Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Aztec skull rack found in Mexico City’s Templo Mayor

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have unearthed part of a large rack of human skulls in the Templo Mayor complex in Mexico City. The Aztecs would pierce the heads of the sacrificed, string them together on wooden stakes and mount them on a vertical posts. This structure, called a tzompantli, would be erected for all to see as a highly effective symbol of ruthless power. A five-skull tzompantli was discovered underneath a sacrificial stone and a mound of skulls and jawbones at the Templo Mayor in 2012, but this latest discovery is on a whole other scale. Archaeologists believe it is the major tzompantli of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan described in Spanish accounts of the city before its destruction in 1521.

The team was digging in a well under the floor of a colonial-era home on the western side of the temple complex. Six feet under floor level, they discovered a wall of volcanic rock coated with stucco with a flagstone floor. The rectangular platform, estimated to be more than 34 meters (111.5 feet) long and 12 meters (40 feet) wide, has at its center a circular structure made from skulls cemented together using a lime, sand and volcanic gravel mortar. Many of the skulls have a hole 25 to 30 centimeters (10-12 inches) in diameter piercing the parietal bones. They are all facing inwards at the open space inside the circle. Adult male skulls predominate, but there are skulls from adult women, youths and children as well. So far archaeologists have counted 35 skulls, but expect to see that number increase exponentially as they dig further down under the stucco and stone slabs.

Preliminary dating places this structure in Stage VI of the construction of the Templo Mayor (between 1486 and 1502), during the reign of Aztec warrior king Ahuízotl. He was succeeded on the throne of Tenochitlan by his nephew Moctezuma II who would meet his end fighting Conquistador Hernán Cortés. Cortés himself described the great tzompantli of Tenochtitlan, as did early ethnographers Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and Dominican friar Diego Durán. They wrote of tzompantli with low, elongated bases supporting the vertical posts with horizontal racks of skulls. There is also at least one account of skulls mortared together; this is the first time a tzompantli has been discovered matching that description.

University of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the project, wrote that “I do not personally know of other instances of literal skulls becoming architectural material to be mortared together to make a structure.” [...]

“They’ve been looking for the big one for some time, and this one does seem much bigger than the already excavated one,” Gillespie wrote. “This find both confirms long-held suspicions about the sacrificial landscape of the ceremonial precinct, that there must have been a much bigger tzompantli to curate the many heads of sacrificial victims” as a kind of public record or accounting of sacrifices.

The second stage of excavations will begin in November. Meanwhile, the skulls will be examined in the laboratory. They’ll test the DNA if they can recover any and will test stable isotopes in the bones and teeth to determine the geographic origin of the sacrificed.

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The Campbell Sisters dance into UK museums

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

A unique life-sized marble sculpture capturing the lovely young Campbell sisters mid-dance has been jointly acquired by the Victoria & Albert and the Scottish National Gallery. The sculptural group sold at auction last July for $868,090 to a foreign buyer. To keep the rare masterpiece in the country, the sale price was raised by the museums thanks to grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. The V&A and the Scottish National Gallery will share joint custody of The Campbell Sisters, each museum displaying it for seven years at a time.

Made by Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini around 1821, The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz depicts the girls stepping lively side-by-side as their delicately draped gowns seem to flutter in the breeze. (It was Bartolini who dubbed the dance a “Valtzer” even though it’s obvious they’re not waltzing. The face-to-face whirling dance we know as the waltz became popular in aristocratic circles starting in the 1770s, so you’d think he would have been familiar with it.) Sisters Emma and Julia were the youngest of the eight children of Lady Charlotte Campbell, daughter of the 5th Duke of Argyll, and her distant cousin/husband John Campbell. It wasn’t a great match, fortune-wise, and after his death the Lady Charlotte had significant money troubles. By the time Bartolini immortalized Emma and Julia in graceful motion, they were living with their widowed mother in Florence where a noblewoman in reduced circumstances could live more comfortably than she could in England or Scotland.

Given their comparative brokeness, it’s not certain who commissioned the work. According to Bartolini’s studio notes, the sculpture was commissioned by the girls’ brother Mr. Campbell, but the whole family had limited funds so it’s unlikely their eldest brother Walter would have spent £500 on a marble life-sized portrait of his sisters. Perhaps a more likely candidate is the girls’ uncle, Lady Charlotte’s brother, George William Campbell, the 6th Duke of Argyll. Bartolini’s notes say they shipped it to Edinburgh and at some point the sculpture wound up in the dining room of Inveraray Castle, seat of the Dukes of Argyll. There are no references to its arrival in the castle archives.

Bartolini was famous in his time for his portrait sculptures. He had been one of Napoleon’s favorites and his fortunes suffered somewhat in the wake of his patron’s final defeat and exile, but he made a decent living in the late 18teens and twenties in large part thanks to portrait commissions. A great many portrait busts of prominent men and women of the period (the Bonaparte siblings and spouses, Alexander I of Russia, the Duke of Alba, the Duchess of Sutherland and dozens more) made by Bartolini are in museums and collections all over Europe and the United States today.

Canova’s static, posed neoclassical aesthetic still dominated, while Bartolini preferred a softer, more naturalistic approach he’d learned studying painting in Paris under Jacques-Louis David. Despite his eye for naturalism and movement so clearly evinced in The Campbell Sisters, the portrait of the young ladies is one of only two action sculptures made by Bartolini. The other one was Neoptolemus Casting Astyanax from the Walls of Troy, made in 1841 and widely considered Bartolini’s chef-d’oeuvre. Commissioned by Donna Rosa Poldi-Pezzoli, the Astyanax group would become the core of Poldi-Pezzoli Museum founded in Milan by her son Don Gian-Giacomo. Bartolini created a scene of dynamic action — Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) about to throw the child Astyanx from Troy’s ramparts to his death while his mother Andromache lies prostrate at his feet, one arm reaching up his leg — in marked contrast to his static portraits.

Sadly the sculpture and its plaster model were destroyed by aerial bombing in World War II. A bronze replica made in 1902 after the original marble, then located in the courtyard of the museum building, was damaged in a hailstorm, has survived, as have preparatory drawings now in the Uffizi and the Morgan Library and Museum. That makes The Campbell Sisters the only surviving Bartolini sculpture that captures characters in movement. Because of that and because it’s a much earlier work that uniquely combines the portraiture he was best known for and an action scene, the UK museums are thrilled to get to keep The Campbell Sisters.

It is on display at the V&A right now, where it will remain until November 20th. After that, it moves to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh for the first seven year visitation period. For more about Lorenzo Bartolini, peruse the marvel that is this website dedicated to the artist and his art by Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia. It literally has his entire output in the Works gallery, plus gobs more information everywhere. The English version works too! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the alternate languages of smaller museum sites only have a single introductory page while all the rest of the links are broken.

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Oldest message in a bottle found in Germany

Friday, August 21st, 2015

There’s a new contender for oldest message in a bottle. This one was found by retired postal worker Marianne Winkler when it washed up on the shore of the German island of Amrum on the North Sea coast. She was there on vacation, walking on the beach, when she came across the clear bottle on April 17th.

A card inside invited the finder in big, bold red letters to “BREAK THE BOTTLE” but Marianne and her husband Holst first tried to open it without breaking the glass. When that proved impossible, they followed instructions. The message in the bottle was a postage-paid postcard that asked in English, German and Dutch for finders to answer questions about where they’d found the bottle and when. Everyone who sent their postcard to the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth would earn one shiny shilling in reward. The Winklers photocopied the postcard, filling in the information as requested on the copy, then mailed the card and copy to the MBA.

MBA researchers were shocked to receive the Winklers’ missive. There was no date on the card, but they recognized it as one of 1020 bottles released from December 1904 through August 1906 by MBA council member and future president George Parker Bidder. Bidder was studying bottom water currents (currents just above the seabed) and sent out what he called “bottom bottles” to trace the movements of the currents and fish.

Bidder’s experiment revealed a number of interesting results, one being that it confirmed the view of naturalists who supposed that bottom feeders tend to move against the current. He concluded that the main drift in all his series of bottle releases seemed to be in the opposite direction to the migration of plaice at the same time of year. Moreover, Bidder expressed the opinion that the percentage of bottles recovered by the trawls did not differ from the percentage of plaice in the same area caught by the trawl at the same time. This meant that Bidder could use the bottles as an instrument for assessing the intensity of trawling because they cannot migrate.

What was probably his most significant finding from his experiments was that many of his bottom-trailers got cast on the English shore, whereas surface bottles would, for the most part go across the North Sea. He deduced, regarding the bottom flow, “that the isochrones of the stream-front were shaped on the shoreline; and such a formation of the bottom current suggested the creeping-in of heavy water.”

Most of the bottles were retrieved by trawlers in the year immediately after their release and researchers assumed the rest were long gone, destroyed or in the open ocean. It’s been years since any cropped up, so many years that nobody even knows when the last one was found. This bottle has traveled more than 600 nautical miles over 108 years, making it the oldest known message in a bottle.

The official record-holder for oldest message in a bottle, found 99 years and 43 days after its 1914 release, was also released as part of a study of undercurrents. It was one 1,890 bottles released by the Glasgow School of Navigation to map the currents around Scotland and it seems to have understood its brief well because it was retrieved from the waters west of the Shetland Islands.

It’s not really the oldest message in a bottle, though. The message from a German hiker found by Baltic fishermen last year was released in 1913 and floated for almost 101 years, and one found in British Columbia in 2013 was released in September of 1906 by a passenger on a steamer traveling from San Francisco to Bellingham, Washington. The Baltic message hasn’t been confirmed as a record yet, and the finder of the bottle in Canada didn’t want to open it for fear of damaging it, so even though he said he was planning on writing the Guinness World Records committee, unless he was willing to open the bottle its age couldn’t be confirmed.

The Winkler’s bottle is older than both of them. The latest it could have been released was a month before the one found in British Columbia was released, and it stayed in the water two years longer. I know the records committee isn’t in the business of judging quality, but perhaps there should be some distinction made between bottles released in oceanographic studies and ones released by individuals. The odds of one of thousands of bottles surviving a century are obviously significantly higher than the odds of a single bottle surviving, and when you think “message in a bottle,” mass-mailings aren’t really what come to mind. The fascination of the message in a bottle relies on the romantic image of one person casting his or her thoughts into the world in the hope that someone somewhere might find it.

The MBA has submitted its candidate for the oldest message in a bottle to the Guinness Book of World Records and are waiting to hear back. Meanwhile, they made good on Bidder’s promise. They found a period English shilling on eBay and sent it to the Winklers.

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Mother meets daughter 70 years after war tore them apart

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

A little balm for the soul is in order, I think, and a mother meeting her daughter for the first time 70 years after she was taken from her just after birth during World War II definitely qualifies.

While still a teenager, Gianna (she prefers to remain anonymous) left her hometown of Novellara in northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna province to work in Germany. Italy and Germany were still allies then, and many Italian women were recruited as labourers. She worked in a factory in Eberbach where she met and fell in love with a young Nazi soldier. After Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in September of 1943, the Italian labourers found themselves stuck in Germany under significantly less cordial circumstances. They were converted to forced-labour status and moved into camps. Gianna got pregnant and gave birth in October 1944 only to have her parental custody revoked a month later and her infant daughter taken from her by the Nazi Welfare and Juvenile Office.

When the war ended, Gianna returned home, certain her daugher and the baby’s father were dead. In fact, the baby girl had spent a short time in a children’s home before her father, still very much alive, “adopted” her. Unbeknownst to Gianna, the soldier had been married all along. He brought his daughter home and he and his wife raised her and the seven half-siblings born after the war. Margot Bachmann, as the baby girl was named, was told only that her mother was Italian and dead. Her strict father forbade her to ask any questions about her parentage.

She had an inkling even as a youngster that there was something off about this story, but her father was so adamant that she not look into it that even as an adult she was intimidated. It was only after his death two years ago and with the encouragement of her daughter that she began to break free of the psychological chains and seriously contemplate searching for the truth about her mother, never expecting to find her still alive. With the wreckage of war to sift through, Margot hit a few walls before finally finding her certificate of baptism that recorded her mother’s name.

Armed with the precious name, Margot contacted the German Red Cross who put her in touch with International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, an organization dedicated to reuniting families torn apart by war. ITS has a vast archive of 30 million documents — original papers, thousands of envelopes with personal effects like wallets, correspondence files and much more — pertaining to victims of Nazi camps, 90% of which have been digitized. After an extensive search, ITS was able to find Gianna’s name and information this July. Working with the Italian Red Cross’ Family Links Networks, they were then able to locate Margot’s mother, alive and in good health at 91 years old and still living in her hometown. Had she moved at any point in the past seven decades, they would probably never have found her.

Margot wrote her mother a letter:

“Dear Mum, my name is Margot Bachmann and I am your daughter, born on Oct 25 1944 in Heidelberg. All my life I asked my family about you, without being given any answers. I want to come and find you so that I can hug you once again. I’m immensely happy to be able to finally know you.”

The weekend before last, that dream came true and mother and daugher embraced for the first time.

Laura Bastianetto of the Italian Red Cross, who was there to witness the event, said Bachmann was moved to see her mother last weekend after so many years.

“The embrace took place in a small and modest house in Novellara — a little town in the north of Italy,” she said. “It was really emotional. There were Italian and German families together with a bottle of sparkling wine for celebrating this magic moment. Margot brought an album with pictures of her family. She was very touched by the meeting and she cried.”

During the encounter, according to Bastianetto, the mother said, “I’ve paid a lot, now I want to laugh.”

The fact that Gianna has asked not to be named or photographed is an ancillary cost of that high price she’s had to pay. Women who fraternized with Germans in occupied countries were not treated well after the war was over. There are stories from France, Norway, Italy, all over, of women being forced to parade through town with their heads shaved, spat upon and derided by crowds. They were ostracized for years, and it’s not so far in the past either. Norway just allowed its handful of surviving “German whores” to receive a state pension in 2005.

“I can understand [Gianna's] position,” said Elena Carletti, the mayor of Novellara. “In this village, people have not forgotten [the war]. Even my generation knows the names of those who, during the war, were for or against the Germans. These stories still weigh heavily on many families. This encounter between a mother and daughter reminds us of a complicated chapter of history.”

Margot is planning to visit her mother again as soon as possible.

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Khaled al-Asaad. Archaeologist. Hero.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

I haven’t posted about the nightmare of IS’ systematic destruction and looting for profit of antiquities in territories under their control because it’s so horrifying I can barely stand to read the headlines, never mind do the additional research necessary for a post. Every new outrage is covered in excruciating detail by press outlets everywhere anyway, so I thought this blog might provide a little respite from the onslaught instead of adding to it. Today’s news requires that I make an exception.

Khaled al-Asaad, archaeologist, author and longtime director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria, was murdered by Islamic State fanatics yesterday. He was 82 years old. He was beheaded in front of an assembled crowd near the ancient ruins he spent his life studying and protecting. His body was then reportedly strung up on one of the Roman columns in Palmyra that he had helped restore with a placard listing his “crimes,” namely apostasy, loyalty to and regular communication with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, representing Syria at conferences with “infidels” and being the director of Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” There are photographs that purport to be of his bloodied, decapitated body in other locations around the city as well.

While IS militants like to film themselves destroying archaeological sites and artifacts for propaganda purposes, the vast majority of their offenses against history are the same as any other criminal organization’s: the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market. They’ll sledgehammer a few statues in a museum on camera to make it look like they’re principled religious fanatics bringing down idols, but filthy lucre wins over so-called principles any day.

Asaad was involved in the transfer of the museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. Before his death, he was held by militants who had heard some absurd rumor that ancient gold artifacts had been buried in the ruins instead of being shipped out with everything else. They interrogated him for over a month, by what atrocious means we do not know, but he refused to speak.

From a statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova:

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” the Director-General said. “Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

A former colleague of his, Amr al-Azm, told The Guardian:

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad. It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

The Guardian also has a lovely article written by Jonathan Tubb, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department and a good friend of Asaad’s that testifies to his warmth, generosity and passion for the history of his native city.

When I was a kid, the notion of the archaeologist hero was defined by Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling adventurer saving treasures from Nazis and heart-extracting cult leaders. But Indiana Jones is fiction and if he weren’t he’d be a looter. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.

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30 euro “art craft” is $15 million Picasso

Monday, August 17th, 2015

A package described on the shipping label as an “art craft” worth 30 euros ($37) turns out to have been a stolen Picasso worth $15 million. The package was sent to the US from Belgium last December and was opened by customs agents at the Port of Newark who were acting on a lead. The sender’s name was listed only as “Robert” and the destination address was a climate-controlled warehouse in Queens. Because the statements on the label and the commercial invoice describing it as an “art craft/toy” were false, the painting was seized. Authorities have made no comment on any current investigation of the theft and attempted smuggling, who the “Robert” in Belgium might be, who the recipient in the United States was meant to be.

On January 30th, experts authenticated the work as La Coiffeusse (The Hairdresser), an early cubist piece painted by Picasso in 1911. It was once owned by art historian and hero of two world wars Georges Salles who bequeathed it to the National Museums of France after his death in 1966. Salles’ mother was Claire Eiffel, daughter of engineer Gustave Eiffel of tower fame, so from a young age he was traveled in high cultural circles. He studied literature and law and school and immersed himself in the rich artistic world of pre-war Paris. He fought for France in World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre twice. After the war he become the Louvre’s curator of Asian Art. He was the director of the Guimet Museum in Paris when World War II broke out. Again he fought for his country, this time in the French Resistance, and was instrumental in keeping the irreplaceable artistic patrimony of France’s museums out of Nazi hands. His efforts won him yet another Croix de Guerre.

Salles was a close friend of Picasso’s. There are four drawings of Salles by Picasso in the National Museums bequest, and it was Salles who persuaded Picasso to directly donate several major works to the National Museums. After Salles’ death, his Picassos were assigned to the Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, among them La Coiffeusse. The painting was not on display when it disappeared. The last time it was exhibited was at the Kunsthalle Munich in 1998 after which it returned to the Pompidou Center where it was kept in storage. Only when another institution inquired about a possible loan of the piece in 2001 did museum personnel realize that it was gone. The museum reported the theft to the police in November, 2001, and the work has been listed on Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database since then.

Once the authenticity of the painting and was confirmed, Loretta Lynch, then US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now Attorney General, filed a civil forfeiture complaint which allows the government to gain legal title to a forfeited good and, in this case, to return it to its rightful owner. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah R. Saldaña officially handed over the painting to Frédéric Doré, Deputy Chief of Mission of France at a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on August 13th.

While the museum is keen to kill the fatted calf and display its prodigal daughter as soon as she gets home, La Coiffeusse is going to need some recovery time. In the (at least) 14 years since the theft, the painting has significantly deteriorated. Apparently the thieves and whoever else has put their hands on it over the course of a decade and a half treated it like the 30 euro handicraft they claimed it was. It will require extensive conservation before it can be exhibited.

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The Daughter of Dawn dawns!

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

It’s been three years since I first wrote about the rediscovery of the lost silent film The Daughter of Dawn and while there have been some public screenings here and there, the long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray release seemed to be in a holding pattern. I contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society last May asking for an update on the release of the movie and they didn’t know when it would be available. They were in the process of having it rescanned in high definition and it was taking longer than expected. As they recommended, I’ve been keeping an eye on the OHS store where it has yet to appear. It’s not on Amazon, in DVD, Blu-ray or streaming. It’s not on Hulu.

It is, however, suddenly available on Netflix! I don’t know when this happened, but it’s recent, that’s for sure, because I check all the time like a proper nerd. An article this April reported The Daughter of Dawn was being released in DVD and Blu-ray later this year. Milestone Films, the independent distributor of art and classic films that came on board in 2013 to distribute the movie, has an institutional DVD and Blu-ray available on its website for $300 with a home video release scheduled for fall of 2015. I guess Netflix got first crack.

The film is in outstanding condition. It’s complete, no gaps or stills used as placeholders. Some of that is doubtless due to the high definition scanning and restoration, but there are movies this old that have never been lost that are so scratched, speckled and faded they’re hard to watch even after restoration. The five reels of The Daughter of Dawn were kept in a garage for two decades before being given to a private detective in lieu of payment in 2005. We don’t know where they spent the six decades before that, but unless it was a subarctic bunker, it’s beyond belief that the reels survived at all, never mind in such fine fettle. According to Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, some parts of the film were in precarious condition, spliced together with masking tape. Milestone Films breaks out the condition issues in more detail in their press release (pdf):

Reel number one felt “tacky,” a symptom of eroding nitrate; reel number two had emulsion damage, from unwanted water or chemical reactions; reel number three was damaged along the edges; reels four and five had sprocket damage, but nothing more.

Watching the movie I only saw maybe two total minutes with significant bubbling around the edges and noticeable damage to the scene, including a handful of frames where for a fraction of a second the very clear outline of a white fingerprint covers the shot (there are several around the 30, 31 minute mark).

Another rare feature of this film is that it’s has a native widescreen aspect ratio. That gives the panoramic shots a grandeur you don’t often see in the ubiquitous 4:3 aspect ratio of the silent movie era. While there appears to have been some cropping of the black borders which doubtless helped achieve this most delightful effect, there is no distortion of the film as shot. It fills up the viewing area of my television perfectly. Such a special treat.

The title cards are sparingly used throughout, but the first few introduce the characters and also name the actors: Chief of the Kiowas played by Chief Chain-To (aka Hunting Horse), Black Wolf played by Sanka Dota (aka Jack Sankadota), Daughter of Dawn played by Princess Peka (aka Esther LeBarre), Big Bear, Chief of the Comanches, played by Chief Cozad (aka Belo Cozad). The romantic lead White Eagle, played by White Parker, son of the famous undefeated Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, does not get one of those title cards, even though a shot of him on a bluff scouting for buffalo opens the movie. A cast listing in the end credits compiled by the researchers working on the restoration of the film notes the tribe of the leads and the names and tribes of everyone else they could identify.

The first Kiowa buffalo hunt (starts around 14 minutes in) requires a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief not to look like a very sad commentary the extermination of the great wild bison herds of the Plains and of the peoples whose livelihoods largely depended upon them. White Eagle spies this thin little herdlet grazing against the majestic backdrop of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma, and reports back to the chief: “My eye have gladdened at the sight of many buffaloes.” There are, like, 30 max, more than a few of them juveniles. At least they actually lived where they were filmed. Fifteen years earlier there wouldn’t have been any at all to film. They’re transplants, the product of a deliberate attempt by the American Bison Society to return the bison to its ancestral lands. In 1907 the Society secured 15 head of bison from the Bronx Zoo, then under the directorship of bison conservation pioneer William Temple Hornaday, and moved them to the Oklahoma plains. It worked, to a very modest extent, and today there are 650 bison in the Wichita Mountain area descended from those 15. That means the petite herd filmed in 1920 is actually more than double the size it was 13 years earlier, which isn’t bad at all, considering.

There is no actually hunting shown, by the way, just the chase, which is great. The high-speed bareback riding is amazing. That one fellow who falls off his horse after one of the baby bison shoots like a blur in front of him and then chases down his mount to get back on (13:53) is double amazing. Really all of the riding is riveting, even the quotidian stuff. I could watch them get on and off their horses for the whole movie. They just grab a blanket and hop on up.

Every skill and craft the Comanche and Kiowa actors brought to the film is showcased beautifully: the clothes, especially the women’s dresses with long knotted fringe, the tipis, the feathered and beaded accessories, shoes, weapons, the dancing (which the Federal government had outlawed by this point but was allowed just for the movie). The famous Tipi with Battle Pictures, home of the Kiowa chief and his daughter, The Daughter of the Dawn, is exquisite, even with its many colors flattened into a sepia tint. Another tipi decorated with paintings of bison with birds standing on their backs makes a lovely showing in the background of several scenes. The interiors of the tipis look fantastic too because you can see the conical sapling structure and the sun illuminating the striations of the textile walls. Also there’s so much space in there!

The chiefs in particular appear to me to be using hand gestures more than just casually, see for instance starting at 15:35 when the Comanche chief plans their raid on the Kiowas. I wonder if they’re at least in part using the sign language they adopted to communicate with foreigners. An article in The Topeka Daily Capital of May 16th, 1921, reports that Chief Chain-To, in town for the showing of the movie, spoke no English and was converted by a Baptist missionary who had learned their sign language. Obviously they’re talking amongst themselves so there’s no need for them to sign in the film, but maybe it was a performance choice? Like a way to convey information to predominantly Anglo viewers? Or it could have just been a habit, I suppose. Anyway it’s cool.

Local newspapers report screenings in small markets around where it was filmed — Tulsa, Oklahoma, Joplin, Missouri, and Topeka, Kansas, for instance — at least one of which (Topeka) was shown by the American Legion. I found one notice of a screening as far afield as Edgefield, South Carolina. It’s interesting that even in March of 1921 the movie was being promoted as historically significant. It got a bit of Bill Cody-style promotion as well. Here’s a notice in the May 19th, 1921, issue of the Joplin Globe:

Chief Chain-To and five other full-blood Kiowa Indians, including the chief’s grandson, Little Pony, will appear today, Friday and Saturday at the Electric theater in connection with a motion picture, “The Daughter of Dawn,” in which they appear in the cast of characters. The Indians will give exhibition before the screen in Indian dances and songs. Chief Chain-To will give a short lecture in connection with the picture, telling how he likes the “movies” and giving a brief history of the play.

Presumably that lecture, like the one in the Topeka church, would be translated live by an interpreter. I sure would love to know what he said. Alas, if there was any reporting on what he said about how he lives the “movies” and the story behind the film, I haven’t been able to find it.

Final verdict: ten stars. On a scale of four. It’s 80 minutes long, there’s no dialogue, precious little verbiage at all and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It really is living historic preservation. I’ve already watched it twice and will doubtless add to that count.

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How to wash a 17th c. tapestry

Friday, August 14th, 2015

I’ve found a whole new subset of tapestry porn courtesy of the consistently entertaining Historic Royal Palaces YouTube channel: tapestry washing! The tapestry in question is February, one of a series depicting the 12 months that was commissioned by the future Charles I (then Prince of Wales) from the Mortlake Tapestry Works in 1623. At 13 feet (398 centimeters) by 11’4″ (347 cm), it’s one of the largest tapestries in the collection of Hampton Court Palace and, like the ones in the Kunsthistorisches Museum we just oogled, is in a perpetually delicate state of conservation.

Washing any antique tapestry is a conservation challenge, and washing the monumental ones is an immense logistical challenge as well. Hampton Court Palace experts have built a custom tapestry bath to handle their giant textiles. They use de-ionised water, a special detergent and a phalanx of lab-coated conservators to ever so gently lower the tapestry into a shallow pool where it’s washed with utmost tenderness and care. Once the tapestry is rinsed, conservators dry it by blotting with towels and then surround it with fans. Watch the magic happen:

That video seriously has everything. It combines my childhood adoration of carwashes with my adult adoration of antique textiles and the nitty-gritty of conservation that usually takes place exclusively behind the scenes. Also, I love how gently the conservators sponge the surface like they’re bathing a gigantic wool, silk, gold and silver baby in a massive bassinet.

February really is a baby compared to one its siblings: the tapestry of May and June which is a double-wide, each month represented in vertical sections divided by a border. It’s more than 13 feet high and almost 16 feet wide. I’d love to see that one gingerly unrolled into its megabath.

The series was commissioned by Charles I when he was still Prince of Wales. His father James I established the royal tapestry manufacturers in 1619, inspired by Henry IV of France who had founded the first royal tapestry workshop in Paris in 1607 as part of a program to revive production of French luxury goods that had declined so precipitously during the Wars of Religion. James enlisted Sir Francis Crane to set up the shop and then scoured the Low Countries for the greatest tapestry weavers he could poach. Apparently James missed his calling as a recruiter, because 50 top weavers were ensconced in the new workshop on the Thames at Mortlake, just outside of London, before the Netherlandish authorities knew they were gone. They didn’t hear about it until the ambassador reported in a 1620 letter that the tapestry manufacturing capabilities of the Low Countries were threatened by the alarming number of their best weavers suddenly in London.

Aided by apprentices James insisted be selected from London’s city hospitals/orphanages so that pauper boys could learn a lucrative trade instead of living in penury the rest of their lives, the Flemish weavers hit the ground running. They set to work on royal commissions from the king, Prince Charles, James’ favorite the Duke of Buckingham and other aristocratic buyers. Charles ordered the Twelve Months set from Madrid where he was engaged in very controversial negotiations to marry Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. He wrote to his people in London that they should pay £500 for the set, quite a modest sum considering that in the same letter he directed them to pay £700 for some tapestry cartoons from Italy.

The Prince of Wales became King Charles I in 1625 and patronized the Mortlake Tapestry Works even more than his father had. He subsidized it to the tune of thousands of pounds a year as well as commissioning some of the greatest tapestries in the royal collection. It was Charles I who bought the Raphael cartoons and commissioned tapestry designs from masters like Rubens and Van Dyke. After Sir Francis Crane’s death in 1637, the tapestry works became official property of the crown.

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Intact gun carriage raised from 17th c. shipwreck

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Archaeologists have successfully recovered an intact wooden gun carriage in excellent condition from the wreck of the 17th century warship the London in the Thames estuary. The gun carriage, sized to hold a cannon nine feet long, is the only complete one of its kind from this period known to survive.

Alison James, a Historic England maritime archaeologist, said: “This 350 year old gun carriage is in near-perfect condition. It’s a national treasure and the key to new knowledge of our social and naval history. We had to recover it quickly or it would have broken up and been lost forever.

“It’s complete with all the implements that the gunner would have used to make the cannon fire — all the archaeological material is there with it so it’s hugely exciting. Until now, it’s been well preserved, enclosed in an anaerobic environment, oxygen-free mud, safe from all the creepy-crawlies that would normally erode it. We’ve even got the 350 year old rope going through the pulley block. But as parts of the gun carriage recently became exposed, we had to act fast to save this rare piece of our history from the ravages of the waves and biological attack,” she said.

The London was one of three Second Rate ships of the line built in 1656 during the Commonwealth by command of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. (That’s why there’s no HMS in front of it, because there was no HM when it was built.) Larger, updated versions of the Jacobean Great Ship, the Second Rates would have been a formidable addition to the Commonwealth Navy, but while the order was for 10 ships, only three were completed, and only the London survives in any form at all. The other two burned to ashes before the century was out. Cromwell must have rolled over in his soon-to-be-unquiet grave when the London was part of the fleet that brought the restored King Charles II back to England from the Netherlands. It carried the king’s brother, the Duke of York, the future King James II of England.

Just five years after the restoration of the monarchy, the London met a sudden explosive end. Freshly outfitted for action in the second Anglo-Dutch War, the London was sailing from the shipyard in Chatham to the Hope where it would pick up its commander Sir John Lawson and meet destiny as flagship of the Red Squadron. Just before reaching its destination, the London suddenly blew up. We don’t know the exact cause of the explosion. Historians believe that the crew was preparing a 17-gun salute to welcome their commander when something went horribly wrong and the 300 barrels of gunpowder on board ignited blowing the ship in two.

Diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the event with sorrow in his March 8th entry.

This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London,” in which Sir J. Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower [a Thames Estuary sandbank], she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round-house above water. Sir J. Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them.

There were men, women and children on board who were not part of the crew; they were guests attending the launch, including much of Lawson’s extended family. Pepys’ estimate that there were 300 people on the London could be extremely low, therefore. There could have been as many as 500 on board, and only 25 survived.

The wreck of the London was rediscovered in 2005 during an archaeological survey in advance of the London Gateway Port development on the north bank of the Thames in Thurrock, Essex. Three years later it was designated a Protected Wreck Site and English Heritage (now renamed Historic England) contracted Wessex Archaeology to explore and document the wreck. The Port of London Authority moved the shipping channel to keep from disturbing the wreck, but it wasn’t enough. Starting in 2010, expert Thames Estuary diver Steven Ellis, who was licensed by the government to dive the wreck, and volunteers under his guidance monitored the London regularly. They found that erosion and movement of the sediment around the wreck were making the ship unstable and artifacts were being dislodged and lost in the murky waters.

An initial project of artifact recovery began in 2012 and last year Historic England received funding for a two-year evaluation of the site that would ensure the recovery of archaeological remains deemed in danger of loss, damage or destruction, study the structure of the wreck and determine how best to keep the London safe from environmental threats like erosion, the warming ocean and woodworm. The team includes experienced divers like Steve and Carol Ellis and professional maritime archaeologists from contractors Cotswold Archaeology. Ellis’ team found the gun carriage exposed on the seabed last year. After eight months They determined the gun carriage was in immediate danger from woodworm and decided to raised it.

As for the cannon that used to ride that carriage, it may still be below or may have been recovered. Five bronze cannons have been retrieved from the site since its rediscovery in 2005. Three of them are Dutch weapons that were taken from ships captured during the first Anglo-Dutch War in 1653 and then loaded onto the London. Two of them are English, one bearing the coat-of-arms of the Commonwealth weapons, one an extremely rare piece made in 1590 by London royal gun founder Peter Gill, and are now housed at the Royal Armouries in Portsmouth. The three Dutch cannons were illegally sold to a private collector in Florida by an unscrupulous diver/looter who lied about finding them in international waters. Since carriages were custom-made to fit a specific gun, if it held one of the five known cannons on the London, experts might be able to match them up. It’s a long shot, if you’ll pardon the pun, because the London was fitted with 76 guns. Nine were salvaged before 1700, their whereabouts now unknown. That means there could be as many as 62 of the ship’s cannons still embedded in the silt of the Thames Estuary, or they could have been destroyed in the explosion, dragged elsewhere by the currents or, sadly, looted.

The gun carriage will be conserved in York, a process that could take years, before going on display at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s Museums Service.

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Mozart autograph manuscript returns to Salzburg

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

A rare autograph manuscript of a piece of music transcribed by Wolfgang Mozart in around 1773 when he was 17 years old has been acquired by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation and is now on display at the Salzburg Festival. A transcription of Stabat Mater a 3 voci in canone (Stabat Mater with three voices in canon) by Marchese Eugenio di Ligniville, musical director of the royal court of Tuscany, the manuscript is 12 pages long and is in the hand of Wolfgang Mozart with annotations by his father Leopold. It has been in private collections since the 1920s. The Foundation was able to buy the manuscript for £167,000 ($256,796) when it came up for auction at Sotheby’s London in May thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor.

Time for a little digression through the labyrinth of European political history. Remember Anna Maria de’ Medici, Electress Palatine, who saved Florence’s artistic patrimony after the last Medici grand duke died leaving the grand duchy in the hands of the future Holy Roman Emperor Francis I? The Medici had ruled Florence off and on since the 15th century, but after the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, the Medici’s enemies took advantage of the chaos to overthrow the family and reinstall a Republic with rotating leadership. When Pope Clement VII, born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, made peace with Charles V in 1539, Charles agreed to reclaim Florence for the pope’s family. It took 11 months of siege to do it, but in 1530 Florence fell. Tuscany became a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope’s illegitimate nephew Alessandro Medici was installed as its ruler. Charles made it official by stipulating that from then on, Tuscany would be ruled in perpetuity by the male heirs of the Medici family.

So, when Gian Gastone, Anna Maria’s brother and the last male direct descendant of the main family branch, died, a more distant relative had to be installed. There were several strong candidates — the Medici married and bred very well and very copiously — but Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI wasn’t a principled genealogist seeking the closest male heir. He had other priorities, placating the deposed King of Poland Stanisław Leszczyński, father of the Queen of France, being one of them. Getting his daughter and heir Maria Theresa married to someone he liked who could support her in the inevitable succession war after Charles’ death was an even bigger one. Tuscany was the stone with which he hit both those birds.

Francis, Duke of Lorraine, scion of an ancient noble French house and second cousin to the Holy Roman Emperor, could claim descendance from Catherine de’ Medici, at various times queen consort, queen mother and regent of France, through her daughter Claude of Valois. Relying on the female line, his claim to the throne of Tuscany was one of the weaker ones. It was strengthened immeasurably by the fact that Charles wanted Francis to marry his daughter.

In order to marry Maria Theresa, Francis would have to give up the Duchy of Lorraine, something he was extremely reluctant to do. His family was vociferously opposed to him giving up his birthright, not even for an empire. In the treaty negotiations after the War of the Polish Succession, France would only agree to support Charles’ Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 (the edict that allowed women to inherit Hapsburg lands and titles) if the fiance’ of the woman in question gave the Duchy of Lorraine to Stanisław Leszczyński for his lifetime, after which it would become property of the French crown. To sweeten the deal, Charles VI offered Francis the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in exchange for his lost Lorraine. He took it.

Grand Duke Francesco only alighted in Florence once for three months in 1739. The rest of the time the grand duchy was ruled by his viceroy Marc de Beauvau, Prince of Craon, who was married to Anne Marguerite de Lignéville. After Francis’ death in 1765, his son Peter Leopold became grand duke of Tuscany. Eugenio di Ligniville, a relative of the former viceroy’s wife and one of many nobles from Lorraine who moved to Tuscany after Gian Gastone’s death in 1737, became director of music to the court of Tuscany in 1768. Ligniville was not a professional musician. He had served as the grand duchy’s postmaster general until retiring in 1767. He was an accomplished composer and music theorist nonetheless with an international reputation as a master of counterpoint.

The Stabat Mater a 3 voci in canone was first published in 1767 and was acclaimed as the pinnacle of art of counterpoint by Franciscan friar and leading composer of the period Padre Giovanni Battista Martini. Martini wrote a letter to Ligniville in March of 1767 complimenting on his canon. He wrote that he considered counterpoint to be the hardest and most essential exercise for any musician truly seeking to improve their abilities and understanding of composition, and lamented its falling out of favor in the education of musicians of their century.

In his role as music director, Ligniville arranged for Leopold and the 14-year-old Wolfgang Mozart to visit the Tuscan court in April of 1770. Father and son were received by the Grand Duke at Palazzo Pitti on April 1st. The next day the grand duke sent his carriage to transport them to his summer villa of Poggio Imperiale where Wolfgang performed. The performance was stellar, according to the Wolfgang’s father Leopold, and their ample reward from the Grand Duke of 333.6.8 Lire or 25 gold zecchini supports the contention. From a letter he wrote to his wife in Salzburg:

“Everything went off as usual and the amazement was all the greater as Marchese Ligniville, the director of music, who is the finest expert in counterpoint in the whole of Italy, placed the most difficult fugues before Wolfgang and gave him the most difficult themes, which he played off and worked out as easily as one eats a piece of bread. Nardini, that excellent violinist, accompanied him.”

After that, the pair traveled around Italy, until reaching Bologna in July where Wolfgang took lessons in counterpoint from Padre Martini for three months. The lessons obviously kept going even when they returned to Salzburg, because the transcription of Ligniville’s Stabat Mater was done in 1773. One of things that makes the manuscript so important is that it captures the young artist in the very act of mastering the finer technical points of the composer’s craft. From the Sotheby’s catalog note:

The importance of the manuscript lies particularly in the light it sheds on Mozart’s contrapuntal studies, complementing as it does the scattered complex of manuscripts … in which Mozart wrestled with the puzzle canons from Padre Martini’s Storia della musica. When in 1785 Joseph Haydn famously stated to Leopold Mozart, then visiting his son in Vienna, that Mozart possessed ‘taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition’, he was stating no more than the truth. [This] autograph … is a testament to the fact that such knowledge was not acquired easily by Mozart, but rather was the result of painstaking and concentrated effort.

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