Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

First Shakespeare play to reach Spain found

Saturday, September 19th, 2020

A researcher has discovered the first Shakespeare play to reach Spain in the library of the Royal Scots College of Salamanca. Universitat de Barcelona Philology and Communication professor John Stone was researching 18th century philosophy at the  Royal Scots College of Salamanca when he came across a previously unknown volume of 11 English plays printed in the 1630s. It is untitled and has no markings on the cover or endpages that might identify its owner or publisher. The first play in the book is a 1634 edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a tragicomedy that is believed to be William Shakespeare’s final play, written in collaboration with King’s Men playwright John Fletcher.

All of the plays are London editions published between 1630 and 1635. Stone believes the volume belonged to a student at the Royal Scots College, or was perhaps brought to the college at the request of its rector Hugh Semple who owned numerous published plays in his library.

Collections of English books in Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries were rare, and English plays were exceptional. In fact, the Spanish union catalogue of pre-1900 imprints (Catálogo colectivo del patrimonio bibliográfico español) does not list any copy of an English play printed before 1720. The only volume that could compete with Stone’s finding as the first work by Shakespeare in Spain is a volume first found in the Royal English College of Saint Alban in Valladolid, which is now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. However, several scholars date the arrival of this copy in Valladolid, Spain, between 1641 and 1651. Therefore, if the work found by Stone arrived in Spain before 1640, it would clearly be the first Shakespearean work to have circulated in this country.

Apart from the volume containing The Two Noble Kinsmen, Stone found in Salamanca another volume of English plays from the same period. If we put these volumes together, there is a total of nineteen plays that would have reached the first historical premises of the Royal Scots College, in Madrid, before 1654. “By the 1630s English plays were increasingly associated with elite culture, and Rector Semple, due to his political ambitions, wanted to stay in touch with the cultural life of London”, notes Stone to provide the finding with some context.

The two volumes of English plays first arrived in Spain in Madrid, not Salamanca. In 1767, they moved to the Irish College in Alcalá de Henares, and in 1770 moved again to the Royal Scots College in Valladolid. In 1985, they moved to the Salamanca library where they were placed in the philosophy section. That’s where Jones found them entirely by accident while he was looking for Spanish reviews of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

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Rails from 1906 trolley dug up in Walla Walla

Monday, September 14th, 2020

About 450 feet of 114-year-old trolley tracks were removed last week from downtown Walla Walla, Washington. They were pulled to make way for new utility work.

Significant stretches of the tracks remained embedded in the city’s roads. They were left undisturbed until 2011 when city water main improvement projects that would necessitate the removal of sections of track spurred an archaeological survey of the site. Using metal detectors, magnetometers and good old-fashioned shoe leather, archaeologists traced the trolley rails and recorded where they were visible and where they might be present under smooth asphalt.

Walla Walla’s first street car system began in 1889 and was horse-drawn. The cars ran on a standard gauge track with most of the rails installed in a cement base eight inches thick. It lasted a decade before plans to upgrade to an electrified system fell through and the horse-drawn street cars ceased operations in 1899.

Come the opening of the Walla Walla River hydroelectric plant in 1905, electrical power became more easily available in the city, in 1906, the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company built the first electric trolley system. At first it was just one line between the railway depot to the city park. By 1918, there were an estimated 14 miles of trolley tracks in the city, plus dozens more in extensions to the suburbs, neighboring cities ( Milton and Freewater, 14 miles away across the state line into Oregon) and spur lines to national train lines and shipping on the Columbia River.

The urban trolley system was a major economic boon to workers and to businesses, providing inexpensive, quick and reliable transportation to people and freight. It was a short-lived boon. The advent of the car killed the trolleys but good and Walla Walla’s city trolley system was shut down for good on December 31st, 1926. The service to Oregon, ceased in 1931.

In 1926, the city determined that only the tracks on brick or unpaved areas needed to be removed. The ones on paved streets would simply be abandoned. As roads were asphalted, the rails would be covered up with nobody the wiser. The sections of track visible today were exposed by erosion of the asphalt layer which, as it happens, does not bond well to iron rails.

The 2011 survey concluded that much of the  Walla Walla Valley Railway Company’s rails were still in place under the surface and exposed in discreet areas. Intersections and areas with recent infrastructure work did have the old tracks removed. The section beneath Whitman Street had 4000 feet of railway. Archaeologists determined that this section was not contiguous and having been buried for decades, they were unlikely to shed new light on the history of public transportation in Walla Walla. They recommended the utility work continue and that the rails be fully documented upon removal. Archaeologists kept only one section of the rail which was stamped with a date and manufacturer name. It is now at the Fort Walla Walla Museum.

The same principal was applied a week ago, when workers pulled 450 feet of the rails under Whitman to proceed with plans to repair and replace water, sewer and road infrastructure.

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The Blue Boy is back and bluer than ever

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

After three years of restoration (plus a little pandemic thrown in there) Thomas Gainsborough’s most iconic masterpiece, The Blue Boy, has been reinstalled in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, and he is looking bluer than ever.

A Portrait of a Young Gentleman was first removed from public view in August 2017 for a thorough technical analysis and conservation program to treat long-standing structural problems, discolored varnishes, bad overpaint and flaking. A full year of that painstaking work, from September 2018 through September 2019, was undertaken in public so visitors to The Huntington could see The Blue Boy unframed as conservators cured what ailed him.

I swear the above phrasing was not intentional, but I’m keeping it in because one of the cool discoveries made during the analysis of the lining was that the adhesive Gainsborough used was a paste made of rye flour and ale. The conservation team brought in a food historian to recreate the historic recipe using modern ingredients so they could utilize it in a mock-up and study the interaction between adhesive and lining.

Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator and leader of the project, removed several uneven layers of dirt and discolored varnish with small cotton swabs to reveal Gainsborough’s original brilliant blues and other pigments. Then, with tiny brushes, she reconnected the artist’s brushstrokes across the voids of past damage as part of the inpainting process. As O’Connell worked on the painting, she became intimately aware of Gainsborough’s every brushstroke. “It’s been an incredibly deep professional experience,” she said. “Conservation work is very much a process of discovery. I’ve not only had a view of the painting at the microscopic level, but I was also able to observe each stroke as the true colors of Gainsborough’s palette were revealed from underneath many layers of dirt and discolored varnish.”

During the process, O’Connell discovered that although Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy on a recycled canvas (as revealed in earlier X-rays), he made considerable use of a complex network of paint layers and pigments to create a painting that truly showed off his skills.

Gainsborough did not paint The Blue Boy on commission. He created it for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 to showcase his abilities in Van Dyck-style portraiture, hence the 17th century style of the boy’s striking clothing. Gainsborough’s aim was to take on the sine qua non of court portrait painters and to beat the revered Van Dyck at his own game. He succeeded. The Blue Boy was an immediate hit at the exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, son of working class parents, vaulted up the social ranks from making portraits of merchants to painting nobles and aristocrats.

The Blue Boy was supposed to be reinstalled in March, but then the thing that happened happened, so his return was pushed back. Phased reopening has begun. For now, only the botanical gardens are open to visitors, but when the galleries reopen, he will be waiting for them with a whole new glow.

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Massive lion sculpture found in Cambodia

Friday, September 11th, 2020

Workers digging at the site of a new water pumping station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, have discovered a massive stone lion. A crew from the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) was digging near the Wat Phnom temple when they came across the ancient statue lying on its back 13 feet below street level. It measures more than eight feet in height and was found broken in two parts.

The lion appears similar in design to the massive statues that guard the main pagoda and main stupa of the Wat Phnom temple. The temple lions are not as massive as this one, however. Hab Touch, director-general for tangible heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, speculates that the newly discovered lion was part of a different structure at the site, something large like a bridge. It could also have originated elsewhere and been moved to the location later.

National Museum director Chhay Visoth told The Post that he cannot make any assumptions about which era the stone lion was made in because experts needed time to check the composition of the ancient stone.

“We cannot make assumptions of the lion that we found during mine clearance for the reservoir plan because we don’t have any connections regarding this statue.

“Normally, we can know the date of an artefact by identifying other things around it,” he said.

Viosth said it’s suspected that the lion was created at the same time as Wat Phnom or sometime after Cambodia was a French protectorate.

That’s a rather elastic range. Wat Phnom was built in 1372. Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863. The sculpture is now being studied by experts at the Ministry of Culture. They might be able to determine its possible age with a tad more precision, but with no contextual clues from an archaeological excavation, it will be difficult to confirm.

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400-year-old chamois acts as model for ice mummy research

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

A chamois preserved for 400 years in the Ahrntal glacier in Italy’s South Tyrol will give researchers new information on how to conserve ice mummies that are increasingly at risk of exposure and decay due to glacier melt.

The goat-antelope died at an altitude of 10,500 feet and the ice preserved much of its skin. It was discovered by world champion skier and alpine enthusiast Hermann Oberlechner in the Val Audrina at a location so remote it can only be reached by a six-hour hike. The receding ice had exposed the hairless, leathern skin and Oberlechner realized this was not your usual animal carcass. He took a photo and mailed it to a park ranger and they notified cultural heritage officials of the find. (I mean, I barely get a bar a mile away from home where there’s moderate tree coverage, but he can send pics 10,000 feet up the Alps?)

On August 26th, a team of Alpine Army Corps troops and experts from Eurac Research helicoptered to the Val Aurina to recover the carcass. The goat was chiseled out of the ice and fragments of its glacial context saved for further analysis.

The goat was transported to a Eurac laboratory in Bolzano where it will be studied further with the aim of establishing the most effective protocol to conserve ice mummies exposed by rapidly receding glaciers. Researchers will also investigate how best to protect ancient DNA in mummified remains.

In mummified specimens, DNA has often degraded and is present only in minimal amounts. In fact, faced with a new discovery, the first question experts encounter is how to examine the mummy while continuing to preserve it, without damaging its ancient DNA. Every action has irreversible consequences on DNA fragments, which makes experimenting with new techniques on human finds impossible. Contrastingly, an intact animal mummy is a perfect simulant for research – especially if its conditions are similar to those of the world’s other ice mummies, of which Ötzi and the Inca girl Juanita are among the most famous. “Thanks to our previous studies we know the optimal physical and chemical parameters for preservation from a microbiological point of view. In the laboratory we will bring the chamois to those conditions and focus on their effects on DNA. With repeated in-depth analysis we will verify what alterations the DNA undergoes when external conditions change,” explains Marco Samadelli, conservation expert at Eurac Research. “Our goal is to use scientific data to develop a globally valid conservation protocol for ice mummies. This is the first time an animal mummy has been used in this way,” adds Albert Zink, Director of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research.

This video shows the painstaking process of removing the chamois mummy from its icy grave, how it was exposed, how ice chips and organic materials were bagged and how the body was transferred onto a custom-made stretchery thing (not a stretcher at all, really, more like plastic bed with ribs so it could be covered with a tarp without touching the remains).

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British Museum acquires lost Hokusai drawings

Saturday, September 5th, 2020

The British Museum has acquired a set of more than 100 illustrations by Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai that were lost for 70 years. Hokusai, today internationally famous for his iconic Great Wave print, created 103 drawings in 1829 for a book called Great Picture Book of Everything but for reasons still unknown to this day, it was never published.

His hand-inked preparatory drawings were acquired by French Art Nouveau jeweler Henri Verver (1854-1942) who was one of the first European collectors of ukiyo-e woodbloock prints, an art form that Hokusai embraced and transformed. They last appeared on the public record in 1948 when they were sold at auction and then disappeared into the penumbra of anonymous private holdings. The collection emerged again last year and the British Museum was able to arrange their purchase thanks to a grant from the Art Fund.

As might suit the illustrations for a book about everything, the drawings depicts a variety of subjects including mythology, literature, animals, plants and landscapes. Most of the drawings refer to subjects from ancient China, India, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, motifs that appear nowhere else in Hokusai’s oeuvre.

They were made during a period of great hardship in Hokusai’s life. He was 70 years old and had suffered a stroke, been widowed and was close to destitute because of his grandson’s gambling debts. He produced very little artwork during this time, which makes the drawings all the more significant.

Tim Clark, Honorary Research Fellow of the British Museum, said, “These works are a major new re-discovery, expanding considerably our knowledge of the artist’s activities at a key period in his life and work. All 103 pieces are treated with the customary fantasy, invention and brush skill found in Hokusai’s late works and it is wonderful that they can finally be enjoyed by the many lovers of his art worldwide.”

The 103 drawings and the original wood box they came in have been digitized and can be browsed in extreme close-up in the British Museum Collection online.

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Mayor’s heart found in the fountain dedicated to him

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020

A zinc coffer containing the heart of the first mayor of Verviers, Belgium, after Belgian independence has been found during restoration of a fountain dedicated to his memory. The monument on Place Verte in downtown Verviers is currently undergoing restoration. The bronze elements have been removed for cleaning and stabilization. Last month, workers found the inscribed mental box ensconced in a cavity behind a stone that was removed. The engraving reads: “The heart of Pierre David was solemnly placed in the monument on 25 June 1883.”

The Walloon city of Verviers was hard hit by the upheavals of the French Revolution, the region’s economy devastated in the wake of annexation to France in 1795. After the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the former French territory was given to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, but Dutch rule was overthrown in the Belgian Revolution of 1830.

Verviers’ economy had begun to rebound as part of the sillon industriel, the Walloon industrial backbone. The city was a major center of wool production, and water management played an important role in its development. Numerous fountains were built in the city and today Verviers bears the title of the Walloon Capital of Water.

Born and raised in Verviers, Pierre David was first elected mayor under French rule in 1800, serving eight years. He was elected the first bourgmestre (mayor) of the city after Belgian independence and  rebuilt the city after it was damaged in the revolution. He refused all pay for the job, an unusually generous posture He was re-elected mayor in 1836 and served until he was killed suddenly in a freak accident. He fell in his hayloft and suffered a fatal blow to the head. He was 68 years old.

After his death, city officials asked his family for his heart to entomb it in a monument dedicated to his memory. They agreed and a surgeon performed the task. The heart was sealed in a glass jar with alcohol to preserve it while the city raised funds to build the monument. That took a lot longer than expected. During the 44-year wait, the city rang bells annually on the date of his death in memory of him. When the completed monument was finally inaugurated in 1883, it was, fittingly for Verviers, a fountain. The Monument David featured a limestone and bronze bust of the late mayor sculpted by Clément Vivroux, and in a cavity near the bust, the heart was laid to rest.

Over time, the story of the heart of David entombed in the David Monument crossed over the blurry dividing line between fact and legend. Restorers were not expecting to find it.

The Verviers Alderman for Public Works, Maxime Degey, said “an urban legend has become reality: the casket was in the upper part of the fountain, right near the bust of Pierre David, behind a stone which we had removed during the fountain’s renovation”.

Quoted by broadcaster RTBF, he said the casket found by the builders on 20 August was “in really impeccable condition”.

The casket has gone on display in an exhibition dedicated to David, his heart and its monument at the Verviers Museum of Fine Arts. Also exhibited are his funeral mask, photographs, a portrait and the municipal register attesting to the removal and preservation of the heart. It runs through September 20th.

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German library acquires 400-year-old yearbook with only the coolest signatures

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

The Herzog August Bibliothek library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, has acquired a 400-year-old illustrated album signed by the crowned heads of Europe for €2.8 million (about $3.1 million). It’s a purchase that has been on the library’s wish list since 1648. That first offer was declined. Three hundred and seventy-two years later, the second offer was accepted.

The “Album Amicorum” (friendship book), aka the “Große Stammbuch,” was put together by Augsburg art dealer and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer over 50 years of travels through the courts of Europe. As he brokered the sale of luxury goods to his aristocratic clientele between 1596 and 1647, he would ask them sign his friendship book. Contributions went far beyond autographs, Hainhofer commissioned elaborate illuminations to go with the signatures and inscriptions. Well-known artists, mostly from his hometown in Augsburg, filled the pages with rich decoration, the higher the status of the signatory, the more elaborate the illustration.

Even in its own time it was famous for the quality of its illustrations and the incredible array of contributors. Signatories include Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, another HRE Matthias, Christian IV of Denmark and Norway, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, Frederick V, Elector Palatine and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James VI of Scotland/James I of England, and grandmother of the first Hanoverian king of Britain, George I.

Friendship books were a popular trend starting in the 16th century. People would use them to record information about their friends and families, or even people they’d just met once but who made a strong impression. Students at Wittenberg University in the 1530s used them as yearbooks, passing them around to get signatures, crests, dedications, poems from each other and their professors. The more renown the scholars, the more cachet attached to the book. The practice continued in the halls of German academia into the early 19th century.

Hainhofer started his friendship book when he was a college student. When his business put him in contact with people of high rank, he asked them to sign. Those clients provided a conduit to people of even higher rank, and as the book’s contributors represented the heights of court society, the book itself gave Hainhofer access to rarified circles which gave him invaluable aid in his cultural and diplomatic endeavors.

After Hainhofer’s death in 1647, August the Younger of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, a long-time friend and correspondent of Philipp Hainhofer’s and one of the signatories of the book, tried to buy it from the son and heir for the library August had founded in Wolfenbüttel. That was the last documented trace of the masterpiece until it reemerged at an auction in New York in 2006. Unbeknownst to researchers at the time, it turns out to have been sold in London in 1931 and then again in the 1940s to bibliophile Cornelius Hauck in Cincinnati.

At the 2006 auction, it was acquired by a British private collector and went back across the ocean. This year that collector contacted Sotheby’s to sell Das Große Stammbuch. The auction house’s experts traced its history and discovered its connection to the Herzog August Bibliothek. Sotheby’s contacted the library which was thrilled to repatriate this unique record of Early Modern European art, politics, trade and diplomacy. The book will be researched thoroughly for the first time in its long life, digitized and made freely available to the public.

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Remains of 1,500 people found in Osaka graveyard

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020

Panoramic view of the graveyard from the north. Photo courtesy Osaka City Cultural Properties Association.The remains of more than 1,500 individuals from the 19th century have been discovered in a historic burial ground in Osaka. This is the greatest number of burials ever discovered in one place in the city.

The city has been conducting excavations at the site since 1991. The most recent archaeological survey focused on the eastern end of the burial ground due to a planned expansion of Osaka Station. The site was once known as Umeda Haka (Umeda Grave) and was one of seven major cemeteries in the city of Osaka. It was active from the Edo (1603-1868) to the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Archaeologists unearthed a stone wall noted on an 1890 map that forms the east boundary of the graveyard and more of the north-south wall that was first encountered in the 2016-2017 dig. To the north of the stone wall were hundreds of simple burials. The deceased were interred in shallow pits and covered with about three feet of soil. Multiple bodies were layered on top of each other. These are likely victims of an epidemic who had to be buried quickly. Lesions have been found on their extremities which might be indicative of what killed them. Syphilis is one possibility, as it was known to be widespread in urban centers during the late Edo, early Meiji period.

In the southern section of the cemetery, the team unearthed a large rectangular building with a stone foundation. The cornerstone was set in a trench that was backfilled with bone ash soil. Its purpose is unclear, but archaeologists think it may have been an ossuary. On the north and south sides of the building were a dense grouping of casket burials, including enclosed wooden caskets and circular open containers like barrels. Artifacts found inside the graves include juzudama (prayer beads, combs, clay dolls and rokusenmon (a set of six coins used to pay passage across the river to the afterlife). The team also unearthed a group of about 350 earthenware urns in a depository of bone ash from cremations.

Researchers believe this cemetery was used by the commoners who lived outside the Osaka Castle compound. The average age of death was around 30 years old, and the remains of many children have been found there. Archaeologists hope that analysis of the bones and grave goods will shed new light on the lives of the non-aristocratic people of Osaka who have been sorely neglected in historical records.

The remains and artifacts excavated are now being documented and analyzed. Results of the survey are expected to be published next year.

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Intact 17th c. shipwreck found in Gulf of Finland

Friday, August 21st, 2020

Divers have discovered the nearly intact wreck of 17th century merchant ship at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland. A team of volunteer divers from Badewanne, a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting shipwrecks from World War I and World War II in the Gulf of Finland, spotted the wreck on the sea floor at a depth of 280 feet. The area was extremely active during the world wars and is replete with the remains of minesweepers, U-boats and other casualties of naval conflict, so on the descent the team assumed it was one a relic from the first half of the 20th century. They were shocked to find it was a wood sailing vessel from the 17th century.

The cold, dark, shipworm-free waters of the Easter Baltic preserved the vessel in extraordinary condition. It has taken some small damage from a pelagic trawl that swept over the deck bow to aft, pulling out the masts, some deck timbers and the transom between the hoekman (statues of prosperous Dutch merchants flanking the stern). Some of the damaged parts of the transom and hoekmen are still in situ on the bottom of the ship behind the stern. There is no damage to the hull so the ship cannot have been dashed onto shoals. The ship probably capsized in a storm.

Its pear-shaped stern identifies it as a cargo vessel of Dutch manufacture called a fluyt. With their shallow draft, ample cargo space, narrow deck and absence of armament, the three-masted ships were fast, capacious, able to sail inland waterways and, thanks to an innovative pulley and tackle system operating the sails, they were easily manned by a small crew. They were the cheap, efficient workhorses of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries and dominated the Baltic trade routes.

Badewanne team will continue documenting and investigating this significant wreck in co-operation with Finnish Heritage Agency of Antiquities and other partners, Including Associate Professor Dr. Niklas Eriksson, Maritime Archaeologist, Univ. of Stockholm, Sweden:

“The wreck reveals many of the characteristics of the fluit but also some unique features, not least the construction of the stern. It might be that this is an early example of the design. The wreck thus offers a unique opportunity to investigate the development of a ship type that sailed all over the world and became the tool that laid the foundation for early modern globalization,” says Dr. Eriksson.

You can see a brief but crystal clear video of the shipwreck here.

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