Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Gender reveal for pigeon savior of WWI’s Lost Battalion

Sunday, July 18th, 2021

The United States’ bravest pigeon warrior, Cher Ami, of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Intelligence Service, has been confirmed to have been male, more than a century after Army records labelled the English blue-checked pigeon as a “hen.”

Cher Ami showed the mettle that would make him a global celebrity in October 1918 when almost 600 men from the 77th Division were trapped behind enemy lines during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After taking days of heavy fire from German forces and once from Allied forces who didn’t realize the Lost Battalion was there, on October 4th commander Major Charles Whittlesey sent his last surviving homing pigeon, none other than Cher Ami, to the American lines with a desperate plea: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”

Cher Ami was hit by a bullet to the chest within seconds of takeoff. He got up and kept flying. By the time he reached home 25 miles away, he was riddled with wounds, blind in one eye and his right leg was hanging by a thread, but the all-important message tube was still there. The American artillery stopped shelling its own men and aimed for the Germans instead, relieving the pressure on the 77th. When the German forces pulled back four days later, 194 men from the Lost Battalion had managed to survive, thanks in large part to the heroism and implacable homing instinct of Cher Ami.

The pigeon needed extensive patching up after flying through hails of bullets and shells — the wound to his chest was so deep it exposed his breastbone — but he made it back alive to the United States, honorably discharged to the care of his trainer Captain John Carney. He received the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in the field from France and Col. Edgar A. Russel, General Pershing’s chief signal officer for the American Expeditionary Force, ordered that Cher Ami “be sent home in charge of an officer, surrounded by all luxury possible.”

And so he was. Cher Ami crossed the Atlantic in style in Carney’s cabin and was welcomed at the dock in New Jersey by throngs of reporters. The story of the brave pigeon who saved the Lost Battalion made headlines around the country and Cher Ami was world-famous. There was some confusion as to the vital statistics, however.

Although the United States Army Signal Corps originally reported the bird as a black check hen, media stories began to blur the bird’s sex. In August, two articles appeared within weeks of each other. In The Ladies’ Home Journal, Rose Wilder Lane fancifully described Cher Ami as a male French pigeon, gliding around Paris rooftops before helping to save the Lost Battalion. In The American Legion Weekly article about the Signal Corps’ homing pigeons, Cher Ami’s condition at the loft is described: “She was in a state of complete exhaustion. From her dangling leg we took the message and dispatched it in great haste to headquarters.”

He got less than two months to enjoy his luxurious retirement. Cher Ami died on June 13th, 1919. The Signal Corps donated his body to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History which had it taxidermied and mounted. Cher Ami’s remains have been on display since June 1921.

In honor of the centennial of Cher Ami’s going on display at the Smithsonian, a tissue sample was taken from the stump of his right leg and DNA extracted from it.

Cher Ami had “Z-specific” DNA sequences, but no “W-specific” sequences. In birds (unlike humans and other mammals), females have two types of sex chromosomes (Z and W) while males only have Z chromosomes. Thus, if Cher Ami has Z but no W sequence we can infer that Cher Ami was a male or cock pigeon. McInerney ran two analyses for Z and two for W sequences, and in replicated analyses Cher Ami only had Z but no W fragments.  […]

The results of the test confirmed the Smithsonian’s long-held—but essentially coincidental—claim that Cher Ami is a cock bird. This mystery of the bird’s sex is now a matter of historical record, necessitating an update to the museum’s permanent accession file for Cher Ami and a revision to the bird’s online description.

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France buys 120 Days of Sodom for $5 million

Monday, July 12th, 2021

After more than five years of legal wrangling, France has acquired the iconic original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s magnum opus The 120 Days of Sodom for 4.55 million euros ($5.34 million). The purchase was funded entirely by one generous donor: investment banker Emmanuel Boussard.

This is the second time the French state threw $5 million at the famous manuscript. The first time the Bibliothèque Nationale de France raised the huge sum to acquire it when its private owners put it up for auction in 2013. Negotiations fell through at the last minute due to the complications of the dirty title. (The manuscript had been stolen from the Sade family descendants by a con man in the 1980s and sold in Switzerland. Swiss courts ruled the buyers had legitimate title because they bought “in good faith.” French courts recognized it as the blatantly stolen and illegally exported object it was, so any return of the scroll to France would see it confiscated at the border. Read the whole fascinating, sordid backstory in this post.)

In 2014, the manuscript was sold privately to Gérard Lhéritier of Aristophil, a company that bought historic documents and then sold shares in them. Aristophil’s collection of 130,000 historic documents was seized in 2015 and the company’s business plan revealed to be a Ponzi scheme that defrauded more than 18,000 investors. Aristophil was forced into insolvency and the courts mandated the sale of all its assets.

The collection was so huge that it was sold piecemeal over the course of six years to properly catalogue everything and so as not to flood the important documents market and drive down prices. While the sale divisions were being worked out, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France feverishly set to having the scroll declared a national treasure which would prevent any international sale. They succeeded in 2017 and The 120 Days of Sodom was withdrawn from auction.

It was trapped in this holding pattern — no private sale allowed, no funds for public acquisition — for almost four years. In February 2021, the French government appealed for private help, offering a reduction in corporate taxes for any company that helped buy the manuscript for the country. Boussard heeded the call.

The manuscript is a scroll five inches wide and 39 feet long, made from 33 pieces of parchment the Marquis had smuggled into his cell in the Bastille in 1784. He covered every piece with his tiny cramped handwriting and then glued the next piece of parchment to the completed one so he could keep on going. The long, skinny parchment train could be rolled up tightly and hidden in a crack in his wall. He wrote the whole thing in 37 days, and while he would spend five years in the Bastille, getting transferred to Charenton asylum on July 4th, 1789, 10 days before the prison fortress was so famously stormed, he never completed what he hoped would be his great masterpiece.

When he was hastily transferred to Charenton in the middle of the night, he had to leave his scroll behind. He assumed it had been destroyed in the assault on the Bastille, but in fact a young revolutionary named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin had found it and spirited it out of the prison on July 12th. It has been in private hands, licit and otherwise, for more than 230 years.

The scroll has been assigned to the Arsenal branch of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

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2021 conservators bust 1940 conservator for forging demon wall

Sunday, July 11th, 2021

Painting conservators working on the west wall of the choir in Sauherad Church in southeastern Norway have discovered that the ostensible 17th century “Demon Wall” discovered during conservation work in 1940 was not discovered by the conservators. It was made by them.

The dense black line drawing of demons, animals, clerics, princesses, one drawing linked to the next, all interwoven together in minute detail, cover the full width and height of the wall from the arch 8.5 feet above the floor to the top of the ceiling. The figures in some parts of the drawing are so tiny they are invisible to the naked eye from the floor.

Built between 1150 and 1250, Sauherad Church was ravaged by fire in the mid-17th century and extensively rebuilt. An altarpiece depicting scenes from Revelation was made in 1663. Around 1700, frescoes were painted on the walls and ceilings by Lauritz Pettersen. By the end of the 1700s, the church was in a dilapidated state, but it was repaired and expanded in 1848 and today is known for its surviving frescoes.

Gerhard Gotaas and his son Per Gotaas were employed by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage to restore the faded frescoes on the walls of Sauherad Church from 1935 to 1941. The demon wall came to light in August 1940. Conservator Gerhard Gotaas wrote to Henry Fett, head of the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage and an expert in medieval Norwegian church art, that they had uncovered “faces and figures of humans and animals” on the west wall of the choir.

The drawings, unique in the Norwegian archaeological record, attracted much attention at the time of the discovery. Demons and the devil make an appearance in Norwegian church art, but always as part of a larger traditional Christian composition emphasizing the redemptive power of God and Christ. The demon wall of Sauherad is all damnation and no salvation.

Henry Fett wrote about the wall in glowing terms in his 1941 book A Village Church:

Here the devils of revelation, the demons of the time, the eerie powers of existence, with all its uncontrolled and fateful forces and eerie mask life are depicted – all this which Christ had declared war, we have on the west wall of the choir. In large swarms, demons and devils hover in space, herd upon herd – a whole air squadron, an insect swarm of demons, animal masks with human features. human masks with animal features, the animal in man unfolds in all sorts of fantastic bastard forms, spiritual complexes have taken shape. What a gallery of demonic face types!

Traces of older wall paintings beneath the density of demons date to the time of the altarpiece, so mid-17th century, and the demons were believed to have been added shortly thereafter. There was speculation that they might have been painted by the proverbial insane priest. Fett nominated Jens Christensen Slagelse, who worked at Sauherad Church from 1621 to 1641.

Curator Susanne Kaun and art historian Elisabeth Andersen set up scaffolding to examine the murals under magnification, UV light and raking light. They also and scoured the archives for information about the discovery and 1940 conservation.

Gotaa claimed in his correspondence that he had found incised drawings and color remnants, but Kaun and Andersen found no incisions at all, and the original faded color elements that were from 17th century featured zero demons. The Gotaas did it all themselves, and bamboozled everyone for decades.

“We suspected for a long time that a lot had been painted and added, but when we saw the extent of Gotaa’s hand – we could hardly believe it,” Andersen says.

“That a conservator himself has painted his own decor, and claims that it is something he has found, is contrary to all conservation principles – also in the 1940s,” Kaun adds.

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King and Queen of Spain found upside down under Emperor and Empress of Mexico

Sunday, July 4th, 2021

Philadelphia Museum of Art conservators have discovered that a pair of portraits of the first Emperor and Empress of Mexico were painted over portraits of the former monarchs of Spain, King Charles IV and Maria Luisa of Parma. The matched half-length portraits of Emperor Agustín de Iturbide and Empress Ana María were painted by Mexican artist Josephus Arias Huarte in 1822, the year Agustín was proclaimed the constitutional Emperor of Mexico.

Agustín I’s reign last less than a year. He and his family were exiled. He was persuaded to return in 1824 but was arrested the minute he landed and executed by firing squad. Ana María and their children remained in exile. They moved to the United States, eventually settling in Philadelphia where she died in 1861 and is buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. John the Evangelist.

The portraits have been in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1922, but they are rarely exhibited and were not seriously studied until 2017 when conservator Sarah Mastrangelo examined them for possible exhibition in the museum’s massive new galleries which open this year. With 22,000 square feet of space to fill, conservators have been examining the museum’s holdings for previously-neglected categories like indigenous American art.

Observing the Empress’ portrait under a microscope, Mastrangelo saw there were two “grounds,” the prep layer applied to the canvas. Further examination under a infrared light revealed an eye on Ana María’s belly. The ghostly image was obscured by the red paint of the ground, but an X-ray uncovered an entire portrait flipped upside down. An X-ray of her husband’s portrait revealed the same thing.

The upside down portraits were not done by the same artist. The style and technique in the originals were different, better, and the clothing predated 1822 by several decades. Mastrangelo believes they are good quality copies of portraits of King Charles IV and Queen Maria Luisa of Spain originally painted by Goya. Charles and Maria Luisa reigned from 1788 until the king was forced to abdicated by Napoleon in 1808. They were kept captive in France for four years. In 1812 they were allowed to move to Rome under the protection of Pope and were living in the Palazzo Barberini when they died 18 days apart in 1819.

So they hadn’t been on the throne of Spain for 14 years and had been dead for two when Iturbíde led the fight for Mexican Independence and took Mexico City from Spain. When he was proclaimed emperor a year after that, recycling the portraits of deposed, dead former Spanish monarchs to make coronation portraits of the new Mexican-born rulers was a satisfyingly pointed statement as well as a practical choice as there wasn’t a great deal of canvas available in Mexico at the time.

Mastrangelo consulted curators Mark Castro and Alexandra Letvin, who believe the long-hidden portraits of the Spanish royals were made in around 1799 or 1800 and based on popular prototypes developed by court artist Francisco de Goya. It is unclear if the original compositions were made in Spain or Mexico, but the canvases were in Mexico two decades later when they were reused by Huarte to paint the Iturbides upon their coronation in Mexico City in 1822.

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Roman sarcophagus found in Georgian pleasure garden

Saturday, July 3rd, 2021

An ancient Roman stone sarcophagus containing the remains of two individuals has been discovered on the grounds of a Georgian pleasure garden in Bath. Archaeologists unearthed the intact coffin with lid at a site adjacent to a Roman wall on the edge of Bathwick Roman cemetery.

It is approximately 6.5 feet long and is made of native limestone. Inside was one complete skeleton in prone position with a partial one laid at its feet. The coffin’s north-south orientation marks it as a pre-Christian burial. A cremation burial, the first ever discovered at Bathwick, was found next to it, as was a small pottery vessel containing the remains of food, likely a votive offering, and some small red and blue glass beads.

Sylvia Warman, Science Advisor for Historic England has been providing advice about this rare find. Sylvia said: “This is an amazing find – although several Roman stone coffins have been found around Bath in the past, none have been excavated and recorded by professional archaeologists using modern methods until today. This is a first for Bathwick and a really significant find for Roman Bath and the World Heritage Site. When completed, a scientific study of the remains will likely tell us much more about the lives, death and burial practices of the inhabitants of Roman Bath.”

Originally designed by Bath city architect Thomas Baldwin, Sydney Gardens was built in the 1790s, one of a plethora of Georgian commercial pleasure gardens built after the opening of London’s hugely popular Vauxhall Gardens in 1785. It opened in 1795 and offered paying visitors a variety of entertainment environments including a labyrinth, a bowling green, a Sham Castle with moat, a Cosmorama. It was instantly popular. Jane Austen lived at No. 4 Sydney Place when she lived in Bath between 1801 and 1804 and visited the gardens often. She wrote in her letters about enjoying its labyrinth, breakfasts, fireworks and the 15,000 lanterns that illuminated it at night.

The gardens were purchased by the city of Bath in 1908 and opened as a municipal park in 1913. It has been popular for concerts, picnics, lawn bowls ever since, but only a few of the original Georgian features have survived and they’re in need of conservation. Since February 2019, Sydney Gardens has been undergoing a revitalization program to restore the historic buildings, landscape and garden. It is expected to be complete in March 2022.

One of the historic (but not original) buildings slated for restoration is Minerva’s Temple, a large garden shelter built of local limestone ashlar for the 1911 Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace in London. It was a promotional structure, a replica of the Temple to Sulis Minerva found at the city’s iconic Roman Baths, serving as an advertisement for Bath stone. After some debate over the expense of moving it, the Temple was permanently installed in Sydney Gardens in 1913. It is now a Grade II listing building in its own right.

Minerva’s Temple will house new information panels about the history of Sydney Gardens. The Bath City Council is considering installing the recently-discovered stone sarcophagus, emptied of its human remains, of course, in Minerva’s Temple for permanent display.

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Signer’s copy of Declaration of Independence found in Scottish attic

Friday, July 2nd, 2021

A rare facsimile of the Declaration of Independence that was presented to signatory Charles Carroll in 1824 was rediscovered in the attic of a Scottish estate. It was found in a pile of dusty documents by Cathy Marsden, Specialist in Rare Books, Manuscripts & Maps for auction house Lyon & Turnbull, who recognized it as one of only 52 surviving examples of the 200 special prints and the only example belonging to a signatory of the Declaration of Independence still in private hands.

A brief timeline of the birth of the Declaration of Independence:

  • July 2, 1776: Twelve of 13 colonial delegations in Continental Congress resolve that the United States is “Free and Independent.” New York abstains (courteously).
  • July 4: Thomas Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration is approved.
  • July 4 PM: Official printer to Congress John Dunlap receives the approved text and prints it as broadsides signed by President of the Second Continental Congress John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson.
  • July 9: New York approves the resolution of independence
  • July 19: The last straggler state corralled, Congress orders that the Declaration be “fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.” The elegant, clear hand that quills the manuscript is likely that of Timothy Matlack, Thomson’s clerk.
  • August 2: Engrossed Declaration signed by all delegates present at a signing ceremony.

The engrossed Declaration with its iconic header and John Hancock signature is now in the Rotunda of the National Archives, protected by a custom state-of-the-art encasement, but it was not so gingerly handled when it was young and the ink is barely legible today. It went with the Continental Congress during the War of Independence, rolled up, folded, transported in chests and saddlebags. Between 1776 and 1790, it lived a transient existence, touching down in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Philadelphia again, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton and New York. It spent another decade being moved around to different locations in Philadelphia before making its way via river and ocean voyage to the newly-founded capital of Washington, D.C. It had to be hustled out of the city in a farm wagon only days before the British attack on Washington in August 1814. It returned for good in September.

By the time it achieved geographic stability, the Declaration’s iron gall ink was already destabilized and it got worse quickly. For decades it was exposed to moisture, faded in the sun, palpated by visitors, historians and copyists. In the 19th century, copies were made using a “wet transfer” method in which a damp sheet of paper was pressed into the manuscript until enough ink was absorbed so it could be transferred to a copper plate. Every pressing by design removed ink from the original.

One of those copies was so meticulous a reproduction that it has become the most widespread and recognizable image of the Declaration of Independence. It was commissioned in 1820 by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams who wanted a full-size, exact copy — no extra ornament, nothing missing, everything the same including the signatures — on a copperplate so the State Department (then the custodian of the archives) could release replica prints on parchment without inflicting further damage on the original. D.C. printer William J. Stone spent three years engraving the image on a copperplate. In May 1824, Congress ordered 201 copies of the Stone engraving for distribution to luminaries and institutions. Just 52 of them are known to survive today.

Six of them were gifts for the surviving signatories. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Carroll each received two copies. Adams’ copies are now in the Massachusetts Historical Society. Jefferson’s are lost. On August 2, 1826, less than a month after Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other on the Fourth of July, Carroll gave one of his copies to his grandson-in-law John MacTavish, diplomat and scion of a Scottish-Canadian fur trading dynasty who had married Carroll’s granddaughter Emily Caton. MacTavish gave it to the nascent Maryland Historical Society in 1844 when he served as British Consul to Maryland.

Charles Carroll, the only Catholic and last living signatory of the Declaration of Independence, died in 1832. The fate of Carroll’s second copy was unknown, but now that it’s been found in the attic, John MacTavish’s inscription makes it clear that the second copy stayed in the family via Emily Caton and was passed down through the Scottish branch of Carroll’s descendants.

The inscriptions in the lower left corner of the example here tell the story of Carroll’s disposition of both of the copies he was given: “Presented to his friend John/Mac Tavish Esquire by/the only Surviving Signer/of this important State Paper,/exactly half a century/after having affixed his/name to the Original Document./(Signed) Ch. Carroll of Carrollton/ Doughoregan Manor/1826, August Second.” The signer wrote that inscription on his other copy before giving it to MacTavish, who copied it onto this document (so Carroll’s “signature” here was penned by MacTavish), and then added: “The Original presented/to the Hist: Soc: of Md/November 30/[18]44./JMc T.”

The Carroll copy was offered in a single-lot auction on July 1st at Freeman’s auction in Philadelphia, blocks away from Independence Hall where the original Declaration of Independence was signed. The pre-sale estimate was $500,000 – 800,000. Surprisingly absolutely no one, it blew past those figures and sold for $4,420,000.

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Colosseum underground opens to the public

Friday, June 25th, 2021

For the first time in the Colosseum’s long history, the subterranean levels will be fully open to the public. The hypogea, the backstage (understage?) area where gladiators and beasts awaited deployment via ingenious raising mechanisms that thrust them up through trapdoors onto the arena, have never before been open in their entirety to visitors.

When the Flavian Amphitheatre was inaugurated in 80 A.D., the underground structures were wood. Ancient sources including Martial, who was an eye-witness to the inaugural games and recorded the events in his Epigrams, Suetonius and Cassius Dio refer to the arena having been flooded to stage naval battles and other water spectacles, but this could not have been the large-scale warship clashes that were held at the permanent lake created by Augustus for the purpose. If it was floodable, it was likely more like a channel system or simply a shallow basin under the stage.

Whatever the nature of the water shows at the Colosseum, in 85 A.D. Domitian had the original underground replaced with the complex vaulted tunnels and shafts of brick and stone structures we see now, so there arena could no longer be floodable. A large central passage divides 14 corridors, seven on each side. At the ends of the corridors are rooms which held large freight elevators that raised fighters, prisoners, props and animals up to the arena floor with complex wood and rope pulley systems.

This is the final phase of a decade-long restoration funded by Tod’s shoe mogul Diego Della Valle who donated €25 million to keep the world wonder from literally falling to pieces and taking untold numbers of tourists with it. After directed restoration work, a small section of the hypogeum was opened to the public in 2016 but the underground was closed off again when the comprehensive restoration of the entire space began in December 2018.

Starting June 26th, visitors who purchase the “Full Experience” ticket can safely explore the 15 corridors trod by gladiator and wild beast over 160 meters of accessible passageways that have been mounted throughout the labyrinthine environment. Audio/video and human guides will explain how the hypogeum was used over the centuries between the Colosseum’s 100 days of inaugural games and celebration of the last games held there, an animal hunt in honor of the consulship of Anicius Maximus in 523.

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See The Night Watch uncropped after 300 years

Thursday, June 24th, 2021

For the first time in more than three centuries, you can see The Night Watch complete as it was when Rembrandt painted it. Even though it was already hailed as a masterpiece upon its completion in 1642, the monumental oil on canvas work was callously trimmed to fit a smaller wall when it was moved in 1715. The Rijksmuseum’s Operation Night Watch team has recreated the lost sections and mounted them with the original so visitors can enjoy the full expanse of Rembrandt’s vision.

When commissioned by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and the Amsterdam civic militia he led, the Night Watch was installed in the Great Hall of the Kloveniersdoelen, the newly-built headquarters of the militia. It was moved to City Hall in 1715 and to squeeze it between two columns, it was cropped on all four sides. The right side suffered the least, losing only 7 cm (2.75″). The left side took the brunt of the cropping; the strip removed was 64.4 cm (23″) wide. The top lost 23.3 cm (9″) and bottom strip 11.3 cm (4.4″). This was a common practice at the time even for much smaller paintings. Nobody protested and as far as we know, none of the trimmings have survived although even chopped up Rembrandts were selling for big money by then and one of the strips had two figures on it that would have been saleable.

Thankfully, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq had the wherewithal to commission a small-scale (less than 1/5th the size) copy of the painting between 1642 and 1655. It is attributed to Gerrit Lundens who was known for his copies of old masters. It is now part of the collection of the National Gallery. Using the Lundens copy as a guide and using artificial intelligence programmed with high-resolution scan data of Rembrandt’s technique and color use in the painting, the Operation Night Watch team was able to reconstruct the missing sections of the painting at the scale of the original in Rembrandt’s style. The recreated sections were then printed on canvas, varnished and mounted on metal plates for structural support.

You can zoom in on some of the notable details here, and this video gives a great overview of the reconstruction.

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Gold disc, symbol of Cusco, returned to Peru

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Echenique Disc repatriated to Peru. Photo courtesy the National Museum of the American IndianThe Smithsonian has agreed to repatriate a pre-Inca gold disc to Peru 119 years after its aquistion. The National Museum of the American Indian signed a memorandum of understanding with the Peruvian government for the return of the Echenique Disc, a gold disc whose design is the official symbol and shield of the city of Cusco. It was officially transferred to the Peruvian ambassador to the United States at his residence in Washington, D.C., on June 15th.

The object is a thin sheet of hammered gold about five inches in diameter. The alloy is relatively pure, composed of 90% gold, 5% silver and 5% copper, so just shy of 22 karats in modern classification. In the center is a fanged feline face with large rounded eyes and a snout-like nose, a design seen frequently in ancient Peruvian ornaments and pottery. It had a supernatural connotation — perhaps representing a deity — and indicated the high status of its owner. There are holes and slits cut into the sheet and it is believed to have been worn as a pectoral ornament.

The outer border is divided evenly into 20 sections that contain a variety of imagery including anthropomorphic figures, geometric shapes, crescent moons and other symbols. Their meaning has not been deciphered but may indicate the disc was a solar or lunar calendar. It is more than 2,000 years old, the most recent scholarship placing it between 800 B.C. and 1 A.D., and is a masterful example of ancient Andean goldsmithing.

As with so many cultural heritage artifacts that wound up far from their origins, the disc’s history is mysterious. It first emerged on the record in 1853 when it was given as a ceremonial gift along with several other ancient objects to then-Peruvian president José Rufino Echenique during an official visit to Cusco. Where it came from, who gave it to him, anything at all about its past before that point is unknown.

Things get murky again after that as the disc and other objects gifted to Echenique just sort of disappeared for a while. Julio Tello Rojas, father of Peruvian archaeology, tried to track them down in the 1920s and failed. He believed they had been sent to Chile and were destroyed in a fire in Santiago. He was wrong, at least in part, because in 1912 it was sold privately by Dr. Edward Gaffron, a German doctor who lived in Peru for decades and built an enormous collection of ancient Peruvian artifacts, to collector George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian in New York which was later incorporated into the Smithsonian as the National Museum of the American Indian.

Gold ornamental plume or pin, ca. 200 B.C.–A.D. 400.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.The Smithsonian’s provenance for the disc records that in fact it was inherited by one of Echenique’s daughters who then sold it to Gaffron, and there are at least two other artifacts in museums that are believed to have been part of the Echenique group. One is a gold ornamental plume or pin incised on both sides with a similar supernatural feline figure, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They don’t know its provenance either. Big blank before 1850 and between then and its acquisition from a German private collection in 1942. Interesting German connection there; maybe Dr. Gaffron got his hands on more of the Echenique treasure than the one disc we know about.

The choice of the disc as the official shield of Cusco was a pointed one. In 1986, the city council passed a law prohibiting the use of any post-Conquest Spanish colonialist imagery in Cusco’s coat of arms. Today replicas of it adorns the streets, fountains and buildings of Cusco’s historic center. The original is expected to be returned to Cusco for permanent display, and Cusco’s mayor Victor Boluarte is hoping to coordinate with Peru’s Culture Ministry for its return by June 24th, the day of the Inti Raymi celebration, the Festival of the Sun, an ancient Inca ritual which is the culmination of the Jubilee month celebrating the heritage of the imperial city.

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Be amazed by these aqueduct/nymphaeum/church frescoes

Wednesday, June 16th, 2021

Nestled in the lush Valpantena valley five miles east of downtown Verona in the village of Santa Maria in Stelle is the little parish church of Santa Maria Assunta. Underneath it is a unique archaeological site, a Roman aqueduct turned nymphaeum turned early Christian baptismal font turned extravagantly frescoed church and pilgrimage destination. The hypogeum is named Santa Maria in Stelle after the starry sky fresco on the ceiling, and the whole village is named after its greatest archaeological gem.

The hypogeum was first constructed in the 1st century as an aqueduct to channel the water of a natural spring on the property to supply fresh water to the villa and agricultural estates of the Gens Pomponia, an important Roman senatorial family who owned large tracts of land in the area. It’s one of few examples of Roman aqueducts in northern Italy, and the best conserved. There is still water running through the original conduits, albeit with nothing like the powerful flow they channeled in the days of Roman yore.

In the first half of the 3rd century, a nymphaeum, a cult site dedicated to nymphs, was added to the aqueduct by expanding one of its cisterns. An inscription at the entrance to the hypogeum records that Publius Pomponius Cornelianus built it and lists the rest of his family: wife Julia Magia, sons Pomponius Julianus (future praetor of Arabia) and Pomponius Magianus (future praetor of Thrace). The inscription is not in its original context, so it’s not clear whether what he built in this case refers to the nymphaeum or another structure, but we know from other inscriptions that Cornelianus, a prominent imperial magistrate and major landowner, dedicated a votive altar “to the nymphs and their waters” for the restoration of a nearby mineral spring around between 200 and 215 A.D.

Sometime in the 4th century, probably after a visit from Saint Zeno, Bishop of Verona, the nymphaeum was converted to use as a baptismal font. Some remains of the elliptical tub used for baptisms are extant in the atrium of the ancient nymphaeum, and frescoes were added to the walls with motifs related to salvation, initiation and martyrdom decorated with floral and swirls. The murals are worn with large missing sections, but two can be recognized as depictions of Daniel in the lion’s den, complete with a tiny Habakkuk above him to his left bringing mystical food and drink, and Christ the Lawgiver flanked by Peter and Paul. A partial view of the horses in a quadriga also survives, its interpretation unclear. These are the only Paleo-Christian frescoes in northern Italy.

Around the turn of the 5th century the baptismal space was expanded and two semi-elliptical chambers added to the left and right of the atrium. It became a space dedicated to the teaching of the catechism and the walls and ceilings were frescoed with scenes and figures from the Old and New Testament. The north chamber’s frescoes are the most spectacular. They were painted in the 5th century by an unusually fine artist for such a modest site, with highly refined renderings of faces, clothing, architecture and dynamic action. Even the border, a three-dimensional Greek meander pattern, seems to leap off the wall (and sink deep into it).

On either side of the entrance to the north camber are two youths carrying torches, iconography often found at the entrance to Roman villas. Above the entrance and the youths is an Enthroned Christ with a rare blue halo. Very Roman-looking unbearded apostles in togas flank him. Two cylindrical boxes on each end of the apostles contain scrolls of the New and Old Testament. Jesus and the apostles also hold scrolls. This fresco dates to the 6th century.

Turning left, the first panel depicts the entry of Christ into Jerusalem as people lay down rugs for him, an event described in the Gospel of Luke. The next scene is from the Book of Daniel and features Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to worship the gold idol of King Nebuchadnezzar II. The motif continues in the next fresco where the three stand in the fiery furnace, protected from harm by the angel behind them.

Then it’s back to the New Testament with a shockingly dynamic Massacre of the Innocents from the Gospel of Matthew. Herod is on the right commanding two soldiers who are in the act of slamming babies to death. Another child bleeds on the ground. The Nativity is next, but it lacks the iconography we’re familiar with. Instead of Mary and Joseph adoring Christ in the manger with shepherds and animals, only the animals are present: an ox and a donkey. The manger has faded and only the outline of the head of Baby Jesus is still visible. This very simple scene of Christ Child and animals was the earliest representation of the Nativity. Mary and Joseph and the rest of the cast were introduced to the iconography in later centuries.

Next to the Nativity is an elliptical niche. Two figures of women in exotic clothing adorn opposing walls of the entry archway. The back wall of the niche has solar image on the back wall with an umbrella on the curved ceiling. Above the entry to the niche is a very worn figure of Mary. On the ceiling above her is a dark blue background with white stars. This is the fresco that gives the hypogeum its name. It dates to the 9th century.

Last but most certainly not least, and the main motivation for this entire post, is a fresco like nothing I’ve ever seen before decorating the domed ceiling of the chamber. It’s a series of tubes, four rows of them, each in a different color — red on the bottom, then blue, yellow and green. Every tube is decorated. This incredibly abstract vista is likely an architectural reference. Romans used “tubuli,” empty clay pipes, in domes to fill the space while lightening the weight pressing down on the support walls. The artist has brought the structural secrets of a dome to the surface.

The south chamber is smaller with less elaborate decoration. Its frescoes date to the 8th century and are very damaged. There is a youth holding a scroll and a panel of the hand of god with devotional inscriptions on either side. A 1st century funerary altar not original to the space has been placed in the chamber. It was toppled and had an inscription carved into the back by Pope Urban III in the 12th century.

The hypogeum was used in the 8th and 9th centuries as a safe place for Christians to meet when the Lombards were in charge, and it was ready to step in for parish services in 1100 when the church above it was severely damaged in an earthquake. In 1187, Pope Urban III declared any pilgrims visiting the site would receive plenary indulgences. He used that ancient altar for the dedication to signify the triumph of Christianity over paganism. The hypogeum was used mostly as a well in the late Middle Ages, but saw a revival of its religious significance in the late 16th century. It was consecrated for mass by the Bishop of Verona in the 18th century.

The hypogeum was closed to the public in 2008 due to its precarious condition. The frescoes were afflicted with thick mineral deposits and biological growth. Water penetration from the church above had led to paint loss, and materials used in a misguided restoration attempt in the 1960s had also deteriorated. In 2016, a new program of conservation, documentation and light design restored the murals and the space was opened to visitors again on a very limited basis to maintain a stable temperature and humidity in the delicate environment. The restoration of the north chamber was particularly successful, as the removal of deposits revealed the colors of the frescoes were still brilliant.

Take a virtual tour of the amazing north chamber in this photogrammetric reconstruction.

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