Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Italy’s greatest detective and master of disguise

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Giuseppe Dosi has gone down in history as Italy’s greatest detective, a master of disguise who went undercover to solve the thorniest of crimes and did us the great courtesy of taking pictures of himself in his many disguises. He even had a little postcard-sized contact sheet of a dozen pictures made to give to people. Famous in Italian police circles for his pioneering efforts, Dosi is getting wider attention thanks to the publication of a new biography, the airing of a new documentary about him and the digitization of some his papers, now in the Museum of the Liberation of Rome.

Born in 1891, he had tried his hand at the theater in his youth and even though his stage career was stillborn, he put his love of performance and many other considerable talents into his job as a detective. He wore disguises to alter his appearance, changed his voice, his walk, even his gender when drag was called for. He had at least 17 confirmed disguises — two priests (one foreign, one Italian), a Galician banker, a German doctor, a Yugoslavian merchant, a nihilist, a Czech World War I veteran with a bum leg — and five fully fleshed identities complete with fake documents and background stories.

His enthusiastic embrace of disguises and creating characters in police investigations, known as “fregolismo detectivistico,” (“detectival transformism”) after the actor Leopoldo Fregoli who was so adept at transforming into diverse characters on stage that his last name became a neologism for chameleon-like quick changes. His impersonation of the Czech guy with a limp completely fooled poet and would-be dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio, who in 1922 had mysteriously “fallen” (been thrown?) out of a window. Dosi went undercover to find out what had happened, a politically sensitive investigation since D’Annunzio’s greatest rival and enemy was one Benito Mussolini, who later that year would march on Rome with his Blackshirts and be appointed the new Prime Minister of Italy. Dosi’s detecting discovered that D’Annunzio had indeed been pushed, not by a political assassin, but by his volatile mistress. The case was quietly closed. He did manage to copy 10 sexually explicit letters D’Annunzio wrote to said mistress before he got out of Dodge, though. The poet called him a “dirty cop” when he found out the limping Czech was really an undercover Roman.

In actual fact he was the polar opposite of a dirty cop. Dosi was a man of resolute integrity, fearless in pursuit of the truth, even when his bosses would have preferred he look the other way, and he paid a very high price for it. In 1927, he took on a case that had bedevilled Rome since 1924. It was a horrific series of crimes, the rape of seven little girls and the murder of five of them, the youngest just three years old. The rapes and murders were breathlessly reported by the sensationalistic press and the city was in turmoil. Mussolini himself, who saw the failure to solve these crimes as an embarrassment because it made it seem like his strident law-and-order party could not deliver on its promises, pressured Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini to arrest someone on the double.

So the police found someone. Sure, Gino Girolimoni didn’t match the description of a tall, middle-aged man with a bristling mustache and an imperfect command of the Italian language — he was average height, in his 30s, clean-shaven and a native Roman — but the mild-mannered photographer and mediator for the destitute in legal cases was a warm body, and between riled up public opinion and Mussolini breathing down their neck, that was enough for the cops. They ginned up some blatantly fake evidence and arrested him in 1927.

It was not enough for Giuseppe Dosi. He knew the evidence against Girolimoni was flimsy and was convinced the real murderer was still out there. He reopened the case, over the objections of his superiors, and quickly zeroed in a more likely suspect: a British Anglican priest named Ralph Lyonel Brydges who had gotten caught molesting a girl in Canada before he moved to Rome. In April of 1928, Dosi got a search warrant for Brydges’ room and found a note in a diary referencing the location of one of the murders, newspaper clippings about the crimes and handkerchiefs identical to the ones used to strangle the little girls. Brydges had friends in high places, however, and diplomatic interference from Britain and Canada (his wife was the daughter of a very prominent Toronto politician) kept him out of jail. He was briefly committed for observation to the insane asylum Santa Maria della Pietà only to be released and flee the country.

With the case against Girolimoni in shambles, charges against him were quietly dropped. Every newspaper in the country had splashed his name and face on their front pages as the “Monster of Rome” when he was arrested. His release was covered in a few cursory articles in the middle of the paper. He could no longer make a decent living because everyone thought he was a child rapist and murderer. He died in 1961, penniless and alone. Only a handful of friends showed up to his funeral. Dosi was one of them.

So now the authorities no longer had their patsy to execute for crimes he didn’t commit, and the only other suspect was far out of reach. Mussolini, who in 1925 after Dosi foiled an assassination plot against him had sung his praises and recommended him for a promotion to whatever role he preferred, was deeply displeased by Dosi’s dogged persistence. Dosi’s police bosses, already antsy about him exposing their corruption and lies setting up poor Girolimoni, also felt the pressure from the top to curb their man’s hubris.

First they fired him. Then they just cut to the chase and arrested him. He was imprisoned in Regina Coeli, a truly scary jail in Rome which during the Fascist period was replete with political prisoners. In case that wasn’t extreme enough, they moved him to Santa Maria della Pietà where the police detective spent 17 months forcibly detained in the same psychiatric facility where Brydges, a certain child molester and possible serial child murderer, had spent a few nights. He was finally released in January 1941.

Before the end of the war, his great courage and initiative would perform another historic service. On June 4th, 1944, Allied troops under General Mark Clark liberated Rome. The Nazi occupiers beat a hasty retreat and a mob assembled at the notorious SS torture prison on Via Tasso to free any political prisoners and Jews who hadn’t been murdered by the Nazis on the way out the door. The Germans had set their papers on fire in the attempt to cover their tracks, as was their wont, and when the mob freed the prisoners, they tossed bunches of records out the window in a sort of riot of de-Nazifying the place.

Dosi, who lived on a neighboring street, showed up with a cart and took it upon himself to enter the burning building and save all the surviving records. He turned them over to the Allied Command who wisely saw this guy was a badass and appointed him special investigator of the Counter Intelligence Corp. His testimony and those records he single-handedly saved from the flames, including the list of 75 Jews taken from Regina Coeli to their deaths in the monstrous Ardeatine massacre, would be crucial in the prosecution of numerous Nazi war criminals. In November of 1946, he rejoined the police force as director of the Central Office of International Police.

Over the course of his long and storied career, Dosi put his great energy, dedication and diverse interests into areas of policework that are now standard but were newfangled in his day. He wrote essays on scientific policing, was a vocal advocate for women police officers, promoted photographing and fingerprinting arrestees, the preservation of cultural patrimony and cross-border law enforcement. Not only did he help found the Italian branch of INTERPOL, he coined the name, originally as a telegraphic address for the organization that soon stuck. He retired in 1956 with the title of Chief Inspector General. He wrote several books about his detective work and lived a long life, dying in 1981 at the age of 90.

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Early aviation collection goes on display for the first time

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

Evelyn Louise Way was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1893. She graduated from nursing school in 1916 and worked as a nurse. In 1926 she married Massachusetts industrialist Henry Plimpton Kendall who had turned a small, unsuccessful textile mill owned by his mother’s family (the Plimptons of Walpole, MA, whose scions include journalist George Plimpton and actress Martha Plimpton) into a hugely successful textile manufacturing company of national scope. Bought by Palmolive in the 1970s, the Kendall Company still lives today through brands like Curad bandages.

Both Evelyn and Henry were avid philanthropists and collectors with a broad range of interests. Together they assembled museum-quality collections that would eventually become the kernels of more than one museum. Their collection of early South Carolina maps and prints they donated to the University of South Carolina. Evelyn put her collection of dolls on display in the Kendall Doll Museum, now alas closed and the collection dispersed at auction. She donated her collection of antique clothing to the Royal Ontario Museum. The Way’s extensive, world-class collection of whaling artifacts went on display in the Kendall Whaling Museum in 1950, also now closed. The collection was donated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2001.

Perhaps Evelyn Way Kendall’s greatest feat of collecting was the three decades she spent assembling the largest private collection of early aviation memorabilia. We don’t know what inspired this passion for aviation in Evelyn. One possible catalyst was a widely publicized rescue mission of lost balloonists that her father William Beal Way, a regional supervisor with the Canadian National Railroads, had participated in. In December of 1920, two U.S. Navy balloonists had been blown way off course from Long Island to the frozen hinterlands of Hudson Bay. The balloon was lost in the crash but the balloonists survived, braving hunger, Canada’s inclement December-January weather, and long distance travel on foot and by dog sled. William Way wrote a detailed account of their month-long ordeal and rescue which Evelyn apparently found riveting.

Whatever the origin story, from the 1920s until the 1950s, Evelyn amassed 78 original artworks, more than 400 prints, 330 books and manuscripts, historic photographs, portraits, aircraft designs and decorative objects from fans to snuff boxes to jewelry, all relating to ballooning, aeronauts and aeronautical history. Aviation was a popular subject for collectors at that time, thanks largely to the explosion of interest in the use of aeronautics — the Red Baron, the Zeppelin raids — during World War I. The likes Harry Frank Guggenheim and Vanderbilt relation William A.M. Burden collected aviation material, but even with their endlessly deep pockets, they came nowhere near breadth and quality of Evelyn Way Kendall’s collection. As early as 1931, scholars were already beating down her door for access to it.

The collection remained in the family after Evelyn’s death in 1979. In 2014, her descendants donated the Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. After documentation and conservation by Smithsonian experts, the unique collection is now going on display for the first time.

When the first balloon rose over the rooftops of Paris in the late 18th century, enormous crowds gathered to watch. This phenomenon spurred a new age of aeronauts dreaming of what else could fly. The excitement of this achievement was captured much like it would be today—in artwork and on memorabilia; objects such as decorative fans, china, snuff boxes and prints will be on display. “Clouds in a Bag” explores the fascination of the first balloon flights through these pieces.

“The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. “After centuries of dreaming, we were airborne at last! Visitors to the exhibition will be able to share some of the excitement experienced by those who watched the first aerial travelers rise into the sky.”

The Clouds in a Bag exhibition opens at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Saturday, January 28th, and runs through 2018.

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17th c. letters found in Knole House attic

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The original Knole House, a stately home in Kent, was a medieval manor house that in 1456 became a palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury who extensively rebuilt and expanded it. It was claimed by Crown during the Reformation; Henry VIII used it as a hunting lodge. In 1603 it was given to Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, Lord High Treasurer and cousin of Anne Boleyn. Sackville began a years-long program of reconstruction and refurbishment to prepare the house for a visit from King James I that never ended up happening, which is a shame because those protective witchmarks scratched into the wooden beams of the king’s rooms during construction in early 1606 went to waste. His descendants followed in his footsteps, doing extensive renovations at the end of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Over time, the family retreated into the nucleus of the house, leaving many of the grand rooms with the fabled Sackville art collection under dust covers. From a historical preservation perspective, this was a salutary choice. Modern systems were never installed in much of the house. In 1946, the Knole House was acquired by the National Trust in an unusual deal which leased most of the living rooms back to the Sackvilles. The formal rooms and the treasures they contain are now open to the visiting public.

Knole House is currently undergoing a $30 million restoration, the National Trust’s largest conservation project ever, that is repairing the timber-frame structure, documenting every single beam and opening spaces that have long been closed to the public. It’s in two of those spaces, attic rooms, that a volunteer and a contractor discovered three 17th century letters. Volunteer Jim Parker found two letters, one dated May 1603, the other October 1633, under the floorboards in the South Barracks attic. Builder Dan Morrison discovered the third, dated February 1622, in some debris in a ceiling void near the Upper King’s Room. It probably fell through the attic floor above.

After centuries in the dirt and rubble of attics, the letters needed immediate conservation. They were photographed to document their original condition and then conservators cleaned the surface using fine brushes, rubber powders and professional archival cleansers. The crumpled up pages were given a nice, relaxing sauna in a sealed humidifying chamber, after which the wrinkles were smoothed out in a paper press.

Though written at different times by different people, all three letters were written on expensive, high quality rag paper. The paper in one of the letters, the one written in 1622, was in particularly poor shape. It tore during the cleaning process and conservators had to repair the gaps with Japanese tissue paper. With a little help from infra-red imaging, most of the letter was deciphered. It’s seems to be a thank you note from some recipients of a charitable donation.

The xviijth of February 1622

[Received] by us the poore prisoners in [ILLEGIBLE] the [ILLEGIBLE]
[from the] right honourable the Earle of Middlesex our worthy [ILLEGIBLE]
[by the hands] of Mr Ayers the some of three Shillings [ILLEGIBLE]
[ILLEGIBLE] for our releefe & succour for which wee give [good]
[ILLEGIBLE] for all our good benefactors.

Richard Roger [ILLEGIBLE]

The 1633 letter is about house administration. The courteous missive asks that some pewter spoons and other domestic goods be transported from a London home to Copt Hall in Essex.

It reads:

Mr Bilby, I pray p[ro]vide to be sent too morrow in ye Cart some Greenfish, The Lights from my Lady Cranfeild[es] Cham[ber] 2 dozen of Pewter spoon[es]: one greate fireshovell for ye nursery; and ye o[t]hers which were sent to be exchanged for some of a better fashion, a new frying pan together with a note of ye prises of such Commoditie for ye rest.

Your loving friend
Robert Draper

Octobre 1633
Copthall

The Cranfields of Copt Hall had close links to the Sackvilles of Knole House. Frances Cranfield, daughter of Lionel Cranfield, 1st Baron Cranfield and Earl of Middlesex, married Richard Sackville, 5th Earl of Dorset in 1637. Extant archives record that she brought a great many large trunks and pieces of furniture with her. Trunks filled with papers were stashed in the attic. The letters could easily have gotten dislodged during the move and wound up underneath the floorboards.

A lot of the art and furnishings in the Knole collection came from the Copt Hall collection which was moved to Knole in the early 18th century, so this apparently quotidian letter about moving some stuff is a pearl of great price for the National Trust because it sheds light on an important part of Knole House’s history.

Nathalie Cohen, regional archaeologist for the National Trust, said: “It’s extremely rare to uncover letters dating back to the 17th century, let alone those that give us an insight into the management of the households of the wealthy, and the movement of items from one place to another.

“Their good condition makes this a particularly exciting discovery.”

She adds: “At Knole our typical finds relate to the maintenance of the house such as wiring and nails or things visitors have dropped such as cigarette packets and ticket stubs. These letters are significant as artefacts but also for the insights they give us into the correspondence of the early seventeenth century.”

The 1603 letter has not been deciphered yet. All three of the letters are on display in Knole’s Visitor Centre.

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Last coins excavated from huge Jersey Celtic hoard

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Excavation of the enormous hoard of Celtic coins discovered by metal detectorists on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is finally complete. Comprised of almost 70,000 coins, multiple gold torcs, glass beads and organic materials including plant fibers, a leather bag and a bag woven with silver and gold thread, the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered, six times larger than the runner-up.

When Reg Mead and Richard Miles found the hoard after 30 years of searching the same field because of a story they’d heard from the previous landowners daughter, they only dug down to the surface of the mass of coins before alerting Jersey Heritage so the professionals could take over the excavation. With such a great quantity of coins corroded together, archaeologists dug the entire hoard out of the ground in a single soil block measuring 4.5 x 2.6 feet and weighing three quarters of a ton.

The block was transported to the Jersey Museum where it was painstakingly excavated in the glass-walled laboratory in full public view. The museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer worked with a team of experts and volunteers to document, recover, identify and clean every single speck of archaeological material. For the first two years, they focused on removing and cleaning 2,000 loose coins on the surface of the block. In 2014 excavation of the coin mass began. The overwhelming majority of the coins were found to date to 30-50 B.C. and were made by the Coriosolite tribe of what is now Brittany.

Here’s a timelapse video showing the recovery of objects from the block during just one week, November 21-27, 2015.

Before a coin was removed from the block it was laser scanned so its exact position was recorded, and then once it was removed it was laser scanned on its own. One small subblock of coins was not excavated. Instead, it was snugly plastic wrapped and removed whole so that future conservators armed with new technologies have a clean, original section to study.

The scanning and removal of all the rest of the hoard took a lot of time. Four years after the find and almost three years after the excavation of the soil block began, Neil Mahrer scanned and removed the last ten coins of 70,000. Because the Jersey Museum team is composed of wise and provident people with a care for our nerdly needs, they had it filmed.

Neil Mahrer, who has led the conservation project from the beginning, said: “This is a significant milestone for the team. It has been painstaking but thoroughly intriguing work, which has delivered some very unexpected and amazing finds along the way.

“There is still plenty to do and I am sure the hoard will continue to surprise us as we clean and record the material.”

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Centuries-old Buddha ermerges from reservoir

Monday, January 16th, 2017

The head of a monumental Buddha statue has emerged from a reservoir in eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. When a hydropower gate renovation project dropped the water levels in Hongmen Reservoir 10 meters (33 feet) last month, local villages spotted the head in an alcove carved into the cliff face. A team of underwater archaeologists were dispatched by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Jiangxi Provincial Research Institute of Archaeology to examine the carving.

The initial investigation, concluded on January 15th, found the statue depicts the Gautama Buddha sitting on a lotus flower. It is 3.8 meters (12.5 feet) high and the style of carving, particularly the head shape, suggests it was made in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), although it may edge over into the earlier Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Over the Buddha’s alcove two wide chevrons resembling the peaked roofs of temples were carved. A path, an inscription with 30 characters, and chisel marks were found to the north and south of the statue, respectively. There are also rectangular holes carved into the stone, the remnants of architectural features. Under the water in front the clifface with the statue divers found stonework from the foundations of hall a massive 165 square meters (1776 square feet) in area.

Local records indicate the reservoir was built on the site of the ancient town of Xiaoshi. The underwater archaeology team came across its remains in the lake. In its heyday it was a thriving center of commerce, a hub for water transportation between Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, felicitously located at the intersection of two rivers. According to local lore, the Buddha was carved at that intersection to protect boats from the strong cross-currents.

It was submerged in 1958 when the reservoir was built. With no cultural patrimony protections in place to block the project and no practical way to recover or shield the temple, it was simply written off. That turned out to be a good thing, because benign neglect under a man-made lake sure beats the Cultural Revolution and the mass destruction of historic and religious heritage it spawned. The waters preserved the Buddha carving in very good condition, protecting it from weathering and pollution as well as human malice.

Many local residents were forced to move to make way for the new reservoir. Some have now come back to witness the reemergence of the Buddha.

Blacksmith Huang Keping, 82, used to live near the site.

“I went to the temple in 1952 and saw the Buddha statue for the first time. I remember the statue was gilded at that time,” said Huang.

He recalled that there was a small temple at the foot of the Buddha statue and many of the villagers held Buddhist beliefs.

The water levels will rise again in March with the annual spring flood. Everything now exposed will be submerged again. The archaeological team is working on a plan to protect the carving, temple and township remains. They also plan to expand their research into the area surrounding the lake temple.

This video has underwater footage of the Buddha statue. Visibility is poor and it’s hard to make out what you’re seeing other than stone parts.

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Pendant of teen girl possibly linked to Anne Frank found at Sobibor

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a rare and poignant pendant that belonged to a teen girl with a possible connection to Anne Frank in an excavation of the site of the Sobibor death camp. The camp, which was razed to the ground by the Nazis after a daring uprising in October 1943 which saw half the prisoners escape, has been excavated since 2007. Past digs have unearthed the foundations of the gas chambers, the train station platform and a myriad small artifacts, the treasured belongings of Sobibor’s victims.

This year the brief was to excavate the site of where female prisoners were made to strip naked and had their heads shaved before being forced down the “Road to Heaven,” ie, the path to the gas chambers 40 meters (130 feet) south of the undressing and shaving hut. Close to what had once been the entrance of the building, the team discovered some small personal items that probably fell through the floorboards onto the foundations. They include a lady’s watch, a stone pendant, a Star of David necklace and a metal locket covered with glass and painted with a depiction of Moses holding the Ten Commandments on the front the Jewish prayer “Shema” on the back.

One of those artifacts is a little triangular pendant. On one side is engraved the phrase “Mazel Tov” in Hebrew, the city “Frankfurt am Main” in German and the date July 3, 1929. The other side has the Hebrew letter “ה” (“He”), used to symbolize the name of God (“He” stands for “Hashem”, which means “The Name,” so it’s a way of referring to God without using His name), and three Stars of David. It’s very difficult to connect an artifact with one individual of hundreds of thousands of camp victims, the date and city gave researchers a rare opportunity. Yad Vashem researchers were able to pinpoint exactly one person who fit the parameters of the pendant: Karoline Cohn, born in Frankfurt on July 3, 1929, and deported to the Minsk ghetto in November of 1941.

Buoyed by their early military successes in Soviet territories, in October of 1941 the Nazi command began a program of deportations, removing Jews from the Third Reich (Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia) to freshly conquered cities in Eastern Europe. The deportations continued through 1945, targeting big cities which had the largest concentrations of Jews. Frankfurt had the highest percentage of Jews in pre-war Germany (4.7% of the population in 1933, as opposed to Berlin’s 3.8%), so it was a priority. In the less than four years between 1941 and 1945, 10,600 Frankfurt Jews were sent east to concentration camps in 25 deportations. Fewer than 600 Jews from Frankfurt survived the Holocaust, and only nine of the Jews deported from Frankfurt to Minsk lived to see the end of the war.

Karoline Cohn was not one of them. When the Minsk ghetto was liquidated in September of 1943, the 2,000 Jews still living were shipped to almost certain death in Sobibor. Either she or someone else carried her pendant to the camp where it fell through the floorboards of the shaving hut only to be found 70 years later.

In a historical fluke of almost unbelievable proportions, Anne Frank had a pendant exactly like it. The only difference is the dates on the front of the pendants. Anne’s was June 12th, 1929. No other such medallions have been found — before the Sobibor discovery, Anne’s was the only one of its kind known, saved by her cousin Buddy Elias — so they weren’t something produced en masse and widely distributed. Anne was also born in Frankfurt just three weeks before Karoline.

Yad Vashem is reaching out to any surviving family members of the Cohns and Franks in the hope they might be able to establish a clear connection, familial or otherwise. Researchers ask that relatives or members of the public who know anything at all about Karoline or about Sophie Kollmann, who in April 1978 wrote Pages of Testimony about Richard Else Cohn and Karoline Cohn, to contact Yoram Haimi at yoramhi@israntique.org.il.

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A Dutch girl at breakfast joins Vermeer’s Milkmaid

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) was a Swiss-French artist of Huguenot extraction who is best known today for his very fine pastels. Trained as a miniaturist in Geneva and portrait painter in Paris, Liotard preferred medium was pastel on paper. They make up the overwhelming majority of his surviving work, 540 individual pieces, as opposed to only 30 oil-on-canvas paintings. In his time, Liotard was very much in demand as a portraitist and miniaturist. He travelled extensively through Europe, staying in Paris, Naples, Florence and Rome before going to Constantinople in 1738 where he lived for four years.

He returned from Constantinople with a great big bushy beard, a taste for Turkish dress and the crowned heads of Europe lining up for his services. He lived in Vienna from 1743 to 1745 where he made several portraits of the Empress Maria Theresa and her family. In 1748 he was in Paris painting King Louis XV and his family. In 1755 it was London and the Prince of Wales’ turn. His portraits were notoriously expensive, driving the bitter rival artist Andrea Soldi to grumble that the English measured “the value of his works by the length of his beard.”

After his London sojourn, Liotard went to Holland. He stayed for a year, studying the masters of the Dutch Golden Age and building a collection of more than 60 paintings from the period. He also found himself a wife: Marie Fargue, a Dutch Huguenot who posed in Turkish dress for one of his loveliest pastel portraits, now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Liotard was strongly influenced by the Dutch artists of the 17th century. Even before his sojourn in Holland, his portraits were unusually restrained and naturalistic at a time when the fashion was for very stylized portraits with contrived poses, symbolic gestures and accoutrements conveying the wealth, power, profession and/or abilities of the subject. The intimate spaces, plain painted walls, varied textures and scenes from daily life captured in the works of Jan van Huysum, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and Johannes Vermeer inspired Liotard.

With one small oil-on-canvas painting, A Dutch girl at breakfast, Liotard became one of the first non-Dutch 18th century artists to create an explicit homage to the Golden Age masters. The painting depicts a modestly attired young woman seated a tripod table pouring a beverage (both coffee and chocolate have been proposed) into a cup. She sits in a classically Dutch interior. There’s a simple wood armoire against the wall, a foot-warmer on the floor beside her chair and, just in case the reference wasn’t clear enough, there’s a 17th-century Dutch painting of a church on the wall.

One of less than three dozen Liotard oil paintings and one of the only genre paintings he did (he was well-known for genre treatments in pastel, but not in oil), A Dutch girl at breakfast is rare and of great art historical significance as an example of the spreading influence of Dutch Golden Age painters. Liotard kept the painting for close to 20 years. He finally sold it in 1774 at a Christie’s auction. The buyer was Sir William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, an old friend and patron of Liotard who had traveled with him in 1738 and would go on to become his biggest supporter, buying more than 70 of his works over the decades.

A Dutch girl at breakfast stayed in the Ponsonby family for 242 years until it was sold at Sotheby’s in July 2016 for $5,695,000. The buyer was revealed last month as the Rijksmuseum which has now installed Liotard’s Dutch girl next to Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the Gallery of Honour. Inspiration and inspired will only briefly be side by side. By the end of the month, the painting will be installed in its permanent location, the 18th century arts gallery. There it will be reunited with a host of brothers and sisters, the museum’s extensive collection of Liotard pastels that were donated by descendants of his and Marie Fargue’s eldest son.

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Rialto Bridge fully restored after 425 years

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

The Rialto is by far the oldest and most famous of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal of Venice. Until the 19th century, it was the only bridge across the canal. The first iteration was built out of wood in 1255. The two sides of the bridge inclined upwards towards a central platform that could be removed to allow for the passage of taller ships. It was called the Bridge of Coin then, because of the toll for pedestrian passage. In 1458 shops were added to the sides and it was renamed the Rialto Bridge. With the popular Rialto market on the eastern bank and the bridge being the only non-nautical means to cross to Grand Canal, it had to withstand an enormous amount of traffic. It collapsed twice from the weight of crowds and had to be rebuilt. Another time the crowds viewing the passage of the spectacular 1,500-people-strong cortège of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1468 put so much pressure on the iron railings that they collapsed, dozens of spectators fell into the canal and died.

In the 16th century, Venetian authorities began to explore the possibility of replacing the wooden bridge with a stone bridge. It took almost the whole century to go from concept to execution. In 1551, top architects were invited to submit stone bridge ideas, but none of the submissions were deemed acceptable because they employed multiple Roman-style arches which would be a problem for boat traffic. The great Venetian architect Andrea Palladio envisioned a three-arch bridge topped with a monumental temple-like structure that would have dwarfed the mighty Mississip’. Finally architect and engineer Antonio da Ponte designed a single-span stone bridge very similar in shape, elevation and structure to the wooden bridge. Construction began in 1588 and was completed in 1591.

Legend has it that Antonio da Ponte paid dearly for having created an icon of La Serenissima. When the bridge was almost done, the Devil himself approached the architect and demanded an offering of the first soul to cross the bridge. If da Ponte refused, Satan would forever prevent the completion of the Rialto Bridge. Unable to refuse, he tried to outsmart the Devil, arranging for a rooster to be the first living being to cross the bridge. The Devil was furious. He promised to punish the architect dearly, and so he did. In disguise, he went to da Ponte’s house and told his pregnant wife that her husband was waiting for her on the other side of the bridge. She ran across and unwittingly doomed the life she was carrying. The baby was stillborn. For years the baby’s spirit was said to haunt the Rialto until a kindly gondolier finally helped him rest in peace.

The bridge’s design caused some consternation at the time. Without arches, the full weight of the structure was shouldered entirely by the two pylons and foundations and each end. There were grave doubts among some architects, most notably Vincenzo Scamozzi, that the heavy stone bridge could stand without additional supports. And yet, it stood. Over the centuries it was repeatedly altered and repaired. The first major restoration was in 1740, but it stipulated that the arch itself could not be touched. The repairs focused on the stairs, balustrade, colonnade and paving tiles. Later restorations took a similar tack, fixing the peripherals — steps, drainage issues, shops.

More than 400 years would pass before the Rialto Bridge got a thorough top-to-bottom restoration. That’s a good thing from a historical preservation perspective, because it leaves conservators with a great deal of original material and limits the damage inflicted by well-intentioned but overly invasive interventions.

The restoration project started in 2011 with an extensive nine-phase preliminary investigation of the bridge: 1) a historical survey analyzing all the different phases of construction and repair over the centuries, 2) a photogrammetric and laser scanning survey of the bridge surface to gather precise measurements, 3) geotechnical drilling into the soil of the bridge foundations, 4) underwater inspection of the foundations, 5) archaeological analysis of the foundation coring samples, 6) monitoring a year’s worth of geological stresses and shifts, 7) a structural survey of the bridge, 8) research and analysis of the bridge’s petrographic materials and state of conservation or decay, and 9) identification of underground utilities.

Armed with reams of hard data, conservators began the hands-on part in May of 2015.

The restoration has systemically treated all of the bridge’s structural elements for the first time in more than 400 years. A team of 25 conservators dismantled the sandstone paving on the central steps and the two exterior ramps for cleaning, while workers relaid the telephone, gas and electric cables powering the bridge’s 24 shops. They strengthened the walls of the arcades and added a further layer of waterproof insulation, as well as new internal sheets to the 700 sq. m of lead sheets covering the roofs.

To protect the northern and southern balustrades from the lagoon’s brackish waters, as well as the thousands of tourists who walk across it each year, the banisters were reinforced using carbon-fibre bandages and duplex stainless steel brackets that resist corrosion. The 364 columns, which presented fractures on their capitals and bases, were also reset in molten lead and some of the cornerstones were completely replaced.

This was all done piecemeal so the bridge was never closed to visitors. Unsightly scaffolding was the worst of it. Shocking everyone who has ever had needed any construction done in Italy, the restoration finished on time (but not on budget, of course) and reusing 99% of the bridge’s materials. The remaining 1% requiring replacement was mostly paving.

The scaffolding is down now, but the official opening will take place in May at the Venice Biennale.

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Experimental 1942 glass penny sells for $70,500

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

A glass penny, the only known intact survivor of a World War II experiment, sold at auction Friday for $70,500 including buyer’s premium, more than twice its presale estimate of $30,000. The price was driven up in a bidding war between a phone buyer and one present in the room. The phone bidder, an American collector, won.

The metals used to make pennies and nickels — copper, tin and nickel — were needed for the war effort so in 1942 the Treasury experimented with coins made from alternative raw materials. Private contractors, eight plastic manufacturers — Bakelite Corporation (Bloomfield, New Jersey), E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. (Arlington, New Jersey), Durez Plastics and Chemical, Inc. (North Tonawanda, New York), Patent Button Company Inc (Knoxville, Tennessee), Monsanto Chemical Company (Springfield, Massachusetts), Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company (Hartford, Connecticut), Tennessee Eastman Corporation (Kingsport, Tennessee), Auburn Button Works (Auburn, New York) — and one glass company — Blue Ridge Glass Corporation (Kingsport, Tennessee) — were commissioned to strike coins with a variety of non-critical materials including Bakelite, other plastics, hard rubber, wood pulp and our hero today, glass.

Chief engraver John R. Sinnock created the pattern dies using simple designs. The obverse was a Liberty Head facing right, a copy of the head on the Colombian two centavos coin, with “LIBERTY” and “JUSTICE” on the left and right border and the date 1942 underneath the head. The reverse is a simple olive branch wreath designed by Anthony C. Paquet for a Washington medalet. Washington’s dates in the middle of the wreath were replaced with “UNITED STATES MINT.”

The dies were sent to the manufacturers who struck prototype cents with their experimental materials. The Blue Ridge Glass Corporation struck their pennies on amber tempered glass blanks from Corning Glass Co.

Blue Ridge had considerable difficulty making glass 1942 sample coins. For impressing a design into glass, both glass and the dies had to be very hot — just below glass melting temperature — then the glass had to cool quickly to preserve design detail. But Blue Ridge was not able to heat the die, and the resulting experimental cents were softly detailed and had many minute surface imperfections. Blue Ridge described their process and results in a six-page report, which has been preserved among U.S. Mint documents in the National Archives.

The surface of the glass coins was susceptible to crazing — clearly visible in the “UNITED STATES MINT” on the reverse of the penny that was just sold — but at first that didn’t trouble the Treasury Department. Blue Ridge was led to believe they’d get a contract to produce the glass pennies and even began to expand their facilities and plan the additional security necessary for mint work. Then, all of a sudden, Blue Ridge’s president J.H. Lewis was informed by Treasury that the project was called off. He was not told why.

Official records indicate Treasury thought the glass coinage would be “too brittle,” but that was just a smokescreen. The real reason was as top secret as it gets. The planned production line glass pennies would have contained traces of uranium oxide that would make them fluoresce under ultraviolet light, a cool and ingenious anti-counterfeiting system. But another project that started in 1942 required every molecule of fissionable material that could be scrounged up, so the glass coins were scrapped and Blue Ridge had to send all of its uranium stock to Oak Ridge for use in the Manhattan Project.

None of the plastic, rubber and glass experiments ever went into production. The Treasury doubted if plastic would ever be accepted by the public as legitimate currency and anyway the most successful plastics, urea and phenol, soon made the critical materials list themselves. The glass penny with its poor impressions and secretly invaluable uranium wouldn’t do either. Alternative metals won the day. The wartime penny would be zinc coated steel. It was minted in 1943. For a year it was lighter than the standard 3.11-gram Lincoln Wheat penny that preceded it, weighing 2.7 grams. Starting in 1944, the weight was back up to 3.11 grams and copper was back in the mix with zinc.

Very few of the experimental coins still exist today. The Mint destroyed most of them. A few examples managed to avoid that fate, mostly reddish plastic ones. Only one other glass example is known to have survived, and it is broken in half.

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Thousands of jars reveal Britain’s saucy history

Friday, January 6th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed a vast collection of pottery (pdf) during construction of Crossrail’s new Elizabeth line station at Tottenham Court Road in London. The station is being built on the site of the former Crosse & Blackwell factory at Soho Square, where some of Britain’s most popular sauces, condiments and jams were manufactured from 1838 until 1921. The basements of the bottling warehouse were unexpectedly well-preserved. Kilns, furnaces and a refrigeration system were discovered in the warren of underground rooms. More than 13,000 pots, jars and bottles of pickle, mustard and jam were found in a cistern on the site. While many of them were broken, there were an impressive number of intact, unused pieces of ceramic, stoneware and glass.

The finds include glass bottles for Mushroom Catsup, ceramic bung jars for mustard and Piccalilli and delicately painted white jars for Preserved Ginger. Archaeologists also found white earthenware jars for Pure Orange Marmalade, Household Raspberry Jam and Plum Jam, some of which still bare their original labels. They illustrate the ambitions of one of Victorian Britain’s most prolific and enduring enterprises and evidence the development of British tastes.

Nigel Jeffries, [Museum of London Archeaology]‘s Medieval and Later Pottery Specialist and author of the book, said: “Excavations on Crosse & Blackwell’s Soho factory produced a large and diverse collection of pottery and glass related to their products, with one cistern alone containing nearly three tonnes of Newcastle made marmalade jars with stoneware bottles and jars. We think this is the biggest collection of pottery ever discovered in a single feature from an archaeological site in London.”

The company began under the name Jackson in the early 18th century. It was changed to West & Wyatt in 1819. West & Wyatt had a shop at 21 Soho Square where they sold soup, pâté, pickles and sauces to the wealthy and titled. That same year two apprentices were hired: Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell. Like something out of The Secret of My Success, Crosse and Blackwell climbed the ladder with impressive speed until just 10 years later they bought the company lock, stock and barrel for £600 and changed its name to a brand that would soon become renown around the world for canned foods, sauces and condiments. The Soho Square shop became an ever-expanding bottling factory.

Crosse & Blackwell were one of the first companies to secure a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her accession to the throne when she was 18 years old. They were also pioneers in the use of celebrity chef as endorsers and collaborators. In the late 1840s, Alexis Soyer, high society chef, inventor, cookbook author, soup kitchen innovator and the most famous culinary genius of his time, created the tangy Soyer’s Sauce sold by Crosse & Blackwell in two versions: a stronger “Soyer’s Sauce for Gentlemen” and a milder “Soyer’s Sauce for Ladies.” They quickly became bestsellers. He followed up with “Soyer’s Relish,” which was the bestselling sauce in London in 1849 and would be sold by Crosse & Blackwell for more than 70 years, and “Soyer’s Sultana’s Sauce.”

The company also jumped on the opportunity to introduce Indian flavors to their product line. A Crosse & Blackwell employee went to India with the first troops sent by the East India Company. He came back with recipes that would shortly become Captain White’s Oriental Pickle and Curry Powder and Abdool Fygo’s Chutney.

Crosse & Blackwell was an official wholesaler of another India-inspired condiment that is still a top seller today: Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. You’d think with a name like Worcestershire it would have an English origin, but in fact, the recipe was brought back from India to Worcester by Lord Marcus Sandys in 1835. Sandys had the local pharmacists cook him up a batch but it tasted terrible, so the chemists, Messrs. John Lea and William Perrin, stashed the barrel in the cellar and forgot about for two years. In 1837 they noticed the barrel in the cellar and gave the contents another taste. They were stunned by how delicious it was. They bought the rights to the recipe from Lord Sandys and in 1838 introduced the pantry staple that makes my mom’s stuffed celery so great.

Crosse & Blackwell is repeatedly mentioned in Lea & Perrin’s 19th century ads as a purveyor of “the only good sauce,” but the excavation revealed that the Crosse & Blackwell factory was also involved on the production side. Lea & Perrins branded glass stoppers were unearthed at the factory site.

The Museum of London Archeaology (MOLA) has published a book about the factory finds. Crosse and Blackwell 1830–1921: a British food manufacturer in London’s West End is part six of MOLA’s Crossrail Archaeology series, 10 publications that explore different aspects of the unprecedented archaeological project engendered by the construction of new subway lines and stations. You can buy it online for a tenner.

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