Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Coffin initialed “M.C.” found in Cervantes search

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

The team of archaeologists and anthropologists searching for the remains of Miguel de Cervantes in the crypt of Madrid’s Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians have found fragments of a casket with the initials “M.C.” on one of the pieces. The partial casket was found in one of the niches in the north wall along with rocks and some bone fragments. The initials are formed with half-inch tacks pressed into the wood. The tacks are made of an unknown metal and are corroded to a green color.

When researchers first examined the niche with an endoscope microcamera, they saw bone material, but they appeared to be a mix of at least 10 different individuals, including the remains of at least one infant. The mixture of skeletal remains and their position at the foot of the enclosure suggested this was not a primary burial but the result of a reinterral. After the forensic team removed the bones, they recovered the fragments of the coffin.

The discovery was made on Saturday around noon. Earlier that morning the press had been allowed into the crypt to take pictures and observe the CSI-style team at work (hence this story). There was some excitement at the time when a group of researchers gathered around one of the gravesites found 4.8 meters under the floor which was outlined by a perimeter of bricks. Those remains turned out to be those of a young child under seven years of age at time of death.

It was Sunday when the team realized upon close examination of the coffin pieces that while moisture and insects had caused the coffin to fall to pieces, a significant piece from the head of the wooden casket had survived. Because sometimes in life luck happens, that piece had the initials tacked into it.

As suggestive as this find is, it doesn’t allow anything like a conclusion right now. There could have been another individual with the initials M.C. buried in the convent crypt. It could have been Cervantes’ coffin but his bones may have been lost in transit. It could be his coffin and his bones but we’ll never know because the remains are insufficient to determine identity.

The forensic anthropologists are now separating out all the bones exhumed from the niche. First the bones of children, which are easily distinguished from those of adults, will be isolated from the pile. Then the team will arrange the rest by sex and examine any adult male remains for indications that they once formed the endoskeletal structure of the great writer of the Spanish Golden Age: atrophy in the metacarpals of the left hand and bullet wounds in the chest from shots Cervantes took at the Battle of Lepanto, advanced tooth loss, kyphosis (aka, a hunchback) brought on by severe arthritis.

In addition to osteological evidence, researchers are also looking at the coffin itself to see if its consistent with the coffin that would have held Cervantes. The wood can be radiocarbon dated, or maybe even tree-ring dated if their luck holds, and textile fragments amidst the decaying organic material may be identifiable as part of the Franciscan religious habit in which Cervantes, who joined the Third Order of St. Francis shortly before his death, was buried.

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Spain planned to invade Australia with an armada

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Documents discovered in the archives of the Spanish navy reveal that Spain planned to invade the nascent British colony in Australia in the mid-1790s. Chris Maxworthy, vice president of the Australian Association for Maritime History (AAMH), found the documents detailing a plan of attack approved by King Carlos IV to fire “hot shot” cannons, cannons that fired heated balls that could set wooden ships and buildings on fire as well as blow large holes in them, on Port Jackson, modern-day Sydney Harbour.

“The plan was to attack Sydney from the Spanish colonies in South America with a fleet of 100 medium-sized boats armed with cannons and ‘hot shot’,” [Maxworthy] told The Australian Financial Review.

“The goal was the complete surrender by the British and their expulsion from the Australian land mass … The effect [of the hot shot] would be to not only impact the targets ashore but also create multiple fires in the wooden buildings of that era in Sydney, particularly if the plans occurred during the hot summer months.”

"A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove," by convict Thomas Watling, 1794Governor Arthur Phillip had established the first British colony on the continent at Port Jackson in January of 1788, 18 years after explorer James Cook landed there and named the harbour after Admiralty official Sir George Jackson. The convicts started coming right away, as the prisoner transport system to Britain’s colonies had been painfully cut off since 1776 by the Revolutionary War and subsequent independence. By 1792, there were more than 4,000 convicts populating Sydney, but since food was scarce and disease was rife, they would not have been able to put up much of a fight against a Spanish armada. Any Spanish victory would likely have been of short duration, however, as Britain had a much stronger navy and army and could have reclaimed the colony with minimal effort.

Spain’s concern was that a British colony in the Pacific would be a grave threat to the crown’s holdings in South America and the Philippines, a concern first articulated by Spanish naval officer Francisco Muñoz y San Clemente only months after the colony was founded. He reported that the convict colonists would be well positioned to act as privateers and harry Spanish shipping between the Philippines and the Americas. Once it had developed a full naval presence, the Australia colony would be able to launch a full-scale invasion of Spain’s holdings.

Alessandro Malaspina, Anonymous, ca. 1800That same year, 1788, Italian nobleman, explorer and Spanish naval officer Alessandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante y Guerra proposed a Pacific expedition modeled after Cook’s. The government approved the expedition and each man had a corvette custom-built for the voyage. It also added a stop to the expedition’s itinerary: Port Jackson, so the explorers could see first hand how valid Muñoz’s concerns were.

Bustamante and Malaspina departed from Cadiz in 1789. Over the next five years, they traveled from the east coast of South America around Cape Horn to the west coast and up north to Mexico, then detoured to Alaska on orders to search yet again for the mythical Northwest Passage. From Alaska they went back to Mexico, then west to Manila and south to Doubtful Sound on New Zealand’s South Island. In March of 1793, the expedition landed at Port Jackson where they mapped the coast and studied the local flora and fauna.

Sydney Cove, Port Jackson in the County of Cumberland, from a drawing made by Francis Fowkes in 1788Malaspina confirmed Muñoz’s impressions in his report to the crown. Port Jackson was indeed a danger to Spain’s overseas possessions because

with the greatest ease a crossing of two or three months through healthy climates, and a secure navigation, could bring to our defenceless coasts two or three thousand castaway bandits to serve interpolated with an excellent body of regular troops. It would not be surprising that in this case — the women also sharing the risks as well as the sensual pleasures of the men — the history of the invasions of the Huns and Alans in the most fertile provinces of Europe would be revived in our surprised colonies. … The pen trembles to record the image, however distant, of such disorders.

All those prostitutes, forgers and pickpockets wouldn’t just band up with the regular troops to make a formidable invasion force, but then they’d settle down and have lots of reproductive sex just like those German barbarian ancestors of the British monarch did.

Despite the trembling of his pen, Malaspina did not advocate a military response to this threat. He believed the worst case scenario could be prevented by opening trade between Chile, the Philippines and Sydney. Why fight lusty convicts when you can do business with them and make it very much in their interest not to interrupt the flow of Chilean beef and Philippine spices? Malaspina had witnessed firsthand how hard-scrabble an existence the colonists eked out. They had little livestock, pulled their own carts and plows, and rarely ate meat. Spanish products would prove addictive, he thought, and instead of spending money trying to squash the colony, the crown would profit handsomely while achieving its ultimate goal of defanging the Australian menace.

"Godoy as General" by Francisco de Goya, 1801From Port Jackson, Malaspina and Bustamante made one last stop — Tonga — before returning to Cadiz in September of 1794. King Charles IV and Manuel de Godoy, the king’s prime minister and puppet master (and probably the queen’s lover), welcomed Malaspina back, promoting him to fleet-brigadier for his efforts. The good vibes didn’t last. In late 1795 Malaspina was caught conspiring to overthrow Godoy and the next year was tried for plotting against the state. Although the trial did not result in a conviction, in April of 1796 Charles IV stripped him of his naval rank and sent him to jail in the fortress of San Antón in La Coruña, Galicia, where he remained imprisoned until 1802.

Bustamante did not share in his colleague’s disgrace. He was promoted to navy brigadier after their return and remained in the crown’s good graces. In 1795, Spain was compelled to declare war on Great Britain by its ally France. Even if Malaspina hadn’t gotten on Godoy’s shitlist, his proposal for a mercantile approach to Australia wasn’t suited to the new circumstances. Instead, in 1796 Bustamante was appointed governor of Paraguay and Commander General of the fleet of Río de la Plata, in charge of the military defense of Spain’s South American colonies, and, as we now know, a pre-emptive military attack on Port Jackson.

The archival documents show that Jose de Bustamante y Guerra, the deputy commander of the Spanish expedition, subsequently proposed an invasion of the colony to King Carlos IV and his ministers. The government sent Bustamante to a new military post at Montevideo in Uruguay and he began to build a small fleet of attack vessels.

“As the military and naval commander, Bustamante was tasked to both defend South America from an anticipated British invasion, and to take the fight to the British in the Pacific,” Mr Maxworthy said.

"Charles IV of Spain and his Family" by Goya, 1800. Ferdinand and his resolute gaze are on the left in the blue suit.Although Spain remained a French ally and enemy of Britain until the Battle of Trafalgar turned the tide on October 21st, 1805, neither side ever did get around to invading each others’ colonies. When Godoy switched allegiance to Great Britain after Trafalgar and then back to France after Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1807, it made King Charles IV look like even more of a weakling than everyone (including court painter Francisco de Goya who consistently depicted him as a rotund, confused country squire better suited to hunting than absolute rule) already thought he was.

Charles’ son Ferdinand favored an alliance with Britain and after one attempted coup by the Crown Prince and several riots by his supporters, on March 19th, 1808, King Carlos IV abdicated in favor of his son who became King Ferdinand VII.

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Samuel Morse the artist

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Before Samuel Morse developed the code that bears his name and patented the electromagnetic telegraph, he was a painter and a successful one at that. His teacher, Washington Allston, known today primarily for his Romantic landscapes, took the 20-year-old Samuel to study painting in England in 1811. In London he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts where instruction was focused on copying the works of the Renaissance Old Masters, drawing casts of ancient sculptures and live figure drawing. Morse’s works from this period were heavily influenced by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael and were often mythological in theme, like 1812′s Dying Hercules.

Morse and Allston spent four years in England as the War of 1812 raged. When Morse returned to the United States in 1815, he made a name for himself as a portrait painter, receiving commissions from wealthy socialites and dignitaries like former President John Adams and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. He hit the road again in 1830, traveling through Italy, Switzerland and France to learn from observing the original works of the Old Masters he had studied copies of in London.

When he was in Paris in September of 1831, Morse conceived a monumental painting of the Salon Carré in the Louvre that would include dozens of the museum’s masterpieces. The works aren’t actually arranged in the one room when he painted them; this was a gallery picture, a fantasy arrangement of art in a single scene. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre is the only major example of a gallery picture in American art history.

He squeezed 38 paintings and two sculptures from the Louvre collection into the six-by-nine-foot canvas, plus additional figures of museum visitors and copyists. Anthony Van Dyck and Titian have the most works on display with four apiece. Other artists represented are Tintoretto, Veronese, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Poussin, Raphael, Rembrandt, Reni, Watteau, Correggio and Caravaggio. Click here (pdf) for a complete key to all the works and people in the painting.

He worked assiduously between September of 1831 and August of 1832 to copy the works he wished to include, some of which were positioned high on the walls. He built a moveable scaffold and lugged it around the vast halls of the Louvre so he could be at eye level with his subjects. Morse painting on his scaffold became something of a tourist draw in its own right. He also had to do a fair amount of math in composing this work. He had to calculate the proper scale and to figure out how they should be arranged on the canvas.

Then he had to put shoutouts to his people among the visitors. The trio in the back left corner are Morse’s good friend James Fenimore Cooper (who he hoped would buy the completed work) and Cooper’s wife and daughter. The woman sketching an art work in the center of the composition is Morse’s daughter, Susan Walker Morse. The man behind her giving her pointers is Morse himself. That sweet scene was symbolic of his purpose in creating this piece: to teach American artists and audiences about the important works of European art. He was also underscoring the value of a great public museum of art to artists and regular people, an institution that the United States lacked.

(Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805 by artist and collector Charles Willson Peale, among others, but its collection at the time was casts of ancient sculptures. Coincidentally, the first major acquisition of the museum was a work by none other than Washington Allston: his monumental 1816 work The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha. They had to mortgage the building to buy it.

The first public art museum in the United States was the Wadsworth Atheneum, founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, a great patrons of the arts, who seeded the new museum with many works from his personal collection.)

When the Louvre closed its doors for its yearly August vacation, Morse rolled up the canvas and packed it until his return to the United States in late 1832. He applied the finishing touches to the painting in late 1833 and exhibited the finished work in New York and New Haven. Morse hoped it would be a sensation, drawing huge crowds to pay the price of admission and securing him a much-desired commission for a painting in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. It was not. The exhibitions lost money, and within a few years Morse had given up painting to focus on the telegraph.

It was purchased for much less than Morse had hoped in 1834 by George Hyde Clarke for his neoclassical mansion Hyde Hall in Ostego County, New York. After Clarke’s death, Gallery of the Louvre was purchased by former mayor of Albany John Townsend. From him it passed to his daughter Julia Townsend Munroe of Syracuse, New York. She loaned it to Syracuse University in 1884 and then donated it to the university in 1892. Ninety years later, Morse’s dream finally came true. Chicago businessman, art collector and founder of the Terra Foundation for American Art museum, Daniel J. Terra, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs, bought Gallery of the Louvre from Syracuse University for $3.25 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for a piece of American art. It’s been at the Terra Foundation ever since.

In 2010 Gallery of the Louvre underwent a six-month conservation by experts in American painting restoration Lance Mayer and Gay Myers. They discovered that Morse was as inventive in his painting as he was in communication technology, sometimes to their chagrin. He mixed varnish and oil paint together instead of painting with oils and then sealing the canvas with varnish. This was problematic for the conservators because varnish discolors. When it’s a layer on top of the paint, it can be removed with appropriate solvents that won’t damage the oil paint beneath. When conservators did a solvent test on Gallery of the Louvre, they found that all of them damaged the combined varnish and paint.

The Terra Foundation documented the conservation with a video, A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre”, which is not available online in its entirety but there are six clips from it below.

The conservation was successful, bringing out details that had become obscured over time. After it was complete, the painting was subject of three symposia — at the Yale University Art Gallery in April of 2011, the National Gallery in April of 2012 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in April of 2013 — which generated scholarly essays on the work by art historians, professors, curators and conservators. Those essays have been published in a book that is a companion piece to a new traveling exhibition of the painting, Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention.

The exhibition opened Saturday at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. It will be there until April before moving on to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (May 23rd, 2015 – September 7th, 2015), the Seattle Art Museum (September 22nd, 2015 – January 10th, 2016), the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (January 2016 – April 2016), the Detroit Institute of Arts (June 2016 – September 2016), the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (October 2016 – January 2017), the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (February 2017 – June 2017), the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut (June 2017 – October 2017), and finally the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in Stanford, California (November 2017 – January 2018).

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Were Cervantes’ bones under piles of old books?

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Last April, the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid, burial place of Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, one the most important books in the Western literary canon, was scanned with ground-penetrating radar in the first phase of a search for the iconic writer’s body. Cervantes was buried in the convent in 1616, and while the location of the grave was known at the time, when the convent was enlarged in 1673 the burials were left unmarked. Hoping to be able to provide a memorial marker worthy of Spain’s greatest writer and a locus for literary pilgrims to pay their respects, historian Fernando de Prado raised funds from the city of Madrid and private donors to sweep the convent for possible burial sites.

The initial GPR sweeps detected anomalies consistent with graves in three spots in the crypt under the transept of the convent church. Historical records indicate there were at least two other people buried in the same area where Cervantes was interred, making the discovery of three graves particularly noteworthy. In a poetic twist, the space had been rented to a publishing company for years, so before the team could examine it they had to remove piles of old books and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Now a team of archaeologists and forensic anthropologists has broken ground in the crypt. The small crypt has been turned into a lab for the time being, with up to 20 experts working in it at the same time (there are 30 people in the team). They will examine the human skeletal remains for evidence that points to Cervantes.

Because Cervantes has no living descendants, even if DNA is recoverable from the skeletal remains, comparisons will be tricky if not impossible. His sister Luisa de Cervantes was buried in a marked grave in a convent 20 miles out of Madrid so there’s a chance her remains might provide a means for comparative DNA analysis, but there’s no guarantee the convent will allow her bones to be exhumed and even if it does, there’s no guarantee a testable sample of 400-year-old DNA can be extracted.

Researchers will most likely have to rely on physical evidence like the marks of wounds he received while fighting aboard the galley Marquesa during the Battle of Lepanto on October 7th, 1571. He was shot twice in the chest and once in the left arm. The bullet to his arm broke both radius and ulna and severed a nerve. He was a young man of 24 when he was wounded; he never used his left hand again. Should they find a left arm bearing signs of having been shot, broken and atrophied from 45 years of disuse, this will be strong evidence that they’ve found the remains of the author.

Cervantes asked to be buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians because he had a profound connection to them. The convent’s order, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives, was founded in the 12th century to help ransom Christians taken captive during the crusades or by non-Christian pirates. When Cervantes and his younger brother were captured by Algerian pirates in 1575, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity helped his family raise the ransom to free them after five years of slavery in Algiers.

Since the convent was a small, poor one, few people chose to be buried there. Cervantes’ debt of gratitude to the order inspired his choice. Given the small number of burials, what are the odds there will be the remains of a completely different person, also an adult male of around 70 years old at time of death, with the same injuries? Last year the figures bandied about were a dozen to 15 people buried in the convent, but the crypt has about 36 burial niches in the wall. That corresponds to the number of chaplains the convent has had over the centuries before the niches in the north wall were plastered over. The thin layer of plaster, already peeling, will be removed. Any writing on the niche doors identifying who was buried there will be documented and endoscopic cameras will be threaded through holes to examine the remains.

The real hope is in the three grave sites under the terracotta tile floor, but if they prove fruitless, there are four other possible locations about two meters under the floor of the church that the GPR sweep indicated as possible grave sites.

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Mons Meg leaves Edinburgh Castle for tune-up

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Mons Meg lifted by crane from Edinburgh CastleMons Meg, the six-ton 15th century cannon that guards the parapets of Edinburgh Castle, has left her post for the first time in 30 years. Before dawn on Monday, January 19th, a crew of specialists strapped Meg up so she could be gingerly lifted out of her carriage by a crane, loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to an off-site facility where Historic Scotland experts will give her a thorough examination and do necessary conservation work. The oak and iron carriage that has been supporting her since 1934 also went along for the ride.

Here’s a neat timelapse of Mons Meg being lifted off her carriage while dawn breaks:

Richard Welander, Head of Collections for Historic Scotland said: “Mons Meg undergoes regular ‘health checks’ each year and is lifted off its carriage every five years for a closer inspection.

“This time it’s getting a major service, which means it must leave the castle for the first time for 30 years. The last time Mons Meg left was in March 1985, when she went to the Royal Armouries research establishment in Kent for a short technical examination.

“We’ll be using state-of-the-art equipment to examine the cannon and carriage inside and out, to assess their condition. Then we’ll commence with treatment and restoration, which is a delicate and specialist task.”

Mons Meg lifted off her carriageThere have been a great many technological advances since the last time Mons Meg got the full treatment. Historic Scotland conservators will laser-scan the cannon and create a 3D model to reveal issues not visible to the naked eye. The current paint will be stripped using a pressure wash system and bead blasting. That will expose the iron surface for proper conservation. Once Meg is cleaned and dried, she will be re-coated in protective paint.

Historic Scotland is hoping their conservation analysis will also shed some light on the history of the cannon. Much legend has grown up around her over the centuries, so this is an exciting opportunity to fill in a few blanks. Mons Meg was made in 1449 for Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to present as a gift to King James II of Scotland, Phillip’s grand-nephew by marriage. (James’ queen consort was Mary of Guelders, daughter of Catherine of Cleves, whose mother Marie of Burgundy was Phillip’s elder sister.) It was constructed by Phillip’s artillery master Jehan Cambier in Mons, County of Hainaut (modern-day Belgium), out of iron staves clamped together by iron hoops. Its massive 20-inch barrel, still one of the largest cannon calibre in the world, could fire 330-pound balls up to two miles.

James II took delivery of Mons Meg, known at the time just by variants of “Mons,” in 1454. Sixteen years later, he had the giant cannon transported 50 miles south to aid in the siege of Roxburgh Castle, one of the last remaining English strongholds in Scotland. The Scottish forces were successful — they ultimately took the castle once and for all — but James was killed in action when one of his own bombards (not Meg) exploded. His wife Mary ordered Roxburgh Castle razed.

Print of Mons Meg in 1681 from the "Domestic Annals of Scotland" by Robert ChambersThe records of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland note an expenditure of 18 shillings on July 10th, 1489, to have “Monss” carried by command of King James IV, James II’s grandson, to besiege Dumbarton. There James IV deployed Meg’s might against an insurrection led by Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, and Robert Lyle, Lord Lyle. That venture was less successful. The siege was broken by a negotiated surrender of the rebellious lords on condition that a new Parliament be convened.

James used Mons Meg again in 1497 at the siege of Norham Castle in northern England. Meg did her part — the castle took a lot of damage — but the two-week siege ended when English reinforcements arrived.

Meg was kept in fighting condition for a few more decades. Her last military service was in James V’s navy, after which, from the 1540s or so, she was retired from active engagement but was fired on important ceremonial occasions like the signing of the treaty of marriage between five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, and three-year-old Francis, Dauphin of France, in July 1558. She was fired for the last time on October 14th, 1681. Here’s a description of the event from the Domestic Annals of Scotland (1859) by Robert Chambers. The quote within the quote is from Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs (1848) by Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall.

The Duke of York paying a visit to the Castle of Edinburgh, the huge cannon called Mons Meg was fired in his honour. The charge, which was done by an English cannoneer, had probably been too large, for it caused the piece to burst. This “some foolishly called a bad omen. The Scots resented it extremely, thinking the Englishman might of malice have done it purposely, they having no cannon in all England so big as she.”

I am trying really hard not to snicker at the obvious phallic competition inherent in this struggle. Trying and failing.

Mons Meg's burst hoop still visible just ahead of back wheelWith the burst hoop exposing her internal staves, Mons Meg could never be fired again. She still starred in several tugs of war between England and Scotland, though. In the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, in 1754 Mons Meg, now rusted, busted and sitting on the ground without even the dignity of a carriage, was confiscated along with other weapons to keep them out of reach of potential rebels. She was moved to the Tower of London, but she didn’t go quietly. The Tower records list a demand for compensation from the owner of the ship that brought her to London for damage to the vessel and mooring rope.

In 1829, George IV had Mons Meg returned to Edinburgh as a result of a campaign by Sir Walter Scott and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Scott believed fervently in a legendary Galloway origin story for Mons Meg.

When James the Second arrived with an army at Carlingwark, to besiege the Castle of Threave, the McLellans presented him with the piece of ordnance now called ‘Mons Meg.’ The first discharge of this great gun is said to have consisted of a peck of powder and a granite ball nearly as heavy as a Galloway cow. This ball is believed, in its course through the Castle of Threave, to have carried away the hand of Margaret de Douglas, commonly called the Fair Maid of Galloway, as she sat at table with her lord, and was in the act of raising the wine-cup to her lips. Old people still maintain that the vengeance of God was thereby evidently manifested, in destroying the hand which had been given in wedlock to two brothers, and that even while the lawful spouse of the first was alive.

Even without having amputated Margaret de Douglas’ hand, Mons Meg was and is still beloved. She was escorted back to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 by three cavalry troops and a regiment of foot, and remains today a great favorite with visitors to Edinburgh Castle.

The conservation is expected to be complete and Mons Meg back in place outside St. Margaret’s Chapel by the end of February.

 

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Tut’s beard glued back on like a bad craft project

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Tutankhamun funerary mask before beard glue debacleThe AP reported on Thursday that the false beard on the gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun, probably the single most recognizable ancient artifact in the world, had come off and was reattached with a sloppy mess of irreversible epoxy glue. Cited in the article are three conservators at the Cairo Museum, all unnamed due to fear of reprisals, who had different stories about what happened to the beard — it was either knocked off when the mask was mishandled during cleaning of the display case or deliberately taken off because it was loose — but agreed that it was reattached hastily with epoxy.

By their accounts, museum officials ordered the beard reattached as quickly as possible because obviously it’s a massive tourist draw and they didn’t want it taken off display for any length of time. Epoxy dries almost instantly while a cautious conservation approach would use an adhesive that dries slowly over the course of at least 24 hours so adjustments could be made if necessary. It would also be reversible to allow future conservators to remove it if necessary without damage to the artifact.

“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said.

“The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added.

The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”

There are also visible scratches. A conservator says he witnessed a colleague scrape dried epoxy from the mask with a spatula leaving scratches on the gold. Steel yourself for the picture.

Detail of epoxy layer used to reattach beard, image courtesy Al-Araby Al-Jadeed

The AP secured a photograph from a tourist named Jacqueline Rodriguez who was at the museum on August 12th, 2014, and took a picture of a museum worker holding the beard in place waiting for the glue to set.

Jacqueline Rodriguez's photograph of man gluing the beard on Tut's funerary mask on August 12th, 2014The director of the Egyptian Museum Mahmoud Halwagy denied that there had been an accident damaging the mask, but it was a very weak, CYA denial that “no damage had occurred to the mask since he took over leadership of the museum last October.” He did admit that the thick, gross layer of epoxy is “very visible” (making sure to note that it could have been applied before his arrival) and that he has a committee of experts working on a report.

Qatari news site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has a different take on the disaster that it published on the same day as the AP’s story. I suspect they were the first to break the news because they have boots on the ground, so to speak. (Before the AP, that is. There were rumblings in the Egyptian press as early as November that conservators had sent a memo to the Antiquities Minister demanding “immediate investigations regarding the odd appearance of the mask after the restoration work it encountered in August.”) They sent reporters to the museum on a tip about the botched repair. Al-Araby reporters found the lighting in the room unusually dim but they were able to detect despite the penumbra that there was a thick line of glue visible and scratches on the left side of the mask. Their sources told them that the mask was damaged during cleaning in October, not August, and that the beard was reattached in the conservation lab, not in front of visitors.

Here’s the worst part:

Photograph of the funerary mask taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-Shahed“After the expert restorer Abd al-Latif glued on the false beard it was obvious that it no longer appeared the same. The adhesive had spread to the sides of the mask and it was clear that there was further damage,” the witness said.

“A couple of weeks later the adhesive on the mask was noticed and a number of curators complained about what had been done.

“So the head of the conservation department removed the glass display case, with the approval of the museum director, and removed the epoxy resin from the sides by using a metal scalpel. This is what scratched the mask.”

The source says that after this, the museum director Mahmoud al-Halwagi ordered the lights in the mask room to be dimmed.

Halwagy denied to Al-Araby that the mask was ever damaged. He blames disgruntled employees angry over a department shakeup for making up stories. When Al-Araby pointed out they have a picture of the beard looking like it was glued on by kindergarteners, Egyptian antiquities department head Yusuf Khalifa said that could have been a picture of a replica, a deception perpetrated by biased sources.

Twitter abounds with satirical memes on the beard; this is a "Conservation Manual"Not surprisingly, the story exploded on social media. Most of the reactions are outrage at the shoddy work, but Al-Araby is seen by some as having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, so neither its story nor the AP’s are considered reliable by pro-government Egyptians on Twitter and Facebook. Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, went to see the mask in person and is mad as hell. Her Twitter account is very much worth following to keep abreast of the developments.

Hanna told the AFP that Egypt’s Heritage Task Force is going to file a complaint with the public prosecutor. There’s a law in Egypt against destruction, damage, defacement or alteration of antiquities. Anyone convicted of taking part in such activities will be sentenced to five to seven years in jail and fined between 3,000 ($400) and 50,000 ($6,700) Egyptian pounds.

Front view of glued-on beard, taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-ShahedSo that’s where things stand as of now. The Antiquities Minister is apparently planning an urgent press conference to address the situation, although I’d be stunned if any actual information, as opposed to denials and justifications, came from it.

Finally, after reading/viewing a metric ton of news about this debacle, I am compelled to dedicate special opprobrium to CNN for this absurdity of a report. The laughter, fixed smiles, the omg-aren’t-word-stumbles-hilarious digression and the ridiculous and offensive comparison of a cultural patrimony calamity to a viral joke make me want to outspit a llama.

 

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Letters read on carbonized Herculaneum scrolls

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

When the wealthy town of Herculaneum was buried in pyroclastic flows from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., organic materials like wood, food and large quantities of poop were instantly carbonized by the superheated gases and ash, sucking all the water out of them and preventing their decay. Subsequent pyroclastic flows buried the city in 60 feet of hard volcanic rock that preserved the city and its contents for 2,000 years.

Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre and Charles, the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies, funded the first excavation of the site. In 1752, excavators unearthed the first carbonized papyri in a large villa that may have been owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, father of Julius Caesar’s last wife Calpurnia of prophetic dream fame. Two years later, the excavation discovered a whole library with 1,800 scrolls tidily arranged on wall shelves. This is the only surviving complete ancient library in the world. The house was named the Villa of the Papyri after this unique discovery.

The few scrolls that could be opened were and found to be philosophical texts on Epicureanism, but the opening process damaged the scrolls, often destroying them. Researches have been trying ever since to find a way into the carbonized papyri that doesn’t obliterate an irreplaceable ancient artifact. The development of imaging technology like X-ray and CT scanning holds tantalizing promise for a non-invasive exploration of the texts, but there have been problems making it work.

From 2007 through 2012, the Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration (EDUCE) program at the University of Kentucky attempted to read some Herculaneum scrolls in the collection of the Institut de France using a micro-CT scanner custom built for reading papyrus as opposed to human innards. They had some success at creating virtual models of the scrolls, revealing how dense and wavy the layers were and unwrapping them to their full length using image algorithms, but the lettering was a tough nut to crack because the carbonization made it all but impossible for the scanner to differentiate between the carbon-based ink and the papyrus.

Here’s a video of the EDUCE team scanning a Herculaneum scroll in 2010. You can see the results at the end and the one letter they point to is just a slightly darkish blur unreadable.

Now a new study published in Nature Communications reports that a similar imaging technique, X-ray phase-contrast tomography, has been able to pick out letters from the scrolls. The research team, led by Vito Mocella of the Italian National Research Council, took a fragment from an unwrapped scroll and one intact scroll from the Institut de France to Grenoble where the European Synchrotron particle collider lives. The high-energy beams from the synchrotron reflect back from the ever-so-slightly raised letters (carbon-based ink doesn’t soak into papyrus; it sits on top of it) at a different phase than they do from the papyrus. researchers measured the phase difference and were able to recreate the letters.

This video gives a quick glimpse into the scanning process, but you can’t really discern the letter here either because the actual identification is done after the scan.

Mocella and his team show that they were able to make out two previously unreadable sequences of capital letters from a hidden layer of the unrolled scroll fragment. The team interprets them as Greek words: ΠΙΠΤΟΙΕ, meaning “would fall”, and ΕΙΠΟΙ, meaning “would say”. Even more exciting for scholars, the team was able to pick out writing on the still-rolled scroll, eventually finding all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet at various points on the tightly bundled document.

Even though the current scans are mostly a proof of concept, the work suggests that there will soon be a way to read the full works on the rolled scrolls, the team says. “We plan to improve the technique,” says Mocella. “Next spring we have an allowance to spend more time at the Grenoble synchrotron, where we can test a number of approaches and try to discern the exact chemical composition of the ink. That will help us improve the energy setting of the beam for our scan.”

They’ll also collaborate with University of Kentucky computer scientist Dr. Brent Seales who spearheaded the EDUCE project. His work in mapping out the physical structure of the scrolls will be invaluable in helping place the letters in their proper order so the texts can actually be read rather than individual letters identified.

This is an important breakthrough for exploring other kinds of historical texts as well, like medieval palimpsests that have inaccessible writing in the binding or between glued pages, but if it does prove effective in reading Herculaneum’s carbonized scrolls, it could strike a motherlode of ancient sources. The scrolls that have been read so far all came from one room and they’re all in Greek. Archaeologists believe there may be a second library of Latin scrolls. If that’s true and more scrolls are found, a non-invasive means to read them could rediscover any number of lost ancient books. A virtual reality model of the Villa of the Papyri created at the UCLA’s Experiential Technologies Center conveys how large the structure is and how much is left to excavate.

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Drone Indiana Jones maps ruins of Italian town

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

It’s the first month of the new year and we already have a fine addition to my collection of Pompeii metaphors used to describe archaeological sites that are nothing at all like Pompeii. This time it’s the town of Cerreto Sannita in the southern Italian region of Campania being made to wear the Pompeii colors. The connection is that both cities were struck by a horrific cataclysm, but the comparisons pretty much end there. The town was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in the 17th century and a new Cerreto Sannita was built next to the ruins (to distinguish it from the new town, the site of the medieval ruins is called Cerreto antica). Little of the old city is visible today. Whatever is left is underground.

To ferret out the remnants of Cerreto antica, archaeologists have deployed a drone named Indiana Jones. With its onboard laser and videocamera, Indiana Jones is surveying the site above and below ground. Indiana’s lidar data will be the jumping off point for a hands-on archaeological excavation. The site will then be secured and any structures exposed will be stabilized. Artifacts recovered during the dig will be catalogued, and finally, the drone and dig information will be used to create a 3D model of the complete site. The “Medieval Cerreto” model won’t be just a virtual recreation, but a starting point for exploring the terrain, history and traditions of the town.

The Cerreto project is part of an initiative funded by Ministry of Education, Universities and Research that seeks to addresses issues of structural security while developing methods to integrate the protection, oversight and sustainable redevelopment of historical sites. The aim is to bring added safety and value to sites of cultural interest in seismically active areas, and boy is this area seismically active.

The towns, like Cerreto Sannita, in the environs of Benevento have a long, storied past of earthquake-induced upheaval. In fact, Cerreto itself once prospered mightily from an earthquake that drove residents out of the nearby town of Telesia. For centuries a regional administrative center under Lombard and Norman authorities, Telesia was seat of a bishopric from the 4th century A.D. until a massive series of earthquakes struck the central Apennine regions for an incredible seven months, from January until September of 1349. Sinkholes and landslides filled up with stagnant water, soil became swampy and volcanic fissures that emanated carbon dioxide and sulfur fumes made the air close to unbreathable. Telesia was abandoned and much of the population moved to Cerreto.

This gave the town a major economic, political and demographic boost. In 1593, Bishop Cesare Bellocchi instituted the diocesan seminary in Cerreto Sannita. After his death two years later, the new bishop, Eugenio Savino, moved into a palace in Cerreto donated by a local nobleman and made it the new official seat of the diocese which was renamed the Diocese of Telese or Cerreto Sannita. The town was now an important religious center, replete with churches, monasteries and convents.

Karma struck on June 5th, 1688. Cerreto Sannita was the epicenter of an earthquake estimated by seismologists to have been more than 7.0 on the Richter Scale. More than 4,000 people, half the population of the town, died and the entire town was razed to the ground. Six days later, Bishop Giovanni Battista de Bellis wrote to the head of the Congregation for Bishops reporting on the disaster.

“I am forced, crying, to advise you of the horrific spectacle of desolation in this my diocese, for the earthquake that struck at five the night before Pentecost while I was left weeping for my misery and that of my people. … Telese from ancient times was abandoned and my predecessor bishops moved to Cerreto, already populous, and there built a church, extremely beautiful, and to this church they transferred the services of the Cathedral where 15 Canons officiated. In this land of Cerreto there was the Church of San Martino, parochial and collegial, with 11 Canons and the Archpriest. There was a monastery of Conventual friars, a distinguished place of study, a monastery of Capuchin friars, a convent of the Nuns of the Order of Saint Clair where there were 65 nuns and converts.

Now this land with the churches, monasteries and everything, in the time it takes to recite a Credo, collapsed all, all, all, without there remaining standing even one house to take refuge in, something that anyone who did not see it would scarce believe it.”

The response was sympathetic but laconic. The Bishop went over the Curia’s head and appealed straight to Pope Innocent XI, explaining how the entire town had been leveled, that only three small dwellings belonging to a potter had survived the quake at all, and their walls were either crumbling or about to collapse, listing the numbers of dead in every convent, monastery and church, and asking that Rome help with emergency funds. He received no response. Only with the election of Pope Alexander VIII, a man known for his magnanimity, in 1689 did the diocese receive financial support for the reconstruction of the cathedral.

Unlike Telesia, Cerreto was not abandoned. It was rebuilt from scratch. Count Marzio Carafa stopped residents who were already beginning to rebuild their homes using the rubble and instead turned to royal engineer Giovanni Battista Manni to plan a town with particular attention to seismic stability. Also aided by his bother Marino and Bishop de Bellis, Marzio Carafa moved the city center downvalley onto a broad, low hill that was significantly more stable than the land the old town had been built on. It was all private property which the Count claimed through a sort of medieval version of eminent domain.

He also took out a loan of 3,000 ducats to build one and two-room houses that he sold to residents for manageable sums of 50 to 184 ducats. Since they had lost everything, the Count authorized his debt collector to extend loans for the purchase of the houses with interest-free repayments for three years and 6% interest the fourth. Eight years after the earthquake, the new town was complete and every resident owned his own new home with seismic design features like split support windows.

Inspired by Roman urbs, the new Cerreto Sannita had two major streets (decumani) parallel to each other with one-way traffic in opposite directions running down the length of the town and a number of small streets (cardini) connecting the two arteries. There were no defensive walls, no cramped and crooked alleys. It remains to this day one of the only surviving examples of a pure planned city from the late 17th century.

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The movie history book that cast a spell on young Martin Scorsese

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Some time ago, I watched a documentary called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. The title says it all, really. It’s about the movies that influenced Scorsese to become a director, the ones he loved as a boy, the ones that shaped his understanding of film. Since he’s a huge, huge movie nerd, he covers an enormous amount of ground, including pictures that are largely forgotten today. It’s the kind of thing you take notes on in the hope you might get a chance to see some of these films one day.

The documentary opens with a scene from The Bad and the Beautiful, a 1952 movie about movies starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, and my secret favorite Dick Powell, in which Kirk Douglas’ producer character argues with the director about how to shoot a scene. At the 3:00 mark, Scorsese appears for the first time, sitting in a chair facing the camera. He’s holding a book. He starts talking:

I guess I have to say that when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s, I spent a lot of time in movie theaters. I became obsessed with movies. At that time there was nothing really available that I could find written on film except one book, sort of my first film book, although I couldn’t really afford to buy it and I couldn’t find a copy except the only one available from the New York Public Library. I borrowed it from the library repeatedly. It’s called A Pictorial History of the Movies by Deems Taylor, and it was a pictorial history of the movies in black and white stills, year by year, up to 1949.

The book cast a spell on me, ’cause back then I hadn’t seen many of the films shown here in the book, so all I had at my disposal to experience these films were these black and white stills. I’d fantasize about them and they’d play into my dreams and I was so tempted to steal some of these pictures from the book. It’s a terrible urge. After all, it’s a book from the public library. Well, I confess: once or twice I did give in to that urge.

This was in an era before the proliferation of university film schools, when the industry was still new enough that taking a scholarly approach to its history seemed incongruous. In fact, when this book was first published in 1943, there was exactly one film school in the entire world: the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, founded in 1919 by director Vladimir Gardin. The next one, the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, was founded in 1946, three years after the first edition of A Pictorial History of the Movies was published. The United States didn’t get a dedicated film school until 1969 when the American Film Institute‘s Conservatory was established.

Scorsese beat the AFI to the punch, graduating with a master’s degree in film from the Graduate Film program of New York University’s School of the Arts (today the Tisch School of the Arts) in 1966, the year after the program was founded and the year that the author of the book that had ensorceled baby Martin Scorsese to deface it died.

Deems Taylor was a well-known composer, commentator and music critic. Born in 1885, like Scorsese, he too was a graduate of NYU who had made a name for himself as a composer of cantatas in the late nineteenteens. He had great success with two operas he composed for the Metropolitan Opera — The King’s Henchman (1927) and Peter Ibbetson (1929) — now all but forgotten. He was a member of the famed Algonquin Roundtable, the New York literati who gathered to skewer each other over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, and dated the sharpest skewer of them all, Dorothy Parker, for a short time.

While Taylor’s compositions and critiques languish in obscurity today, he was nationally famous in his day. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1931. He was a pitchman for California wines in 1940, his elegance and erudition lending much-needed panache to an American viticulture industry that had been nearly destroyed by Prohibition. Only fortified desert wines like sherry sold well in the United States (you can see that referenced in the ad) but it wasn’t because they paired well with roasts; it’s because they were taxed at a lower rate than hard liquors but had 20% alcohol so they provided the best bang for one’s buck. Table wines didn’t outsell fortified wines in America until 1968.

Fame is fickle, however, and if Deems Taylor is known at all today it is solely for his role as the Master of Ceremonies who introduces each music segment in Disney’s innovative 1940 masterpiece Fantasia. Walt Disney and the conductor Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra had heard Taylor doing commentary for radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic and brought him in on the project. Taylor contributed to some of the musical selections, advocating strongly for the inclusion of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the dino wars segment) which even a quarter century after its 1913 premiere in Paris caused an uproar, was still considered controversial.

(Random historical connection: Deems Taylor’s only earlier credited work in films was as composer for 1924′s Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War period piece that was one of the “serious” movies William Randolph Hearst produced to fancy up his mistress Marion Davies from a bubbly comedienne into a dramatic actress. It was a dismal failure, of course.

This is probably a coincidence but it’s a neat one so I am compelled to point out that at 3:18 in the first segment of A Personal Journey, Scorsese stops on a page in A Pictorial History of the Movies. The bottom left and top right stills are from Fantasia. The bottom right still is from Citizen Kane.)

That was pretty much it as far as Taylor’s film career went. He had a brief cameo playing himself in 1941′s version of Camp Rock, The Hard-Boiled Canary, and the rest is TV appearances, primarily on panel quiz shows like What’s My Line?. He must have caught the bug, though, because the first edition of A Pictorial History of the Movies was printed in 1943, three years after Fantasia hit theaters.

It obviously filled a need, because the book went into a second print run in its first year, and this was during World War II when there was paper rationing. Marilyn Monroe had a copy. Scorsese’s edition was printed in 1950, which means it was updated and reissued at least once at the end of the decade.

This preciousness of this volume to Scorsese makes me appreciate the times we live in, because yesterday while nerding around the Internet Archive, I just happened to come across the second 1943 printing of A Pictorial History of the Movies fully digitized and available for any young movie buffs to access whenever their hearts desire. Good resolution, too. You can see far more detail in the online version of those black and white stills than Martin Scorsese ever could cutting them out of the New York Public Library’s copy. I spent half the weekend reading it, and while it’s obviously dated and limited in scope, it’s still a total page turner, a mini-education in film.

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Read and see what Darwin read and saw on the HMS Beagle

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

HMS Beagle by P.G. King, 1890Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in December of 1831 as a self-funded gentleman naturalist (Josiah Wedgwood II, son of the potter/industrialist and Charles’ uncle by marriage, actually did the funding) on what was supposed to be a two-year survey of the South American coast. He wound up spending five years on board circumnavigating the globe. Darwin was 22 years old and fresh out of Cambridge when his epic voyage began. While the Beagle crew focused on surveying the coasts, Darwin’s job was studying the local flora, fauna and geology. Even though he was an amateur who had only ever put together a beetle collection before, he proved adroit at collecting specimens, over the years amassing a great quantity of them from plankton to Megatherium fossils.

On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, 23 years after the Beagle’s return to England, but the things he saw and the extensive notes and journal he wrote documenting his trip would be invaluable to his understanding that species are not immutable, but rather evolve over time through a process of natural selection. An essential element of Darwin’s growth from talented amateur to scientist was the research library on the Beagle. There were 404 books on board, mostly non-fiction (one exception Darwin is known to have read was a Spanish translation of a racy French novel by Antoine-Toussaint Desquiron de Saint-Agnan about the adultery trial of Queen Caroline, estranged wife of King George IV), almost all of them the property of the ship’s young captain Robert FitzRoy.

Diagram of poop cabin with Darwin's annotations labeling the bookcasesThe books were kept in cases in the poop cabin at the ship’s stern. Darwin was quartered in the poop cabin, which means for five years he lived in this library. Little wonder, then, that there are obscure notes in his journals that can only be explained by identifying the book referenced. However, the catalogue of the library was lost and the books themselves were dispersed when the Beagle returned home in 1836.

Now a team of researchers led by John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the National University of Singapore, have compiled and digitized every last known title from the Beagle’s library.

Among the titles are all 20 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, seven volumes of the Natural History of Invertebrate Animals by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and James Cook’s three-volume account of a Pacific Ocean voyage in the 1770s. [...]

Reconstructing the library provides a more complete picture of Darwin’s world during the expedition. “Darwin literally lived in the library for five years,” said van Wyhe. “The science of his day was already quite sophisticated. All these geology books and all these books on fossils. Darwin could build on what was already known and what had come before.” [...]

The books onboard were identified through a number of methods including letters sent between crew members and their families, lines in Darwin’s notebooks and his surviving book collection. The final number of books digitised for the project is close to a number stated by Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle. In a letter to his sister during an earlier voyage on 16 March 1826, FitzRoy wrote, “I flatter myself I have a complete library in miniature, upwards of 400 volumes!”

Here is the complete Beagle library catalogued by subject, here catalogued by title. There are a total of 195,000 pages in the library with more than 5,000 illustrations.

Montevideo from the anchored Beagle, Conrad Martens, 1833If you’d like to see some of the sights Darwin saw during his voyage, you’ll enjoy another digitization project: Cambridge University’s scanning of the sketchbooks filled by the Beagle’s artist, Conrad Martens. He documented the sights with lightning drawings, most of them quick pencil sketches with some watercolors, during his altogether too brief time on board the ship. He joined the Beagle crew in November of 1833 at Montevideo and left after they reached Valparaiso in August of 1834 due to budgetary constraints. Leaf through Sketchbook III here and Sketchbook I here. (Those are in date order, despite the counterintuitive numbering.)

 

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