Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Possible remains of Napoleonic king of Naples to be DNA tested

Friday, April 24th, 2015

In his short life Joachim Murat rose from modest beginnings as an innkeeper’s son in the small southwestern French town of Labastide-Fortunière to the King of Naples at 41 years of age. In between he became one of Napoleon’s best generals and, after his marriage to Caroline Bonaparte, Prince and Grand Admiral of France and the Grand Duke of Berg. Famous for his daring cavalry charges and for his flamboyant dress sense involving as many buttons, gold tassels, medals and feathers as can be crammed onto a uniform, Murat fought in approximately 200 battles and looked great doing it.

In her memoirs, Caroline Murat, daughter of Joachim’s second son Prince Napoleon Lucien Charles Murat, described her grandfather’s dashing style of dress and fearlessness in combat.

His form was tall, his tread like that of a king, his face strikingly noble, while his piercing glance few men could bear. He had heavy black whiskers and long black locks, which contrasted singularly with his fiery blue eyes. He usually wore a three-cornered hat, with a magnificent white plume of ostrich feathers. [...]

My grandfather’s dazzling exterior made him a mark for the enemy’s bullets. The wonder is that, being so conspicuous, he was never shot down and was rarely wounded. At one battle a bullet grazed his cheek. Like lightning his sword punished the offender by carrying away two of his fingers. I have read that at the battle of Aboukir he charged with his cavalry straight through the Turkish ranks, driving column after column into the sea.

Murat’s ascent was too inextricably tied to Napoleon’s to survive his mentor’s fall. In the attempt to preserve his throne, he went so far as to enter into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, but his Austrian allies turned out to be fair-weather friends at best, and when he realized they planned to remove him from the throne during the Hundred Days, he declared himself in favor of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated and fled, first attempting to get his old job back but Napoleon wouldn’t even see him, a choice the emperor would come to regret bitterly. (On St. Helena he said: “at Waterloo Murat might have given us the victory. For what did we need? To break three or four English squares. Murat was just the man for the job.”) After Napoleon’s rejection, Murat went to Corsica and mustered up 250 or so men with whom he planned to reconquer the throne of Naples from the restored Bourbon king Ferdinand IV.

This was not a well conceived plan, needless to say. His three ships were scattered in a storm. The one carrying him and 26 men was blown off course and landed in the southern Italian town of Pizzo, Calabria, near the toe of the boot, where he was promptly captured by Bourbon forces. Napoleon noted dryly that “Murat has tried to reconquer with 200 men the territory he was unable to hold when he had 80,000 of them.” Ferdinand ordered a show trial — the judges were appointed on the same day the order for his execution was sent by telegraph — and on October 13th, 1815, Joachim Murat was convicted of insurrection and sentenced to death by firing squad.

He died how he lived — well dressed, vain and fearless. His last request was for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children. He refused the offer of a stool to sit on and a blindfold and stood unblinking before the fusiliers, dressed to the nines and smelling terrific. The phrasing has come down in several versions, but his last words to his executioners were so epic people are still quoting them without realizing that they’re quoting anyone: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”

His old friend and administrator of his duchy Jean-Michel Agar, the Count of Mosburg, eulogized him poetically: “He knew how to win. He knew how to rule. He knew how to die.” Napoleon’s final assessment was a tad harsher: “In battle he was perhaps the bravest man in the world; left to himself, he was an imbecile without judgment.”

Murat’s remains are thought to have been interred in a mass grave underneath Pizzo’s Church of St. George, but there were rumors that they had been spirited away to France. There’s a memorial grave for Joachim Murat and his family in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1899, his granddaughter Countess Letizia Rasponi Murat tried to find his remains in the St. George crypt so they could rebury them with dignity in the Certosa di Bologna cemetery. They were not successful. In 1976, the crypt was exposed during repairs to the church floor. Photographs were taken through a foot-wide hole in the trap door but all they captured was the basement full of bones and humus. Determining which parts belonged to Murat would seem a fool’s errand.

In April of 2007, Professor Pino Pagnotta, president of the Joachim Murat Association, got a hold of the pictures from the 70s and studied them closely. He had them enlarged and enhanced and was able to see more than 1976 photographic technology had allowed. He spied a broken casket made of a plain wood with a cord entwined in the boards. This matches contemporary eye-witness accounts like the one of Antonino Condoleo, a youth of 15 in 1815, who assisted in the burial of Joachim Murat. Condoleo describes a mishap on the way to the church when the plain fir casket containing Murat’s body was dropped and broken. They hastily tied the casket back together with a long cord and got it to St. George’s church where it was dumped unceremoniously in the crypt.

The discovery made news at the time and the Joachim Murat Association advocated strenuously that the remains in and/or around the broken coffin be DNA tested. Eight years later, they’ve finally gotten all the various authorities clerical and secular to sign on to the project. (I suspect Richard III was not far from their minds. Pizzo’s main tourist draw is the 15th century castle built by Frederick I of Aragon in which Murat was tried and executed. The castle was renamed after him and now receives thousands of visitors a year.)

In May, the heavy marble slab sealing the basement will be moved and biologist Sergio Romano will be lowered into the crypt where he will take pictures and samples from the broken casket. If DNA can be extracted from the samples — a very big if — it can be tested against Murat’s many descendants, among then his three times great-grandson actor René Auberjonois, aka the shapeshifter Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, whose late mother was Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat.

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Conserving a boat made of cloves

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

British Museum organics conservator Verena Kotonski was tasked with a unique assignment last November: conserving a model boat made of cloves. The museum doesn’t know much about the boat’s history. They think it was made in Indonesia anywhere from 18th to the early 20th century, probably in the middle of that range. It entered the collection in 1972 but there are no records nothing how it made its way to the museum, who made it where and when, whether it was donated, purchased, etc. It’s such a rare and intriguing piece that despite the many questions attending its history the clove boat is the cover model for the British Museum’s Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange exhibition which is on now and runs through May 31st.

The boat is slim and long with a central canopy and a raised openwork prow and stern. Rowers with long paddles stand on both sides, back and front, and the canopy is topped with a pennant. A drawing of the boat made when it first arrived at the British Museum indicate there was a second pennant at one point as well. The boat is made of dried cloves strung together on threads or threaded together with thin wooden pins. The hull is formed of layered strands of cloves tied together. Charmingly, even after at least a century and probably two it still smells like cloves. The conservator said as soon as she opened the crate she was overwhelmed by the scent of cloves.

The artifact has never been on display before because of its condition issues. Already in the 1970s there were detached pieces kept in a box with it, and by the time Kotonski received it there were 14 detached elements, plus evidence on the boat that there were more pieces missing. It was also veritably caked in dust which she had to clean painstakingly with a brush, a vacuum to suction off the dust and conservation-grade rubber to extract the more deeply embedded particles.

Once the boat was clean, the damaged areas needed to be fixed and detached pieces reattached. The thorniest issue was puzzling out where everything should go. Out of the 14 detached pieces — five torsos, one standing figure, two pairs of arms and paddles (these were made as one piece and then attached to torsos), one long paddle (possibly a rudder), one pennant without its pole, three round objects of indeterminate nature — the standing figure, two of the torsos and their matching arms and paddles could be immediately identified as fitting vacant spots on the boat.

Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.

A similar boat in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection helped fill in some of the blanks. It has three figures on the roof of the canopy with round objects, most likely drums, in front of them. Kotonski examined the round objects under a microscope and was able to match the break edges of one of them to one of the torsos. It still wasn’t clear where the drummers and their drums were placed atop of the canopy. There are multiple holes allowing for any number of arrangements. The conservation team debated whether they should even reinstall the drummers without being certain about the original placement.

We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.

They made the opposite decision when it came to the long paddle, the pennant and one drum with an attached pole. In order to reattach these pieces to the model, they would have had to reconstruct significant missing parts. Since they couldn’t know their original positions nor what the lost parts looked like, the reconstruction and reattachment would have entailed more guesswork than they were comfortable with. The pieces were returned to the boat’s storage box.

They did reconstruct one piece: a teeny tiny little retaining collar that was important for the boat’s stability. These collars fit on top of posts on each corner of the canopy, keeping the roof from gradually inching upwards and coming off its poles. The replacement collar was made of Japanese tissue paper, one of the modern conservator’s best friends, to distinguish it from its clove-wrought brethren.

Because conservators are magical (and because the model is small), the entire process took just 34 hours. The boat is now on display, but conservation isn’t over yet. Verena Kotonski would like anyone with any information that might help them suss out the original positions of the detached pieces to email the team at conservation@britishmuseum.org.

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Replica of LaFayette’s ship Hermione sets sail for US

Monday, April 20th, 2015

The Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, was only 19 years old when he defied his family and a direct order of King Louis XVI of France to join the American colonists in their fight for independence from Britain. He outfitted a vessel, La Victoire, with his own money and set sail for the one-year-old United States of America in 1777. The Continental Congress gave him a commission as major general on July 31st, 1777, just over a month after his arrival. An unpaid commission, it’s worth noting, because Lafayette offered to fight for his Enlightenment ideals on his own dime.

He met General George Washington a few days later and the two formed an instant rapport. They were both freemasons — a signficant factor in Lafayette’s prompt acceptance by the mason-heavy Founding Fathers — and Washington appreciated Lafayette’s committment to the cause. Soon Lafayette put his lifeblood where his mouth was, receiving a gunshot wound to the leg during his first engagement, the Battle of Brandywine on September 11th, 1777. He suffered alongside Washington and the Continental Army through the horrors of Valley Forge that winter and went on to fight in several important battles and use his considerable diplomatic skills to smooth over tensions between the Americans and the newly arrived French fleet.

In January of 1779, he returned to France with an eye to encouraging a direct confrontation with Britain. When he was unable to persuade anyone of the dubious wisdom of attempting an invasion of Britain, he turned his sights on securing troops and aid for a return to America. He worked with Benjamin Franklin, the United States’ first ambassador to France whose homespun style and scintillating wit made him a sensation at the French court. Together they were able to get 6,000 French troops and five frigates to reinforce the American side. Lafayette was in France for a year, long enough to impregnate his wife and name his newborn son Georges Washington Lafayette, before returning to America.

He departed from the port city of Rochefort in western France aboard the Concorde class 32-gun frigate Hermione on March 11th, 1780, and landed in Boston on April 27th. The Hermione fought the British in multiple engagements, ultimately participating in the blockade of Chesapeake Bay that kept British supplies and reinforcements from reaching Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in September of 1781. Lafayette also played a key role in the decisive Battle of Yorktown, the last land battle of the Revolutionary War. He harried Cornwallis’ troops around Virginia for months before the British put down stakes in Yorktown. Then he took a high position on a hill outside Yorktown and pinned the British in with artillery. Washington’s army soon joined his old friend’s and together they laid siege to the city. Lafayette and 400 men took Redoubt 9 on October 14th, 1781. Four days later Cornwallis surrendered.

Lafayette returned to France two months later, continuing to advocate for French support even as the war wound down to the occasional naval skirmish. He visited the United States again in 1784 and tried to convince Washington to manumit his slaves. He also made a speech in front of the Virginia House of Delegates calling for the abolition of slavery in the spirit of human liberty that he had fought for in the war. Unfortunately for millions of enslaved people and the history of this country, he failed to convince them. His last trip to America was in 1824 when he was welcomed by cheering crowds, parades and a wide variety of honors. His efforts for democracy in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary France were not so well-received by the radicals in the National Assembly, Napoleon and the restored Bourbon monarchs. He was imprisoned for five years, exiled for more, had all his properties confiscated and even when he was restored to some of his fortune and allowed to return to France, he would continue to have a fraught relationship with the government because he refused to abandon his democratic principles. In the United States, on the other hand, he was unequivocably beloved. He was considered a great hero on a par with Washington: generous, unselfish, loyal to a country that was not his own.

As for the Hermione, she ran aground on the west coast of France in September 1793 and was destroyed. In 1992, a non-profit company was founded to recreate the lost Hermione using period methods and materials as much as modern safety requirements allow. Construction began in 1997 in the same town where she was built the first time: Rochefort, site of the Royal Shipyard. In a dry dock next to the Corderie Royale (the Royal Ropemaker), the replica of the Hermione was built in public view. This video has a compilation of pictures and video showing the sloooow construction process from shipyard framing to installing the masts:

Once the ship was completed in 2014 (the original Hermione only took six months to build, but finding properly shaped oak trees for a helm these days is much harder than it was back then), 150 volunteers selected from 600 applicants had to be trained to sail as small boys could do blindfolded, malnourished and whipped 300 years ago. Seaworthiness tests in fall of 2014 went well and the Hermione was ready to follow in her namesake’s hullprints.

On Saturday, April 18th, 2015, the replica Hermione set sail from Rochefort for Yorktown, Virginia. It’s scheduled to arrive there in June, after which it will visit another 12 historic towns along the eastern seaboard, among them Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. Mount Vernon will be the second stop, an homage to the undying deep bonds of love and camaraderie between Lafayette and Washington. The Hermione will be in New York for the Fourth of July where she will join the Harbour Parade. People will be able to visit the ship at other ports of call as well. Return to this page (it’s a little empty now) to find out more about events as they’re finalized.

A brief overview of the history of the ship and the construction of the replica:

Boarding the crew:

Preparation of the boat:

The Hermione sails for America:

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Take a guided tour of HMS Erebus

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

Last year Parks Canada released a minute of the video taken by the remote operated vehicle which found the HMS Erebus and a minute of the film taken by divers when they discovered the ship’s bell was included in a brief video about the recovery and analysis of the bell, but other than that, we’ve only had a few photographs of the wreck.

On Thursday, VIP visitors to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto got an unexpected treat when what they thought would be a few minutes of recorded footage of the new Erebus ice dive turned out to be a live broadcast of a dive to the wreck complete with narration by underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris. The ROM event was attended by government types like Treasury Board president Tony Clement and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of the Environment Colin Carrie and by an extremely lucky seventh grade geography class from University of Toronto Schools. After the video tour, they were able to ask questions about the ship to diver Marc-Andre Bernier.

Now Parks Canada has released a recording of that live stream so those of who are neither government officials nor in the seventh grade can get their first long, hard look at the wreck of the HMS Erebus. It shows Harris, supported by an off-screen Leading Seaman Caleb Hooper, moving from stern to bow pointing out areas and artifacts of interest like the bronze six-pound cannons, the tracks that allowed the crew to lift the screw propeller out of the water when ice was heavy, the quarterdeck, the ship’s very long tiller, the capstand, the remains of the mainmast and the port side bilge pump.

The quality of the picture is excellent, thanks in part to the two feet of ice on the surface that block waves and allow particulate matter to sink to the seafloor. There are moments when it’s a bit dark down there, what with it being 36 feet deep under a thick ice sheet, but you can still see what Harris is describing just fine. The video is just short of 10 minutes long (time totally flies, though, so don’t let that daunt you) and ends a little abruptly which I hope means there will be a part two released soon.

The dives only began last week because they were delayed by bad weather and are expected to continue through Friday. There’s a photo gallery of the Erebus base camp, the triangular holes cut into the ice sheet, the blocks of ice removed after being cut out and more here. Also, Parks Canada Archaeology tweeted this amazing picture of a tent shot from the hole in the ice.

Here’s the video about the HMS Erebus bell released in November 2014. It’s short but awesome:

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Creeping Baby Doll is back…FOR YOUR SOUL

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

Inspired by my recent foray into Swiss watchmaker automata, I decided to revisit one of my old favorites from the archives: the creepy Creeping Baby Doll. When I first posted about this monstrous hybrid of human baby and machine four years ago, it was within the context of the National Museum of American History’s extensive collection of robots which includes the patent model for a crawling (called “creeping” in the 19th century) baby doll patented in August of 1871 by one George P. Clarke. The only photograph of robobaby was a blurry black-and-white which while dissatisfying still managed to convey the disturbing incongruity of the baby face and limbs attached to a heavy mechanical torso.

The museum has lately expanded its online collection so now there’s a full entry dedicated to the Creeping Baby Doll patent model complete with a proper high resolution color picture. Feast your eyes upon her, I dare you!

Now you can see her ice blue eyes and toothy grin which add a whole new dimension of horror. What’s that you say? You wish she were staring right at you, sucking your soul out through your uncontrollably slackened jaw? Done!

Temporarily satiated, she can now move on to her next victim, leaving your empty zombified body to shuffle behind her, another drone in her growing army.

To be fair to George Pemberton Clarke, whose model was an improvement on one invented by his boss, Robert J. Clay, earlier that year, the final production toy was nowhere near as terrifying as the patent model. The National Museum of American History has one of those too, although they’re not certain when it was made.

You can just see the gear and wheels peeking out from under her belly and armpit, but all dressed up with her little bonnet she’s significantly less spine-chilling. Still not much of a cuddly toy for little girls to play house with, however. Indeed, she ultimately found a market as a novelty, one of a number of wind-up metal toys including Girl Skipping Rope and Toy Gymnast made by the Automatic Toy Works, a small New York mechanical toy company founded by Robert J. Clay.

In 1872, a year after the first Creeping Baby made her debut, he submitted a patent application for another so-called improvement to the design: the Crying Creeping Baby Doll. A projecting blade made of rubber or paste would strike the notches of a toothed wheel as it turned, thus producing a sound that Clay assures us is “in imitation of the crying of a child, or of an animal voice.” I like that baby and animal cries are entirely interchangeable, in his opinion. Sadly, I have been unable to locate a recording of whatever god-awful ululations this mechanism produced, or even any evidence that this version of the toy ever went into commercial production.

The non-crying Creeping Baby went on to have a long career. Clay’s company was in business from 1868 until 1874 when it was bought by Connecticut toy makers the Ives Manufacturing Company in 1874. Ives continued to produce automata under the Automatic Toy Works imprimatur for years after the acquisition, expanding the line with clockwork mechanisms that make the Creeping Baby look like the teddy bear from the Snuggle commercials.

This trade catalogue from 1882 has made the rounds of the Internets because of its wide array of painfully racist toys. Out of 17 toys on offer, seven are caricatures of black people, including a fiddling Uncle Tom and “The Woman’s Rights Advocate” who is unnamed but is an unmistakable reference to Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who had been born a slave in upstate New York and became nationally famous as an anti-slavery and gender equality advocate. Her 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” became a rallying cry for abolition and the women’s rights movement. Two more toys are caricatures of the Chinese (doing laundry, of course) and one is an Italian Organ Grinder, who while stereotypical does not have the cringe-worthy exaggerated caricature features of the other racialized toys. He also plays music, unlike the fiddler, with a mechanism the catalogue proudly attributes to those masters of automata, the Swiss.

On the last page of that catalogue you’ll find the one, the only Wonderful Creeping Baby, “the best doll ever made.” She’s the second most expensive at $5 (the Organ Grinder runs $6, doubtless because of his Swiss music box) and her “resemblance to life is almost startling,” we are assured.

The Ives Manufacturing Company was the top producer of mechanical wind-up toys in the 1880s, but by the end of the century cheaper copycats were so widespread the business shifted to focus on toy trains. After a fire leveled the Ives factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1900, they rebuilt as a state-of-the-art toy train manufacturer. They were hugely successful, the largest toy train company in the country, until model railway makers Lionel overtook them in 1924. Four years later they were bankrupt and were eventually bought out by their rivals Lionel in 1933.

As for George Clarke, the patent office records his long career, before and after his foray into toy design. Here’s his 1857 application for first a new arrangement of steam boiler safety valves. Ten years later he was living in New York and was inventing more entertaining mechanisms like this extremely cool globe made of discs he called “zones” depicting the “animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms of the earth.” That would have been just before the time when he worked with Clay at the Automatic Toy Works.

A decade after that his patents returned to more practical mechanisms, including this cane with an electric current in the head (1878) that would gently zap the hand wielding it. Although Clarke noted in the patent application that “the effect of a gentle galvanic current on the human organization is not in the present state of electrical and physiological science fully explained” but that doesn’t stop him from claiming it “functions as a battery for the relief or cure of diseases of the nerves.” As if that weren’t a sufficient selling point, the mechanism can be fitted inside the “handle of any portable tool or weapon, as a policeman’s club or the like, if desired.” Billy club and taser all in one. I’m amazed it never went into production.

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New York to put up marker at site of Wall Street slave market

Friday, April 17th, 2015

There are 38 historical markers in Lower Manhattan. None of them acknowledge the city’s massive debt to the slaves who literally built it. That will change this year because the city council has approved a marker on the site of New York’s first slave market at the corner of Wall Street and Pearl Street.

In 1627, a year after the Dutch West India Company imported the first 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam, slaves built the wall that Wall Street was named after. It started out as a defensive earthwork embankment along the northern boundary of the settlement meant to keep Native Americans from attacking the settlement, a Manhattan version of Hadrian’s Wall. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered the construction of a more elaborate palisade wall spanning Lower Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River in 1653, slaves again formed the bulk of the work force.

The Wall Street wall came down in 1699. By then slavery had grown exponentially. The Dutch had imported slaves to do the hard work of clearing land for houses and farms, filling shore areas for docks and building roads that free Dutch immigrants refused to do preferring the easier and more lucrative route of the fur trade which allowed them to make money quickly and return home. When the English conquered the colony in 1664, they continued to rely heavily on slave labour as farmers, dockworkers and household servants. New Amsterdam was renamed New York after the Duke of York, the future King James II, who had received a vast swath of the newly conquered territories from his brother King Charles II. The good duke just happened to be the major investor in the Royal African Company which had the monopoly over English trade with West Africa, a trade which primarily consisted of the sale of human beings. James gave slave ships priority access to docks and warehouses in New York City.

By 1703, slaves were found in 42% of the households in New York City, more than anywhere else in the north and second only to Charleston in all the English colonies of America. In 1711, almost 1,000 of New York’s population of 6,400 were black people, most of them enslaved. Their masters often sent them to make extra money by renting themselves out for short and long terms. All those slaves milling about, rubbing elbows with each other and free people of color without supervision, gave the powers that be agida, so on December 13th, 1711, the New York City Common Council passed an ordinance “Appointing a Place for the More Convenient Hiring of Slaves”

Be it Ordained by the Mayor Recorder Aldermen and Assistants of the City of New York Convened in Common Council and it is hereby Ordained by the Authority of the same That all Negro and Indian slaves that are lett out to hire within this City do take up their Standing in Order to be hired at the Markett house at the Wall Street Slip untill Such time as they are hired, whereby all Persons may Know where to hire slaves as their Occasions Shall require and also Masters discover when their Slaves are so hired and all the Inhabitants of this City are to take Notice hereof Accordingly.

It wasn’t just slaves for hire who were contained in the market at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets. Market House — known as the Meal Market since 1726 when the city granted it exclusive rights to the sale of grains — was the first official slave market in New York City. People were bought and sold there for more than 50 years and the city taxed every sale, thus making New York City itself not just the beneficiary of slave labour, but an active participant in the trade.

Other sites in Lower Manhattan sprang up where slaves were traded, and by 1762, the Meal Market had become an eyesore to the elite who for decades had enjoyed the prosperity and convenience its human cattle provided them. They submitted a petition to the Common Council:

Said Meal Market greatly obstructs the agreeable prospect of the East River, which those that live on Wall street would otherwise enjoy. That it occasions a dirty street, offensive to the inhabitants on each side and disagreeable to those that pass and repass to and from the Coffee House, a place of great resort, that same be removed.

Heaven forfend anything spoil the view of the East River or sully the way to the Merchants Coffee House. The Council responded with alacrity. In February 1762, the Meal Market was demolished. Slavery was far from over in the city. Even after the Revolutionary War when slavery began to wane in the northeastern states, New York doubled down. In 1790, Philadelphia had a population of 28,522, 300 of them slaves. Baltimore which, like New York, was a busy port city but which unlike New York was in close proximity to the plantations of the south, had 1,300 slaves out of a population of 13,503. New York City, for the first time overtaking Philadelphia as the most populous city in the nation with a population of 33,131, counted more than 2,300 slaves among them.

In 1799, the state legislature passed a gradual emancipation law declaring children of slaves born after July 4th, 1799 free, but even that half-assed measure was only technical freedom. Those children had to serve as indentured servants to their mothers’ masters until they were 28 years old (for men) or 25 years old (for women). Slaves born before that date were still slaves until they died, but they would now be called indentured servants. On July 4th, 1827, black people in New York held a parade celebrating their official freedom, but the sad truth is there were still slaves in New York until the 1850s.

Despite the enormous role of slaves in the birth and development of New York City, the African Burial Ground National Monument is currently the only memorial that makes any reference to slaves in all of Lower Manhattan. The new marker

The new plaque may be unveiled on Juneteenth (the anniversary of the official announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas by Union General Gordon Granger on June 19th, 1865, which has evolved into a wider celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery in all of the Confederate states), but the date is still up the air. The council hasn’t decided where exactly the plaque will be installed yet nor even the exact wording. Wall Street is swaddled in scaffolding at the moment; they need to pick a spot where the memorial will actually be visible.

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18th c. luxury sex toy found in Gdansk latrine

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating a latrine in the Podwalu suburb of Gdansk, Poland, discovered a 18th century dildo on Tuesday. The sex toy is eight inches long and made of high quality leather with a carved wooden tip. It is filled with bristles. This would have been a very expensive object, and its long sojourn in the low oxygen environment of the latrine has preserved the organic materials in excellent condition. Marcin Tymiński, spokesman for the Regional Office for the Protection of Monuments, noted that it was probably dropped in the toilet, either deliberately or in a tragic slippery fingers accident.

The dig has been ongoing for the past seven months. Most of the discoveries have been small items like fragments of pottery and jewelry, but they also found wooden swords and arrowheads, evidence that the site was once a fencing school. The dildo was found on the last day of excavations. It dates to the second half of the 18th century, the same period when archaeologists believe the fencing school was in operation.

These kinds of artifacts rarely survive, because they were intimate, embarrassing and kept hidden. When people were done with them, they were destroyed, not passed down through the generations. One of the archaeologists on the team recalled finding another archaeological phallus, but it was ancient and made of wood and more likely an object of cult worship. This one most definitely had a utilitarian purpose, not a religious one.

The dildo has now been removed to the Archaeological Museum of Gdansk for conservation. No decision has been made on whether or where it will go on display. You never know how museums are going to react to sexually explicit artifacts. Sometimes they put them in storage for decades and only whip them out on very special occasions; other times they sell replicas in the museum shop for £129 ($191) a pop.

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Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

A family in Lecce, an ancient city on the tip of Italy’s boot heel, found a veritable historical complex under their feet when they began digging to find a faulty sewer pipe in 2000. Luciano Faggiano family had acquired the building at Via Ascanio Grandi 56 planning to use the first floor as a trattoria and live with his wife and youngest son upstairs. It was a historical property — part of the convent of Santa Maria delle Curti which was closed in the 17th century and the remains of whose cells are still visible in the first floor walls — but renovated with all modern conveniences. When one of those conveniences, the toilet, kept backing up, Faggiano enlisted his two older sons who no longer live at home to spend a week helping him dig underneath the house to find the broken sewer pipe causing the problem.

But one week quickly passed, as father and sons discovered a false floor that led down to another floor of medieval stone, which led to a tomb of the Messapians, who lived in the region centuries before the birth of Jesus. Soon, the family discovered a chamber used to store grain by the ancient Romans, and the basement of a Franciscan convent where nuns had once prepared the bodies of the dead.

Faggiano kept digging, removing the spoil in the trunk of his car, even tying a rope around the chest of his 12-year-old son to lower him into passages that were too small for the adults. Mrs. Faggiano was not informed of this. Eventually the neighbors got suspicious and called the cops. Since unapproved archaeological excavations are illegal, even when the original aim was sewer maintenance, the authorities blocked the dig for a year until making a deal with the Faggianos that they could continue under the supervision of archaeologists from the local Superintendence of Archaeological Goods and architects Franco and Maria Antonietta De Paolis.

All of this was done on the Faggianos’ dime and with their labor. The city just watched, ever more excitedly, as the Faggiano family’s excavations revealed the tomb of a Roman infant, other tombs and ossuaries, a deep pit that served as a charnel house where bodies were left to decompose before the bones were recovered and interred, water catchment cisterns, circular postholes cut into rock for Mesappian dwellings, grain silos, an ancient street, a well 10 meters (33 feet) deep that is still fed by the waters of the Idume, an underground river seven kilometers (4.3 miles) long that traverses the city of Lecce before emptying into the Adriatic, tunnels that may have been used by the religious orders — Templars, the Santa Maria convent and Franciscans have all inhabited the place at different times since the Middle Ages — to move around the city without being seen, a Messapian-era pavement (ca. 5th century B.C.), frescoed walls, ancient vases, an early episcopal ring, ceramics from the 1600s, an ancient altar among many other treasures.

More than 4,000 artifacts have been unearthed during the decade-plus of digging. They did find the sewer pipe after a few years, by the way, and it was broken. By then, of course, the trattoria idea was back-burnered and Luciano Faggiano rented one of the floors in the building to help fund this voyage of exploration through the layers of Lecce’s history. He’s still planning to open a trattoria, but in a new building. This one is now the Museum Faggiano where people can go down into the bowels of the structure to see the ancient history for themselves.

The museum’s website has a photo gallery which has sad little low res pictures, but the virtual tour is very satisfying as long as you click on the “View on Google Maps” link in the upper left corner which opens a lovely full screen navigation window with thumbnails to guide you through the highlights.

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The glory of 18th century Swiss automata

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

A collection of 21 museum-quality automata will be sold at Sotheby’s Important Watches auction in New York on June 11th. The exquisite collection was assembled over 50 years and include late-18th and early-19th century Swiss snuffboxes, music boxes, watches and clocks by the premier craftsmen of the era and later owned by some of the premier collectors, including King Farouk of Egypt. The collection hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s. The crème de la crème of Swiss watchmakers — gold casemaker Jean George Rémond, Piguet & Meylan, Guidon, Guide et Blondel and my personal favorite, Jacquet-Droz — are represented in this elite group.

Pierre Jacquet-Droz, his sons Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, Pierre’s apprentice who he adopted as a youth, together created three of the most advanced automata of the age. Built between 1768 and 1774, The Writer, The Draughtsman and The Musician toured the royal courts of Europe amazing the aristocracy with their human-like characteristics (The Musician breathes, The Draughtsman blows pencil shards off the paper, The Writer’s eyes follows his quill) and abilities (the Musician’s hands actually play the keyboard instead of moving to a canned tune, the Draughtsman can draw four different designs including portraits of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the Writer dips his quill in the inkwell, shakes off the excess then writes on a paper that moves). The Writer is the most complex with more than 4,000 components all inside of the figure which, unlike his brother’s and sister’s mechanisms, can be programmed to write anything 40 letters long.

The following video show The Writer in action and explains how the mechanism works. It’s still impressive as hell; you can image how stunned 18th century courtiers were.

The three Jacquet-Droz automata are now the pride and joy of the Neuchâtel Museum of Art and History in Neuchâtel, western Switzerland, which has owned them since 1906 when they were purchased by the Neuchâtel Society of History and Archaeology for 75,000 gold francs and donated to the museum. The automata are played for visitors on the first Sunday of every month.

As wonderous as they were, the automata were really just hype men, advertising for the brilliance of Jacquet-Droz clocks which, unlike the one-of-a-kind demonstration pieces, were actually for sale. In 1775, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz moved to London and a few years later got into business with James Cox, a goldsmith, inventor and entrepreneur who also made fantastical automata, most famously The Peacock Clock, now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the only surviving multi-figure automaton from the 18th century to survive with all its original parts in working condition.

Cox had been producing gold clocks, music boxes and other mechanical devices for trade with the Far East, first India and then China, since the mid-1760s. The Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1736–95) was an avid clock collector and Cox’s pieces were in high demand for years. After some business setbacks (import bans, the American Revolution’s interference with British trade, bankruptcy), Cox got back in the saddle thanks to his deal with Jaquet Droz. From then on almost all of his exports to China were the Swiss watchmaker’s pieces and most of Jaquet Droz’s production went to China. The masterpieces by other watchmakers in the upcoming sale were also made for the Chinese market.

These were small, elegant objects — gold and enameled pocket watches, snuffboxes, music boxes — with moving elements and chimes. They were expensive and hard to make, and like all luxury items worthy of the name, only a small number of them were produced. There are a few hundred Jaquet-Droz pieces still in existence, and most of them are in museums. On the rare occasions that they appear on the market, they sell for high seven figures at least, often crossing over into the million dollar range.

The biggest star of the upcoming sale is a Jaquet-Droz Singing Bird Scent Flask timepiece from around 1785-90. The shape of a perfume flask, it is 16 centimeters (a hair over six inches) high and is made of gold with enamel and jeweled decorations on a field of deep blue guilloche enamel. Inside is a tiny articulated ivory bird less than half an inch high that moves its wee beak and tail while a miniature organ plays his song which sounds like a real birdsong, not some tinny chimes. It is so delicate, so precious and has traveled so many long distances in its life, it’s nigh on unbelievable that it still works. It sounds great, too.

You can see its movement and hear its sound in this video by Sotheby’s which also shows two other glorious pieces in action: The Marriage, a gold two-tune musical automaton snuffbox with an enamel scene of a wedding in classical antiquity on the lid and inside a mechanical workshop where men sharpen and use their tools, also by Jaquet-Droz, and The Fortune Teller, a gold snuffbox with an enamel painting of a fortune teller telling fortunes on the lid and inside a musical automaton of a lady playing the harp and a gentleman playing the lute against a beautifully painted classical interior, made by Piguet & Meylan, case by Jean-George Rémond.

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Bronzes stolen from gallery 32 years ago found

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Two bronze sculptures that were stolen from the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in New York in December of 1983 have been found and returned to the gallery. Central Figure of Day by Paul Manship was the first to be stolen from the gallery in broad light on December 3rd, 1983. Three weeks later, Figure of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by Prince Paul Troubetzkoy was stolen again in the middle of the day. The thefts were reported to the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) at the time but the case soon went cold.

Last December, both sculptures were consigned for sale by a private collector to the Gerald Peters Gallery. He had owned them since 1985 when he bought them together from a shop in New York’s diamond district. The collector no longer had receipts nor remembered which store he had purchased them from. In advance of their exhibition and sale, the Gerald Peters Gallery did due diligence research into the ownership history of the sculptures and discovered they were stolen property. It then hired Art Recovery International to negotiate between the parties and arrange for the return of both pieces. Two months later on February 6th, 2015, the works were returned to Hirschl & Adler.

The legal process of determining ownership in this case presented very few obstacles. Unlike the legal systems in most European counties, it is a basic tenet of US law that no individual can obtain good title to a stolen work of art – not even when purchased in good faith. The law recognises that a stolen work of art is always stolen property and therefore makes no exceptions for good faith, passage of time or the number of owners since the theft occurred.

It helped that Hirschl & Adler had retained full documentation of their ownership of the statues and of the theft, so there was no question of who held the last legal title. The collector who has owned them for 30 years is not considered a suspect. He just spotted a bargain in a shady store.

Ray Lazerson, Treasurer at Hirschl & Adler Gallery, commented: “There can’t be too many dealers who have to tell their gallery Director twice in three weeks that something has been stolen! We are delighted that these works have been found and grateful for the co-operation of all parties in their recovery.”

Both sculptors are famous for monumental outdoor works: Manship for his 1934 gilded statue of Prometheus overlooking the Lower Plaza of Rockefeller Center and Troubetzkoy for his 1909 equestrian statue of Tsar Alexander III of Russia now in front of the Marble Palace in St. Petersburg. Indeed, Central Figure of Day was done in a similar style to Prometheus, during a period when Manship became fascinated by ancient sculpture after he won the Rome Prize and attended the American Academy on residential fellowship from 1909 until 1912. He also became interested in Indian art at this time, an influence you can see in Central Figure of Day.

Figure of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was one of a number of sculptures Prince Troubetzkoy made for high society figures of the golden age. Mrs. Whitney was one of the most notable. A succesful sculptor in her own right as well as a society maven, philanthropist and patron of the arts, she is best remembered today as the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art which she established in 1931 to showcase the works of living American artists who had been rejected by more hide-bound institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Whitney is opening in a new building come May 1st. It would be cool if they acquired the sculpture of their founder in time for the reopening. Troubetzkoy’s bronzes rarely appear on the market, and since this one is believed to have been cast during his lifetime, it is particularly valuable. Together both pieces are valued at around $250,000 now, an exponential growth from their estimated worth of $24,000 each in 1983.

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