Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Gems of Australia’s rich quilting history

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria is putting on display an exceptional collection of quilts and related pieces from Australia’s rich history of patchwork. Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 brings together almost 100 quilts, blankets, coverlets, and patchwork clothes from museums and private collections all over the country. They date to the first decades of English colonization through the middle of the 20th century. Some of the pieces have never been on public display, like the Hexagon quilt made in 1811 by Sarah Wall (nee Litherland or Leatherland), an English convict who arrived in Australia about the HMS Earl Cornwallis in 1801, 13 years after the first convicts arrived in Botany Bay and eight years after the first free settlers. Hers is the earliest known pierced hexagon quilt made in Australia.

Others are so fragile they’ve only been shown very rarely. The most signficant of these is The Rajah Quilt, made in 1841 by the female convicts transported to Australia aboard the HMS Rajah. It is the only known surviving quilt made during the voyage from London to Van Diemen’s Land. The necessary supplies were donated by The British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Founded in 1821 by the Quaker prison reform advocate Elizabeth Fry, the society distributed bibles, combs, sewing supplies for personal use and all the materials needed for a collaborative quilt — 100 needles, pins, white, black, red and blue cotton thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, and two pounds of patchwork pieces — to female convicts, first at Newgate prison, and then to transportees.

Elizabeth Fry had a great impact on the way women sentenced to transportation were treated. She ensured they were taken to the ships in closed carriages so they wouldn’t be subject to the stone-throwing, filth projectiles and derision of the public. Loaded onto ships weeks before they sailed, the prisoners were horribly neglected. Fry and the ladies of the Society visited them every day, tending to their needs and giving them care packages that included the needlecraft supplies.

Fry thought patchwork in particular was ideal employment for women prisoners, because it taught them how to sew and, because it’s so complex and time-consuming, it gave them something to focus on during the long dreary hours of confinement. At the end, they’d have new skills and a beautiful result to show for their hard work. Patchwork converted the drudgery of a prison sentence, or a dangerous, unpleasant three-month ship voyage across the world, into productive time. It also had a meditative quality, an inward-looking contemplation which in Fry’s Quaker philosophy led to spiritual salvation.

The 180 female convicts on the Rajah were given patchwork materials by the Society and guidance in the person of Miss Keiza Hayter. Hayter was not a convict. She had worked with Fry at the Millbank Penitentiary, and Fry recommended her to Lady Jane Franklin to help found the Tasmanian Ladies’ Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Yes, that Lady Jane Franklin. John Franklin was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land when the Rajah unloaded its women convicts and their quilt, and Lady Franklin was in regular contact with Elizabeth Fry. It was Fry who inspired her prison reform efforts in Tasmania, a colony largely populated with current and former convicts, although Jane did not share Fry’s focus on rehabilitation. Lady Franklin believed hard labour, long stretches of solitary confinement and shaving female prisoners’ heads were more effective means to instill “corrective discipline” than contemplation and job training.

Keiza Hayter’s mission on the Rajah was to instill useful values and skills in the transportees. Part of that was the improvement of their minds and characters through needlework. Experts believe Hayter oversaw the design of the quilt. It has a central square of Broderie Perse (appliquéd chintz that resembles Persian embroidery) from which twelve frames radiate forming a medallion quilt. Florals and birds decorate the center and frames. Experts believe at least 29 of the transportees worked on the quilt. The passenger manifest lists 15 women whose professions were tailoring/needlework, but there’s evidence on the quilt itself that novices worked on it as well. Small bloodstains were probably left by less experienced women when they stuck themselves with needles.

A silk yarn inscription expresses the convicts’ proper sentiments of gratitude and industriousness.

TO THE LADIES
of the
Convict ship committee.
This quilt worked by the Convicts
of the ship Rajah during their voyage
to van Diemans Land is presented as a
testimony to the gratitude with which
they remember their exertions for their
welfare while in England and during
their passage and also as proof that
they have not neglected the Ladies
kind admonition of being industrious.

June 1841

The quilt is now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia. It has survived in remarkable condition, all told, but it is very fragile and light-sensitive so for conservation’s sake, it is only displayed once a year.

That’s just scratching the surface of the beautiful works on view at this exhibition which opens today and runs through November 16th. Because the museum was kind enough to supply outstanding photographs of many stand-out pieces and because I know there are many needlework afficionados reading this, here’s a generous complement of quilt porn to take you into the weekend. And not just quilts either. The Press Dress, an unbelievable ball gown worn by Mrs. William W. Dobbs to the the Mayor of Melbourne’s fancy dress ball in 1866, was made of silk satin printed with pages of 14 different Melbourne newspapers, including The Age, The Australasian, Herald and Punch. I love the table cover made from cigar silk, too. Oh! And the Westbury Sampler quilt! It’s all deadly.









Indigenous, colonial interaction writ on Caribbean cave walls

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

A team of British and Puerto Rican archaeologists have discovered a collection of early colonial inscriptions alongside earlier indigenous iconography on the walls of a cave on the Caribbean island of Mona. It’s a unique document of the interaction between indigenous and European culture and at the time of their earliest interactions.

Columbus first encountered Mona, a small island between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, on his second voyage in 1494. Its location within a day’s canoe trip of the larger islands ensured the indios of Mona were well-connected to interregional trade networks, and when the Spanish arrived, the island found itself on one of the main Atlantic routes to and from the Indies. The indigenous population sold supplies to the ships — cassava bread, water — and produced consumer goods like cotton shirts and hammocks to the first settlers. Thus the people of Mona were involved with Europeans from the beginning, modifying their own behaviors and traditions in response to first contact and colonization, and in turn having an impact on the Spanish as they and their children began to forge a new American identity.

The archaeology of Mona reflects this cultural blending process. European glass beads, storage jars, ceramics, coins and the remains of livestock from 1493 through 1590 have been found on the island mixed with indigenous artifacts — ceramics, tools — and equipment for the processing of food. The vast cave networks dotting the Isle of Mona display the same mixing of cultures in the form of art and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings.

Mona is practically more cave than anything else. Sheer limestone cliffs line the shores, peppered with more than 200 cave systems. Because the surface of the island is thick with plant life, the cool, rocky caves became a sort of subway system where the locals could travel to other points without having to hack their way through dense vegetation. The caves were also the island’s sole source of fresh water. Clear indications of indigenous usage has been found in 30 of the 70 cave systems on the island that have been studied by archaeologists since 2013.

The caves of Mona have the greatest variety of surviving indigenous iconography in the Caribbean. Symbols including geometric shapes, swirling meanders, anthropomorphic and anthrozoomorphic figures have been found on the walls and ceilings of cave chambers. The inscribed caves are hard to get to, their entrances small, person-sized holes high up on the cliff face, and the indigenous artwork only appears in the deep dark inside the caves, far from the light of the entrance. These were likely deliberate choices, as caves and the iconography held religious significance. The Europeans followed, perhaps literally, in indigenous footsteps to add their own religious spin to the sacred spaces of Mona.

In Cave 18, archaeologists found 250 indigenous works on the walls and ceilings 10 chambers and tunnels. The soft, swirling motifs were made by “finger-fluting,” ie, dragging one or more fingers through the mineral and organic deposits on the surfaces, and have been radiocarbon dated to the 14th and 15th century. More than 30 inscriptions in Spanish and Latin followed, applied to the same areas. They include proper names, dates and Christian symbols like crosses and the IHS Christogram.

Unlike the locals who climbed and crouched to apply their artwork to a variety of locations, the Europeans added their stuff where they stood, at about 1.8 meters — average height for Europeans at that time — above the floor. Also unlike the locals, they carved their inscriptions with edged tools into the limestone.

Three inscribed phrases are present in chambers H and K: ‘Plura fecit deus’, ‘dios te perdone’ and ‘verbum caro factum est (bernardo)’. Palaeographic analysis of letter forms, the use of abbreviation and writing conventions place these in the sixteenth century…. ‘Plura fecit deus’, or ‘God made many things’, is the first inscription encountered after entering chamber H. There is no obvious contemporary textual source; the commentary appears to be a spontaneous response to whatever the visitor experienced in the cave. There is a strong spatial inference that ‘things’ is a reference to the extensive indigenous iconography present. The phrase may express the theological crisis of the New World discovery, throwing the personal human experience and reaction into sharp relief. [...]

Particularly striking are two depictions of Calvary. The first consists of three crosses, the central one with the Latin inscription ‘Iesus’ (Jesus) set at a height of over 3m in chamber G…. Stylistically, all three are barred cross-on-base motifs, in use in the sixteenth century; similar examples are found from contemporary contexts in Europe and South America…. A second Calvary panel is made up of two crosses, one of which is a barred cross-on-base, the other a simple two-stroke Latin cross. These flank a pre-existing indigenous anthropomorphic figure. This triptych has clear compositional parallels with representations of Calvary in which the central figure is strikingly cast as an indigenous Jesus.

There are 17 more crosses in the cave, from simple downstroke-and-crosstroke Latin crosses to more complex Potent and Calvary crosses. Some are finger-drawn, probably by converted indios. Many of them were made near and above pre-existing indigenous iconography.

We know it wasn’t indigenous converts doing the carving because several of the Spanish artists did us the courtesy of leaving their Kilroy Wuz Here. From the mid-16th century, Myguel Rypoll, Alonso Pérez Roldan el Mozo and Alonso de Contreras signed the wall. The above-mentioned Bernardo signed off on his “verbum caro factum est” line, and one Capitán Francisco Alegre, a royal official in Puerto Rico in the mid-16th century, signed his name. It’s actually quite impressive considering he was carving it in the wall how similar it is to his actual signature on a page.

[Dr. Alice Samson from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History] said the marks were made by some of the earliest colonisers to arrive in the Americas. These colonisers would have been taken to the caves, places considered particularly sacred, and were responding with respect to what they saw, engaging in a religious dialogue.

“We have this idea of when the first Europeans came to the New World of them imposing a very rigid Christianity. We know a lot about the inquisition in Mexico and Peru and the burning of libraries and the persecution of indigenous religions.

“What we are seeing in this Caribbean cave is something different. This is not zealous missionaries coming with their burning crosses, they are people engaging with a new spiritual realm and we get individual responses in the cave and it is not automatically erasure, it is engagement.”

You can read the full paper published in the journal Antiquity free of charge here.

Museum acquires rare 17th c. stained glass window

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

M – Museum Leuven and the City of Leuven have acquired an early stained-glass window by 17th century Flemish master Jan de Caumont. Leuven was a center of stained glass production, and while the museum has an extensive collection of pieces from the 15th through the 19th century, it had no single important stained glass window by Jan de Caumont. This piece plugs a major hole in its collection and will join its series of 27 Caumont glass medallions on display.

Jan de Caumont was born in Doullens, Picardy, northern France, in around 1577. He moved to Leuven, then in the Duchy of Brabant which was part of the Spanish Netherlands, and became a citizen in 1607. He married a local girl, Anna Boels, whose family owned a prominent glass workshop. Jan went to work for his wife’s uncle Simon in the workshop and made a name for himself as a glass painter. In 1626, he took over the company and was appointed the official glass painter of the City of Leuven.

He was commissioned to make stained glass for churches and monasteries in Leuven and all over the duchy. His most famous work was a series of 41 windows he made for the Premonstratensian cloister of Park Abbey, a monastery in Heverlee, two miles south of Leuven. Abbot Jean Maes commissioned the windows depicting scenes from the life of Saint Nortbertus, founder of the order, in 1635. Installation was complete by 1644. The monastery was disrupted by the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, so much so that in order to revive its fortunes, the monastery sold all 41 windows in 1828. They wound up dispersed in museums and private collections in the UK and US. In the 20th century, three complete windows and several pieces were returned to Park Abbey and are now back in the clerestory bays.

The stained glass produced in the Low Countries in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was different from the medieval style in that artists actually painted on the glass rather than composing a mosaic from pieces of different colored glass. This approach allowed painters to create fine details on panes of glass without thick black lead lines. Jan de Caumont painted grey monochrome details (a technique known as grisaille) on both sides of the glass. On the outside, he applied several shades of silver stain and translucent flesh tones. On the inside, he used shades of blue and purple enamel and opaque red paint. To make green, he combined blue enamel on the inside and silver on the outside.

Those techniques are in fine evidence on the window acquired by the M. Made in 1618, it is a rare example of a window from the early part of his career before his appointment as the city glass painter. It’s a donor window, which makes it even more rare since there are few Flemish donor windows and they’re usually smaller than this one or part of a historical building. The donor in question was Margaretha Vekemans, wife of Alexander van den Broeck, a treasurer of Antwerp and one of the wealthiest men in the city. Margaretha and her daughter are depicted in the window. Dressed in the most fashionable finery of the era, with ermine sashes, lace cuffs, majestic ruffs and jewelry, the ladies are on their knees praying. Behind them stand St Agnes and St Elizabeth of Hungary, respectively embracing mother and daughter.

There is a corresponding window featuring Alexander van den Broeck with St John the Baptist. It is now in the church of Saint Gwenllwyfo in Llanwenllwyfo, Anglesey, Wales. Originally both windows are believed to have been donated by the Vekemans/van den Broeck family to the Carthusian monastery in Lier. It was a common practice for wealthy donors to give something beautiful, expensive and very clearly identifiable as coming from them to their favorite church or monastery.

Eastman museum buys only known box of first Kodak Film

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

George Eastman was a 23-year-old bank clerk when he caught the photography bug in 1877. While keeping his day job, he began to tinker with camera technology, trying to simplify the complex procedures and bulky apparatus require to take a picture at the time. Negatives were still made on glass plates. Photographers had to coat a plate with a light-sensitive silver nitrate emulsion under a dark drape then quickly slide it into a big, heavy box mounted on a tripod.

Eastman’s idea was to make a dry plate that was evenly and thinly coated ahead of time with silver nitrate and gelatine and dried for easy use. He received a patent for a dry coating apparatus (pdf) on April 13th, 1880. Still working out of his home in Rochester, New York, he founded the Eastman Dry-Plate Company. In 1884 he developed another innovation, flexible photographic film (pdf) that could be rolled for compact storage. The accordingly renamed the Eastman Dry-Plate and Film Company was soon a full-service camera supply company, selling all manner of photography accessories — squeegees, enlargers, roll holders — in addition to its patented dry plates and photographic film.

Its greatest breakthrough came in 1888 when George Eastman patented his first camera (pdf). He called it the Kodak, a name he created by moving letters around on a page until he found a combination that looked sharp and couldn’t be mispronounced. This camera was compact, lightweight, portable and so easy to operate anyone could do it, not just professionals or dedicated amateurs. All the operator had to do was pull up a string to arm the shutter, aim at the subject and press a button.

The Kodak Camera came preloaded with a roll of film that took 100 circular pictures 2.5 inches in diameter. Once the customers had taken their 100 pictures, they would send the camera to the Rochester factory where the film was developed and the photographs printed. The pictures were then returned to the customer along with the camera loaded with a fresh roll of film. The camera cost $25 and the development, printing and reloading cost $10. It was marketed in advertisements with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.”

The camera was a huge success, particularly with women. Before the Kodak, buyers of photography products were almost entirely professionals. The Kodak Camera made photography accessible to the general population and the general population thanked him by buying his cameras in droves. In 1892 George acknowledged the fulcrum of his success by changing the name of the company to the Eastman Kodak Company.

Today the George Eastman Museum, formerly housed in George’s Rochester mansion until it outgrew the space, has a vast collection of cameras, photographic materials and films, and is a pioneer in film preservation. The museum recently acquired the only known surviving box of Kodak Film (originally American Film) used in Kodak Camera No. 1, and one of only three boxes known to survive of the 1889 generation of camera film, Kodak Transparent Film.

Now a part of the museum’s internationally renowned technology collection, these unopened boxes of film complete the Eastman Museum’s holdings related to the original Kodak camera — adding to its examples of the camera, case, shipping box, and sample images.

“These two rolls of film make a critical contribution to the Eastman Museum’s holdings of photographic technology—considered the leading collection of its kind in the world,” said Bruce Barnes, Ron and Donna Fielding Director, George Eastman Museum. “Given their importance and rarity, these boxes of film are not only among of the most significant objects in our technology collection, they are also extremely important to the evolution of photography and the history of Rochester, New York.” [...]

Eastman’s Transparent Film was the flexible photographic material used by most people experimenting with early motion pictures. Thomas Edison’s assistant W. K. L. Dickson used Kodak Transparent Film (which was 70 millimeters wide), slit in half to 35mm and then perforated, as the flexible medium to store images to be presented in the Edison Kinetoscope, the first 35mm motion picture viewing device.

The acquisition of the rolls was funded in part by the man who is largely responsible for the demise of film — Steven Sasson, inventor of digital photography — and by former Eastman Kodak employee and current author on Kodak Film Robert Shanebrook and his wife Lynne. The newly acquired boxes of film are now on display at the George Eastman Museum.

Greek archaeologists find 23 shipwrecks in 22 days

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

The Fournoi archipelago in the eastern Aegean had long been known to local divers and, alas, looters, as an area replete with shipwrecks. Last September, a diving team from the non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation followed up on a tip from a spear-fisher and explored the coastal waters around some of the Fourni islands. It was a short trip, but in just 10 diving days the team found 22 shipwrecks.

This year they returned with a big team of more than two dozen divers, marine archaeologists and conservators and explored the area from June 8th through July 2nd. In those 22 days, they discovered 23 new shipwrecks from the Greek archaic period (8th through 5th century B.C.) through the 19th century. So in less than a year, 45 shipwrecks have been found at Fourni. While Greece’s vast coastline, rich mercantile tradition from antiquity to the present and treacherous waters have claimed many a ship over the millennia, the 45 discovered at Fourni comprise 20% of the all the identified and documented shipwrecks in Greek territorial waters.

It was the topography of the islets which sealed so many ships’ doom. The distribution of the wrecks suggests they were dashed against sheer cliff faces, sometimes while anchored and seeking shelter from powerful storms only for the wind to change the direction and drive the ships against the cliffs. It’s unlikely the crews would have survived such a beating from the elements. Even if they did manage to swim the storm-tossed seas, there were no beaches to clamber up, only steep rocky cliffs.

All the ships found thus far were merchant vessels: small, manned by crews of a dozen men or fewer, dependant on sail power. The wood structure of the vessels did not survive centuries in the sea, but their cargoes of amphorae did. It’s possible to determine what kind of merchandise the ships carried based on the different types of amphorae. It’s also possible to deduce where the jars were made based on their shape and size. The larger amphorae likely carried the three most popular categories of products — olive oil, wine, and garum (the sauce made of fermented fish guts that was ubiquitous in the kitchens of the ancient Mediterranean) — while the smaller jars likely contained specialty items like fruit preserves, nuts and perfumes.

The wrecks discovered last year were all ancient, while this year’s discoveries range from the 6th century B.C. to the early 1800s. Some of the wood of the newer ship has survived, the only one of the Fourni shipwrecks with surviving exposed wood. In addition to the many amphorae, divers found artifacts including anchors, dishware, lamps, cooking pots and ceramics. The most significant finds of the season are amphorae from Knidos and Kos on a ship from the middle of the Hellenistic period, a late archaic/early classical cargo, a Roman-era ship with amphorae from Cape Sinop on the Black Sea, a 3rd-4th century Roman ship from the empire’s North African provinces, and a cargo of tableware also from North Africa. Marine archaeologists also found two stone anchors, the largest ever found in the Aegean.

It is estimated that the area investigated corresponds to less than 15% of the total coastline surrounding the Fournoi island group. It is expected that the ongoing research in the area will lead authorities to locate an even larger number of shipwrecks, allowing archaeologists to understand the use of marine space and study of the maritime navigation and freight traffic in the archipelago in different eras.

Restoration of Napoleon’s horse Vizir begins

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

The grey-white Arabian stallion Vizir was born in 1793 in the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Selim III presented the steed to then-First Consul of France Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, a diplomatic gift marking the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and France after three years of war. According to legend, Selim sent the horse to Napoleon with this final wish: “Go, my dear Vizir. Go for Mahomet, go for your Sultan and become Napoleon’s most famous horse.”

Napoleon had more than a hundred horses, all of them trained to face battle conditions with steely resolve, and several of them became famous by name for participating in important battles and surviving. (Anywhere from 10 to 20 horses were said to have been shot out from under Napoleon in the heat of battle.) Vizir was painted in equestrian portraits with Napoleon by artists including Baron Gros, Hippolyte Bellangé, Charles Thevenin and Horace Vernet for a Sèvres porcelain series on Napoleon’s horses.

He wasn’t just a handsome model. Napoleon first rode Vizir into battle in 1805. Bearing the stamp of the imperial stables, a crowned “N” on his left haunch, Vizir carried the emperor in the Battle of Jena on October 14th, 1806, and in many other battles in the Prussian and Polish campaigns. He was not enlisted for duty during Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign, lucky for him, or the subsequent ones in Germany and France because as a 20-year-old, he was considered too old for battle.

Vizir was still beloved by the emperor who took him with him to exile on the island of Elba in 1814, and then back to France again during the Hundred Days, although he kept him safe behind the lines. After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Vizir retired and was taken in by Philippe de Chaulaire, a squire of the imperial stables. Vizir died on July 30th, 1826, at the venerable age of 33.

M. de Chaulaire had him taxidermied, but fearing the anti-Napoleonic political climate of the Bourbon Restoration, he sold Vizir to William Clark, an Englishman living in northern France. Clark felt the same political pressure after Louis-Napoleon’s failed coup and in 1839 passed Vizir along to another Englishman, John Greaves. Greaves smuggled the stuffed horse out of France into England by dumping the framing, unstitching his skin and stashing it in his suitcase. Safe in England, Vizir was remounted and put on display at Manchester’s Natural History Museum in 1843.

Vizir returned to France in 1868 when the museum, forced to close its doors due to financial problems, gifted him to Louis-Napoleon, now Emperor Napoleon III, during a visit to England. Not knowing what else to do with a large stuffed horse, Napoleon III stored it in the Louvre where it remained in storage for 30 years until it was rediscovered in 1904 and transferred to the newly founded Museum of the Army in 1905. There Vizir would find a permanent home just a few steps from the Invalides where his former master rests eternally.

Very popular with visitors, Vizir has been on display ever since, but his many posthumous adventures have left him in bad shape. In May, the museum launched a crowdfunding project to give them the wherewithal to restore Vizir, and donors met the goal of 15,000 euro within two weeks. The final amount raised was 20,534 euros ($23,130).

Now Yveline Huguet and Jack Thiney, taxidermists and specialists in the restoration of organic material, are hard at work on Vizir’s sadly degraded hide. They have X-rayed him and are working on a thorough cleaning, rehydrating the hide, filling in several large cracks and restoring the color which has turned a sallow yellowish color over the years, a far cry from the white-gray he was famous for. The project is expected to take about four weeks. Once the restoration is complete, Vizir will be displayed in a new climate-controlled case which will prevent further degradation.

Bones of 18th c. Italian missionary found in Tokyo

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

The skeleton of 18th century Italian missionary Giovanni Battista Sidotti has been identified in Tokyo. The remains were unearthed in July 2014 during construction of a new upscale condominium development on the site of a long-demolished prison for Christians. Two other skeletons were also discovered near the first. Earthenware fragments and other artifacts found in the layer date it to the early 18th century.

Researchers from the National Museum of Nature and Science pieced together the bone fragments and successfully extracted DNA from a tooth. Analysis revealed that the person was more than 170 centimeters tall, significantly taller than the 156 cm average height for a Japanese man at that time. DNA was found to match the genetic characteristics of modern Italians. Sidotti was reported to be 175-178 cm tall and he was one of only two Italians held in the prison. The other, Giuseppe Chiara, was a much older man, 84 years old at time of death, and his remains were cremated.

Spanish Jesuit and future saint Francis Xavier brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. He, Father Cosme de Torrès, Brother João Fernandes, a Japanese convert named Anjiro and two other Japanese men landed on the southern island of Kyushu and began to preach, which, since only one of the priests had managed to learn a bare smattering of Japanese, mainly consisted of reading from a version of the Catholic catechism Anjiro had translated into Japanese.

The first Christian, called Kirishitan in Japanese, converts were Anjiro’s friends and family. Christianity spread quickly and by 1560, there were 6,000 converts on Kyushu. In 1563 the first daimyo, Omura Sumitada, converted, and in less than a decade had forced everyone in his domain, 35,000 people, to convert as well. Converting daimyos proved essential to the Jesuit mission, because in one fell swoop entire populations would be made to convert by their lord. The daimyos benefited from the Jesuit’s military support, receiving essential materials like saltpeter (used to make gunpowder), weapons and aid in constructing fortifications. Mass baptisms increased the number of Kirishitan exponentially so that there were approximately 130,000 converts within 30 years of Francis Xavier’s arrival. By the early 17th century, there were 250,000 of them.

One of the reasons the new religion made such effective headway is that Xavier used the term “Dainichi,” the Japanese name of the celestial Buddha Vairocana, for God. Shingon Buddhist monks thus welcomed the Jesuits as a fellow Buddhists and in 1551 daimyo Ouchi Yoshitaka gave the missionaries an old Buddhist temple in Yamaguchi describing them as “monks who have come from the western region [meaning India, which was seen as the ultimate in exotic distant lands] to spread the law of Buddha.” Xavier ultimately realized this wasn’t according to Hoyle Christianity, so he stopped using Dainichi and switched to Deusu, a Japonified version of the Latin Deus.

That entre’ via Buddhist terminology and close relationship to warring daimyos would come back to bite Catholic missionaries hard when Japan was unified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. To hobble the power of the local daimyo, he banished all Christian missionaries from Kyushu in 1587. He still wanted to trade with Portugal and Spain, however, so he didn’t get hardcore about quashing the Kirishitan for another decade even as the Jesuits repeatedly considered an armed campaign against him. That all changed on February 5th, 1597, when he ordered 26 Christians — six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and 17 Japanese laymen converts — crucified in Nagasaki to discourage conversions.

His successor Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu wanted to maintain friendly relations with Spain and Portugal for trade purposes, but he was convinced that Christianity was inimical to Japanese culture and society and even as he attempted to negotiate trade agreements, asked European powers to take back their missionaries and their religion. Things took an uglier turn after three successive financial scandals involving Christians broke out at court in 1612-3. The central figure in one of the scandals, a former actor named Okubo Nagayasu was rumored to be Christian although there’s no direct evidence of it. He was dead when his financial misdeeds came to light, and in the wake of the scandal, he was accused of having plotted with missionaries to bring a foreign army to protect Kirishitan against the Shogun.

That was the last straw. On Valentine’s Day, 1614, Ieyasu expelled all Catholic missionaries from Japan, closed all the churches and prohibited the practice of Christianity. From the 1614 edict:

The Kirishitan band have come to Japan, not only sending their merchant vessels to exchange commodities, but also longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land. This is the germ of great disaster, and must be crushed.”

Subsequent Tokugawa rulers enforced the edict with an iron fist, persecuting the Kirishitan, even commoners, who before then had been largely ignored, in order to exterminate the faith from Japanese soil. In every household Christians were identified, forced into apostasy and monitored afterwards to ensure they weren’t secretly following their religion. There were mass executions in which dozens of Christians who refused to renounce their beliefs were burned, crucified or otherwise dispatched publicly.

The fight against Christianity played a significant role in the policy of Sakoku, the national isolation policy that kept foreigners out and Japanese in, enacted in pieces from 1633 through 1639 and continuing for more than two centuries until Commodore Matthew Perry ended it with the business end of his gunboat diplomacy in the mid-19th century. The Shimabara Rebellion, a revolt of mostly Catholic peasants, in 1637-8, ramped up anti-Kirishitan regulations, banning the religion on pain of death.

Propaganda followed, starting with Kirishitan Monogatari (“Tales of the Christians”), a book by an anonymous author published in 1638 which detailed the many crimes and obscenities of missionaries and Christians. It inspired several other books representing Christians as grotesque caricatures. Nambanji Kohai Ki (“Grandeur and Decadence of the Church of the Southern Barbarians”) was published around 1695, 13 years before Giovanni Battista Sidotti made his suicidal attempt to sneak into Japan.

Sidotti, a Sicilian priest, had heard of the martyrdoms in Japan and was keen to brave the risk of death in God’s name. He sought and was granted permission to go to Japan from Pope Clement XI and made his way there from Manila, landing on the island of Yakushima in fall of 1708. His cunning plan was to disguise himself as a samurai, complete with topknot and kimono, just a set of fake buckteeth and glasses away from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He was quickly spotted by a farmer who denounced him to the authorities.

He was arrested and the next year sent to the Kirishitan Yashiki (“Mansion of the Christians”), a former school in Edo which had been converted into a prison for suspected crypto-Christians and missionaries in 1646. There Japanese Kirishitan were routinely tortured into renouncing their religion. Sidotti received much gentler treatment. He was interrogated by Arai Hakuseki, a renown Confucian scholar and adviser to the Shogun Tokugawa Ienobu and his successor Tokugawa Ietsugu.

Hakuseki came to respect Sidotti’s intellect and extensive knowledge of the world. He also believed him when Sidotti assured him that missionaries were not the advance brigade of a Western invasion. Hakuseki recommended to the Shogun that Sidotti be deported, a shocking departure from the usual death penalty, or failing that, imprisoned. Sidotti was kept in Kirishitan Yashiki under go-nin fuchi house arrest, a status with plenty of food, a comfortable room and two attendants, former Christians Chosuke and Haru, seeing to his needs. It was only when he tried to reconvert them that he was sent to the dungeon where he died of unknown causes in 1714.

Later historical accounts record that he was buried with care, and the discovery of his bones confirms their accuracy.

“His body was laid flat in a casket, a luxurious one as far as I can tell by the brackets,” said Akio Tanigawa, professor of archaeology at Tokyo’s Waseda University and lead researcher on the remains, referring to coffin pieces discovered with the bones.

“People did not bury human bodies like this,” Tanigawa stressed, suggesting Sidotti was likely given a burial “in the Christian way.”

The other two bodies buried near him, one of which was interred in the more typical Edo fashion sitting up in a small tub, may be his attendants Chosuke and Haru.

Hakuseki published his conversations with Sidotti in the first volume of a three-volume book called Seiyo Kibun. The other volumes covered the five continents and an analysis of Christianity. Sidotti’s information also featured in Hakuseki’s five-volume geography Sairan Igen. These books were influential in loosening up the attitude of the shogunate to European intellectual pursuits. For the first time in a century, Western books about science and astronomy were translated into Japanese. Religion was still right out, of course, but gradually attitudes softened there too, and the torture and interrogation of Christians was abolished in 1792. The Kirishitan Yashiki, already damaged by a fire in 1725, was demolished shortly thereafter.

Lady Jane Franklin’s Egyptian mummy mask

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

A wood mask that once adorned the head of a mummy from the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1295 B.C.) sold at auction on Thursday for £116,500 ($151,291). A beautifully carved visage with full lips and a small, straight nose features big eyes with stone whites and obsidian pupils. The eyebrows used to be inlaid as well, but the stone is gone leaving only the recess in the wood. Under the chin is a small groove where a false beard was once attached. There are traces of the bitumen used to glue the piece in place still left. The inlay and fine details indicate this was an expensive piece used for a person of high status in New Kingdom society.

In addition to being a beautiful and rare artifact, the mask has another claim to fame: it was first acquired in Egypt by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of that Sir John Franklin who died with all of his crew on a doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The discovery of one of his ships, the HMS Erebus, has been the subject of many an entry on this blog.

Jane Franklin had even more of a traveling jones as her husband, and she voyaged without the support of a navy often in extremely challenging conditions. She was born Jane Griffin in 1791 to family of means. Her father was a wealthy silk weaver of Huguenot extraction. Her mother, also of Huguenot descent, died when Jane was three years old. Jane was educated at a boarding school for elegant young ladies, but it was insufficiently challenging for a girl of her wits and energy. From the age of 17, she fleshed out her education with extensive travel on the continent, accompanied and supported by her family. She did all the stops of the Grand Tour and more, spending years on the road in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Denmark.

Finding a husband does not appear to have been as high on the priority list for Jane as was customary for women of her class in 19th century England. She had a couple of romances, one with medical student Adolphe Butini, another with Dr. Peter Mark Roget of thesaurus fame, but neither got past the chaste yearning stage and both men married other women. Jane was just shy of 37 years old when she married John Franklin, a remarkably advanced age for a woman’s first marriage in 1828. She was his second wife — his first, poet Eleanor Anne Porden who was a good friend of Jane’s, had died in 1825 — and her new marital status changed her peripatetic ways not a bit. The tone was set when they were still engaged and she caught up with in St. Petersburg to travel around Russia together.

After he got a new assignment captaining the HMS Rainbow in the Mediterranean in 1830, Jane took the opportunity to travel widely whenever he was busy, which was often as the area was mired in tension courtesy of the Greek War of Independence. She went to Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, traveling independently and often going off the beaten track. In Egypt she sailed from Cairo up the Nile to the Second Cataract, even engaging in a slightly naughty (for the time) flirtation with a Prussian minister on board.

Franklin was called back to London in 1834 while Jane was still traveling in Greece. She kept doing her thing for another year, eventually meeting back up with her husband and joining him in the long voyage down under when he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1836. Once there, she dedicated her endless energy to founding a museum, a scientific society, acquiring land for a botanical garden, working for prison reform and of course, travel. She was the first European woman to climb Mount Wellington. She took the arduous overland route to Macquarie Harbour along Tasmania’s untamed west coast and traveled from Melbourne to Sydney, likely the first woman to do so.

It wasn’t all voyaging good times. Jane took a liking to an Aboriginal girl named Mathinna and adopted her, ie, just took her from her still-living parents who had already had one child stolen by British authorities to blackmail them into resettlement against their will. That daughter was dumped in an orphanage and died. Now their second daughter became Jane Franklin’s black doll. Mathinna was dressed up pretty, went on carriage rides next to Eleanor, John Franklin’s daughter from his first marriage, and was educated by her governess. When John Franklin’s term as lieutenant-governor ended in 1843, the Franklins returned to London leaving Mathinna behind in the same orphanage where her sister had died. Jerked around for her whole life and left unable to fit in anywhere, Mathinna would die at age 17, apparently from drowning in a puddle while drunk.

The Franklins just went about their business, oblivious to the fate of the little girl they had displaced so callously. Driven in significant part by Jane’s efforts, Sir John Franklin got the chance he had long yearned for to return to the Arctic. This would be his fourth and final expedition. He and a crew of 108 men took HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to Canada in 1845. Arctic Canada would be their graves.

When her husband failed to return in 1847 as planned, Lady Franklin marshalled her considerable resources of finance and dedication to his rescue. In 1848 she offered rewards of $10,000 and $15,000 to anyone who should attempt to bring succor to the missing expedition. In April of 1849, she wrote a letter to the President of the United States, noting that the ships had been provisioned with enough supplies for three years and with four years nearly gone, any survivors would be in extreme need. She hoped to persuade the US to send out rescue ships as the Russian Empire was planning and the British Admiralty had already done.

When other missions failed to find traces of the Franklin expedition, Jane outfitted her own. In the 1850s she poured money into five different search missions. Even though by then there was no chance of anyone having survived, in 1854 she redoubled her efforts after Captain John Rae, first sent by the Admiralty and then by the Hudson Bay Company on a rescue mission, returned with artifacts from the Franklin expedition and Inuit testimony of survival cannabilism among the crew. Disgusted and horrified by Rae’s news, she rejected it vehemently as the gossip of savages and became even more motivated to find what was left of the ships and their logs. She was sure they would prove conclusively that her husband, officers and crew had behaved with nothing but the most British of honor to the last.

Her last attempt to directly fund a search team was the steam yacht Fox captained by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1857. Ice blocked his path for two years, but finally in 1859 he encountered Inuits who told him of the ships crushed by ice off King William Island and of its crew who subsequently died of starvation. When McClintock reached King William Island, he bought several Franklin expedition artifacts from the Inuit. McClintock’s second-in-command, William Hobson, found an Admiralty form in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island which had a note scrawled in the margin revealing that Franklin had died on June 11th, 1847. These were the only official records of the expedition ever found.

Lady Franklin and Captain McClintock were awarded the 1860 patron’s medal from the Royal Geographical Society. She was the first woman to receive the award, and for many decades the only one. It was exceptionally fitting since the missions she had funded ended up discovering and mapping more of the Canadian Arctic than any explorer ever had, including her husband.

Jane Franklin would outlive Sir John by 30 years, and never stopped traveling the world. She dined with Brigham Young at Salt Lake City, hiked in Yosemite, had an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome, stipulating ahead of time that she would not be kneeling, climbed Mount Olympus, became friends with Queen Emma of Hawaii, went on her first trip to India when she was 74 years old and traveled the subcontinent for three years.

When she died in 1875 at the age of 84, six Arctic explorers were her pallbearers.

Four 17th c. tapestries repatriated to Sweden

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

The National Museum of Sweden, has acquired four tapestries that graced an elegant home in late 17th century Stockholm but have been out of the country for more than a century. A large bequest from Gunnar and Ulla Trygg gave the museum, which has no acquisitions budget, the rare opportunity to bring these wall hangings home. They are in exceptional condition.

The tapestries were made in the early 1690s. They were commissioned by Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger to adorn the Stockholm home of Swedish statesman Carl Piper, a commoner whose abilities earned him advancement and a noble title at the court of King Charles XI. In 1690, he married Christina Törne, the daughter of a rich merchant who also happened to be Piper’s stepbrother. His father-in-law/stepbrother gifted the couple a handsome property in Stockholm’s old town. Tessin, then the premier architect in the country who could count the king and queen among his clientele, was given the task of refurbishing the old house.

Later known as the Grotesques de Berain, the tapestries were mistakenly thought to be the design of Jean Bérain the Elder, a Dutch artist in Paris known for his arabesques and grotesques who was a good friend of Nicodemus Tessin’s, but extensive surviving correspondence between Tessin and Daniel Cronström, the Swedish envoy to Paris, proves that the artist was in fact someone else. Cronström’s was Tessin’s go-to guy in France, a close friend who could negotiate directly with the purveyors of the most fashionable goods and services in Paris. The real designer for the Piper tapestry series was Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, a Flemish painter who worked for both of the great tapestry workshops in France: Gobelins and Beauvais. He specialized in floral still-lives and was in demand both for his tapestry cartoons and for decorative painting. He worked under Charles Le Brun, then director of the Gobelins factory, on the fresco decorations for royal residence the Château de Marly and under Jean Bérain at the Dauphin’s residence the Château de Meudon.

Tessin commissioned two suites of tapestries from Beauvais: one with a “port de mer” (harbour scenes) theme, the other “grotesques,” meaning a style drawn from the frescoes of ancient Rome which were usually discovered in underground cave-like spaces or “grotte,” in Italian. Curling foliage elements embrace mythological figures (Bacchus, Pan), animals (elephants, peacocks) and heroic figures against the background of Classical architectural elements. Beauvais’ grotesque motif was hugely popular from the time of its launch in 1688 for another 40 years. Carl Piper’s set did not have his coat of arms or monogram in the border because Tessin was in a hurry and the customization would take too much time to complete. Cronström had the idea of making matching chairs with Piper’s monogram. It is a lot easier and faster to weave a monogram onto an upholstered chair than a big ol’ wall hanging. Some of those chairs have survived. Here’s one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The tapestries were installed in the Piper palace in early 1696. After that, it’s not clear what happened to them. Carl Piper was taken prisoner in 1709 after the Battle of Poltava in the Great Northern War. He was largely blamed for Sweden’s terrible defeat, accused of having taken bribes from England to sway King Charles XI to the calamitous invasion of Russia which had concluded in such ignominy. Piper and his wife (who did indeed get a lovely pair of diamond earrings as a “gift” from the Duke of Marlborough) were disgraced. Carl died in captivity in Russia in 1716. His formidable wife, who had wielded great power when her husband was an important royal minister, went on to become a real estate mogul, industrialist and philanthropist of immense success.

At some point before 1909, the tapestries left Sweden, probably in the late 19th century. In 1909 they were sold to Louise Mackay, an American collector, who bequeathed them to her son Clarence. After his death in 1938, they were sold at Christie’s in New York and the grotesque tapestry suite was split up. Two other tapestries from the series are now in museums in England and Spain.

The National Museum is proud to have repatriated four of the tapestries from the grotesque suite. Their exquisite condition and brilliant color would make them a catch for any museum (compare them to the matching armchair to see how pristine they are), but they’re even more significant thanks to that surviving correspondence between Tessin and Cronström. The letters make these suites of tapestries the best-documented personal orders for French tapestries from the 17th century. They’re also the first documented order of tapestries with matching chair upholstery.

Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods

Monday, July 4th, 2016

In 1746, Peter Collinson, wealthy merchant, philanthropist, botanist and Fellow of the Royal Society of London, gave Benjamin Franklin one of those newfangled Leyden jars that were all the rage. Well, technically he gave it to the Library Company of Philadelphia, but that was founded by Franklin and Collinson was a long-time friend and supporter of Franklin’s endeavors, so it was understood that Franklin was going to be using the new toy which could capture “electrical fire”. Thomas Penn, son of colony founder William Penn and inheritor of his title Proprietor of the Colony of Pennsylvania, chipped in all the rest of the equipment necessary to start investigating electrical phenomena, a pursuit engrossing many gentlemen of scientific disposition in the Old World at that time. The Library Company’s electrical setup formed the first scientific research laboratory in America.

Benjamin Franklin was hooked. Alongside Ebenezer Kinnersley, Thomas Hopkinson, and Philip Syng, Franklin studied and experimented with electricity for the next three years. From 1747 through 1750, he shared his findings in a series of letters to Collinson. In these letters Franklin detailed his experiments and described for the first time principles of electricity that are commonly held today. For example, he recognized that friction did not create electricity so much as collect it from materials like metal and water to which it was attracted; he coined the terms positive and negative/plus and minus to describe electrical charge (as opposed to the prevailing thought that they were two different kinds of electricity, “vitreous” named after the glass that accumulated electrical charge when rubbed with silk, and “resinous,” like amber rubbed with fur); he first used the terms “charging” and “discharging” for the operations of a Leyden jar; he coined the term “battery” for a group of connected jars that could store more charge than an individual jar, like a battery of cannon concentrated shot on the battlefield.

Franklin also determined through experimentation that a sharp point is far more effective at drawing electricity than a blunt end. When he put a “long slender sharp bodkin” close to an electrically charged shot, it drew the charge from a foot away, while a “blunt body” had to be no more than an inch away and unlike the sharp point, it generated a spark. Extrapolating from his small-scale experiments, he proposed that a long, sharp rod properly grounded could save structures from the destruction of lightning.

I say, if these things are so, may not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind, in preserving houses, churches, ships &c. from the stroke of lightning, by directing us to fix on the highest parts of those edifices, upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle, and gilt to prevent rusting, and from the foot of those rods a wire down the outside of the building into the ground, or down round one of the shrouds of a ship, and down her side till it reaches the water? Would not these pointed rods probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief?

For his idea of a lightning rod to work, first Franklin had to confirm that “clouds that contain lightning are electrified,” still an open question at the time. He suggested an experiment.

On the top of some high tower or steeple, place a kind of sentry-box, big enough to contain a man and an electrical stand. From the middle of the stand, let an iron rod rise and pass bending out of the door, and then upright 20 or 30 feet, pointed very sharp at the end. If the electrical stand be kept clean and dry, a man standing on it when such clouds are passing low, might be electrified and afford sparks, the rod drawing fire to him from a cloud.

While Franklin did his experiments in Philadelphia, other people were doing similar work across the Atlantic. Collinson circulated the letters among the Royal Society fellows, including William Watson who at the same time as Franklin had independently determined that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were a surplus and deficiency, as he called it, of charge. In 1751, Collinson published the letters and other papers Franklin had sent him in a book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America.

Franklin’s writings were accepted but with subdued enthusiasm at first in Britain. In France, on the other hand, people were excited and inspired to try his experiments. Famed French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, received a copy of the book from Collinson and asked his frequent collaborator botanist Thomas-François Dalibard to translate it into French. Dalibard got so into it he enlisted the aid of a certain Delor who had the necessary equipment to replicate Franklin’s experiments. They worked so well that Buffon, Dalibard and Delor performed them before Louis XV and a delighted court where (forgive me) sparks flew.

Their success drove them to try the experiment that Franklin had described but not done yet: the sentry-box lightning rod experiment. They wisely forewent perching a man next to an iron rod in a box on top of a tower roof, modifying it into a test with distinctly less killing potential. A 13-meter (43-foot) iron rod insulated by silk ropes and wine bottles was inserted into a wooden table under a little roofed structure (the sentry-box). When a thunderstorm passed over, the iron rod drew sparks.

Franklin didn’t hear about Dalibard’s experiment for a while. Meanwhile, he’d come up with a new idea to test the charge of storm clouds without the complications of the sentry-box. On June 15th, 1752, Benjamin Franklin and his son William flew a silk and cedar kite with a sharp wire at the top. Twine coming down from the kite had a silk ribbon tied to it and a key tried to the ribbon. This experiment has gone down in legend with an image of Benajamin Franklin running in the rain as lightning strikes the key, but in fact it was essential the silk ribbon stay dry so it could insulate the key from the ground and ensure the electric current accumulated in the key. Franklin was indoors while the kite was getting wet. If he hadn’t been, he never would have seen the sparks fly off the key.

When the news of Dalibard’s success reached him, Franklin installed an insulated iron rod on the roof of his home. Within a few months grounding conductors were installed in the Academy of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall). In 1753, Franklin published instructions on how to protect homes from lightning strikes using iron rods in Poor Richard’s Almanack (page 72 of this pdf). Some people were apprehensive about it, railing at early adopters for attempting to defy God’s will and attracting deadly lightning, but over time lightning rods became commonplace and Franklin refined and modified his design to improve them.

The invention of lightning rods saved not only property but lives. Before them, the only method considered valid against thunderstorms was in hindsight insanely counterproductive: vigorous ringing of church bells in the belief that sound could break up storm clouds. That put the poor bell ringers of the world up church steeples, the highest structures around, yanking on soaked ropes connected to large metal bells precisely when lightning was most likely to strike. The practice continued for decades after Franklin’s experiments proved there was a simple architectural solution that did not put lives in danger. A study by Johann Fischer published in Munich in 1784 found that in the 33 years between 1750 and 1783, bell towers were struck by lightning 386 times killing 103 bell ringers.

During the Revolutionary period, the embrace of Franklin’s design for the lightning rod was a political statement of allegiance to New World ideas. In Britain the blunt-ended lightning rod was popular. Rejecting them in favor of Franklin’s sharp points was a philosophical choice. In 1788, the Maryland State House in Annapolis had a 28-foot lightning rod installed on its new dome according to Franklin’s specifications. It is still there, making its inventor proud. On Friday it was put through its paces and even after 208 years it handled the strike like a boss.

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