Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Iconic Roman Holiday Vespa, oldest in the world, for sale

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

The iconic Vespa that supported the supple fundaments of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck as they scootered their way through the Eternal City in the 1953 classic film Roman Holiday is currently for sale at the online auction site Catawiki. As if co-starring with two of the all-time greatest movie stars in one of the all-time greatest movies weren’t enough, this particular Vespa is also the oldest in the world. With a chassis number of 1003, the Vespa 98cc Serie 0 Numero 3 was the third Vespa ever made. Numbers one and two are long lost, leaving number three with the title of the oldest Vespa.

Piaggio began in the late 19th century as a manufacturer of railroad cars. Towards the end of World War I, the company switched its focus to aeronautics but continued to manufacture a wide array of vehicles and parts suitable for civilian and military use. When its main factory was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1940, Piaggio’s production was severely curtailed. After the war, Enrico Piaggio, son of company founder Rinaldo, wanted to produce a low-cost, easy to drive vehicle that could be a reliable mode of transportation for the population of a country whose economy and infrastructure were in ruins.

He asked Corradino D’Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer who had worked for Piaggio building airplanes during the war, to scare up a design for a small motorcycle that had none of complications and bulk of its big brothers, making it suitable for wide popular use. Corradino threw out all previous designs and in a matter of days created an entirely new one. His innovations included a gear shift on the handlebars to make driving easier, tires that could be replaced by anyone without need of a mechanic, a body design that protected riders from mud, dust, water and assorted street debris, an enclosed engine that saved street clothes from the scourge of grease stains, and a driving position that allowed riders to be comfortably seated even for long journeys.

When presented with the prototype in April of 1946, Enrico Piaggio exclaimed delightedly “It looks like a wasp!” And that’s how the Vespa got its name. In the first decade of manufacture, the Vespa went from a production of 2,000 of the first V98cc models to one million in 1956. In 1965, 3.5 million Vespas were sold, one for every 52 Italians. Today it remains one of the great successes in motor vehicle history, and the original Vespa is an icon of Italian design. There’s a 1955 model in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The indelible images of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck zooming through Rome on that Numero 3 certainly played a large part in making the Vespa a worldwide icon.

The Serie 0 were prototypes, a sort of run-through of different options, not production units, which is why they are also known as the “pre-series.” Only 60 of the series were manufactured. Every part of the Serie 0 Vespas was individually made specifically for one bike. You can see the chassis number 1003 stamped not just on the frame, but on the fenders, muffler, kickstand and many other parts. This vehicle was lovingly handcrafted piece by piece. It’s also tough as nails. The paint is gone, but 71 years after it was made, Number 3 is still in working condition.

As is the case with some cars, Vespa scooters have become increasingly valuable over time.

“Thanks to a huge fan base, old Vespa scooters tend to keep their monetary value,” said [Vespa expert Davide] Marelli.

“A Vespa scooter from the 1970s, for example, can be worth five times as much as its original retail price. The older the Vespa, the more valuable it is,” he said.

For many years it has belonged to a private collector who has a prestigious, very select group of 60 rare and important Vespas. The presale estimate is 250,000-300,000 euros ($268,150-$348,600). Bidding is already up to $195,748 and there are still 36 hours to go before the sale closes. A small price to pay for the chance to own a piece of history and to touch butts with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck via the Transitive Postulate.

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Vindolanda toilet seat to get setting worthy of its greatness

Friday, March 24th, 2017

The Roman fort and settlement of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland is perhaps best known for the 1,700 wooden writing tablets from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. that have been found there, preserved for 2,000 years in the site’s anaerobic soil. Because of the unique insight this record of daily correspondence gives us into the daily lives of the ancient Romans and Britons who lived at Vindolanda, the tablets were voted Britain’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators in 2003. They have been extensively studied and displayed at the Vindolanda Museum.

Less known are the many other wooden objects discovered at Vindolanda. Almost 1,500 artifacts have been unearthed from that blessedly waterlogged soil — cart axles, bread shovels, potter’s wheels, plank flooring, joists, that amazing inscribed barrel stave and my personal favorite, the only Roman wooden toilet seat ever discovered.

They even found intact water pipes made of alder wood logs, bark still on them, that had been drilled through the length with an augur, creating a hollow center 5 centimeters (two inches) in diameter. There were 30 yards of pipes joined with oak junction boxes to create a network of water mains supplying Vindolanda with fresh water from a local spring. The ends of the logs were tapered to fit a hole in a block of oak. On the other side of the block another hole was drilled and another tapered log fitted into it. That was some quality joinery. With nary a single iron or lead fitting to keep the pipes together and almost two millennia after they were installed, the alder water pipes were still working when they were excavated in 2003, carrying fresh water to a building that archaeologists believe may have been a hospital. Lead pipes, even tile ones, are fairly common in the Roman world, but wood pipes are very rare — usually only the metal collars survive — and ones still in working order are rarer than hen’s teeth. As far as I was able to ascertain, the Vindolanda pipes are unique.

As rare and historically significant as they are, none of these wooden treasures have not been exhibited. Conserving, stabilizing and storing them them once they have been removed from their protective environment is expensive, difficult work. Creating a display space with the technology to ensure the long-term preservation of the wooden objects while making them viewable to the public is a far greater challenge still.

A Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant has gotten the ball rolling. The Vindolanda Trust was able to secure a development grant of £20,400 ($25,400) from the HLF to develop the plans for a new addition to the site’s already excellent museum. The new space will be dedicated solely to the wooden artifacts that have been hidden away in storage for years. Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will

The popular museum will be expanded to create a new gallery with special display cases allowing temperature and humidity to be kept at safe levels. Not only will this mean their story can finally be told but it will also ensure they survive for future generations to enjoy.

Visitors will also hear the incredible survival story of the collection – from the science behind how they lasted two millennia, to their conservation and the research that is uncovering their origins.

Now, obviously the new gallery will cost vast sums more than the initial grant. This is just the first step. The Vindolanda Trust must have a fully developed and budgeted plan for the new gallery before the HLF can consider a much larger grant for the actual construction phase. Once the plans are complete, the Trust will apply for the full grant of £1,339,000 ($1,670,000). Then we can gaze in awe at the toilet seat and give it its proper respect. Some might be tempted to take a bunch of selfies squatting in front of the display case, but we’re all too dignified for those sorts of shenanigans, am I right?

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Earliest color movies of the White House found

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Researchers have discovered the earliest known color movies of the White House in the archives of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library in West Branch, Iowa. We owe these precious glimpses of First Family life to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, an enormously accomplished woman — Stanford graduate, world traveler, co-translator with her husband of a Latin mining text by Agricola, fluent Chinese speaker (she remains to this day the only First Lady to speak an Asian language) — with a wide variety of interests, among them photography. When the pictures started moving, she was an enthusiastic early adopter of the new technology and was shooting home movies with her own camera by the early 1920s.

When Kodac introduced the Kodacolor motion picture process in 1928, Lou Hoover was on it like white on rice. Kodacolor was an additive color system, filmed on black-and-white stock through a three-colored striped filter. When footage was shot, the three colors were recorded in strips on the film in different densities and proportions depending on the natural color of the subject. The camera had to be used at a very specific frame rate in order for the filter to work, and bright ambient light was de rigeur.

Lou Hoover started shooting in Kodacolor in 1929 and must have stopped by 1935 when the process was superseded by Kodachrome film. Her home movies capture President Hoover at leisure both at the White House and on vacation. There are shots of Herbert fishing in Florida in January of 1929, wearing a coat and tie. He was still President-elect at that time, but he believed the dignity of the office he’d been elected to required a certain formality of attire, even on private fishing trips. Mrs. Hoover also captured their grandchildren playing, their sons of vacation, historic sites of Washington, DC, dogs frolicking at the White House, White House butler Alonzo Fields and shots of Lou in the White House garden. The last of the seven reels shows the President throwing a medicine ball back and forth with staffers on the White House grounds. This sport would become known as Hooverball.

Kodacolor film required a projector with a filter similar to the one used on the camera in order for the color to display. If you just look at the film, or use a projector without the Kodacolor Projection Filter, it looks like a weirdly stripey black and white movie. That’s what the staff of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library thought about their collection of Lou Hoover’s home movies. Audio Visual Archivist Lynn Smith recognized those tell-tale stripes as Kodacolor, and thus very likely the first color film shot at the White House. (Calvin Coolidge wasn’t a home movie guy, and he had one foot out the door when Kodacolor was introduced.)

Smith applied for a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to have the rare historic home movies restored, and the NFPF came through. They preserved the footage, digitized it and sent the reels back to West Branch in December.

Worried she might damage the film, Smith said she used a hand-crank projector to play the film when it arrived. For the first time, she could see the colors of First Lady Lou Hoover’s dress and the hues of the White House Rose Garden.

“It was pretty amazing to see the color,” said Smith, 50. “I’m looking at theses images of Lou in the White House, Mr. Hoover playing Hoover ball and other things in Washington, D.C.”

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library will debut all seven reels in their auditorium on Wednesday, March 29th. The museum picked the date on purpose to celebrate Lou Hoover on what would have been her 143rd birthday. On the same day, the films will be uploaded to the Library’s YouTube channel, so bookmark or subscribe to see the rare footage fresh off the virtual presses. Until then, we’ll have to make do with this short preview of the Hoover home movies:

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Earliest European burial in Asia-Pacific found in Taiwan

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 17th century Christian burial on a Taiwanese island. This is the earliest European burial ever discovered in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the direction of María Cruz Berrocal from the University of Konstanz in Germany, the archaeological team has excavated the site on the island of Heping Dao in northern Taiwan since 2011. The digs have unearthed material going back as far as the island’s first human habitants. The evidence of early European colonization is exceptionally significant because there is little known about the period and archaeological remains are few and far between.

The settlement of San Salvador de Isla Hermosa was founded on the island as a colony of Spain in 1626. They occupied the site until 1642 when the Dutch took over. After the Dutch came the Chinese, and then Japan occupied Heping Dao until the end of World War II. Because its time as the San Salvador de Isla Hermosa colony was brief and the island passed through several hands in the centuries since, archaeologists didn’t expect to find anything from the early colonial period. The Spanish occupation was known solely from archival records; no archaeological materials associated with it had ever been found before.

Instead, the excavations revealed a wealth of important discoveries from the early days of the colony: the foundations of a church or convent and its cemetery from the Spanish settlement. Thus far, the team has unearthed six burials and disarticulated human remains. Last November, they discovered the skeleton of an adult buried with his hands folded in the traditional Christian prayer pose. Osteological examination of the skeletal remains indicate bodies of European, Taiwanese local and maybe African origin (presumably brought to the island as slaves) were interred in the cemetery.

“These are the first European burials from this time period discovered in the entire Asia-Pacific region and they contain the first documented human remains. The colonial cemetery that we unearthed is also the oldest in the region,” says María Cruz Berrocal.

Additional analysis of the bones and teeth should answer a great many questions about the deceased. Recovering nuclear DNA from archaeological remains is a tricky thing, but researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research, the Royal Belgian Institute of Science and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History are now carrying out stable isotope and botanical analyses on the teeth, examining pathogen and human DNA recovered from the bones. The isotope analysis will narrow down their place of origin. Pathogen DNA will shed new light on the vectors of disease transmission between European colonists and the local people. Botanical analysis may provide important information on the introduction of non-native plant species during the early colonial period.

This research has the potential to rewrite the sparse history of the Spanish colonization of the island. The historical records are deeply one-sided. According to the Spanish settlers, they dominated the island, the biggest fish in the smallest pond, and had little but contempt for the locals. The archeology puts the lie to their self-promotional exaggerations. In fact there were very few Spanish colonizers in Heping Dao and far from living like lords impressing the natives with their fancy European goods, they were desperately poor. They needed trade with China to survive and left behind almost nothing of their material culture. The excavation has found exactly one European artifact: a bronze buckle.

That’s not how it was supposed to go.

“The results demonstrate that we are dealing with an early globalisation hub here. The Spanish-style construction of the church illustrates that this colony was just as important to the Spanish Crown as other colonies established elsewhere, as in the Americas, for example. However, its attempt to gain a long-term foothold in the Pacific region was ultimately unsuccessful. For this reason, historians have since assumed that Taiwan only played a marginal role. But that is not the case,” concludes María Cruz Berrocal.

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Barberini tapestries return 16 years after fire almost destroyed them

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

The Life of Christ tapestries have made their triumphant return to public view for the first time since a 1981 fire almost reduced these precious 17th century masterpieces to cinders. As of March 21st, they are hanging in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. It has taken a decade and a half of painstaking labour from conservators for this day to arrive.

The story begins with a pope who had a great love of luxury textiles and an even greater love of nepotism. Maffeo Barberini was elected the Throne of St. Peter as Pope Urban VIII in 1623 and wasted no time in spreading the ecclesiastical wealth around to his family members. He made his brother Antonio a cardinal. He made his brother Carlo’s sons Francesco and Antonio cardinals too. Other family members got grand titles (Duke, Prince), extensive properties in the Papal States, cushy sinecures and military commands requiring little in the way of actual soldiering.

Rome was not known for its tapestry industry — France and Flanders dominated tapestry production in Europe — but for a brief window in the 17th century, it came to prominence thanks entirely to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Urban’s nephew. He founded a private tapestry workshop in 1627, hand-picked its staff and oversaw the production of six multi-tapestry series depicting the early history of Christianity and the Church.

His papal uncle shared Francesco’s love for tapestries, the more silk, gold and silver thread the better. He already had a large collection before he was elected pope. After the dramatic improvement in family status, Francesco’s workshop gave the Barberini the opportunity to create personalized tapestries by the greatest artists in the richest materials, the kind of access only royalty (and in Italy the Medici family of Florence), had.

The Life of Christ cycle, designed by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and woven by Gaspare Rocci, Caterina della Riviera and Maria Maddalena della Riviera, monopolized the workshop from 1643 to 1656. There were some gaps in there due to unforseen obstacles. Urban VIII died in 1644, severely hampering the production schedule. The new pope was no Barberini fan, and Francesco was soon tied up investigations on his alleged misappropriation of funds. Production cranked back into gear in 1647 but it still took another nine years to complete the series.

The workshop died with Francesco, its driving impetus, in 1679, and that was the end of Rome’s brief moment of relevance in the history of Baroque tapestry. The Life of Christ cycle hung on the walls of the Barberini family palaces until it was purchased along with the rest of the Barberini tapestry collection (135 in total) by wool manufacturer and tapestry expert Charles Mather Ffoulke in 1889. He moved them to the States where he resold the Life of Christ tapestries to Mrs. Elizabeth U. Coles. A devout congregant, Coles donated the complete series to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in 1891, before the church was built.

The Barberini tapestries were added to by other donors, until by the mid-20th century, Saint John the Divine found itself the proud owner of Flemish tapestries depicting the Acts of the Apostles made from Raphael cartoons and nine Mortlake tapestries. With such an important and unique collection, the Cathedral opened an in-house Textile Conservation Laboratory in 1981.

That expertise proved invaluable when tragedy struck in December 2001. A five-alarm fire broke out in the sanctuary, and the six Barberini tapestries hanging on the other side of the wall in the nave (the other six were already in the conservation lab when the fire started, thankfully) took heavy smoke and fire damage. Two of them, The Last Supper and The Resurrection, were so damaged that 30 to 40% of them were destroyed.

The conservation lab has been working on the delicate tapestries ever since. It’s a time-consuming, incredibly detailed job to clean and repair tapestries 16 feet tall and 12-19 feet wide one inch at a time. It has taken 16 years, but now 10 of the 12 tapestries of Life of the Christ have returned to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. The two heavily damaged ones have been stabilized but are in no condition to be hung.

Instead of being installed way up high above the transepts as they were before the fire. They are now hanging in three chapels at eye level.

The Rev. Canon Patrick Malloy, the priest who oversees arts-related projects at the cathedral, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, said the idea was to recreate a Baroque chapel and show the tapestries differently from when they hung over the transepts. But he said the exhibition was more than just that.

“They’re hanging in a liturgical space,” Dr. Malloy said, “so they’re not just works of art but devotional objects. It wouldn’t be the same if they were in the Met. I go to the Cloisters from time to time. It’s wonderful, but it’s not the same as if it were a monastery.”

The new installation will give visitors the chance to examine the tapestries in much more detail. Tangential to the religious theme of the tapestries but very much central to the monarchical power they were meant to telegraph, the three bees on the Barberini family coat of arms are plastered in the four corners of each tapestry.

The Barberini bees are a common sight in Rome. After the elevation of Urban VIII to the papacy, he slapped those bees on everything from Barberini properties, to the bronze baldachin in St. Peter’s made of ancient Roman beams stolen from the Pantheon and melted down, to frescoes in the Vatican made a dozen years before Maffeo was even ordained a priest.

Of course they were woven into the tapestries, just as the kings of France wove their fleurs-de-lis on the tapestries they commissioned. The ones in the corners are the traditional three bees, two on top, one of the bottom, encircled by a laurel wreath in place of the shield, but the bees also appear on the tapestries in a rather bizarre tableau that I’ve never seen before, notwithstanding the Barberini penchant for scattering their pollinators far and wide in the city of Rome. There are three bees, yes, but two of them are pulling a plough while one rides above them holding a whip. This curious arrangement is apparently a very, very arcane reference to Virgil’s Georgics, and symbolizes the powerful combination of “highest rule, sown fields of cultivated land, production of honey.” It may be a nod to Urban’s three nephews — Francesco, Antonio and Taddeo — who held the three highest offices (not counting the pope, of course) of the Roman Church and whose combined labours were meant to ensure the continued wealth and victory of the Church.

I don’t know if any of that makes much sense, but I’m kind of crazy about the image of the Barberini bees pushing that plough with their tiny bee hands while their brother/overseer cracks the whip.

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Treasure of Ming Dynasty uprising leader found

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a massive treasure from a 17th century shipwreck in Meishan City in the Sichuan Province of southwest China. The ship sank where the Jinjiang River branches off from the Minjiang River in 1646, and with it plunged more than 10,000 gold, silver and bronze coins, ingots, jewels, gold artifacts and weapons including iron swords, spears and knives. They are in pristine condition, with engraved inscriptions on the ingots still clearly legible, inscriptions that name one of the self-styled titles of Zhang Xianzhong, a famed rebel against the Ming Dynasty.

It all started with a looter. He, like everyone else in the region, knew the legend of the great treasure of Zhang Xianzhong which had sank with all his ships in the river. With the Minjiang less than 10 feet deep, the looter, who happened to be an experienced diver, decided to have a look around in the dark of night to see if he might get his hands on a little illegally obtained cultural heritage. He found a gold tiger first, then an inscribed square piece, also gold, with four little divots that the tiger’s feet fit into perfectly. The inscription confirmed it was a gold seal (the tiger was its handle) made in lunar November, 1643, and bearing the title “Grand Marshal of Yongchang,” one of Zhang’s honorifics. He also found an incredibly rare gold and silver books, ingots, coins and several other treasures, all of which he sold to an unscrupulous collector for 13,600,000 yuan (ca. $2,000,000).

More precious objects from this period began to appear on the black market. Police investigated and last fall were able to bust 10 artifact looting gangs and 70 traffickers and recover hundreds of artifacts of significant historical import. It was the largest looting case ever cracked in China. So, with the scofflaws apprehended and their contraband found, cultural heritage authorities turned their collective unblinking eye to the find site of some of the most important objects. Time for the professionals to get a turn.

The ambitious excavation project began in January with the arrival of the dry season. Water was pumped out of the river leaving a passable but very mucky riverbed. The archaeological team then had to dig down five meters (16’5″) beneath the surface of the riverbed before they literally struck gold. In the two months since excavations began, the team has unearthed more 10,000 objects. The inscriptions on several them point to them having been either produced under the aegis of Zhang Xianzhong or stolen by him during his long committment to raiding the valuables of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) palaces. They even found an item that matched a description in the Qing Dynasty records as having been used by Zhang: a tree trunk split lengthwise, hollowed out, filled with silver ingots and then clamped back together with iron or copper shanks.

Zhang Xianzhong, known as Yellow Tiger after his complexion and his strong “tiger jaw,” was born in poverty in Shaanxi Province in 1606. He joined the army of the Ming Dynasty, but he wasn’t great at following orders and soon found himself with a death sentence hanging over his head for breaking military rules. He was spared by a superior officer who was swayed by his height and strength, but by 1630 Zhang was officially over it and went AWOL.

He joined a peasant revolt that was then spreading all over the country, spurred by the Ming administration’s oppressive taxation during a time of famine and drought. He carved out a space for himself as leader of a group of rebels in his home province of Shaanxi. Seven years later, he had an army of 300,000 at his command. While suffering occasional defeats, one a very big one, at the hands of Ming Dynasty armies, he and his forces won more than they lost, and they collected great gobs of loot along the way.

In 1644, the year of the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Zhang went for the big score. He and 100,000 of men conquered Sichuan. All of it. In September of that year, Zhang’s forces took Chengdu. He crowned himself the first king of the Daxi Dynasty and made Chengdu his capital. The good times didn’t last long. In the spring of 1645, pro-Ming troops retook Chongqing and in a classic piece of projection, Zhang started seeing conspiracy and rebellion everywhere. He decided to fight the seditious elements in his “kingdom” with a campaign of terror. Piles of body parts, flaying and killing became the order of the day.

It’s difficult to know precisely how many people he killed, but according to Jesuit priests who had worked for him in the beginning when it seemed like he would be a benevolent ruler, only a handful of people made it out of Sichuan alive. The only hard figures we have come from census records. The 1578 Ming census, the last we have for Sichuan before Zhang, recorded a population of 3,102,073. In 1661, there were a grand total of 16,096 men registered in Sichuan. The province was depopulated on a massive scale, that much is certain, and the blood of many was on Zhang’s hands, but there was a lot of conflict in the region before and after Zhang’s very brief rule, and widespread famine also must have taken a great toll on the populace.

In October of 1646, with a new and vigorous enemy, the army of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, coming for him, Zhang decided to leave Sichuan with a quickness and head back home. He loaded 1,000 boats with all the cash and treasures he’d accumulated over years of raids and conquest and sent them south to Shaanxi. The recently unearthed ship only made it about 50 miles from Chengdu before sinking. In July 1647, Zhang’s army and allies clashed with Manchu forces. He either died in this battle, or he fled with his troops on his treasure-laden ships which then sank either because they were set on fire by the enemy or because in the chaos of retreat, the vessels crashed into each other and went down.

“The objects have helped identify the area where the battle was fought and are direct evidence of this historical event,” said Wang Wei, a Chinese archaeologist. [...]

“The items are extremely valuable to science, history and art. They are of great significance for research into the political,economic, military and social lives of the Ming Dynasty,” said Li Boqian,an archaeologist from Peking University.

The excavation will continue through April and archaeologists fully expect to find more of Zhang’s not-quite-legendary-after-all lost treasure.

This news story has the best views of the excavation and a small fraction of the artifacts recovered I could find:

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Emeralds from fabled Spanish wreck for sale

Friday, March 17th, 2017

In the wee hours of September 6th, 1622, the convoy of 28 ships in the Spanish Tierra Firme flota met the business end of a hurricane in the Florida straits. When the skies cleared and dawn broke, eight of the treasure ships were lost, smashed on the seabed, their glittering cargos strewn over 50 miles from the Marquesas Keys to what is now Dry Tortugas National Park.

The Tierra Firme fleet, so named because it departed from the southern Spanish Main, or Tierra Firme province, on the Gulf of Mexico, was absolutely heaving with treasure that year. Hundreds of tons of gold, silver, copper, indigo, tobacco, emeralds, pearls from Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela were transported to the coastal port cities of the Tierra Firme on mule trains. There was so much loot that inventorying it and loading it onto the ships delayed the expedition by six weeks, pushing the voyage into the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. It took two months to load the Nuestra Señora de Atocha alone, and it was more heavily armed than the other ships of the fleet because it was the rear guard of the convoy so it could “only” carry 40 tons of gold and silver and 70 pounds of emeralds from the Muzo mines of Colombia.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was one of the eight ships that went down in the hurricane. It was torn apart on a reef, its hull breached and keel broken in two. It sank in minutes after that, taking almost the entire crew with it. Only five men survived, three sailors and two slaves, because they had the presence of mind to tie themselves to the mizzenmast.

The Spanish tried to salvage what they could from the lost treasure galleons. One of the ships, the Santa Margarita, ran aground near where the Atocha sank. Using bronze diving bells and slaves to man them — many of whom died performing this incredibly dangerous job, as we know from the insurance claims filed so the owners could be reimbursed for the sale value of their human chattel — crews were able to recover about half of the Santa Margarita‘s cargo. They knew the wreck of the Atocha was in the area somewhere, but the Spanish were never able to find it.

Almost four centuries would pass before someone did. Treasure hunter Mel Fisher searched for 16 years for the wreck and finally hit paydirt in July of 1985. Fisher and his team recovered vast quantities of coins, silver and gold ingots and emeralds, even though the bulk of the gold and emeralds are believed to have been stored in the ship’s sterncastle which has never been found. After a decade of legal skirmishes with the State of Florida, the courts awarded Fisher full rights to all of the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

Some of its riches are now on display in Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on Key West. A selection of its most exceptional emeralds will be going up for auction on April 25th at Guernsey’s auction house in New York City. The gemstones belong to Manuel Marcial de Gomar who started out working in the Chivor emerald mines of Colombia in 1955 when he was 19, opened the first emerald specialty store in 1964 and became one of the world’s leading emerald specialists.

Fisher hired him to appraise all the emeralds from the Atocha, about seven pounds of them, recovered over the course of more than two decades. Appropriately, Marcial’s consulting fee was paid in emeralds. Emeralds from the Muzo mines are considered the best in the world for the richness of their blue-green color. Add the Atocha history and these stones become even more than the sum of their beautiful parts. Marcial selected some of the stones to be cut and set in jewelry of his design. Some he kept in their rough state.

It’s one of the rough emeralds from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha which is the star player in the upcoming Marcial de Gomar Collection auction. La Gloria is a 887 carat rough emerald, bigger than the one in the Smithsonian (857 carats) and the one in New York’s Museum of Natural History (632 carats). The pre-sale estimate is $3,000,000-$5,000,000.

Coming in close at its heels is a group of loose emeralds romantically dubbed the Nine Pillars of the Andes (pre-sale estimate $3,000,000-$4,000,000). From largest to smallest they weigh 26.72 carats, 15.54 carats, 11.65 carats, 9.82 carats, 7.77 carats, 6.68 carats, 6.45 carats, 4.56 carats, and 2.50 carats for a total of 91.69 carats.

Not to say there aren’t any bargains. For a mere $100,000-$125,000, you can score the Andina del Mar, a 2.51-carat round cut emerald Marcial cut from a 5.35 rough emerald. It’s the second largest known round faceted emerald recovered form the ocean. Or how about its pear shaped sister, the Lagrima de Atocha, a 1.61 carat emerald cut from a 4.41 carat rough gemstone, which is also estimated to sell for $100,000-$125,000.

In addition to the emeralds, some coins recovered from the famous shipwreck are also part of the sale, like this Spanish eight escudo coin made of 22-karat gold. It’s a comparative bargain with a pre-sale estimate of $15,000-$20,000. This coin comes from the personal collection of Mel Fisher, as do several other gold coins going under the hammer at this auction, including a group recovered from the wreck of the 1715 Treasure Fleet.

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Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Dr. Irving Finkel, world-renown cuneiform expert, Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian tablets at the British Museum and author of the thoroughly delightful book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, is bringing his enormous brain and limitless enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamian history and culture to the United States. On April 1st, (no, this is not a clever months-in-advance prank; I deserve neither such praise nor such censure), Dr. Finkel will be giving a lecture at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. The topic will be the Ark before Noah: the ancient Babylonian Flood stories that predate the version in Genesis.

Dr. Finkel’s translation of a previously unknown Babylonian clay tablet from around 1750 B.C. recounting the Akkadian version of the Flood myth starring Atra-Hasis as the Noah figure revealed a treasury of engineering details about the construction of the great ark found on none of the other surviving Atra-Hasis tablets. It was round, for one thing, and made of woven and coiled palm-fiber ropes slathered with bitumen. There was enough detail in the tablet to allow for an attempted recreation of the ark on a much reduced scale, of course. A wonderful documentary was made about the attempt.

In the lecture, Dr. Finkel will talk about the tablet, his translation and research. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the auditorium of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Tickets are free and can be booked by phone or on the Getty’s website. The auditorium opens at 1:30 and seating is first come, first served.

April 1st is a Saturday. Make a weekend of it, because on Sunday, April 2nd, Dr. Finkel will be back at the Getty Villa being even cooler than he was the day before, if that’s possible. You see, in addition to being able to sight-read cuneiform and write grippingly about ancient tablet inscriptions, Dr. Finkel is also an expert on the Royal Game of Ur, a stone, shell and lapis lazuli board game from 2600 B.C. that was discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the 1926-1927 dig season. It is believed to be a race game where the aim is to beat your opponent to the finish line, like backgammon which may be a descendant of the Royal Game and/or its older Egyptian cousin Senet.

Much of what we know about how the game was played comes from, you guessed it, a cuneiform tablet also in the British Museum. This tablet was inscribed in 177-176 B.C. by Babylonian astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu, who was kind enough to sign his work. By then the game was thousands of years old and the way it was played had changed. It was also used for divining the future, which is why an astronomer would be an appropriate person to explain the whole system. The front of the tablet has a diagram explaining how to use the central squares to tell fortunes.

As curator of the British Museum’s enormous 130,000-piece clay tablet collection, Finkel has had opportunity to research Itti-Marduk-balatu’s instructional.

This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel’s extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime’s fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.

I CAN’T BE ANY MORE EXCITED THAN THIS ALREADY, GETTY PEOPLE!

Or so I thought. Then I read this next bit in the press release.

Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Villa Education Studio/Court
This is a free, drop-in program.

Pardon me while I get a paper bag to hyperventilate into. This is so insanely cool. All you Californians, California-adjacents and California-bound must get to the Getty Villa the first weekend in April. Anyone who plays the Royal Game of Ur with Irving Finkel must report back and I will write you up like superstars you are. (Get pictures!)

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Blenheim Palace flowerpot is a Roman sarcophagus

Friday, March 10th, 2017

A 1,700-year-old Roman sarcophagus has been discovered on the grounds of Blenheim Palace where it was being used as a flowerpot. An antiques expert who was visiting the estate on other business spotted the beautifully carved bas-relief on a planter filled with soil and tulips and bolted to a lead cistern. He recognized the carving as a Dionysian scene likely of ancient Roman origin and remembered a previous sale of a garden planter that turned out to be a Roman sarcophagus, because it seems estate appraisers in England glean sarcophagi in the hedgerows

He brought it to the attention of palace staff who determined it was the front of a white marble sarcophagus carved around 300 A.D. The quality of the carving is extremely high. An inebriated Dionysus is supported by a satyr and surrounded by his drunken followers, including the demigod Hercules and Ariadne, who saved Theseus from the Labyrinth and Minotaur only to be abandoned by him after a night of revelry with Dionysus on the island of Naxos. Close to the edges of the scene are two large lion heads facing outward.

While there are no records in the Blenheim archives to pinpoint when the artifact entered the palace collection, experts believe it was acquired in the 19th century by George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough and great-great grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill. The duke was an avid collector of art and antiquities, much of which would eventually be sold to pay off his many, many creditors. Installed as a basin to collect water from a natural spring near the estate’s Great Lake, the sarcophagus managed to survive the great sell-off. In the early 20th century it was moved to a rock garden. That’s where it stayed for a century until its recent rescue from tulipmania.

It’s the Grand Tour that started all this in the 18th century. When the sons of wealthy families returned from their post-university voyages through France, Italy and the other history-rich countries of continental Europe, they were laden with art and antiquities they’d collected along the way. Sarcophagi were a popular choice, the larger and more elaborately carved the better. Their shapes made them convenient receptacles and using an ancient sarcophagus as a garden planter became fashionable in upper class households. By the second half of the 19th century, replicas of classical-style urns and sarcophagi were found in gardens all over Britain. To this day antique forms remain popular planters.

The Blenheim Palace planter is 6’6″ long, but the front panel with the relief is the only part remaining of the original Roman sarcophagus. The base, sides and back are missing, replaced with stone stand-ins that allowed the carved fragment to be seen in a facsimile of its original context. Just by itself, the fragment is six feet long, 2.5 feet high, six inches thick and weighs 550 pounds.

The palace called Nicholas Banfield of Cliveden Conservation to remove the ancient piece and transport it to their lab for cleaning and conservation. They cut the bolts connecting the planter to the cistern, liberating it from its prison. The marble surface was cleaned with nothing but water and soft wooden picks to chip away at the calcified crust left by more than a century of use as a water feature. The restoration took six months and now the sarcophagus fragment has gone on display inside the palace.

“We are delighted to have it back and the restoration work undertaken by Nicholas is very impressive. Now it is in a consistent indoor climate away from the natural elements we are hoping it will remain in good condition and survive for many more centuries to come,” said Kate Ballenger, House Manager at Blenheim Palace.

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The last days of the Romanovs

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

Marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution this year, The Hague Museum of Photography is hosting an exhibition of pictures capturing the last days of the Romanov family before their execution by Bolshevik soldiers. The photographs were taken by Pierre Gilliard, a tutor to the Romanov children and an intimate friend of the family.

Pierre Gilliard was born in Vaud, Switzerland, in 1879. He became a teacher and, Swiss tutors being all the rage in aristocratic circles, in fall of 1904 accepted a position as French tutor to Duke Sergei, the son of Duke George of Leuchtenberg who was Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin. The family spent their summers at the Duke’s datcha at Peterhof on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great built the Grand Palace of Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, while working on the construction of St. Petersburg, but he preferred his little maisonette of Monplaisir to the grandeur of the big house. Tsar Nicholas II avoided the giant formal palace too, spending the summers with his beloved family in the charmingly oxymoronic Cottage Palace.

Tsarina Alexandra and the Duchess of Leuchtenberg were close friends and during the summer of 1905 the two families socialized often. That’s when Gilliard first met the imperial family. In September of 1905, Gilliard picked up two new pupils: the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, Nicholas and Alexandra’s eldest daughters, then 10 and eight years old respectively. In his memoirs he described them and their mother as polite and considerate and his pupils clever, albeit very much behind where he thought they should be in their command of French.

The third daughter, eight-year-old Grand Duchess Maria joined her sisters’ lessons in 1907, and Grand Duchess Anastasia followed in 1909. Gilliard continued to tutor Duke Sergei until 1909, after which he focused on his imperial students. He taught the girls in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo five times a week as long as they were in residence, and when the Grand Duchesses failed to make as much progress as Gilliard, the Tsar and Tsarina had hoped, he joined the family during their months-long summer sojourns at Livadia Palace in the Crimea.

It is a testament to how trusted a member of the royal household Gilliard had become that he was given the responsibility of tutoring the Tsarevitch Alexei. The heir to the Russian Empire was a very sick little boy, afflicted terribly by the hemophilia that Queen Victoria’s genes had spread throughout the royal families of Europe. (Alexandra’s mother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s favorite daughter.) His illness was a state secret and hidden from everyone. Gilliard was one of a very small inner circle who knew how sick he was and from what.

So close was he to the Tsar’s family that he chose to join them in exile after the February Revolution and Nicholas’ abdication in August of 1917. The family and a select group of the most loyal family and retainers were first confined to Tsarskoye Selo for five months and then sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in the Governor’s Mansion. It was no Grand Palace, but it was downright luxurious compared to what was to come. When the White Army got too close to Tobolsk in April of 1918, the Romanov’s were moved to Yekaterinburg. They were imprisoned in Ipatiev House, the home of local industrialist, and were subjected to a million petty indignities by their Bolshevik guards.

Gilliard went with them as far as he could. He made it to the train platform at Yekaterinburg, but then, for some unfathomable reason, the Bolsheviks refused to let him out of the train and told him he was free to go. He didn’t go. He remained in the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the imperial family, a glimpse he never got. The Tsar, Tsarina, Tsarevitch and Grand Duchesses were shot and bayoneted to death on July 17th, 1918.

In Gilliard’s memoirs, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, he wrote movingly about what a loving, close family they were, all the more so under the extreme duress of their last days. He describes entering Ipatiev House on July 25th after the fall of Yekaterinburg and the Bolshevik announcement that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, had been executed while the rest of the family was in a “safe location.”

I went down to the bottom floor, the greater part of which was below the level of the ground. It was with intense emotion that I entered the room in which perhaps – I was still in doubt – they had met their death. Its appearance was sinister beyond expression. The only light filtered through a barred window at the height of a man’s head. The walls and flour showed numerous traces of bullets and bayonet scars. The first glance showed that an odious crime had been perpetrated there and that several people had been done to death. But who? How?

I became convinced that the Tsar had perished and, granting that, I could not believe that the Tsarina had survived him. At Tobolsk, when Commissary Yakovlev had come to take away the Tsar, I had seen her throw herself in where the danger seemed to her greatest. I had seen her, brokenhearted after hours of mental torture, torn desperately between her feelings as a wife and a mother, abandon her sick boy to follow the husband whose life seemed in danger. Yes, it was possible they might have died together, the victims of these brutes. But the children? They too massacred? I could not believe it. My whole being revolted at the idea. And yet everything proved that there had been many victims.

The Soviets continued to deny having slaughtered the imperial family until 1922. Gilliard stayed in Siberia for three years, helping magistrate Nicholas Sokolov investigate the murders. He married Alexandra Alexandrovna Tagleva, Grand Duchess Anastasia’s former nanny and one of the loyal few who went into exile with the Romanovs in 1919. They returned to Switzerland in 1922 where Gilliard returned to his study, becoming a professor of French at the University of Lausanne in 1926. He and his wife both interviewed Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and concluded she was a fraud. Gilliard wrote a book debunking her claims, but there was so much mystique around the alleged Anastasia that plenty of people bought her ludicrous story until DNA evidence proved once and for all that she was a mentally ill Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. He also debunked the first of many Alexei impostors.

An avid amateur photographer, Gilliard took many pictures of the family at leisure — Alexei playing with his dog Joy, the Grand Duchesses putting on a Moliere play, the Tsar shoveling snow — and on official occasions. The original negatives are now in the collection of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. For the new exhibition at the Hague Museum of Photography, more than 70 enlarged gelatin silver prints have been made from those original negatives. I hope they digitize them all because there are a lot of sad, grainy, copies-of-copies of Gilliard’s pictures out there. It would be wonderful to be able to see the last happy days of the Romanovs in high resolution. The exhibition runs through June 11th of the this year.

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