Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Massive illegal dumpsite found in Roman catacomb

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Roman police have discovered tons of refuse, everything from household trash to industrial waste, illegally dumped in the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. catacombs of Tor Fiscale, an archaeological park in east Rome. Situated on the Via Latina near the junction with the ancient Appian Way, the Tor Fiscale park is part of the vast Appian Way Regional Park. The small park is dense with archaeological riches. It is at the crossroads of six Roman and one Renaissance aqueduct whose arched galleries dominate the landscape alongside the 13th century tower that gives the park its name. It is replete with remains of ancient luxury villas, homes, tombs and underground caves dug out of soft volcanic tufa. Initially carved to quarry the stone, the caves were used by early Christians for gatherings and burials during the imperial era when the religion was viewed with suspicion and its adherents sometimes persecuted.

Authorities came to suspect something was rotten underground during an investigation of illegal car scrapyards and waste disposal rackets in the area. On January 26th, about 20 people — police officers, personnel from Italy’s Regional Environmental Protection Agency (ARPA), municipal workers and members of the archaeological speleology organization Sotterranei di Roma (Undergrounds of Rome) — worked together to explore miles of the underground tunnels. They found a shocking amount of waste, including old refrigerators, mattresses, electronics, tires, batteries, hundreds of bags of organic materials full of various molds that may have been used in the cultivation of mushrooms.

In one of the deepest tunnels, they found a veritable lake of greasy black goo that is likely used motor oil. On the surface alone this lake of hydrocarbon pollution covers about 200 square meters (2,150 square feet), and preliminary analysis found the lake is more than a foot deep, so the total volume of toxic filth in this one spot alone is something in the neighborhood of 800 cubic meters (28,250 cubic feet). At some points the vaults of the tunnel appear to be impregnated with the goop, suggesting it was dumped from above rather than transported deep into the caves. The team took samples of the fluid to identify it and they will examine the surface to locate the entry point. There will also be extensive testing to assess whether the oil has seeped into the water table.

After making the shocking discovery, police used drones to fully explore the network of bat-and-mice-infested tunnels to try to establish the extent of the dumping.

It is thought that local businesses and residents have been using the site to cheaply dispose of their unwanted goods for years. Police even discovered that unscrupulous dumpers had drilled shafts down into the caves from above, which they used as rubbish chutes to quickly dispose of their unwanted goods.

Authorities have closed the entrances to the caves on Via Demetriade and Via di Torre Branca, but of course that won’t stop people from using their homemade garbage chutes. The municipal police are investigating the case in the hopes of finding who is responsible, at least most recently, for this ruthless assault on Rome’s cultural history and environmental health.


Rare complete first edition 17th c. sex manual for sale

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Aristotle’s Masterpiece, not a masterpiece nor by Aristotle, was a manual of advice on sex, childbirth and infant care first published in 1684. Its anonymous author took the name of the famous ancient Greek philosopher to give his material an air of intellectual and scientific authority. Aristotle’s Problems, a book about health and sex in question-and-answer format published in 1595, had established the philosopher’s reputation for expertise on sexual matters even though again the author had only borrowed Aristotle’s name. By the early 17th century, the name “Aristotle” was popularly associated with sexual knowledge. The Masterpiece sought to piggyback off of that reputation. In truth it actually contradicted Aristotle’s theory of conception, proposing a two-seed mechanism whereby a man and woman each contribute generative material to create new life while the real-life Aristotle believed there was only one seed, the man’s, which planted a baby in the lady’s womb field.

The book is a compilation of the most sensationalized parts of two 16th century volumes, The Secret Miracles of Nature (1564) by Levinus Lemnius and De conceptu et generatione hominis (1554), a midwifery manual by Jakob Rüff. It was one of almost two dozen books about midwifery printed in the wake of the great success of Nicholas Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives, published in 1651. What made the Masterpiece stand out in the crowd was its promise of advice on “the act of copulation” on the very title page. The more conventional midwifery texts were not so direct. In keeping with the finest tradition of sex sells, Aristotle’s Masterpiece became a bestseller for centuries, reissued in two more versions with additional material from later books and going through hundreds of printings in Britain and the United States. The 1728 version went through more printings than all the other books on midwifery combined and was still in print well into the 20th century.

The inclusion of woodcuts yoinked from French barber surgeon Ambroise Paré’s 1573 treatise Of Monsters and Prodigies first published in English in an edition of his Works in 1634, played a part in the book’s success. Again the title page made it clear what readers could expect to find within: woodcuts of naked ladies and “monsters,” babies born with various anomalies. The title page woodcut was of a hairy woman and a black child, both the result of their mothers having seen something that imprinted on their fetuses during pregnancy or the moment of conception. The hairy lady’s mother while pregnant with her had beheld an image of John the Baptist wearing animal skins. The picture was imprinted in her mind on her developing fetus, resulting in the monstrous birth of a hirsute baby girl. The black child was, ostensibly, the son of two white parents who had a picture of a black man hanging in their bedroom. The mother happened to glance at it while having sex with her husband, and the result of that copulation was a black baby.

It was a tricky thing, this conceiving of a healthy, non-monstrous child. Allowances had to made for women’s colder humours, allowances which fortuitously required husbands actually take the time to excite their wives before getting to the business of insemination. Here’s some advice on foreplay justified by old-timey nonsense science.

When the husband cometh into his wives chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behaviour, and allurements to venery: but if he perceive her to be slow and more cold, he must cherish, embrace, and tickle her, and shall not abruptly, the nerves being suddenly distended, break into the field of nature, but rather shall creep in by little and little, intermixing more wanton kisses with wanton words and speeches, handling her secret parts and dugs, that she may take fire and be in flames to venery, for so at length the womb will strive and wax fervent with a desire of casting forth its own seed, and receiving the mans seed to be mixed together therewith.

But if all these things will not suffice to inflame the woman, for women for the most part are more slow and slack into the expulsion or yielding forth of their seed, it shall be necessary first to foment her secret parts with the decoction of hot herbs made with muscadine, or boyled in any other good wine, and to put a little musk or civit into the neck or mouth of the womb, and when she shall perceive the flux of her seed to approach, by reason of the tickling pleasure, she must advertise her husband thereof, that at the very instant, time, or moment, he may also yield forth his seed, that by the concourse or meeting of the seeds, conception may be made, and so at length the child formed and born.

The first edition of Aristotle’s Masterpiece was published by John How and, as printed on the title page, was “to be sold next door to the Anchor Tavern in Sweethings-Rents in Cornhil.” How registered it with the Stationers Company, an early version of copyright protection which allowed registrees to block publication of their works by unlicensed publishers, but he was unable to prevent pirated copies from getting out there almost immediately. Printers both anonymous and named cranked out copies starting within the first year of its initial publication.

Because it was considered a dirty book with all the sex talk and the naked hairy ladies and four-armed children, it wasn’t overtly sold by booksellers although most of them surreptitiously kept copies under the counter for the client in the know. It was sold by traveling peddlers, in general stores and, as stated in the first printing, in or next to taverns. Never officially banned, publication and sale of the book should in theory have been stymied by Britain’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and the 1873 Comstock Law which prevented its sale through the mail in the United States. By then it had such a long record of under-the-table printing and sale that it’s unlikely these hard to police laws had much of an effect on the book’s distribution.

Despite its wide popularity over the course of centuries, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a rare book today. Out of more than 250 known editions published, very few intact copies have survived. Printed on cheap paper and thumbed through with much vigor, they were prone to heavy wear and having pages torn out. There are less than a dozen of the first edition known to survive, and most of them are incomplete. Two complete copies have recently appeared at auction. One of them sold at Bonhams in 2014 for $32,743, the other sold at Bonhams in 2015 for $29,105.

Now a third complete copy has come on the market. It will be sold at Dominic Winter Auctioneers on March 2nd. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-15,000 ($14,500-22,000). My favorite part is that the cover of this copy was made from a recycled land deed.

The incomplete deed used for the covers in this copy appears, from the partially visible text, to be a title deed from 30 January [1686], and relates to property owned by George Speke [1623-1689, English politician. Speke was a Royalist during the English Civil War, but after the Restoration became MP for Somerset and an early Whig supporter in Parliament.]

I like to think George Speke donated his old paperwork to the cause of naughty book printing.


No mammoth at the 1951 Explorers Club dinner

Saturday, February 6th, 2016

Founded in 1904 by a group of explorers, naturalists and journalists including Adolphus Greely and Frank Chapman, The Explorers Club held annual black tie banquets in New York where members supped on exotic foods while speakers regaled them with tales of that year’s adventures. The 47th Explorers Club Annual Dinner (ECAD) held on January 13th, 1951, at the Hotel Roosevelt was a particularly epic event which featured a buffet of woolly mammoth, thawed from the Alaskan permafrost and served to the exploring elite alongside bison steaks, cheese straws and ice cream cake roll Buche Roosevelt.

Here’s how one attendee, Herbert B. Nichols, described the evening’s fare in an article for the January 17th, 1951, issue of the Christian Science Monitor:

Chief attraction at the smorgasbord was a morsel of 250,000-year-old hairy mammoth meat such as Teddy Roosevelt feasted on in Alaska years ago. It originally was intended that this delicacy would be sought for in quantity as the main dish of the evening, but the dinner committee found the cost per plate would be $495.74 [about $4,500 in today's dollars] (the price of raiding nature’s original “deep freeze” by hydraulic mining in the Valley of the Yukon on the chance of finding some).

This part of the menu was about to be canceled a few weeks ago when the Rev. Bernard Hubbard, better known as the “Glacier Priest,” told the committee about his own private stock at a place called Woolly Cove on Akutan Island. … Thanks to his generosity in “sharing the wealth,” we all had a taste of the rarest mammalian tit-bit on earth.

The Glacier Priest was not the first explorer to claim to have a line on mammoth meat. A French explorer in 1872 said he and his team had subsisted entirely on “mammoth meat, broiled, roasted and baked” when they were in the frozen wilds of Russia. The team of scientists from St. Petersburg who excavated a mammoth frozen in the cliffs above the Beresovka River in 1901 were said to have supped on mammoth steaks. A later investigation by I.P. Tolmachoff found the edibility of the Beresovka mammoth was questionable. Apparently, “the flesh was so fresh and appealing that dogs devoured every piece thrown to them,” but when it came to human consumption, “although some of flesh recovered from the cadavers were ‘fibrous and marbled with fat’ and looked ‘as fresh as well-frozen beef or horsemeat,’ only dogs showed any appetite for it; ‘the stench…was unbearable’.” The taste was no better. One scientist had a nibble on some of the meat and promptly threw it up.

There was a widespread notion that these mammoths discovered in the frozen parts of the world died and were instantly preserved in a block of pristine ice. In fact, they died, were eaten by scavengers, decayed and were eventually enveloped in the permafrost, which is not a fantasy glacier from a bottled water commercial but soil that has frozen solid. The Beresovka mammoth wound up in the cliffs because the carcass was caught in a landslide. Omaha Steaks it ain’t.

The 1951 Explorers Club Annual Dinner became quasi-legendary and inspired many future exotic food selections at subsequent banquets. While the focus today is less on extremely rare/extinct foods and more on sustainable but very much off-the-beaten-track options, the annual dinner still prominently features the weird and gross like fried tarantulas and goat-eyeball martinis. (I hope someone had the decency to raise one of the martinis and say “Here’s mud in your goat’s eye.”)

The question of what was actually eaten at the famous 1951 dinner is still an open one, however. Mammoth wasn’t officially on the menu, just “prehistoric meat.” It’s possible that the mammoth thing was a misunderstanding perpetuated by confused guests and press reports like Nichols’. To determine what really was eaten that night, a team of Yale University researchers turned to the one known sample taken from the dinner now in the mammal collection of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The source of the sample was Explorers Club member and Bruce Museum director Paul Griswold Howes who hadn’t been able to attend the dinner but asked for some leftovers to exhibit at his museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The dinner’s organizer, Wendell Phillips Dodge, sent him a sample labeled Megatherium, an extinct South American giant ground sloth, not a mammoth. It remained at the Bruce Museum until 2001 when it was absorbed into the Peabody Museum collection.

Yale anthropology professor and Peabody curator Eric Sargis enlisted graduate students Jessica R. Glass and Matt Davis to study the specimen. Glass, a PhD candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, sought to extract and test DNA from the sample. Davis, a geology and geophysics student, focused on archival research. The Explorers Club helped fund the study via an Exploration Fund Grant and gave the team access to its records.

Adalgisa Caccone, a senior research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a co-author of the study, helped guide the DNA analysis at Yale’s Institute for Biospheric Studies, Center for Genetic Analyses of Biodiversity. “This was an interesting challenge, in part because the meat had been cooked,” Caccone said. “This was the first time I looked at the DNA of leftovers — very precious leftovers.”

Glass was able to extract DNA, purify it and conduct mitochondrial gene sequencing. The results matched the genetic profile for green sea turtle.

Meanwhile, Davis found an item in the Explorers Club archives that pointed in the same direction. It was a published statement from Dodge soon after the banquet, joking that he may have discovered a “potion” that turns green sea turtle into giant sloth meat.

It wasn’t just a point of curiosity about the famous dinner. Had the sample actually been Megatherium discovered in Alaska, it would have expanded the known range of the species by more than 600%. Instead it’s just a bit of ropy old leftover green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) soup.

The study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE. It’s a pretty great read, especially the discussion section which delves into the confusion between mammoth and Megatherium and suggests the mammoth rumor was largely a mistake in the Nichols article that became enshrined in public memory despite its inaccuracy. The appendix about the bone marrow from a fossilized horse (Equus alaskensis) served at the 65th ECAD is not to be missed.


Researchers to seek DNA in USS Houston trumpet

Friday, February 5th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RCEWA Chairman Sir Hayden Phillips said:

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

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

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


Van Gogh Museum’s exceptional French print collection online

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ancient First Nations’ clay may kill drug-resistant bacteria

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full study here.


Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa restored

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, January 29th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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