Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Was a lost Caravaggio found in an attic in France?

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

A leaky roof may be responsible for the rediscovery of a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece. In the attempt to reach the leaking roof of a 17th century house outside Toulouse, in April of 2014 the homeowners broke through a door in the attic that they had never noticed was there. Behind the door was an oil painting depicting the Biblical heroine Judith beheading Assyrian general Holofernes while her begoitered maid Abra holds open a bag in which his head will be placed. It was covered in dust but otherwise in excellent condition. The family called in local auctioneer Marc Labarde to assess the painting. He cleaned the white film of grime off the face of the maid with cotton balls and water and identified it as a 17th century painting from the school of Caravaggio.

Labarde called in friend and Old Master expert Eric Turquin to examine it further. Turquin spent two years cleaning, conserving and studying the painting. He had it X-rayed and analyzed with infrared reflectography. He found key elements characteristic of Caravaggio’s work: great speed of execution, bold, secure brushstrokes and, because Caravaggio never made preparatory sketches first, changes done midstream to the positioning of Holofernes’ right hand and Judith’s face. Two Caravaggio experts examined the painting and agreed with Turquin that it was the original work lost almost 400 years ago. Another determined it was a copy, albeit a very good one.

Caravaggio painted an earlier Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) which is now part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. He made the second in Naples during the first decade of the 17th century. We know of its existence because Frans Pourbus the Younger, a Flemish painter at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, wrote about it in a letter to his boss, Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Dated September 15th, 1607, the letter noted that Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was for sale in Naples for 400 ducats. Pourbus also mentioned seeing another Caravaggio painting, a Judith and Holofernes, for sale.

What he didn’t tell Gonzaga was that both works were owned by a good friend of his, Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Duke was unwilling to spend 400 ducats on one Madonna, because a few years later Finson took it to Amsterdam with him. Finson also took Judith Beheading Holofernes to Amsterdam. Both Caravaggio works are listed in his will, but after his death in 1617, the Madonna was acquired by a consortium of artists including Peter Paul Rubens for a church in Antwerp while Judith disappears from the historical record.

Caravaggio was very famous in his lifetime, and while he never had a literal school or workshop with students like other masters did, he had followers who copied his works and painted pieces of their own that were heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s style. Louis Finson was one of the first Flemish Caravaggisti, as the followers were known, as was Rubens. Finson lived in Naples in the early 17th century when Caravaggio was there too. He owned several of Caravaggio’s original works and copied others. The Finson version of Judith Beheading Holofernes was considered a very faithful copy and since the original was lost, for close to 400 years, Finson’s copy was the only extant image of the work. Finson didn’t take it to Amsterdam and it is now on display in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples.

The French government has placed an export ban on the painting which means it cannot leave the country for 30 months. This will give experts plenty of time to study the work in greater detail, and will give French museums the opportunity to tap potential donors for the astronomical sum — something in the $130 million range — required to buy the work should it prove to be an authentic Caravaggio. As a contemporary copy of some quality, Louis Finson’s version will play an important role in the authentication process. One expert believes the newly discovered work is in fact another copy by Finson.

Rare 13th c. tile floor on display under new shelter

Monday, April 11th, 2016

An extremely rare surviving 13th century tile floor at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset is now back on display under a new, state-of-the-art shelter. The oak shelter will protect the 40 x 16-foot section of pavement from the elements, something its predecessor, a tent, could not do.

Cleeve Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded by William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln, in 1198. Populated by only 12 monks in the beginning, by the mid-13th century there was a cruciform church, a cloister, chapter house, sacristy and dormitory. The refectory was constructed in the second half of the 1200s, probably around 1270, and it was paved with expensive polychrome encaustic tiles nine inches square. Each tile is decorated with heraldic designs. The arms of several aristocratic benefactors of the monastery were kiln-baked into the floor tiles, including the chevrons of the earls of Gloucester from the de Clare family, the lion rampant of the earls of Cornwall, the double-headed eagle of Richard of Cornwall, second son of King John of Magna Carta fame, who bribed his way into election as King of the Romans (ie, King of what would become Germany) in 1257, and the three white lions of the Royal Coat of Arms representing monastery patron King Henry III, Richard’s brother. Archaeologists believe they were manufactured by a tilery in Gloucestershire and installed to celebrate the marriage of Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall, to Margaret de Clare in 1272.

In the 15th century, the old refectory was demolished and a new, larger refectory was built just to its north. The old tile floor was not reused elsewhere (the usual practice when dealing with luxurious features like these tiles), but buried, keeping it in situ in its original configuration virtually undamaged for 400 years. Thanks to its hiding place, the floor made it through the Dissolution of the Monasteries unscathed while the abbey church was demolished. Henry VIII sold the abbey property and other structures, stripping any valuable architectural features for individual sale. The abbey became a farm, and most of the buildings are still standing today because of it.

The Cleeve Abbey tiled pavement is the only large example of a decorated medieval refectory floor in Britain. The fact that it survived with its original placement still intact makes it a rarity of international significance. A smaller piece of the 13th century church floor was also discovered at Cleeve Abbey, and while it too is made of colorful encaustic tiles, they have been relain and look like a patchwork quilt now.

The old refectory floor was rediscovered in 1876. To protect it for future generations, the floor was reburied until 1951 when it was again exposed and displayed to the public. It was covered each winter to save it from inclement weather and uncovered during the summer months so tourists could view it.

In the 1990s, tests by English Heritage found that the tiles were dangerous deteriorating from their exposure to the elements. Thermal stress was damaging the protective glaze surface and eroding the detailed patterns in the clay, while microbes and high salt gnawed away the priceless pavement. In an attempt to prevent further damage, English Heritage installed a marquee tent over the floor tiles, which helped keep the sun’s rays from hitting the tiles directly but was only a temporary solution while they worked on a permanent one.

Last year construction began on a new shelter made of louvred oak slats which allow light to enter the space for optimal viewing, but keep direct sunlight from beating down on the tiles. There’s a ventilation system which keeps the temperatures inside the enclosure stable at all times. Visitors can enjoy the floor comfortably from seating and viewing platforms.

The new shelter opened on Good Friday, March 25th, 2016, and will be open daily through October 21st, 2016, which is when Cleeve Abbey closes for the winter. It will open again next spring.

17th c. treasure hidden during uprising found in Bulgaria

Sunday, April 10th, 2016


A treasure of silver jewels buried in the 17th century has been found near the northwestern Bulgarian city of Montana. The hoard was discovered by local residents who very responsibly reported the find to the National Museum of History in Sofia. There’s a tiara, two forehead bands, two ear tabs, connectors between the headpieces and the ear tabs, a pair of earrings and two rings. They are all made of silver and are of very high quality, decorated with expensive, highly skilled techniques including filigree, granulation, niello, gold leaf and a green glass-like mass that is probably enamel. The objects were placed in a leather purse, surviving fragments of which were found at the site.

The jewelry is almost certainly local work. The area was known for its very fine gold and silversmiths. The work of the Chiprovtsi smiths was famous all over Eastern Europe for its complexity and delicacy. They had access to a steady supply of precious raw materials, thanks to local silver ore deposits which were extensively mined in the 16th and 17th centuries.

After the Ottoman conquest of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396, some areas were granted the right of Christian self-government, among them the village of Chiprovtsi and neighboring towns. When silver ore was found in the region in the second half of the 15th century, the population of the villages swelled with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Albanians and German miners while the old Catholic nobility appears to have ruled virtually undisturbed with only a token Ottoman representation in the municipal government. Chiprovtsi was closely linked to the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy as well. The official residence of the Catholic archbishops of Bulgaria was Chiprovtsi’s Monastery of St. Mary.

The mix of peoples, strong Catholic leadership and quasi-autonomy of the region spurred residents to seek to overthrown the Ottoman Yoke. The Chiprovtsi Uprising, a rebellion of Roman Catholic (and some Eastern Orthodox) Bulgarians against Ottoman rule, was precipitated by Austria’s capture of Belgrade from the Turks on September 6th, 1688. Chiprovtsi Catholics had been trying to induce the monarchies of western Europe to take Bulgaria from the Ottomans for more than four decades, coming very close several times to triggering elaborate invasion plans that ultimately fell through. When Belgrade fell to the Austrians, the Chiprovtsi rebels thought that after so many false starts, the moment had finally come. Hopeful that the Austrians would send reinforcements to support the uprising, extend their victory east and ultimately liberate all of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, the insurrectionists rose up and fought the Ottomans and their Magyar allies.

It did not go well. There was no coordination between Austrian and Bulgarian forces, and the Turks handily won the military encounters. The decisive battle took place near Montana, then called Kutlovitsa, in October of 1688. The Ottomans won decisively. They captured Chiprovtsi on October 18th and razed it to the ground, killing almost everyone and enslaving whoever survived. While a much-reduced guerilla resistance continued for a few months, the Austrians never came and much of the remaining population fled west to the Danube or north to Wallachia. Archbishop Peter Knezevic led the emigration to Wallachia. Few Christians remained in the northwest and the Ottomans ruled directly, stripping the Bulgarian nobility of their old privileges and political power.

The National Museum of History experts believe the cache of silver jewels was a family fortune buried in the turbulent days of the Chiprovtsi Uprising in the fall of 1688. Since almost everyone in the area was killed in battle, executed, enslaved or fled, there was nobody left to dig up the treasure.

18th c. marine chronometer found in Rhode Island collection

Friday, April 8th, 2016

On March 3rd of this year, the Newport Historical Society (NHS) in Rhode Island announced via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that staff members were on a secret mission in the UK. A follow-up image taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum was posted the next day, and then a third photo showed a gloved hand working on what looks like a timepiece.

The secret mission, it turns out, was to send Ingrid Peters to the Royal Observatory, Royal Museums Greenwich, to have their experts examine a pocket watch from the NHS collection. The Royal Observatory’s curator of Horology Rory McEvoy confirmed that the watch was not just a watch, but rather fourth in a series of five precision marine chronometers made by watchmaker John Arnold to calculate longitude. It was made around 1772. The third of the series is the only other one in the series known to have survived, and it’s in the British Museum.

John Arnold was born in 1736 in Bodmin, Cornwall, the son of watchmaker and nephew of a gunsmith. He worked for his uncle for a while, ultimately following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a highly skilled and innovative watchmaker. In 1764, just two years after opening a shop of his own in London, Arnold secured permission to present to King George III and his court the smallest repeating watch in the world. The half-quarter repeating watch cylinder escapement watch was mounted in a ring. The king and courtiers were impressed, and Arnold quickly became the watchmaker to the rich and aristocratic.

His ingenuity was put to the test in a problem that had obsessed clockmakers for decades: create a timepiece that would allow British sailors to calculate longitude while on board ship. Clockmaker John Harrison invented the marine timepiece which made it possible for the first time to calculate longitude at sea in 1759. His invention, which looked like an oversized pocket watch, took him six years to build, too long for his timepiece to be in compliance with the 1714 Longitude Act‘s requirement that construction of the device be practical as well as accurate. The whole point, after all, was for every ship in the Royal Navy to have one, so production had to streamlined.

In 1767, the Board of Longitude published a detailed illustrated description of Harrison’s clock, The Principles of Mr. Harrison’s Timekeeper, and spread it around to inventors in the hope that one of them might figure out a way to build a faster, better mousetrap, as it were. Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne gave Arnold a copy hot off the presses. He went his own way, creating a different device he presented to the Board in 1771. It was a clock in a mahogany box, and three of them were put to the test by Captains James Cook and Furneaux during Cook’s second voyage to the southern Pacific in 1772-1775.

Arnold’s were not very effective — only one of them survived the voyage in some semblance of working order — so he turned to pocket marine timekeepers instead. They worked. Captain Constantine Phipps, 2nd Baron Mulgrave, took one with him to the North Pole in 1773 and it performed like a champ. The Newport Historical Society’s chronometer — a term coined by John Arnold for a precision timekeeper and still in use today — is one of these.

This watch, produced in the early 1770s while one of Arnold’s see-saw escapement timekeepers was away on sea trials features a pivoted detent escapement; others had designed such mechanisms, but Arnold’s was a technological improvement.

It has an impeccable provenance, too.

The watch was acquired by Peleg Clarke in 1792. Clarke was a descendant of one of Newport’s first English settlers and wealthy merchant of the American colonial period who likely bought the watch from Arnold during a trip to London. He was an eyewitness to the Boston Tea Party and recorded his impressions in a letter now also in the society’s collections. The watch was passed down in the Clarke family for over 200 years, as a pocket watch, until it was donated to the society in 1997.

Arnold & Son, the company John Arnold founded in the 1787 with his clockmaker son, John Roger Arnold, is still in business today, and still makes marine chronometers, now in wrist watch form rather than pocket watch.

Pistols Lafayette gave to Bolívar poised to break auction records

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

A unique pair of pistols with a connection to two great revolutionary leaders — the Marquis de Lafayette and Simón Bolívar — and an association with a third — George Washington — are coming up for auction next week and may very well break the record for pistols sold at auction. They will be on the auction block at the Exceptional Sale on April 13th at Christie’s New York with a pre-sale estimate of $1,500,000-2,500,000.

The pair of silver-mounted rifled flintlocks were made by French gunsmith Nicolas Noël Boutet in 1824. They were a gift from Lafayette to Bolívar, the Venezuelan military leader who played a pivotal role in the South American revolutions against Spain and was instrumental in winning independence for Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and his namesake Bolivia. Bolívar had been an admirer of the luminaries of the American Revolution since he was a young boy, identifying particularly with George Washington, who like him, was raised a gentleman farmer.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited the United States on last time, traveling to every state where he was acclaimed by huge crowds as a national hero.

Simón Bolívar’s nephew and adopted son, Fernando Bolívar, had come to the U.S. in 1822 to attend Germantown Academy (later attending the newly established University of Virginia because of his uncle’s great admiration of Thomas Jefferson). Lafayette met Fernando Bolívar in July 1825 when he went to Germantown to deliver an address. A great admirer of Simón Bolívar, Lafayette corresponded with him and famously named him ‘the George Washington of Latin America’. At the request of the Washington family Lafayette sent to Bolívar on October 13, 1825 a portrait of the President, a lock of Washington’s hair and a gold medal with his likeness. It was likely at this time that Lafayette sent the Boutet pistols to Bolívar, as his personal gift to the younger revolutionary – who perhaps he saw as carrying on the torch he had, by then, put down. Bolivar wrote from Lima on March 20, 1826 in reply: “Ah, what mortal could ever be worthy of the honors that you and Mount Vernon see fit to lavish on me!”

Lafayette’s pistols were not the first set by Boutet owned by Bolívar. He was an avid collector of firearms and is known to have owned at least one other pair of elegant pistols made by Boutet in his Versailles workshop. Bolívar acquired them during a sojourn in Paris in 1804 shortly after he was widowed at the young age of 21 and years before he became El Libertador. The precise circumstances and date of this acquisition are not known, but he may have had a very relevant personal reason for possessing the pistols. During his year in Paris, Bolívar was ushered into society by his lover Countess Fanny du Villars, wife of Count Dervieu de Villars, a retired Napoleonic colonel who spent most of his time at his country estate in Lyons, leaving his much younger wife to party as hard as she wished. Consequently, she had more than one lover (as did Bolívar), one of whom was Eugène de Beauharnais, Josephine’s son and Napoleon’s stepson, then only 19 years old and already a general. She enjoyed playing the two against each other.

One evening, she asked Eugène which animal Simón most resembled and Eugène said “moineau” (sparrow). That was less than flattering as it was, but Bolívar misheard it as “mono (monkey) and was enraged. He challenged Eugène to a duel on the spot. Fanny convinced him he hadn’t been called a monkey and tempers cooled, but it’s possible that exchange persuaded Bolívar to buy a pair of dueling pistols from the country’s premier gunsmith. It’s also possible that Fanny bought them for him as a playful present.

Although we know from letters and contemporary accounts that Simón Bolívar had many firearms in his collection, only five are known to have survived. There’s the pair going up for auction on the 13th, the Fanny-era pair and one single pistol now in a museum. The dueling pistols sold at Christie’s New York in 2004 for $1,687,500.

George Washington pistols are also very rare — only five pairs are known — and one pair of them holds the current record for pistols sold at auction. It’s a pair of steel saddle-mounted pistols by gunsmith Jacob Walster which the Marquis de Lafayette brought with him in 1777 when he traveled to the nascent United States fight in the Revolutionary War. Lafayette gave the pistols to Washington during the war, and Washington is thought to have carried them at Valley Forge, Monmouth, Yorktown, and, once he was President, during the Whiskey Rebellion. Two decades after his death, they were given to a future US President, Andrew Jackson, by William Robinson, husband of Washington’s grand-niece. With so illustrious an ownership history, it’s not entirely surprising that the guns sold for $1,986,000 in 2002. They were bought by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and are now on display at the Fort Ligonier museum in Pennsylvania.

Unlike Washington’s saddle pistols, there’s no evidence the Lafayette-Bolívar pistols saw actual combat. Even so, with their impeccable ownership history, extreme rarity and connection to the Revolutionary War heroes, they could well blow through that figure.

Space archaeologist finds potential Viking site in Canada

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

A test excavation in the peninsula of Point Rosee in southwestern Newfoundland, Canada, has unearthed evidence of a Viking settlement. If the site is confirmed as Norse, it will be the second of its kind and history books will have to be rewritten because Point Rosee is significantly more to the west than the Vikings were thought to have traveled.

Two Icelandic Sagas — the Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders — recount how Leif Eriksson discovered a land to the west called Vinland and how Thorfinn Karlsefni followed in his footsteps and attempted to found a settlement in Vinland. Very little archaeological evidence has been found to support the oral and literary tradition (the sagas were written down 250 years after the events they describe). In 1960, the first and so far only verified North American Viking site was discovered in L’Anse aux Meadows, a coastal settlement on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, 300 miles northeast of Point Rosee.

Since then, a great many searches have turned up very meager evidence, none of it confirmed, of Norse settlement, but people keep looking. The Point Rosee site was pinpointed on satellite images by space archaeologist Sarah Parcak who has made the news recently because a) space archaeologist is probably the greatest job description of all time, and b) she won the $1 million TED prize last year for her work in locating ancient Egyptian sites and tracking looter activity from the skies. Parcak was enlisted by the PBS science program NOVA to scour satellite images from Baffin Island to Massachusetts in the search for Viking settlements in North America. She found hundreds of possibilities and one stand-out that appeared to have rectilinear structures hidden under vegetation.

Parcak and Canadian experts explored the site this summer. A magnetometer survey found a spot with high iron readings that according to the satellite images was surrounded by those buried straight-line features. The team dug exploratory trenches on the spot. They unearthed turf walls and a shallow pit. In front of the pit was a fire-cracked boulder. There also found ash residue, 28 pounds of slag and lumps of roasted iron ore. The evidence points to this being a hearth used to process bog iron, ore carried by rivers to wetlands where it forms metal deposits. The Vikings weren’t miners, but they needed a great deal of iron to maintain their ships. A replica longship in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has 7,000 iron nails keeping it together. That converts to 30 tons of raw ore just to supply enough nails for a single ship. That’s a lot of bog iron.

Only one other bog iron smithy has ever been found in North America: L’Anse Aux Meadows. Native Newfoundlanders did not practice this kind of metallurgy, nor is there any other evidence (flint, pottery) of indigenous or later European settlers present at the site.

It doesn’t look like much …, [b]ut lead archaeologist Sarah Parcak says the site is almost certainly only one of two things:

“Either it’s … an entirely new culture that looks exactly like the Norse and we don’t know what it is,” she told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Or it’s the westernmost Norse site that’s ever been discovered.”

The excavation team will return to Point Rosee this summer to dig for more history-making treasure. Vikings Unearthed, the NOVA episode that documented their work last year, premiers on Wednesday, April 6th, on PBS in the United States. UK viewers get it two days earlier, Monday, April 4th, on BBC One. It will also be available streaming on PBS’ website starting Monday at 3:30 PM.

Here’s a preview of the episode:

Roman mosaic bonanza at the Getty

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has an exceptional collection of Roman floor mosaics from the Imperial era. Some of them have been on display consistently, but others will be seen by the public for the first time in Roman Mosaics Across the Empire, a new exhibition that opened on Wednesday at the Getty Villa. It features mosaics from provinces of the Roman Empire all over the Mediterranean — Italy, France, North Africa, Syria — done in different styles with different themes.

There’s bear hunt from Baiae, outside of Naples, a head of Medusa surrounded by a glorious optical illusion-inducing geometrical design from Rome, an Orpheus surrounded by animals from Saint-Romain-en-Gal, France, a hare and two birds with geometric border panels from Antioch, Syria, a dramatic lion attacking an onager from Hadrumentum, modern-day Sousse, Tunisia. These are top quality artworks which adorned the homes of the very wealthy, public baths, even early Christian churches.

The show also features a close look at the Getty Conservation Institute’s work conserving the mosaics from the Imperial Roman heyday of Bulla Regia in Tunisia, North Africa. Known for its unique villas with subterranean floors — smart design in the heat of Tunisia — Bulla Regia had the greatest numbers of senators in Roman North Africa. It was an important city and its exquisite art and architecture testify to that importance. The GCI is working with the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia and the World Monuments Fund to fully conserve one of the most important private residences in the city, the House of the Hunt, and to devise a plan for the long-term conservation and maintenance of the 400 mosaics that have already been unearthed at Bulla Regia over the past hundred years. Some of the works will be restored for display; others will be reburied. The idea is to make Bulla Regia a template for in situ conservation that can be applied to mosaics elsewhere in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Highlights of the site’s breathtaking beauty can be seen in this video about the project:

The focus on best practices of situ conservation is in marked contrast to the Getty’s past see-no-evil acquisition policy evinced in more than one of the mosaics on display in this exhibition. The Getty bought 23 panels of the Bear Hunt in 1972 from a Switzerland-based antiques dealer (surprise!) who told them only that it had been in an Italian collection. It was almost certainly illegally exported, but the museum looked the other way as it so often did. Recently Getty researchers attempted to trace the ownership history and there’s a big gap between 1929 and 1972. The last known owner in 1929 was refused an export license because there were doubts as to whether he actually had legal title to the mosaic. Somewhere in those four decades, probably closer to 1972 than 1929, the mosaic was trafficked to Zurich and thence to the Getty. Four other panels from the original mosaic were eventually found by the Italian police and are now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

The Getty is offering a number of lectures related to the exhibition. The Handling Session looks particularly compelling.

How were mosaics created from pieces of stone and glass? Learn how these intricate architectural decorations were made in this multisensory handling session. Touch tools and materials similar to those used by ancient mosaicists, including tesserae, slaked lime, marble dust, and nippers.

Lucky Angelenos can take an early lunch and handle tesserae every Thursday and Friday from 11:00 AM-12:00 PM through September 9th. The exhibition runs until September 12th, 2016. For those of us who won’t be able to see the mosaics live, the Getty has made a companion catalogue to the exhibition available free online: Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Export bar placed on Robert the Bruce seal matrix

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

A unique double seal matrix commissioned by Robert the Bruce that is one of very few surviving objects linked directly to King Robert I has been sold to an overseas buyer and is in danger of leaving the UK. The seal sold at auction on December 4th, 2015, for £151,250 ($217,450), well above the pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000 ($115,140-172,710). The buyer is American and applied to the Culture Ministry for an export license. The Art Council’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended that Culture Minister Ed Vaizey block export to give UK museums or collectors the opportunity to raise the purchase price and keep the artifact in the country.

In 1315, Robert the Bruce granted the Abbey, with which he had a longstanding relationship and where he would be buried after his death, a royal charter.

“Robert, by the grace of God King of Scots, to all upright men in his whole land, greeting: Know ye that, for the safety of our own soul and that of our predecessors and successors, Kings of Scotland, we have given, granted, and by this our present Charter, have confirmed to God, the Blessed Mary the Virgin, the Church of the Holy Trinity, and St. Margaret, Queen of Dunfermlyn, and to the monks serving and to serve God for ever in the same, the right of patronage of the vicar Church of Inverkeithing, with the pertinents, as freely and quietly, fully, peacefully, and honourably as the predecessors formerly of Roger de Moubray, knight, who had forfeited it to us, have held and possessed the said right of patronage most freely, quietly, and honourably in all things, by rendering to us nothing therefore by only the suffrages of their prayers: Besides, we give and grant, and, by this our present charter, confirm to the foresaid monks, the whole of our new great Customs from all their lands within our kingdom, viz., the land of the burghs of Dunfermlyne, Kirkcaldy, Musselburgh, and Queensferry, and from all their other lands whatsoever; To also let the said monks have and use their own Koketa, according to the liberties of their regality, and our present concession in all their foresaid lands; and let this Koketa be acknowledged and admitted by all burgesses and our people, and foreign merchants throughout our whole kingdom, without obstruction from our chamberlains, or other servants of ours whatsoever for the time being, without petition from any other allocation of liberation, by finding for this our donation and concession of the said Customs for us and our successors, in honour of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the aforesaid Blessed Margaret in the Choir in front of her shrine, one wax candle solemnly lighted, continually and forever. In testimony whereof we have caused our seal to be attached to our present Charter, these fathers being witnesses. William, and William, Bishops of St. Andrews and Dunkeld; Bernard, our Chancellor, the Abbot of Aberborthick; Duncan and Thomas Randolph, of Fife”

This charter granted the Abbey some lands and conferred the right to collect revenues from customs duties and taxes. The two-part bronze seal, known as a Cokete Seal, was commissioned by the Bruce for the Abbey to use on customs documents. We know the exact date it was made because there’s a record of it in the archives of Dunfermline Abbey: “The Cocquet Seal of the Regality Court of Dunfermline was engraven this year by sanction of King Robert the Bruce, by Chapter, dated at Scone, 10th July, 1322, along with letters patent to all who paid customs at Bruges, in Flanders, or elsewhere, notifying that wherever this Seal was in due form produced, it was to be recognised as the authority for collecting the customs granted to the Abbey by the King, &c.”

The two parts were pressed together over a large blob of wax to form a seal. The wax seal would then be attached to an official document with a piece of parchment (for a brilliant example of attached seals acting as signatures, see the letter to Pope Clement VII from the peers of England asking for Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled). The obverse seal matrix features an image of Saint Margaret, Queen consort of King Malcolm III of Scotland, founder and patron of Dunfermline Abbey, and is bordered with the Lombardic Latin legend “+ S’COKETE REGALITATIS.DE. DVNFERMELYNN,” (Cokete Seal of the regality of Dunfermline). The reverse features the royal arms of Scotland bordered with the legend “+ROBERTVS DEI GRACIA REX SCOTORVM” (Robert, by the Grace of God, King of the Scots).

The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds that it was of great value for the study of medieval goldsmith work and sigillography and the re-establishment of Scottish institutions under Robert the Bruce.

RCEWA Member Leslie Webster said:

“This remarkable and handsome seal-die is of national importance on several counts; it is closely linked to the charismatic figure of Robert the Bruce, and to the history and institutions of Scotland at a crucial time in its evolution as a nation; its association with the royal abbey of Dunfermline sheds light on how the king acted out his authority, delegating the powers of the crown; and its outstanding quality may suggest the influence of French craftsmen.”

The Scottish government has declared itself in support of all efforts that would keep the seal matrix in the UK, ideally in a Scottish museum, but there’s no official campaign that I could find. Here’s an Indiegogo campaign that’s been set up by a concerned individual who would use the funds to acquire the seal and donate it to the National Museum for Scotland. It’s less than 1% funded at this point, and I suspect the money is more likely to be raised by the institution itself tapping its private donors and launching a public campaign like the Victoria & Albert Museum did with Wolsey’s Angels. The National Museum already has an impression of the obverse in its collection. I imagine they’d be keen to have the original matrix pair.

Time’s awaistin’. The temporary bar expires on June 21st. If there’s a good faith effort to raise the money and it looks like they have a chance of reaching the goal, the deadline may be extended until September 21st.

Another Battle of Thermopylae found in palimpsest

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The leaves of books in the Middle Ages were made of parchment and vellum, created from animal skins in an expensive and time-consuming craft. It was so costly that scribes often recycled pages from earlier books, removing the ink to create a blank sheet. In the early Middle Ages, the ink was washed off and over time the shadow of former writing reappeared like a pentimento in a painting. In the later Middle Ages, they used pumice powder to scrape the ink away for good.

Volumes with the ghostly memories of previous texts still impressed in the pages are called palimpsests and researchers have been trying to read the vanished writing for centuries, either by careful sight-reading of whatever could be discerned or, starting in the 18th century, by the use of chemicals like tincture of gall which is high in tannic acid and badly damages the manuscript. Nowadays we have new options courtesy of spectral imaging technology.

Researchers Gunther Martin of the University of Bern and Jana Grusková of Comenius University in Bratislava enlisted the aid of Los Angeles-based organization the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) to examine a palimpsest in the Austrian National Library in Vienna using brand new multi-spectral technology. The text in question is the Codex Vindobonensis historicus gr. 73. The bound collection of 10th century ecclesiastical ordinances was acquired in the 16th century by Ogier de Busbecq, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s envoy to Constantinople, an avid manuscript collector who would bequeath his collection to the imperial library in Vienna. The parchment pages of the codex came from two different 11th century manuscripts, with 11 pages of monastic rules and prayers added in the 13th century.

The presence of hidden text in the Codex Vindobonensis was discovered decades ago, but even under UV light the text was too faint to be read accurately. A few years ago the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) funded Martin and Grusková’s research into palimpsests, allowing them to look behind the visible script of the codex with EMEL’s multi-spectral technology. The pages were irradiated with lights of different wavelengths. Each type of light is absorbed into the parchment and ink to different degrees. Photographs capture the degrees of absorption and then computer software stitches the pictures together to create a detailed image of the hidden text.

With this system, Martin and Grusková were able to read pieces of the ancient Greek text underwriting the medieval and discovered a precious treasure: significant sections of a history of Rome’s 3rd century Gothic wars written by 3rd century Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus. His history, the Scythica (Dexippus called the Goths Scythians), was only known from very fragmentary quotes in much later books. These hefty passages shed a whole new light on the wars of the mid-3rd century.

Martin and Grusková published several of the passages into German in 2014. Now Oxford University’s Christopher Mallan and the University of Queensland’s Caillan Davenport have translated one of the fragments into English. It’s a splendid description of a battle at Thermopylae, probably the most famous battle site of the ancient world where in 480 B.C. King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan warriors and other Greek forces took their brave last stand against the far larger army of Persian King Xerxes.

I find it a tremendous bummer when news stories about this kind of discovery do not include the full text, even when it’s a bit dry or appeals only to the nerdiest history nerds, and in this case the lack of the complete quote in the press accounts is unforgivable because it’s pure awesome. All killer, no filler.

[The Goths invaded Thra]ce and Macedonia, and plundered the entire countryside therein. And then, making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band. But since those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands, and as none of the Scythians’ hopes came to pass, they abandoned the siege. The prevailing opinion of the host was to make for Athens and Achaia, envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries: for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect. When the approach of the Scythians was reported to the Greeks, they gathered at Thermopylae, and set about blocking them from the narrow passes there. Some carried small spears, other axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste. And it seemed that the area was otherwise very secure, since the road which led to Greece beyond the Gates was narrow and impracticable on account of the harsh terrain. For the Euboean Sea, at its greatest extent, stretches up to the flat lands near the mountains and makes them most difficult to access on account of the mud, and adjacent to these extends Mt Oeta [, which...] on account of the closeness of the rocks, makes the place almost impassable for both infantry and cavalry. The generals elected for the entire war were proclaimed by the Greeks: first Marianus, who had been chosen previously by the emperor to govern Greece inside the Gates; in addition to him, Philostratus the Athenian, a man mighty in speech and thought; and also Dexippus, who was holding the chief office among the Boeotians for the fifth time. It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valour, so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up either during an extended period of watch, or during an attempt on the wall, if such an attempt were to take place at some point in time. When the men had gathered together, Marianus, who had been given the responsibility of addressing them on account of his status, spoke as follows: ‘O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochos, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command. So perhaps it may be good fortune, in accordance with the daimonion, that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past). But you may take confidence in both your preparation for these events and the strength of the region — as a result of which, in previous attacks you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On account of these things future events do not appear to me not without hope, as to better…

It’s the content and style of the writing that identifies it as the work of Dexippus. The Scythica was known to include several siege narratives and long speeches (likely fictionalized) by military leaders. The details about the engagement at Thermopylae — the geography of the site, the weapons of the militia, the names and origins of the generals — indicate this passage was part of a far larger narrative history of the period. No other history written in Greek during the 3rd century goes into such detail about events in the reign of the emperor Gallienus. Only Scythica fits the bill.

There are other characteristics that mark it as Dexippus’ history. The author uses no Roman terms, titles or Latinisms. The focus is on regional figures — Dexippus the Boeotian and Philostratus the Athenian — working in tandem with Roman authorities — Marianus — and on the valor and achievements of Greeks. Even the Roman general makes a point of admiring the history of Greeks’ fight for freedom.

On these points Mallan and Davenport agree with Martin and Grusková, but there are significant areas of disagreement as well. For example, Martin and Grusková believe this battle happened during the Herulian invasions (267/8 A.D.), when the barbarian invaders defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae, but Mallan and Davenport make a strong case, in my opinion, for the battle taking place during an earlier Gothic invasion in around 262 A.D. The Herulian invasions were predominantly seaborne, but there’s no mention of naval engagements in any of the newly discovered fragments, nor do any other sources on the Herulian invasions mention a battle at Thermopylae, which, given its iconic status, is an unlikely oversight. Also Thessaloniki was successfully besieged by the Heruli. This passage describes the Thessalonian defenders as victorious.

Another area of disagreement is the identity of the Roman general Marianus. Martin and Grusková identify him as dux Aurelius Marcianus, one of Gallienus’ generals who fought against the Goths in the late 260s and conspired to kill the emperor in 268. Mallan and Davenport posit that he is a previously unknown general named Marianus, a senator and proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia. (In keeping with his rejection of Latinisms, Dexippus’ reference to Achaia is a geographical region of Greece, not the Roman province. The Greeks called the Roman province “Greece inside the Gates.”) Since proconsuls had limited garrisons at their immediate disposal, he would have had to turn to local militias to help defend the pass.

The reference to the generals being “elected” suggests the defensive forces were assembled by a Greek political body, probably the Panhellenion which was the only body in the 3rd century that covered the regions of Greece represented by the three generals: Boeotia (Dexippus), Athens (Philostratus) and Marianus (Achaia). No other sources mention the Panhellenion appointing military leaders, but the invasion was an extraordinary circumstance which required a speedy military response.

Mallan and Davenport therefore propose a new reconstruction of the Gothic invasion of the early 260s. In late 261 or early 262, the Goths invaded Greece and laid waste to the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia. They besieged Thessaloniki, but it was ably defended by the residents so they moved on to the Roman province of Achaia. The Greeks, likely through the Panhellenion, quickly organized a defense of the province under three generals with Marianus, Roman proconsul of Achaia, at the lead. The Goths invaded Achaia by late 262, early 263, but were turned back by Marianus and Greek militia at the pass of Thermopylae. They didn’t leave empty-handed. On their way out they sacked the rich temples and sanctuaries of Greece before moving on to the Roman Asia province at the end of 263. The threat to Greece was over (for a few years).

Concretions removed to reveal iron body of Hunley

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

The iron body of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley has been revealed after 137 years in the salt water of Charleston Harbor, 13 years in a tank of cold fresh water and two years off and on in a sodium hydroxide solution. Conservators at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center have been working to preserve the delicate vessel since it was raised in 2000. The long water bath was necessary to slowly stabilize the iron which would have cracked and corroded if exposed to oxygen after so many years underwater. The weak sodium hydroxide solution (99% water, 1% NaOH) helped leech salt out of the iron and soften the concretion layer.

A combination of rust, sand, rock and assorted ocean debris, concretions are hard as concrete. The concretion layer that coated the entire submarine, inside and out, was so thick, the original iron has been obscured since the Hunley was first raised from the harbor floor. Some areas of concretion were harder than the iron underneath them. In order for the sodium hydroxide treatment to leech the corrosive salt out of the iron skin effectively, the concretion had to be removed first. In May of 2014, the submarine was immersed in sodium hydroxide for the first time. That initial three-month soak was intended to loosen the concretions.

When the tank was drained of the solution after three months, conservators had three days to chip away at the concretion before the tank was filled again. In a cramped workspace that was a hazardous caustic environment requiring the use of face masks, goggles and specialized protective suits, conservators used small drills, chisels and hammers to remove the rock-like incrustation. It was painstaking, dangerous work. One false move with a hand tool and the iron skin of the submarine could be irreparably damaged.

After three days of assiduous labor, the tank was refilled with the sodium hydroxide solution for another three months, then drained for chipping and on and on like that for more than a year. At the end of the process, conservators removed 1,200 pounds of concretion, about the weight of a grand piano, just from the exterior of the submarine. The Hunley‘s iron skin was seen by human eyes for the first time since the Civil War.

Conservators had hoped that removing the concretion would reveal damage that might explain what happened to the H. L. Hunley on the night of February 17th, 1864. We know that its mission to sink the USS Housatonic was successful. The submarine drove a spar-mounted torpedo into the starboard stern of the Union warship and its payload of 135 pounds of gunpowder exploded, blowing a large hole in the side of the enemy vessel. While the hand-cranked submarine with its crew of eight men was very close to the explosion — the spar was only 16 feet long — the Hunley and its crew survived. They signalled the success of the mission with a blue magnesium light, as previously arranged, and then were never heard from or seen again.

They did find some clues on the skin of the submarine. Archaeologists found damage to the bolts and clamps of the boom that held the spar in place. They also discovered a crack in the bow where the spar was mounted. The impact from the explosion or the ramming appears to have torn out a clamp and cracked the Hunley‘s bow cap.

That’s not a smoking gun, however. Archaeologists were looking for evidence of bullet damage. Records indicate the submarine was seen before the attack and the Union ship fired on it. Bullet holes would have confirmed this report and would have explained why the vessel was too damaged to return to safety. One large hole was found, but it was the result of years of scouring by sand and salt before the submarine was covered by the sand on the ocean floor and kept relatively intact.

Conservators have now moved their attentions to the interior of the submarine. It too is covered in concretions, and this workspace is even more cramped. The crew compartment is less than four feet in diameter. It’s unlikely they’ll find one key piece of evidence that explains the fate of the Hunley in the interior. This part of the project is focused on what happened in the claustrophobic nightmare of that tiny iron cigar in the last moments of the crewmen’s lives. Conservators hope to find artifacts — personal effects, uniform buttons, tools — that will help them piece together what happened to the Hunley.

Anytime an artifact is found, the scientists will have to stop scraping to map its location on a 3-D grid.

Scafuri said that all these clues are probably all scientists will have to piece together the final moments of the first attack sub. Every piece of evidence suggests one thing and eventually that research will point to an answer for the biggest lingering question: why didn’t the Hunley return after sinking the Housatonic.

Between work on the interior, conservators are busy restoring pieces of the sub that were removed — rubber gaskets and glass deadlights, for instance. All those pieces will be replaced when the caustics treatment ends and the sub is ready for dry display.

It’s going to be a few years before the submarine is ready for permanent display in the open air. The sodium hydroxide soaks will continue for at least five years and possibly as many as seven more years. The solution must be replaced every three to four months even when all the concretion has been removed because it will get too salty to be effective.

There are some excellent shots in this video by the Friends of the Hunley of the Hunley before and after the concretions were removed. It looks amazing.

Navigation

Search

Archives

April 2016
S M T W T F S
« Mar    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication