early morning March 1st, 1942. It was already hobbled from a previous action and was heading to safety in Australia alongside the HMAS Perth when it stumbled on the Japanese ships in the Sunda Strait, which separates the islands of Java and Sumatra and the Java Sea from the Indian Ocean.

The Japanese fleet was in the process of landing troops on Java’s Banten Bay when the Houston and Perth walked in on them. Hopelessly outgunned and outmanned, the Perth went down first in the wee hours of March 1st. Then the Japanese ships trained all their firepower on the Houston. Finally three torpedoes struck it at once and the cruiser sank taking 650 sailors and Marines down with her, among them 11 members of its 18-man swing band. Its 368 survivors were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

The wreck of the Houston is now 100 feet underwater just off the west coast of Jakarta. The Perth lies about three miles away. Both wrecks are official military graves and interfering with them in any way is illegal. Authorities do allow non-intrusive sport diving of the wrecks, however. They even encourage it because recreational divers are often the first to notice when something is wrong or missing. In 2013, 68-year-old Australian diver Frank Craven was diving the wrecks with a group when he noticed an incongruous trumpet amidst the piles of shell casings. With some vague notion that he might return it to the United States, Craven violated the sanctity of the site and illegally removed the trumpet and brought it to the surface.

A week later, the trumpet drying and corroding in dangerous non-conservation conditions, Craven contacted John K. Schwarz, head of the USS Houston‘s Survivors’ Association, and offered to give the trumpet to the association. Schwarz explained that removing anything from the wreck is illegal and they could not accept the object. He suggested Craven fess up to the Navy which Schwarz did right away, apologizing for his ill-conceived act. He arranged the return of the trumpet through a US Naval Attaché in Canberra, Australia.

In December of 2013, the trumpet and a ceramic cup and saucer Craven had also removed arrived at the Naval History & Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) in Washington, DC. After several months out of the salt water that had preserved it for seven decades, the trumpet needed immediate treatment to keep it from further corrosion. It was placed in a customized alkaline solution of deionized water to leach out the corrosive salts causing the oxidization of the trumpet’s copper and steel body. When the water became saturated with salts from the trumpet, it was replaced with fresh solution, an ongoing process that will continue until there are no salts left to leach out.

Three years later, the trumpet still spends most of its time in the bath, but its condition has stabilized enough that conservators can take it out to perform additional conservation tasks like removing patches of oxidization with a scalpel. Here is video of Navy conservator Shanna Daniel performing that task on the trumpet from the USS Houston:

Also part of the UAB’s brief is documenting and researching the instrument. They have discovered the trumpet’s serial number which allowed them to track its manufacturer: the C.G. Conn company of Elkhart, Indiana. Researchers hope to go further than that and maybe identify which sailor once played this trumpet. One of the 11 members of the band to lose their lives the night of the Battle of the Sunda Strait was trumpet player Severyn “Steve” Dymanowski of Gary, Indiana. Three other trumpet players — George Galyean, Albert “Hap” Kelley and Walter Schneck — who survived the sinking of the Houston were taken prisoner. They all survived the war but passed away in the 60s and 70s, alas. The trumpet could have belonged to any one of them, although the mother of pearl buttons suggest this was the expensive private instrument of a professional musician rather than Navy-issue equipment, which would make bandleader George Galyean and Hap Kelley the likeliest candidates.

The only way to narrow it down further is a very long shot.

There is “the possibility of examining the interior of the [trumpet's] valves and potentially locating some DNA remains of the individual who played the trumpet,” [Navy senior conservator Kate] Morrand said in a recent interview at the Navy Yard.

It’s a long shot, but the theory is that the owner may have left his DNA when he took it apart to clean it. And, sealed in when he reassembled it and then by seven decades of marine encrustation, the DNA may still be there, Morrand said.

“If we could recover DNA, and if there are descendants that we could match with … [we could] identify who the owner of the trumpet was,” [UAB head Robert S.] Neyland said. “It kind of pushes the technology and pushes the science … but it would be pretty exciting.”

It pushes it to the breaking point, I’d think, but hey, who’d have thought they’d find Richard III under a parking lot.

Once the trumpet is fully stabilized and no longer needs to live in its bath, it will go on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Navy‘s exhibit dedicated to the USS Houston.

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UK wants to keep Lawrence of Arabia’s robes and dagger

February 4th, 2016

A magnificent presentation dagger and set of silk robes that belonged to T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, have been placed under a temporary export bar by UK Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. The silver-gilt dagger was a gift from Sherif Nasir, cousin of Emir Faisal, given to T.E. Lawrence in 1917 after the victory of Arab Revolt at the Battle of Aqaba in Jordan. There’s a fictionalized version of the capture of Aqaba and the presentation the dagger in David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia.

The robes are a champagne silk zebun with a matching waistcoat meant to be worn under the full-length abayeh. The zebun is lined with white cotton and has cotton ties at the waist. The vest has a delicately embroidered brocade button trims. They were made in Mecca or Medina before 1919. Lawrence is depicted wearing the robes in a 1919 oil on canvas portrait by Augustus John.

He wore both the garments and the dagger when he posed for Lady Kathleen Scott, sculptor and widow of Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, for a statuette she entitled Blonde Bedouin. Lawrence was a national hero after World War I, a dashing figure who sat for many artists. Lady Scott was the first and last woman among them. She noted in her diary that she wrote asking him to pose for her and he replied on February 2nd, 1921, that he’d be glad to even though he’d been subject to the scrutiny of so many artists he wasn’t sure there was anything left for her to capture.

“Seriously if you want an object, I’ll agree with pleasure: only it won’t be a good speculation: it won’t sell afterwards: and my face isn’t so-to-speak virgin. [...] [R]eally the features are quite worn away with so much study of them.

If you do do it, please hold me as a model, and not as ‘the most romantic figure of the war’ (American film-artist). I’m tired of the lime light, and am really not stagy at all, and not ever going to be a public figure again. It was a war effort, imposed, involuntary. Don’t do me as Colonel Lawrence (he died Nov. 11. 1918) but because my shaped head suits your whim.”

A week later, Lawrence was posing in his Arabic clothing in Lady Scott’s drawing room. He sat for her a total of three times, which was enough to utterly charm the artist. She described him in her diary as “an entrancing child” and declared herself to be suffering from an “acute attack of Lawrencitis.” She became friends with his siblings and even lived with his mother Sarah for a short time.

T.E. Lawrence left the robes and dagger with Lady Scott after his departure for the Cairo Conference on February 28th so she could use them to finish the statuette. He didn’t mean for her to keep them forever. On August 28th, 1922, he wrote a letter gently nudging to her return the gear. “There’s a little artist wants to do an Arab picture, & has asked me for kit … Do you think you could provide me some from your store?” If she responded there’s no record of it, and by 1929 Lawrence was yearning at least to get the dagger back. He wrote in a letter to Lionel Curtis dated February 22nd, 1929, that he was “daggerless and near naked” because he had lost two of his three prized daggers and sold the third. He told Curtis: “I will try and see Lady Hilton Young [Lady Scott married Edward Hilton Young, the future 1st Baron Kennet, in 1922] and ask tactfully if she thinks the silver one is hers or not.”

Tact may not have been the approach to take, since it definitely didn’t work in 1922. Whether he contacted her or not, the robes and dagger remained with Kathleen Scott and her descendants until 2015. The family lent the objects out twice: once for a National Portrait Gallery exhibition on T.E. Lawrence, once for an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. They were only put up for auction last summer after the death of Elizabeth Young, 2nd Lady Kennet, in 2014. The dagger sold for $191,713 and the robes for $19,563 at the same Christie’s auction last July.

The buyer asked for an export license, but with this being the only Lawrence dagger left in private hands and with the artistic prominence of the artifacts, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended export be barred to give British institutions the chance to raise the money and keep the robes and dagger in the UK.

RCEWA Chairman Sir Hayden Phillips said:

“Although the depiction, in the film Lawrence of Arabia, of Lawrence leading a sweeping camel charge across the desert into Aqaba in 1917 is probably a romantic exaggeration – stunning though it is – the taking of Aqaba from the landward side, with the help of Auda Abu Tayi, leader of the northern Howeitat, was an extraordinary feat and marked a crucial turning point in the campaign.

“The dagger was presented to Lawrence by Sherif Nasir in gratitude for Lawrence’s leadership and as a spontaneous mark of respect. The robes and dagger together form a crucial part of the images of Lawrence in painting, sculpture and photographs; and they are therefore an integral part of his life and our history.”

Anyone who wants to keep the set in Britain has until April 1st, 2016, to raise £13,000 for the robes and £127,000 for the dagger (prices include VAT), or at least to show a serious effort in that direction. If it looks like they have a chance of raising the money, the Culture Minister can extend the deadline to July 1st, 2016. After that, the license will likely be issued and the dagger and robes will leave the country.

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Van Gogh Museum’s exceptional French print collection online

February 3rd, 2016

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam first got into the French turn-of-the-century prints when it bought 800 exceptional examples from a German private collection in 2000. Since then the museum has made a point of acquiring more outstanding pieces. There are just under 1,800 French prints from 1890-1905 in the Van Gogh Museum now, but they are almost never displayed because light exposure is so dangerous to them. As of today, 1,739 French fin de siècle prints from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection have been uploaded to a dedicated website where we can see them but light cannot harm them.

The reason the Van Gogh Museum has made a point of collecting French prints is that they’re very relevant to Vincent Van Gogh’s aesthetic, artistic interests and the milieu in which his art evolved. Printmaking really took off in France in the second half of the 19th century. Before then, prints were copies of well-known artworks, an inexpensive way to for the general public to have a faithful rendition of the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo in their homes. Printmaking evolved into a valid artistic medium in its own right when French artists explored the possibilities of the form in a creative and engaging way. The Japonisme trend played a significant role in this shift, because the Japanese had such a rich tradition of artistic woodblock printing as evinced in the work of masters like Hokusai and Suzuki Harunobu.

Many of the greatest artists of the second half of the 19th century had print collections and experimented with lithography and printmaking in their own work. Prints appeared in the public and private spaces of Paris as posters, magazines covers, menus, theater programs, sheet music and books. The medium allowed artists to get their work out there on a large scale, to cross-pollinate with other art forms and even to control the supply and demand of their own output by deliberately creating limited editions coveted by the buying public.

Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, so most of the prints in the collection were made after his death when the rage for printmaking in France reached its apex, but he and his brother Theo followed closely the explosion of printmaking in the fin de siècle. Both collected prints from their friends and contemporaries. The Van Gogh Museum’s print collection begins where Vincent’s collection began and then moves forward connecting the next generation of artists to those who influenced them.

Those connections are at the core of the Van Gogh Museum’s new online exhibition of the print collection. The French Printmaking homepage opens with a group of thumbnails. Click on one and take the plunge, or if you click on “Discover the prints” on the left side to get to a larger assembly of tiled prints. Those tiles of print thumbnails hover behind any individual print you chose to click on as well. Once you’ve clicked on one print, four themes appear at each corner that connect this print to others in the collection. Themes include the publisher, medium, technique, salient features of the print, subject, pattern, and on and on. The Van Gogh staff have assigned an astonishing 1,300 themes to the print collection, which makes it a browser’s paradise.

This approach gives a unique glimpse into the richness of the printmaking community of fin de siècle Paris. You can get an instant understanding of how artists shared the same printers, influenced each other in everything from the paper used to the visual motifs. When click on a print, you can see it’s stats, but there is no detailed paragraph or two explaining the setting, author, etc. that you might expect to find. Instead, the print and its contents are described by keywords, each of them hotlinks to more works in the collection that can also be described by those keywords.

I like me some words, so I was glad to see more than a group of descriptors when I clicked on individual themes. They’re full of information, links to more information, even a list of resources for further reading on your own. It’s a marvelously flexible and user-friendly system and so very highly conducive to lost weekending. And oh, the resolution. The beautiful, perfect, gloriously high resolution. It makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.

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Ancient First Nations’ clay may kill drug-resistant bacteria

February 2nd, 2016

History steps in again to help fight the terrifying scourge of a post-antibiotic world in which even the smallest infection can cause death and entire fields of medical technology — organ transplants, device transplants, cosmetic surgery — are left undefended against the onslaught of pathogens. Last year there was the very promising study of a salve from the 10th century Anglo-Saxon home health remedies volume Bald’s Leechbook which was found to slaughter Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Now researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have found a glimmer of hope in the antimicrobial properties of a local clay from Kisameet Bay, British Columbia.

The 400,000 ton clay deposit developed in the bay about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. The people of the Heiltsuk First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Kisameet Bay, have used the clay for medicinal purposes for centuries. They take it internally for illnesses like ulcerative colitis and duodenal ulcers, and externally for problems like burns and phlebitis.

Studies from the 1940s onwards have found that Kisameet clay is different from your garden variety kaolinite or bentonite clays. It has a low mineral content in which the mica-like mineral biotite dominates. There’s also a flourishing community of up to 3,000 different taxa of microbes living in the deposit, among them Actinobacteria which may have an antimicrobial effect on non-local microbes.

The UBC research team wanted to see how the Kisameet Bay clay would deal with a panel of the scariest pathogens, the ESKAPE strains of bacteria.

The so-called ESKAPE pathogens — Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacter species — cause the majority of U.S. hospital infections and effectively ‘escape’ the effects of antibacterial drugs.

“Infections caused by ESKAPE bacteria are essentially untreatable and contribute to increasing mortality in hospitals,” said UBC microbiologist Julian Davies, co-author of the paper published today in the American Society for Microbiology’s mBio journal.

The collected samples of 16 ESKAPE strains from hospitals and a wastewater treatment plant in Vancouver. Each sample was grown in vitro and each exhibited multidrug resistance. The resistant cells were then suspended either in plain water or in a solution including desiccated Kisameet clay particles. The team tested the samples at regular time intervals — 0, 5 and 24 hours — to see if the clay was reducing the number of detectable pathogens and how long it took to do so. The results were pretty bloody amazing.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the effect of Kisameet clay on six of the pathogens in the study. The y-axis is the concentration of pathogens in the sample. The x-axis is time. The ^ next to the bars is an indicator that zero viable cells could be recovered.

The study also found the clay has antifungal properties and shows the same antibacterial properties even when no actual mineral particles are extracted. An aqueous extract works as well, which means the active ingredients that are doing such a fine job of beating up resistant bacteria could be removed from the clay and used in medical preparations.

This research is funded in part by a corporation with a dog in the hunt: cosmetics concern Kisameet Glacial Clay which plans to market the clay’s healing properties. The good news is the UBC researchers won’t have to beg for spare change to staff their project like the University of Nottingham study of Bald’s eye salve was forced to do, but I’ll be very curious to see their results repeated by third parties with no connection to clay sellers. Also in vivo tests are essential.

Read the full study here.

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Swiss return 2 sarcophaguses, 45 boxes of Etruscan art to Italy

February 1st, 2016

The Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva returned two priceless earthenware sarcophaguses and 45 boxes of exceptional Etruscan artworks to Italy last month. They were found where tens of thousands of looted ancient artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are usually found: in a giant warehouse at the Geneva Free Ports. They had been there for 15 years, stashed in the time of man’s innocency when looters, smugglers, middlemen and their brothers and sisters in the high-end antiquities market could do whatever the hell they wanted in Switzerland and nobody would question them.

Oh, if the walls of those warehouses could talk, what tales they would tell! Unique treasures fresh from the illegal dig, mud and salts still caked on the surface, files and Polaroids of even more unique treasures, many of them already in the hands of major museums, “Swiss private collection” ownership histories so blatantly fake they would make a seven-year-old forging a sick note from his mother stare in awed wonder at the sheer brazenness of it.

This particular smuggler’s cove was discovered after Italian authorities asked the Swiss to look for an Etruscan sarcophagus illegally excavated and thought to have been smuggled out of the country into Switzerland. The request, made in March of 2014, launched a search of the warehouse. The sarcophagus they were looking for wasn’t there, but a lot more was.

A search led by prosecutor Claudio Mascotto, from the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva, at the Geneva Free Ports revealed an unexpected treasure. Two rare sarcophaguses of Etruscan origin – their lid representing a man and a woman lying – were found in a warehouse, as well as many other invaluable archaeological remains. The antiques had been stored there for more than 15 years, registered under the name of an offshore company.

The prosecutor ordered the seizure of the sarcophaguses first, then extended the decision to all items, considering their suspected illegal provenance. Among these are bas-reliefs, vases and fragments of decorated vases, frescos, heads, busts, and several other votive or religious pieces.

An expert examined the artifacts and determined they were likely looted from the central Italian regions of Umbria and Lazio which were Etruscan territory in the first millennium B.C. Investigators from the Carabinieri Art Squad were able to establish a connection between some of the artifacts and the tomb robbers whose shenanigans had sparked the initial investigation.

The legal machinery of Italy and Switzerland agreed that the objects should be returned to Italy, but the repatriation process was delayed by an appeal from the warehouse owner who wanted to keep the goods until he got paid for 15 years worth of storage. Why he had been so saintly as to allow a decade and a half of unpaid bills is unclear.

The press release from the Geneva Prosecutor’s Office didn’t name the person who filled the warehouse with ancient treasure, referring to him only as a “former high-profile British art dealer, whose name has been linked in the past to the trading of several looted antiquities throughout the world.” That’s Robin Symes. Here’s a quick summary of the Symes saga I wrote ages ago, but to make a brief overview of a long story even shorter, for many decades Symes was the antiquities dealer to the rich and famous and the biggest museums in the world. The champagne lifestyle of chauffeured Bentley and homes in London, New York, Athens and the Cyclades islands came to an abrupt end when his business parter and long-time companion, Christo Michaelides, died in an accidental fall in 1999. The subsequent lawsuit from the deep-pocketed Michaelides family drove Symes into bankruptcy and, thanks to his inability to stop perjuring himself for one second, jail.

While the lawsuit was ongoing, Symes lived in Geneva where he could stuff untold ancient artifacts into Free Port warehouses. Some of the key lies he told on the stand, in fact, were about his warehouse activities. He told the court that he had five warehouses in Geneva holding his inventory when in reality he had 29 of them spread throughout London, New York and Geneva.

Symes, whose current whereabouts are unknown, cannot be prosecuted in Italy because the statute of limitations has expired, but this repatriation could have a chain reaction that puts pressure on the UK to return more than 700 disputed artifacts being held by the Symes’ liquidator. Objects in dispute have turned up on auction catalogues and in 2010 the Home Office instructed the liquidator to sell 1,000 pieces from Symes’ estate to settle his exorbitant tax bill. Italy complained vociferously and the sales were withdrawn, but the question of what to do with Symes’ stolen lucre is still unsettled. If Switzerland, which only ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 2003 and was the pivot point for this illegal traffic for decades, can send Symes’ loot back to Italy, the UK should certainly feel the heat.

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Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa restored

January 31st, 2016

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, has received a thorough cleaning and restoration, the first cleaning in 20 years. There were water stains from a leaking window and layers of black grime from dust accumulation, smog and other airborne pollutants. Now the bright white Carrara marble shines like it did when Bernini first polished it in 1652. Restorers also found something previous interventions overlooked: stucco and paint added to part of the travertine base to make it blend into the background of the chapel walls. Those additions have been removed, restoring to the base, which is not the usual geometric pediment but carved to look like a rising swirl of clouds, its original balance.

The statue of Christian saint and mystic Teresa of Ávila captured at the moment of religious ecstasy brought on by an angel in the course of repeatedly piercing her heart with an arrow is considered one of the great masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. It was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro of the patrician Venice family who had chosen Santa Maria della Vittoria as his burial site and wanted it significantly gussied up. He hired Bernini to design the entire chapel with the Saint Teresa group as the centerpiece because Santa Maria della Vittoria belonged to the Discalced Carmelites which was also Saint Teresa’s order.

Bernini, the leading sculptor of the age and internationally famous years at this point, was taking smaller private commissions from noblemen like Cornaro because he was between papal patrons. Pope Urban VIII, an avid art collector and a major patron of Bernini’s who gave him the most important public jobs like the construction of St. Peter’s Square, had died in 1644 and the new Pope Innocent X, wasn’t a fan. Bernini only got one public job under Innocent, the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. He got back in the papal graces with the election of Pope Alexander VII in 1655. The creation of Teresa and the chapel took up a good chunk of the interregnum, from 1647 to 1652.

Saint Teresa was still a fresh face on the saint scene, having died in 1582 and been canonized in 1622, but she had been renown and revered in life thanks to her mystical writings. Bernini’s sculpture depicts a famous episode from her life, an ecstatic vision of the exquisite pain of God’s love. We have Teresa’s own description of this ecstatic vision in Chapter 29 of her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus:

I saw close to me toward my left side an angel in bodily form. I don’t usually see angels in bodily form except on rare occasions; although many times angels appear to me, but without my seeing them, as in the intellectual vision I spoke about before. This time, though, the Lord desired that I see the vision in the following way: the angel was not large but small; he was very beautiful, and his face was so aflame that he seemed to be one of those very sublime angels that appear to be all afire. They must belong to those they call the cherubim, for they didn’t tell me their names. But I see clearly that in heaven there is so much difference between some angels and others and between these latter and still others that I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away; nor is the soul content with less than God.

Bernini followed her description very closely, sculpting the beautiful young cherub with the arrow poised to thrust into Teresa’s welcoming chest. Teresa’s face is the very picture of bliss, a sensual, erotic, lip-parted expression that has been copied and sketched by artists ever since. Bernini carved the whole sculpture out of a single piece of marble, playing with texture and thickness to give the draping of the clothes a natural softness. The areas where the marble is thinnest are almost translucent. The cloud base serves as Teresa’s fainting couch and symbolizes the support of the divine granting her this vision. On the walls of the chapel are two trompe l’oeil theater boxes in which the most illustrious members of the Cornaro family, including Cardinal Federico Cornaro and Doge Giovanni I Cornaro, watch and discuss Teresa’s ecstasy like so many pervie Statlers and Waldorfs.

Behind the sculpture are rays of gilded stucco which glow in the light of a hidden round window Bernini cleverly installed behind the aedicule (the architectural pediment that tops the sculpture). It acts like a natural spotlight, and the yellow stained glass elements are like gels that warm up the color of the light. It was this window, also known as the oculus, that was leaking, letting in the rainwater with its large sampling of the city’s particles. Restorers resealed it so it’s again watertight.

The restored chapel was officially presented to the public on November 26th, 2015.

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Early Christian church with unique frescoes found in Turkey

January 30th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the vast networks of rock-cut caves underneath the massive Byzantine-era castle in the town of Nevşehir, Central Anatolia Region, Turkey, have discovered an ancient church with unique frescoes depicting Biblical scenes not seen before in other churches of the period. Preliminary estimates suggest the church dates to the 5th century and the frescoes that have been revealed so far — on the ceiling and very tops of the walls — are still in brilliant color. There are scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Ascension, saints and Old Testament prophets including Moses and Elijah.

Nevşehir Mayor Hasan Ünver said the frescoes in the church showed the rise of Jesus the Christ into the sky and the killing of the bad souls.

“We know that such frescoes have so far never been seen in any other church,” Ünver said[....]

“It is reported that some of the frescoes here are unique. There are exciting depictions like fish falling from the hand of Jesus Christ, him rising up into the sky, and the bad souls being killed.”

That reference to bad souls being killed is not clear to me. It could be the Last Judgement, I suppose, but the souls of the wicked are damned, not killed. They wish they were killed! That’s kind of the whole point of Hell. I wonder if it’s a reference to the Harrowing of Hell derived from 1 Peter 3:19-20 that refers to Jesus preaching to evil souls/spirits (ie, Luciferian demons, rather than the souls of dead people) imprisoned in Limbo/Hell/Hades. It was a popular theme in Orthodox art. In fact, it first appears in Orthodox art significantly earlier than in Catholic art. The Western tradition appears to have only begun to borrow it from the Orthodox in the 8th century.

The underground city of Nevşehir was first unearthed in 2014 and while several other towns in the region, most famously Göreme, are known for their ancient rock-cut tunnel systems, the one in Nevşehir is believed to be the largest covering an area of ​​360,000 square meters with some tunnels more than four miles long. People have been beehiving under this place for an estimated 5,000 years. They cut out everything from water conduits to private dwellings to hermit cells and Christian churches. Nevşehir Castle Urban Transformation Project has been excavating the tunnels underneath the castle and 11 neighborhoods in the old town center. They’re excited at the prospect that the discovery of such early frescoes with unique iconography could make Nevşehir a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians.

Nevşehir was in what had once been the kingdom of Cappadocia, absorbed into the Roman Empire by Tiberius in 17 A.D. The tunnels were used as catacombs during the thornier years of Christian persecution, but the practice of cutting whole churches out of the rock grew out of the 4th century anchorite tradition. Cappadocia was an important center of Church thought in the 4th century, known particularly for the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great (bishop and saint), Gregory of Nyssa (bishop and saint) and Gregory of Nazianzus (archbishop and saint), who sought to introduce the Greek philosophical rigor to Christian theology. It was Saint Basil who encouraged the development of nascent anchorite communities where people who wished to withdraw from the world could dedicate the rest of their lives to penance and prayer. In the Nevşehir area, the anchorites made cells for themselves by digging them out of the soft rock. Over time the underground monastic communities carved themselves out increasingly large and elaborate churches.

Right now excavation has been halted because of excessive humidity which is deadly to ancient frescoed walls. The space must be dried gradually to ensure there is no paint loss or fading. From what has already been exposed, archaeologists can see that whole sections of the frescoed walls have collapsed inward, likely due to rain and snow. They hope the fragments may be recoverable in the fill, but won’t be back until the weather warms up this spring and all the moisture has evaporated. At that point they will continue removing the earth, hopefully discovering restorable pieces of the wall paintings or, in the best case scenario, sections of intact side walls as they dig down.

Once the church is fully excavated, we’ll know its dimensions — right now we can’t even tell how high it is — and get a glimpse of what may prove to be very significant early and transitional iconographic elements in the history of Byzantine art.

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Getty buys Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë for record $30.5 million

January 29th, 2016


The J. Paul Getty Museum blew through the record for Baroque artist Orazio Gentileschi when it bought his Danaë at a Sotheby’s auction Thursday for $30.5 million. That’s more than seven times greater than the previous record of $4,117,803 set in 2007 with the sale of a Madonna and Child. The entire sale of 61 lots took in a comparatively meager total of $53,473,500. If she were a film, Danaë would be a summer tentpole.

The work was part of a series of three paintings commissioned by Giovanni Antonio Sauli, a wealthy nobleman from Genoa, in 1621. Sauli encountered Gentileschi that year when he was in Rome with an ambassadorial delegation to honor the newly elected Pope Gregory XV. Orazio’s brother had already done some work for Sauli, and with Orazio’s reputation as fine artist well-established in Rome, Sauli asked him to come home with him and make some paintings for his palazzo. Orazio accepted the job, which also entailed curating Sauli’s art purchases, and lived in Genoa for three years until he left for France in 1624 to work for Marie de Medici, Regent of France, a pretty dramatic upgrade as patrons go which can be in significant part attributed to the success of the Sauli series.

The three works he painted for Sauli are Danaë, Penitent Magdalene and
Lot and his Daughters. Drawn from different religious traditions — Greek mythology, the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures — the three subjects shared a thematic connection of the human connection to the divine and a stylistic connection of being something on the naughty side. They were very popular and immediately well-known, boosting Gentileschi’s fame and triggering a number of commissions from other local noblemen, the Duke of Savoy, and finally the gig with the ruler of France. The Danaë is generally considered by art historians from the 18th century to the present to be the greatest of the three.

For centuries Danaë remained with Sauli’s descendants, only reemerging in 1975. It was bought by New York art dealer and collector Richard Feigen in 1977, although he had to fight the notoriously prickly California collector and museum founder Norton Simon for it. It’s been in the Feigen family trust since 1998, when prices for Orazio Gentileschi paintings were closer to the $100,000 range than the tens of millions.

While Penitent Magdalene is in a New York private collection, this purchase now reunites the remaining two works in the series. The Getty acquired Lot and His Daughters in 1998. Just a few years later, the museum brought all three of the Sauli commissions together again for a 2002 exhibition. In preparation for the exhibition, a copy of Danaë now in this Cleveland Museum of Art was compared side by side with the Getty’s new baby and was confirmed to be a later duplicate made from a tracing. For many years since it first emerged after centuries of being lost, the Cleveland work was thought to be the rediscovered original, but the original has pentimenti that the copy does not have, and it’s painted in the more rigid, formal manner of a copy. Gentileschi made multiple copies of the other works in the series as well. It was common for artists to make replicas of their most successful and sought-after pieces.

The Getty is, of course, thrilled with its new acquisition.

“The sensuality and splendor of Danaë, which is part of a trio of masterpieces that Gentileschi completed at the apogee of his career, draw together the Caravaggesque naturalism prevalent in Italian art in the early 17th century with the refinement of color which marks the mature style of Orazio, one of the most elegant and individual figures of the Italian Baroque,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “During his lifetime Gentileschi was probably the most internationally successful of all the artists associated with Caravaggio.”

Once it arrives at the Getty, Danaë will be displayed in the Museum’s East Pavilion, along with Lot and His Daughters. The timing will be announced.

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Browse 18,000 historic menus in the New York Public Library

January 28th, 2016

The New York Public Library has a collection of more than 45,000 historical restaurant menus from the 1840s to the present. It’s one of the largest menu collections in the world and it’s still growing, with Culinary Collections librarian (such a great job title) Rebecca Federman at the helm. She is the latest in a line descending from a formidable visionary named Miss Frank E. Buttolph who began collecting every menu she could get her hands on, mainly by writing with unstinting dedication to restaurants, palaces, banquet halls, whoever had the goods all over the world.

It wasn’t a hobby or even about the food for her. Miss Buttolph dedicated her life to collecting menus because she believed they had genuine historical value. She made a point of seeking out menus used by notable personages or that were on the table when momentous events took place around them. Events include the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria, the Prussian Siege of Paris in 1870, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where President McKinley was assassinated and a banquet thrown by Emperor of Japan for William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, during the 1905 Taft–Katsura discussion.

An article published in the June 3rd, 1906, issue of the New York Times (pdf) acknowledged the drive for historic preservation underpinning her collection in amusing terms.

Miss Buttolph is making history for the year 2,000 which, should our present carnivorous natures by that time merge into a diet mild and milky, will hold this generation up as an example of brute force that should annihilate all our virtues and leave us in the eyes of our descendants a race of horror and greed, a pack of flesh-eating outcasts remarkable only for our gastronomic endurance.

While there are certainly a great many more calves heads, tongues, mutton and brain aspic than one commonly sees on menus today, there are also a surprising number of plain raw vegetable appetizers like celery or radishes. Just like a plate of celery. Coffee and tea appear the most frequently in the collection. Celery takes third place. The real stand-out to me, now that the year 2,000 has come and gone, is how lacking in variety so many of these menus are. Basically, if it’s fine dining, it has to be French or French-adjacent. There is little distinction between an 1843 breakfast menu in New York and a dinner menu from 1857 in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a lot of meat with French-like preparations, although at least the Battle House in Mobile had very respectable pie options. It’s all nuts and fruit in New York. Even the menu from the Streets of Mexico Restaurant at the Pan-American Exposition had far more ragout of beef, boiled trout with hollandaise and roast lamb with mint sauce than food remotely related to Mexico. The tamales and enchiladas (25 cents apiece), chili con carne, salsa and frijoles (15 cents apiece) at the very top of the menu were forced to carry the full burden of Mexicanness.

In 1899 Miss Frank E. Buttolph offered her collection of menus, already in the thousands, to the New York Public Library and offered to continue adding to the collection. NYPL director Dr. John Shaw Billings accepted both generous offers and Miss Frank collected menus for the library the next 25 years until her death in 1924. The Buttolph Collection of Menus had 25,000 menus in it at the time of her death.

Now it’s 20,000 items larger and close to 19,000 bills of fare have been digitized and are available to peruse online in the New York Public Library’s extensive digital collections. The digitization project is ongoing, but it’s not an easy job. Some of the menus are in very delicate condition and require conservation before they can be scanned. Meanwhile, the collection is only searchable at a very basic level. Information that was in the catalogue description — location, date range, name of hostelry — is the only data that can be searched digitally. The menu items themselves are not.

To remedy this, the NYPL started an open transcription project where volunteers can hand-enter all the details on the menu from food to wine list to prices. The power of the crowd is more effective in this case than OCR scanning because a lot of the menus have condition issues that make the letters less clear, crooked layouts or handwritten entries. A person would have to edit every OCRd page anyway, so best to cut the middleman.

It seems like the project is just about caught up right now. Every decade I clicked on showed the menu transcriptions as done, but bookmark this page and check it out once in a while for a new influx of digitized menus. There are a lot of treasures mentioned in several turn-of-the-century NYT articles that have yet to be digitized. I’d love to catch one of those fresh off the presses.

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2,500-year-old footprints of people, dogs found in Arizona

January 27th, 2016

I don’t quite have it in me yet to do a research-intensive post but I can’t stand to be out for three days in a row, especially since you have all been so incredibly solicitous of my health. Thank you so much for your wonderfully supportive comments, good wishes, wise advice and even recipes. :thanks:

Archaeologists excavating the site of a new highway to be built along Interstate 10 outside Tucson, Arizona, have discovered footprints left by a Native American farming community 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. The prints of men, women, children and dogs were left in the mud during a wet day. The mud dried into a solid crust and then a few days later a flash flood inundated the area with a layer of sandy silt that preserved the prints in perpetuity.

The prints are so extensive and clear that it’s possible to trace people’s movements during the course of the day. The imprints of irrigation ditches have also survived, and the business of the print groupings suggest the adults were working assiduously to manage the irrigation system during heavy rain or a rise in the nearby Santa Cruz River. They walked from one irrigation gate to another, building or flattening earthwork dams to direct the extra water to their maize plants. There are prints of an adult walking next to a child and marks left when the adult picked up the child before putting him or her back down. There are prints of adults walking to the irrigation canals while children and a dog follow them.

While far older footprints have been found in North America (ca. 13,000 years old), these are likely the oldest ever discovered north of Mexico in the Southwest, and they are the earliest evidence of formal farming in the US Southwest.

The ancient civilization that lived here represents what archaeologists call the early agricultural period, a time even before people in the region had developed ceramics.

“It’s a transition era from a lifestyle defined by hunter-gatherers to a settling down,” said Jerome Hesse, with SWCA Environmental Consultants.

Exactly how the people here lived their lives or organized their society is unknown, but Hesse said they likely lived at least part of the year at this and other sites in the region, cultivating crops in irrigated fields.

So far 4,300 square feet of the site have been exposed, and there’s likely more to be found, but time is not on archaeology’s side. The construction project will not be delayed or moved and it will destroy this unique discovery. In order to preserve what they can of this treasure, archaeologists have taken latex and epoxy molds of specific footprints, and the site is being documented virtually with high-resolution 3D models.

Here are a few of the models for you to explore. Keep an eye on the Southwest Archaeology blog for more to come.

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprint
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

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