Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

UofT acquires oldest English-language book in Canada

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library celebrated World Book Day today by announcing the acquisition of the Caxton Cicero. Printed in 1481, only four decades after the invention of the printing press in the West, the volume is believed to be the oldest English-language book in Canada, and it’s certainly the oldest in the library’s collection, eclipsing the previous record-holder (a copy of The Golden Legend printed by Caxton in 1507) by a quarter century.

William Caxton, the man who introduced movable type to England, included three translated Latin treatises in the untitled book: De Amicitia (“On Friendship”) and De Senectute (“On Old Age”) by Marcus Tullius Cicero, and De Nobilitate (“On Nobility”) by early 15th century humanist Giovane Buonaccorso da Montemagno the Younger. This was the first book by a classical ancient author to be translated into English, as well as the first Renaissance humanist author translated into English.

Unlike The Golden Legend, of which thousands of manuscripts and printed editions survive, there are only 13 known extant copies of the Caxton Cicero.

At the end of the first text, Caxton includes a colophon […], which is an imprint by the printer that includes information about the book’s publication.

The printed text states that the book is “imprinted by me simple person William Caxton into English at the pleasure, solace and reverence of men growing into old age.” The writing in ink below the statement is likely a person practising their handwriting, trying to emulate the type – likely from the end of the 15th century, says [interim head of rare books and manuscripts at Fisher Library, Pearce] Carefoote.

Through clues buried inside the book, one can trace the history of the Caxton Cicero back to one of its first owners, Thomas Shupton – thought to be a monk during the time of Henry VIII. It was then given to 16th-century politician Sir Robert Coke, who passed it on to his nephew. After his nephew’s death, the book was given to Sion College in London, which kept it until 1977 when it was bought by Mexican author Roberto Salinas Price through a rare book dealer.

U of T acquired the text from Price’s estate, which was made possible by many donors, led by the B.H. Breslauer Foundation and with the support from the University of Toronto through a matching grant.

In a random but satisfying numerological coincidence, it is the 15th millionth book in the Fisher Library collection. It will be of inestimable scholarly value to students of the classics, Renaissance, the history of the English language (Caxton’s publications were instrumental in establishing the primacy of the London dialect, standardizing English and spreading literacy), the physical object of the book and more. Library staff also plan to digitize the book so that it can be accessed by interested parties all over the world.

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Happy Birthday, Rome, from the Antonine Wall.

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

It’s April 21st, the traditional founding day of the city of Rome when, according to legend (one of them, anyway) Romulus ploughed a furrow laying out the boundaries of the city, sacrificed to the gods and became the first king of Rome by popular acclaim. Ancient sources vary on the date of this mythical event (in fact, archaeological evidence indicates Rome has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, ca. 14,000 years ago) but for the past couple of thousand years the most widely accepted date for the founding is 753 B.C., which makes the Eternal City 2,772 years old today.

It was a comparative baby of 895 years old when its legions built the Antonine Wall across the width of Scotland, a series of defensive ramparts, ditches and forts marking the furthest northwestern boundary of the empire. The soldiers left distance stones, slabs with reliefs and inscriptions documenting how much of the wall they’d built, features unique to the Antonine Wall.

A new study by University of Glasgow archaeologist Dr. Louisa Campbell has found that those distance slabs, now worn down to their natural sandstone, were originally painted in bright red and yellow. She used X-ray and laser technology to analyze the Second Legion’s distance stone, found at Summerston Farm in the 17th century.

Inscribed with a dedication to Antoninus Pius (“For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, the Second Augustan Legion completed [this work] over a distance of 3666.5 paces”), the stone depicts Roman cavalry with two captives on the left of the inscription, and an eagle on top of a capricorn (emblem of the Second Legion) on the right. It is currently on display at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum.

Dr. Campbell used portable X-Ray Flourescence and Raman Spectroscopic technology to analyze the traces of pigment remaining on several distance stones, including the Summerston stone. They identified a limited palette of vibrant red and yellow that was used as visually impactful propaganda that would have conveyed a clear message to indigenous peoples about the power and strength of the Roman empire.

There is a clear format to the application of pigments in the Roman Empire with specific colours expected to appear in certain contexts, eg reds in letters and Roman cloaks and military standards, different colours of red depicting spilled blood of indigenous captive warriors and ochres probably applied in layers to provide life-like skin tones, as evidenced on marble statuary.

There is even evidence for red on the beak of the Roman eagle which Dr Campbell suggests symbolises the eagle feasting on the flesh of her enemies.

A base layer of gesso was applied to the stones in the first instance which was then painted onto, but conservation practices appear to have negatively impacted the survival of these exquisite sculptures.

This is innovative work that has not previously been attempted. It presented some challenges which have now been mitigated and the next phase of the research seeks to determine whether other stone statuary, including Pictish symbol stones and other early medieval sculpture was adorned in colour.

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Roman Republic coin collection digitzed

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Rutgers University has digitized its Ernst Badian Collection of Roman coins from the Republican era, a group of more than 1,200 coins that cover the period from 280 B.C. through 31 B.C. and the end of the Republic. Numismatics provide a unique perspective on history, not just monetary but political and social. The Badian Collection’s focus on Republican Rome makes it an invaluable (pun intended) resource for students of a period that in the earliest years of coin production has limited surviving contemporary historical documentation.

The collection begins with examples of cast bronze coinage, used in the earliest stages of monetization. The Republic moved to struck coins, some made of silver as the standard metal for coins. The denarius, half-denarius and quinarius all were struck from silver. Smaller denominations continued to be struck from bronze. Early coins found in the collection often imitate examples from the Greek colonies in southern Italy (Magna Graecia). The movement to silver denominations, like the denarius, unique to Rome, also is documented. There also are examples of brockage, an error caused when a coin adhered to the die and was struck a second time.

Coins in the collection also document the political aspects of striking coins unique to Rome. Young politicians served as official moneyers (tresviri monetales). They put their names on coins and selected motifs that conveyed messages about their families’ histories and the virtues they claimed these had. The most common message was the importance of military virtues. Patriotic images like the helmeted head of Rome and the she wolf appear together with images of deities. Reflecting affairs in Italy and beyond, changes in money weights and the addition of victory motifs show the fortunes of a rising empire. This includes evidence of the difficulties of the Republic during the Second Punic War, when Hannibal campaigned in Italy. An unusual use of gold as an “emergency” coinage during the Second Punic War is represented among the coins at Rutgers. The collection also documents financial pressures that caused debasement of currency in the same period. Victories were commemorated with special coins and the use of images of trophies won by the armies of the Republic.




The collection thus illustrates comprehensively the progressively heated political climate of the later Republic, and the various fortunes of charismatic leaders such as Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Lepidus and Marc Antony, as well as those of numerous other ambitious families and individuals.

In-person access to the collection is limited by preservation and security concerns, so the digitization project opens up previously closed doors not just to scholars and academics, but to everyone who is interested in Roman and numismatic history. Rutgers graduate students did the work, spending four years photographing every coin from multiple angles and uploading the images to the dedicated website. They can be searched by keyword, which makes it easy to use the coins for research on a subject that is not literal monetary history.

The coins were collected by Harvard professor Ernst Badian who donated the coins to Rutgers in 2001. Professor Badian researched his own collection assiduously and wrote notes on many individual coins. Those hand-written notes identifying the coins, their dates, inscriptions and iconography have also been digitized so you can see scans of the original notes in his hand as well as transcriptions.

To search or browse the Ernst Badian Collection, click here.



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Update: Ponte Vedra shipwreck moved to safety

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

Weeks after it washed up on Ponte Vedra Beach, the remains of a shipwreck have been safely removed from the beach to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Construction Debris Removal Inc. donated their time and equipment and experts from the Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program (LAMP) collaborated to prepare the delicate wooden hull for transport and move it to its new home just over the highway. The team worked all day in the hot sun to make it happen, finally getting the ship to a protected location near the Guana Dam at the end of the afternoon.

The 48-foot-long section of a ship is a weighty thing, hence the front loader. The head of the construction company estimates that it weighed 6,000 pounds. Archaeologists think, based on its dimensions and construction, that the complete ship would have been something in the neighborhood of 100-150 feet long and was probably a coastal trading ship with a crew of around 20 men.

Chuck Meide, director of maritime research at the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, thinks it was built in the southeast in first half the 19th century, not the 18th century as originally speculated.

That, [Meide] said, he and others based not only on the size of the frame members, or what are called “futtocks,” but also those deteriorating surface features that could be seen on them.

Marks on them, Meide said, appear to have been made by band saws and circular saws. Those would have been steam powered and not in widespread use until the 1830s, he said

What Meide called a “deliberate pattern” of alternating softwood and hardwood timbers for the futtocks also added another clue about origin.

“That’s kind of interesting,” he said.

It suggests that the builder was taking advantage of the strength of the hardwood, “but the abundance of softwood would have made it a lot cheaper,” he explained. That points to a smaller shipbuilder in the South as opposed to a more industrial shipyard in the north that would have been more likely to use all hardwoods, Meide said.

The hot sun and roiling waters of the Florida beach were major threats to this intriguing relic. Just as it washed ashore during a spring break storm, it could have been swept back out to the Atlantic ocean at any time. Even as the thousands of people who flocked to see the wreck and read about it in national news reports hoped it would be rescued before that happened, the logistics proved challenging and several attempts at salvage failed. Meanwhile, the sun had three weeks to dry the wood and bake away the extremely rare surviving chisel marks, graffiti and Roman numerals left by the builders that had been clearly visible when the ship first appeared on the beach.

Even though the building marks have faded significantly, it seems the deterioration has stabilized for now. Conservators will now be able to work to preserve the shipwreck for the long-term. The GTM Research Reserve is committed to research and protection of of its estuarine environment, but it doesn’t have the budget or expertise to conserve a wooden hull. The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is taking on that task, and they need funding to do it.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is trying to raise money to pay for further study of the shipwreck, which includes archaeological analysis, the generation of three-dimensional computer models of the shipwreck, wood species identification, and tree-ring dating. With your help the Museum will be able to pay for the production of interpretive signage so that at least a portion of the shipwreck can be saved and displayed for the public to see. We hope that will be at the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas Research Reserve, which has a Visitor Center very close to where the shipwreck was found, but our Museum will be in charge of the archaeology and interpretation.

The museum has set up a donate link on its Facebook page. So far only $620 have been raised. The goal is $10,000.

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Unbelievable 3D-printed 1st c. Roman helmet

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Custom Prototypes has created what can only be described as a masterpiece of historical recreation. It’s made of 3D-printed stainless steel and resin (aka stereolithography or SLA plastic), which sounds easy but is far, far from it. For one thing, steel doesn’t come out of the printer all shiny and pretty. The helmet started out as a dull plastic-looking affair requiring a bristling mass of supports in what would become the hollow part that needed to be removed before the finished product could look anything like the original.

Then all the individually printed stainless steel parts — helmet base, decorative elements — had to be sanded, polished and buffed to a high gloss. Once that was done, the resin pieces were printed in clear plastic, including the fantastic mohawk, and then painted and dyed to look like gemstones. That’s not an easy process either, making little plastic bits look like jade or lapis lazuli or feathers.

It helps to elevate the material when you electroplate the base, figures and reliefs with nickel, copper, chrome and just for good measure, 24 carat gold. Pieced all together the final work may bear zero relation to any actual Roman helmet that ever existed, but it sure looks spectacular.

Most of all, it’s a testament to how much is possible with 3D printing technology and months of hard work. This video documents the fascinating process.

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18th c. shipwreck hull scanned for posterity

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

The remains of a rare 18th century shipwreck caused much excitement when they were discovered by beachcombers on Ponte Vedra Beach in northeastern Florida last month. All that’s left of the ship is a large section of wooden hull, but 47-feet sections of 300-year-old ships don’t wash up ashore all in one piece very often, and this one is surprisingly well-preserved. Wooden pegs and Roman numeral markers used in its construction are still intact.

Julia Turner and her eight-year-old son stumbled on the wreckage during a walk on the beach on March 28th, 2018. They had been looking for shark teeth and shells when the found a ship’s hull instead. At first Julia thought it was just some old fencing or maybe part of a pier, but she soon realized it was the remnants of a shipwreck.

Archaeologists from the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum started documenting the discovery that very same day. They made field drawings, mapped the hull and its context. Because it was found on state land — Ponte Vedra is a public beach — the shipwreck cannot be moved or interfered with in any way. Even the archaeologists could only observe very carefully, take copious notes to share with any relevant state authorities who would then determine what to do next. The next day, officials decided to attempt recovery, but the heavy crane necessary to remove such a large and heavy section of ship got stuck in the sand. A second attempt on Friday also came to naught.

The news of the find spread quickly and drew crowds, some of whom were a little too keen to get up close and personal with the wreck. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office had to deploy a deputy to guard the hull while archaeologists did their thing to keep the overly enthusiastic from interfering with the fragile artifact.

Since archaeologists weren’t officially tasked with salvage and the wreck could be reclaimed by the ocean at any time, the team went with plan B and arranged for a laser scanner to be brought to the site from the University of South Florida. On Saturday, March 31st, four days after the hull washed ashore, it was laser scanned for posterity. Now, barely two weeks later, the first 3D model of the Ponte Vedra Shipwreck has been made available online.

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Coleridge’s remains found in a wine cellar

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

The remains of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been rediscovered in a bricked-up wine cellar. Their loss was of recent duration. Just before his death in 1834, the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was lodging at the home of a doctor in Highgate, north London, who was attempting to treat him. When those attempts failed to prevent the poet’s death, he was buried in Old Highgate Chapel near the parish church across the street.

In 1961, an alarm was raised about the condition of the vault. It was derelict and Coleridge’s remains were no longer safe. A fundraising campaign that received contributions from all over the world was launched and its success allowed Coleridge’s remains, those of his wife Sarah, his daughter Sarah, her husband and their son to be moved to St. Michael’s Parish Church where they were placed in a section of the crypt that in the 17th century had been a wine cellar. When the church was built on the site of the former Ashhurst House in 1831, the old wine cellar had been absorbed into the large crypt of the new St Michael’s and largely forgotten. Coleridge got a marker in the floor of the church, but the coffins themselves were bricked up and forgotten about.

[I]n the words of Drew Clode, a member of the St Michael’s stewardship committee, “poor Coleridge was moved from a tip to a tip – they put the coffins in a convenient space which was dry and secure, and quite suitable, bricked them up and forgot about them, and never did anything about the rest of the space”.

As people died or moved away from the parish, the exact location of the coffins was forgotten, until a recent excavation revealed the entrance to the wine vault. The gap was just large enough to shine a torch through the ventilation block in the 1960s brick wall, and the excavators discovered the five lead coffins. They lay not where most thought, in the far corner of the crypt, but almost directly below the inscription “Beneath this stone lies the body of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” on the prominent memorial slab in the nave. “So that was a bit of a clue really,” said Clode.

Pilgrims do visit the church to pay their respects to the poet, and it would be nice to have more than just a marker for them to see. St. Michael’s authorities want to clear the crypt and make it accessible without having to follow a labyrinthine path through piles of brick and stone.

“From a safety point of view it would be quite impossible to bring members of the public down here,” said the vicar, Kunle Ayodeji. “But we hope that the whole crypt can be cleared as a space for meetings and other uses, which would also allow access to Coleridge’s cellar. I don’t think we would open up a view of the coffins, but we could place a suitable inscription on the wall.”

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FBI recovers stolen Chagall 30 years after theft

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

A Chagall oil painting that was stolen in a heist of valuables from the apartment of a New York couple in 1988 has been recovered by the FBI. Ernest and Rose Heller were 85 and 88 years old respectively when they returned to their Manhattan apartment after an Aspen vacation to find it had been burgled. Missing along with the Chagall were jewelry, china, silver and 13 other paintings from their small but significant collection by artists including Renoir, Hopper and Picasso. The building’s security system had remained silent the entire time.

Because of security having been neutralized, authorities at the time suspected it was an inside job. One man who worked there and had access to the building’s security system would later be convicted on federal charges of moving stolen goods across state lines. Some of the counts related to the Heller theft, others to art stolen from other New York homes, so it seems the Chagall fell into the hands of a whole theft ring with multi-state operation.

Even with the insider arrested and convicted, none of the loot from the Heller apartment was recovered. Ernest was quoted in the press at the time of the theft saying that he didn’t think he’d ever see any of the pieces from “a lifetime of collecting” again. Sadly, he was right. He and his wife passed away many years ago, leaving their possessions almost entirely to charity.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team tracked down the painting with the help of a gallery in Washington, DC. According to a complaint filed today in US District Court and titled United States v. One Oil Painting Entitled Othello and Desdemona by Marc Chagall for the District of Columbia, “Person 1” approached “Person 2” in the late 1980s or early ’90s, for help selling the stolen Chagall to persons involved with Bulgarian organized crime. The deal fell through, and the first party accused the second, who wound up with the painting, of stealing the work. (Because of the ongoing investigation into the other paintings whereabouts, the FBI is not revealing the names of any of the parties involved.)

Person 2 brought the painting to the DC gallery in 2011, and again in 2017. An unidentified third party had previously brought the painting to the gallery back in 1989. All three times, the dealer said they could not help sell the piece without proof of ownership and provenance. Encouraged by the gallery, Person 2 finally contacted the FBI, who took possession of the painting in January 2017.

Because the insurance company paid out for the stolen objects, it is technically the owner of the painting, and would be even if the Hellers were alive. In this case it has agreed to waive its legitimate ownership claim and the painting will be sold auction to benefit the charities in the Hellers’ will.

Chagall paintings can go for dizzying sums these days. The most recent windfall went to the former owners of Les Amoureux, which sold at Sotheby’s in New York last November for a record $28.45 million. Experts are doubtful that this piece would be one of the artist’s multi-million dollar sellers, however. The image is a little muddy, not particularly appealing and its many decades on the lam have not done its condition any favors. A similar work recently sold for $600,000, so that’s what it’s been appraised at. On the other hand, Ernest Heller was intrigued by its early date — it was painted in 1911 — and his own father bought it in Paris just two years after it was made for $50, likely from Chagall himself. Also its recent history might make it more desirable because heist stories are always juicy.

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One of the earliest Persian garden carpets in the world to go on display in the US for the first time

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

One of the greatest Persian carpets in the world is traveling from Glasgow to the United States for the first time to go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Wagner Garden Carpet was made in Kirman, modern-day southeastern Iran, in the 17th century. It one of the three earliest Persian garden carpets known in the world (the other two are at the Albert Hall in Jaipur, India, and the Museum of Industrial Art in Vienna, Austria) but its design is unique. There are no other carpets known that use its base pattern in whole or in part.

Its four-quartered garden layout is inspired by the Safavid royal gardens and the concept of the earthly paradise described in the Quran. In the middle is a basin where the channels that divide the garden meet. All along the H-shaped channels trees, plants and shrubs flower and animals — birds, butterflies, goats, rabbits, lions, gazelles, peacocks, leopards — roam amidst their lushness. Fish and waterfowl frolic in the canals.

It was named after its German owner who acquired it at the turn of the century. Sir William Burrell bought it in 1939 from the Royal Bank of Scotland. He displayed it in his drawing room at Hutton Castle in Northumberland, but only owned it for five years before donating it to the City of Glasgow.

It is huge, more than 17 feet long and 14 feet wide. The warps are all cotton; the wefts wool, cotton and silk; the pile wool. Because of its massive size and the delicate condition of its textiles, it has only been on display twice in the past three decades, and has never been seen outside the UK since the Burrell purchase in 1939. It is traveling now only because the Burrell Collection closed for an extensive £66 million refurbishment in October 2016 and doesn’t reopen until late 2020.

Dr Frances Fowle, Burrell Trustees chairman, said: “The Burrell Trustees are delighted to support the loan of one of the world’s most spectacular and important carpets to one of the world’s greatest museums.

“The loan will raise international awareness of the significance of Sir William Burrell’s collection while the museum undergoes much-needed refurbishment.” […]

While on display in New York the artwork will accompanied by a supporting display relating to the importance of gardens in Islamic culture and a full public programme including a symposium and a guest lecture by Noorah al Gailani, curator of Islamic Civilisations at Glasgow Museums and the Burrell Collection.

It will be exhibited at the Met’s Islamic Galleries from July 10th through October 7th, 2018.

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Ardennes baker recreates World War I bread

Monday, April 9th, 2018

A baker in Sedan, in northeastern France’s Ardennes region, is creating exact replicas of the bread that was distributed to French infantrymen during World War I. The soldiers were nicknamed “poilus,” meaning “hairy ones,” a reference to their propensity for facial hair which was a tell-tale sign of their country rustic origins. Baker Christophe Guénard calls his reproductions of the bread they lived on from 1914 to 1918 “Le pain des poilus” and wraps it in a tricolor ribbon.

Guénard began researching the “pain de guerre” because he wanted to create a leavener from scratch instead of using yeast or chemical leaveners like baking soda. He scoured archives in Paris and zeroed in on the 1914-1918 period when boulangers supplying the infantry on the front lines, bound by the exigencies and deprivations of wartime, had to create the most bare bones product they could. At the same time, this bread would be the main food keeping the poilus on the front lines going. It was the bulk of their intake; they ate half a loaf in the morning, half in the evening.

He found it was made of white flour, but it’s plain, with none of the additives, enzymes, dairy derivatives and other enhancements typical of bread flour. There are no chemical leaveners in the flour, nor was yeast used. Instead, they made a leavener from scratch, the very technique Guénard had been looking for, by macerating raisins in water for 10 days. The liquid (raisins strained out, of course) was then mixed with the plain white flour to create the dough. More flour was added over time to feed the raisin leavener.

“Every day, when I make this bread, I say we did the same during the war,” says Jerome Pirois, floury hands kneading a ball of dough, before a baking at 250° C for 35 minutes.

The baker is busy preparing about sixty loaves for the next day: “This is another way of working bread. When the boss told me about it, I educated myself. There’s a history behind it.”

“It is a great idea, it is this type of popular initiative that must be taken and which people support,” rejoices … Serge Barcellini, Comptroller General of the Armies and President of the French Souvenir, who moved to Sedan.

The bakery sells 120 loaves of Poilus every week for 12.50 euros apiece. A percentage of each sale is donated to Le Souvenir Français, the association that maintains war memorials and keeps the memory of war dead alive. The Ardennes region was one of the epicenters of slaughter of the Western Front, so the dreadful losses of World War I are still very much present in a way they may not be in other parts of France.

With the commemoration of the Centenary coming to an end this year, “the risk is that the memory of 14-18 collapses with memory consequences and economic consequences in the frontline regions,” he says.

But “to enter a bakery and have a direct and authentic memory” of the conflict feeds the interest of the population for this period, he adds.

The bakery now wishes to pass on its recipe to other craftsmen and make it travel out of the department, marked by the battle of the Ardennes in August 1914, to “make the product live”, enthuses Mr. Guénard.

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