Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Happy 100th birthday, Wrigley Field!

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014


Chicago’s iconic ballpark Wrigley Field turns 100 years old today. It is the second oldest Major League Baseball park after Boston’s Fenway Park (opened April 20, 1912). Although it is the home field of the Chicago Cubs, they’ve never actually won a World Series there. The famously benighted club’s glory days took place at the long-defunct West Side Park where in 1906 the Cubs scored the most victories (116) and the best winning percentage (.763) in Major League history. The lost to the White Sox in the World Series that year, but won the next two. The subsequent World Series dry spell is the longest in history.

Wrigley Field has seen a championship, however, just for a team in a league that stopped existing right after they won. It wasn’t called Wrigley Field then. When it opened its doors, it was called Weeghman Park after Charles Weeghman, the “Quick Lunch King,” owner of a chain of lunchrooms. Weeghman’s diners served only cold sandwiches, and instead of tables and chairs or stools and a bar, they were packed with school-style chairs where a single arm curves around into a table. No hot food = no wait, and eating like you’re taking a test = no lingering. He was able to cram so many people into his diners and get them out the door so quickly that at its peak, the main lunchroom served a mind-boggling 35,000 people a day.

Weeghman was never one to rest on his laurels or focus narrowly on his business, a lack of focus that would ultimately lead to his downfall. One of the side-interests he pursued avidly was baseball. He founded a Chicago team of the Federal League, an upstart organization that from 1914 to 1915 challenged the National League and American League as the “third major league.” First known as the Chicago Federals or ChiFeds, the team name was changed for the 1915 season to the Chicago Wales.

To give his new team a place to play, Weeghman leased land on the corner of Clark and Addison from the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary and hired Zachary Taylor Davis, architect of Comiskey Park, to build a new concrete and steel baseball field. Work began on February 23, 1914, with an official groundbreaking on March 4th. You read those dates right. Weeghman Park was built in two months. It cost $250,000.

On April 23rd, 1914, Weeghman Park opened with a game between the Chicago ChiFeds and the Kansas City Packers. Future hall of famer Joe Tinker managed the home team, and the Chicago crowds came out to support him and the new team. In an auspicious beginning that sadly would not be bourne out in the long-term, the ChiFeds won handily. You can read the Chicago Tribune’s review of the opening game here. The ChiFeds lost in the finals of the league championship that year, but they won the title the next year, making them the Federal League’s most successful club.

That wasn’t enough to save the league. It folded shortly after the season ended, but Weeghman bounced back, acquiring the National League’s Chicago Cubs and bringing them over from the fire-prone wooden West Side Park to his two-year-old Weeghman Park. To fund the record-setting $500,000 acquisition of the team, Weeghman enlisted investors from the Chicago business community, including gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr.

Wrigley’s company was going great guns, while Weeghman’s began to stumble. His investments in film production and theater ownership were failures that sucked support from the diners that had made his fortune. With many of his demographic (ie, young working men) heading off to war, the lunchrooms began to suffer. No sooner had the boys come home than the Spanish Influenza struck. It would claim 20 million lives worldwide before it ebbed. Meanwhile, nobody was keen to lunch in established jam-packed with people coughing their potentially lethal pathogens all over each other.

Weeghman tried to shore up his bottom line by borrowing money from Wrigley with shares in the Cubs as collateral, or by selling shares outright. Wrigley took an increasingly direct interest in the club, moving their spring training grounds from Florida to Pasadena where he had a mansion and a large plot of land downtown easily converted into a ball field. By 1918, Weeghman was finished at the park he built. Wrigley owned most of his stock and finally demanded that in return for yet another loan, Weeghman retire as president of the Chicago Cubs and devote himself solely to his business.

Wrigley didn’t immediately rename Weeghman Park after himself. It kept its original name for a couple of years, then changed to Cubs Park in 1920. Six years later, in November of 1926, the park was renamed Wrigley Field. It owns many historical firsts. The Star Spangled Banner was first played there before games. Wrigley was the first field to allow fans to keep foul balls they caught (elsewhere they had to hand them over to ushers). It was the first baseball field to have an organist playing. The first televised baseball game was the Cubs versus the Dodgers on July 13th, 1946. It was the last field to host night games because it was the last to install lights in 1988, believe it or not. Babe Ruth made his famous “Called Shot” (if it actually happened) at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series, his last year in the game.

While almost all of the old parks have been demolished to make way for stadiums with high-tech amenities, Wrigley Field carries on with all its myriad problems and disadvantages. A half-billion dollar renovation is slated to begin in the offseason this year, although there are obstacles, mainly the owners of the rooftop bleachers whose prize locations will be endangered by the refurbishment.

Today, Wrigley Field is celebrating its birthday in grand style. The Cubs will play the Arizona Diamondbacks with both teams wearing throwback jerseys of the Chicago Federals for the Cubs and the Kansas City Packers for the Diamondbacks. The first 30,000 fans to arrive at the park will get a free replica 1914 Chicago Federals jersey (WANT!) and will be greeted by ushers wearing period costumes in 1914-style. The ground crews will also enjoy some vintage styles: 1914 Weeghman Park jackets. Even the concessions stands are get into the spirit of things, offering 1910s specials like a breaded pork sandwich with slow-cooked onions and spicy mustard on a toasted roll and a Reuben Dog, a beef hot dog topped with corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island and Swiss cheese.

Before the game begins, visitors will enjoy historic photographs and videos on a right field board. Charles Weeghman’s grand-niece Sue Quigg will throw the first pitch using a 100-year-old ball first thrown at a ChiFeds game by her grandmother Dessa Weeghman.

For a wonderful series of retrospective articles, see the Chicago Tribune’s Wrigley 100 page. The Chicago Cubs have a site dedicated to the centennial as well. You can purchase tickets there, although I don’t see where they tell you if tickets are still available for today’s game.

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Only extant Revolutionary War mine tunnel opened

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The only mine tunnel from the Revolutionary War known to survive has been opened and explored by a firefighter in the first stage of its preservation. The 125-foot tunnel was designed by Polish humanist, engineer and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko during the 1781 siege of the earthen Star Fort in the town of Ninety Six, South Carolina. The plan was for the tunnel to extend underneath the Star Fort so that it could be mined from below and blown up. British reinforcements arrived before the tunnel was finished, which is why it, unlike its more successful brethren, managed to survive the war.

The earthworks of Star Fort are still in existence and the entire site is now a National Park. The Park service and experts from the University of South Florida sent Greenwood firefighter Russel Cline down into the tunnel with breathing equipment since they had no idea what kind of air quality he would encounter. He found that it was remarkably good, considering the three-and-a-half foot high tunnel is more than 230 years old. The video records that the vaulted tunnel is lined with brick and mortar which at first glance, at least, still impressively sound, a testament to Kosciuszko’s skill and attention to detail.

Now that the path has been cleared, researchers will fully map and measure the tunnel with 3D imaging, laser scanning and remote sensing technology. This will give archaeologists a detailed understanding of the tunnel’s condition, and, since the it can’t be opened to the general public for its own good and ours, it will allow researchers to create 3D models to bring the tunnel to life for park visitors.

The village of Ninety Six (the origin of the name has been lost in the mists of time) played a significant role in the Revolution. A frontier town in western South Carolina, Ninety Six was the site of several battles of the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758–1761), when the Cherokee fought against the British during the French and Indian War. Its strategic importance was undiminished 15 years later when Revolution came. In 1775, Ninety Six was the site of the first Revolutionary War battle south of New England. The year after that a casualty of another battle fought in Ninety Six claimed another first. Francis Salvador, a recent immigrant from London, prominent landowner and the first Jew to hold elected office in what would become the United States, was shot three times at the Battle of Twelve Mile Creek on August 1, 1776. Before the American militia could rescue Salvador from the battlefield, the Loyalists’ Cherokee allies scalped him. He was the only one to receive this treatment, and he died from his wounds a few hours later making Francis Salvador the first Patriot Jew to die in the Revolutionary War.

In 1780, the British army — in this case experienced Loyalist troops organized into regular army regiments rather than militias — decided to fortify Ninety Six. The Provincial regiments and their slaves built a fort in the shape of an eight-point star, with earthen walls 14 feet high. Two stockade walls would keep attackers busy to give the 550 troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger the chance to defend.

On May 22nd, 1781, Patriot Major General Nathanael Greene laid siege to the Star Fort. He had almost twice the number of troops and Colonel Kosciuszko on his side, but Star Fort proved a tough nut to crack nonetheless. The siege lasted 28 days, the longest siege of the Revolutionary War. First the Patriots dug an approach trench, but te defenders attacked during the construction giving Kosciuszko the only wound he ever experienced in the seven years he fought for the Patriot side: a bayonet to the buttocks.

Next Kosciuszko built a Maham Tower, a 30-foot-high siege tower with a covered platform at the top. From that height, sharpshooters could pick off the fort’s defenders, but not for long. Cruger had sandbags stacked above the parapet, protecting his troops from the sharpshooters. When the Greene’s troops tried shooting flaming arrows into the fort to set it on fire, Cruger had all the roofs removed from the buildings inside the fort making it hard for anything to catch fire.

The mine tunnel was Kosciuszko’s last engineering attempt to win the siege. It stopped short when news that 2,000 British troops were marching to Ninety Six from Charleston. On June 18th, tried a frontal assault on the fort. They reached the sandbags before they were outflanked on both sides by Cruger’s men and retreated to the trenches. With the British reinforcements just 30 miles away and having lost 150 troops in the assault, Greene ordered a full retreat.

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Help catalog British Museum’s Bronze Age artifacts

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Okay, I promise I’m not actively working to ensure that none of you ever leave your homes again. After all, there are always laptops, coffee shops with free wifi and libraries. It’s just that I can’t get enough of really fiddly detail work that helps bring hoary old museum collections into the Internet era.

In this case the collection is the British Museum’s hoards of Bronze Age metal objects and thousands of index cards documenting other pre-historic metal objects. In collaboration with University College London, the museum has created a crowdsourcing platform that gives history nerds with OCD and time on their hands the chance to digitize the objects and records.

This record contains over 30,000 Bronze Age tools and weapons that were discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements the current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database of metal object finds.

The catalogue contains index cards detailing object find spots and types, alongside detail line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery. The catalogue itself also has a long and special history. It was a major archaeological initiative first founded in 1913 and then moved to the British Museum in the 1920s. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age artefact studies.

“This information has long been known to be an extremely important untapped resource,” says curator Wilkin, “Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain’s prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. Once we have digitised the thousands of objects in this catalogue, they can be incorporated into the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) website. The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. This will allow rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a far more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past.”

Here’s the crowdsourcing website where the magic happens. They’ve already done the hard work of scanning all these records, but to make them searchable and categorizable in an online database, the handwritten information needs to be entered into standard fields. Character recognition is still fairly unreliable which is why our eyeballs and fingers are necessary to make this great project come together. I’ve done a handful of cards and found them eminently readable. There are no doctor’s scribbles or chickenscratch. The only part that can be a little challenging is when the fields on the index cards don’t match the database fields, and that’s a minority of the records.

If data entry sounds a little dry an occupation for your free time, the project has a another goal of creating 3D models of Bronze Age artifacts in the British Museum. All you have to do to contribute to this goal is draw an outline around an artifact in a scanned photograph. It’s like the lasso tool in Photoshop. You click around the edge of the object every time the angle changes creating a polygonal outline. If the shape is odd and you feel the need to make multiple overlapping polygons, that works too. They don’t want any background pixels surrounding the artifact — they have dozens of pictures of each object to create the 3D model, so any slender losses along one edge will be recovered from a different view — so be sure to click along the inside edge rather than the outside.

You can register on the website if you want your work credited to a single account and if you’d like to seek help/fellowship on the community forum, but you don’t have to register to help out. Just click on an application and dive right in. A window will pop up with instructions. Once you get into a record, there are further tips in the database fields and on the photographs to help you out as you go along.

I found it meditative and genuinely enjoyable. There are some beautiful drawings of the artifacts on the index cards, and it’s amazing to see the remote areas where these artifacts have been found. Out of the five I did, three of them were from outside of the UK (two from France, one from Hungary). Every card and picture is a micro-lesson in the Bronze Age archaeological record.

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All of British Pathé’s film archive now on YouTube

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

If you thought the New York Public Library’s map release was a time sink, you’d best settle your affairs and fully stock your bomb shelter because British Pathé has released its entire archive of 85,000 newsreels, documentaries and raw footage on YouTube.

British Pathé was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, renowned for first-class reporting and an informative yet uniquely entertaining style. It is now considered to be the finest newsreel archive in existence. Spanning the years from 1896 to 1976, the collection includes footage – not only from Britain, but from around the globe – of major events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, sport and culture. The archive is particularly strong in its coverage of the First and Second World Wars.

This is a great, great day. I have long harbored resentment that the vast panoply of film riches on Pathé’s website were so inaccessible. They could only be viewed in low resolution 400 x 320-pixel windows on the website itself. Many of the videos were watermarked and there was no way to embed them. If you wanted to get a decent look at one, you had to buy it for £30. Even stills from the film had to be purchased to the tune of £20 apiece.

And so I was grudgingly forced to link to the films on the website instead of embedding the greatness of Cygan the robot, the 1941 bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the interview with Titanic survivor Edith Rosenbaum of singing toy pig fame. Well goodbye sad links to budget videos. Hello high resolution embeds!

Cygan the Robot:

The bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1941:

Titanic Disaster Documentary with Edith Rosenbaum:

The main British Pathé YouTube channel has just over 81,000 videos uploaded, and they’re helpfully arranging them in playlists and according to topics like Pre-1910 Footage, Weird Newsreels and A Day That Shook the World which features some of the most important events in the 20th century history. They also have specialized channels for War Archives, Vintage Fashions and Sporting History, although those channels haven’t been expanded in the recent spate of uploads.

You don’t have to settle for Pathé’s categories. Just search the channel for a subject of interest. Click the magnifying glass to the right of About on the top menu and type in a keyword. Searching for Titanic, for instance, returns ten Titanic newsreels and documentaries, and then derails very entertainingly into footage of a lion eating at an outdoor table with a proper English lady and her husband in 1959, Icelandic lava fields from 1930 and a helpful 1921 instructional on how to make a bra from two handkerchiefs (warning: not for the lady who requires any kind of actual support).

It’s a playground. A beautiful, disturbing, hilarious, compelling playground of history and society on film.

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The sheep of the White House

Friday, April 18th, 2014

After President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April of 1917, his own family undertook to set an example of home front contributions to the war effort. Following the programs of future president Herbert Hoover, then head of the Food Administration, Woodrow’s wife Edith instituted fuel and food conservation measures like gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays. They suspended White House entertaining and worked assiduously to raise money for the troops by organizing liberty bond rallies hosted by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

In 1918, they took that commitment to a whole new level of cuteness. Wilson purchased a flock of 18 sheep led by an ornery ram named Old Ike who was famous for chewing tobacco. He gnoshed on any cigar butt he could find. He was no fan of humans — White House staff and police were favorite targets for his head-butting wrath — but he was a fine leader of ewes and produced a mighty fleece.

(Interestingly, he wasn’t the first vicious ram to roam the White House lawns. Thomas Jefferson brought a large flock with him from Monticello in 1807 to continue the breeding program he had long been obsessed with. The leader of the flock was a four-horned Shetland ram who took aim at anyone attempting to take a short cut through the property back when that sort of thing was possible. In 1808 he felled William Keough, a Revolutionary War veteran who had fallen on hard times and was in Washington, D.C. to petition the President for a pension. Others were not so lucky. The ram actually killed a child. When he returned to Monticello, he killed two other rams and one of his own offspring. Finally in 1811 Jefferson had him put down.)

Wilson’s White House sheep released groundskeeping personnel so they could enlist, saved money on maintenance and raised money through wool sales. Here’s some footage of the flock trundling around the Executive Mansion grounds while Woodrow Wilson looks out the window at them.

The White House lawns turned out to make outstanding pasture land. The sheep feasted mightily on the sweet grasses, growing thick woolen pelts and making lots of adorable lambs to increase their numbers. They kept the lawns manicured and fertilized, and much like White House pets today, were widely popular with the American public. The sheep were also fundraisers of unparalleled efficacy. The animals with the best quality fleece were sheered and their wool sold at auction. The states each received a few fleeces to be auctioned off with the imprimatur of White House Wool. The first sale in 1918 raised $30,000 for the Red Cross. The next year’s auction raised an extraordinary $52,823 for the Red Cross, an average of $1,000 a pound. To this day it remains the most expensive wool ever sold. Ike’s fleece, incidentally, sold for a mind-blowing $10,000 a pound.

The sheep outlasted the war. Newspapers reported that more than half the flock of 46 was sheered on May 24th, 1920, both to raise money for charity and to keep the sheep looking sharp so they didn’t mar the handsome prospect of the Pennsylvania Avenue-fronting North Lawn. That year 185 pounds of wool were sheered from the White House flock and donated to the Salvation Army. There were two more head in the flock by August when the White House sheep were decommissioned because the Shepherd in Chief had failed to secure the nomination of his party at the 1920 Democratic National Convention the month before.

The flock retired to the Maryland farm of Lionel C. “Dick” Probert, chief of the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, who had himself played a pivotal but virtually unknown role in the United States’ entry into World War I. It was Probert who broke the story of the Zimmermann Telegram, the coded message sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, instructing him to offer Mexico funding and territories in the US if it joined the war on the German side. The AP story, written without byline by Probert, went to press on March 1, 1917. It was a sensation, inciting widespread anti-German feeling all over the country. A month later, the US was at war with Germany.

The White House sheep continued to thrive at Probert’s farm. By 1927, the year Old Ike shuffled off this mortal coil, the flock had increased to 75 head.

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Gold mourning ring of famed 17th c. lawyer, sheriff, usurer found

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

A unique gold mourning ring commemorating Hugh Audley, 17th century lawyer, sheriff, property magnate and rapacious moneylender, has been found in Carleton Rode, Norfolk, eastern England. Metal detectorist John Reed discovered the ring last December and, after expert examination, it was just declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest in Norwich.

The ring is made out of 24-carat gold and is engraved on the outside with an elongated skull and crosshatching with a dash at each intersecting point. Black enamel fills in the engraving, emphasizing the skull’s features and the crosshatch pattern. It’s in excellent condition, with almost all the enamel still in place. There is no enamel in the inscription engraved on the inside of the ring, but it’s very readable nonetheless. The inscription is what identifies who the ring is mourning. It reads: “H. Awdeley. ob. 15. nou. 1662.” Next to the inscription is a maker’s mark, a barely identifiable W inside a shield, which may be the mark of Plymouth jeweler Richard Willcockes.

Because the inscription is so clear, John Reed was able to research it as soon as he found the ring. He found a Hugh Audley who died on November 15th, 1662, at the venerable age of 86. Before his death, he had 11 mourning rings made for his heirs to remember him by. Ten of them were sized for women’s fingers, one for a man. If any of the other 10 have survived, we don’t know about it.

This was a common practice in the 17th century, not only wearing mourning rings in memory of a dead loved one, but for people to make provisions in their wills to have rings made for specific recipients. The Audley ring design is a classic of the genre, engraved with the deceased name and dates on the inside, a decorative death-themed pattern with black enamel details on the outside. A few years after this ring was made, the mourning ring industry would see an unfortunate boom as a consequence of the Great Plague of London of 1665-6.

Hugh Audley was very rich and famous in his day. He was known as The Great Audley because of his wealth. His death even merited a note in Samuel Pepys’ diary:

I hear to-day how old rich Audley is lately dead, and left a very great estate, and made a great many poor familys rich, not all to one. Among others, one Davis, my old schoolfellow at Paul’s, and since a bookseller in Paul’s Church Yard: and it seems do forgive one man 60,000l. which he had wronged him of, but names not his name; but it is well known to be the scrivener in Fleet Street, at whose house he lodged.

Pepys is referring to the terms of Audley’s will, which spread around the wealth (not all to one). One of his primary beneficiaries was Pepys’ friend Thomas Davies, Audley’s grand-nephew, a bookseller who would become Sheriff of London in 1667, Master of the Stationers’ Company (the publishers’ guild of London) in 1668, Master of the Drapers’ Company (the cloth merchants’ guild) in 1677, and Lord Mayor of London in 1676. I’m sure his inheritance helped make that marked increase in fortune possible. The very large debt of £60,000, worth millions in today’s money, which Audley forgave in his will was owed by Fleet Street writer John Rae. Audley lodged at Rae’s house starting in 1654 and wound up taking him to court in 1661.

Audley was something of a Horatio Alger character. A pamphlet published shortly after his death says it all in the title: The way to be rich according to the practice of the Great Audley, who began life with £200 in the year 1605, and dyed worth £400,000, this instant November, 1662. That final sum is the equivalent of $50 million in today’s money. He made this fortune by hustling constantly, basically. Audley began his legal training in 1603 when he was admitted to the Inner Temple, one of London’s four professional associations for lawyers. While he learned the law during the day, at night in the early hours of the morning he taught the same law he had just learned. He published a few tracts while he was at it, and used the profits to build the personal law library he couldn’t afford to buy outright.

In 1604, he was appointed a clerk of the Court of Wards and Liveries, the court that oversaw all the wards in what would later become Chancery Court (see Dickens’ Bleak House for more on that) where the disposition of wills was settled. There was a lot of money in this job, because fees would be paid from the wards’ fortunes and unscrupulous clerks could nickel and dime them at every turn. Audley was reported to have paid £3000 for this plum position. According to a biography of Hugh Audley written by Isaac D’Israeli, father of future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, when someone asked Audley what the value was of his clerkship, he replied “it might be worth some thousands of pounds to him who after his death would instantly go to heaven twice as much to him who would go to purgatory and nobody knows what to him who would adventure to go to hell.”

At least a few hundred thousand, as it happened. Audley parlayed his Court of Wards windfall into a financial empire. He bailed out the wastrel sons of nobility, bought their debts, extended loans with the estates of their fathers as backing. Charging compound interest (hence the title of usurer which he bore unconcernedly) he quickly wound up the owner of a great deal of prime real estate. His first major real estate acquisition was the Ebury Estate in Westminster, then on the outskirts of London, now covering much of London’s most expensive neighborhoods: Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico. He bought it from Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, who was deeply in debt and had to sell the property for far less than it was worth. The land where Buckingham Palace would eventually be built belonged to Audley and there’s a tony Mayfair street named after him.

The Audley estate would become the core of yet another great landowning family, the Grosvenors, now Dukes of Westminster. Audley’s grand-nephew Alexander Davies, Thomas’ brother, bought out his brother’s share of the inheritance. Alexander bequeathed the former Ebury property to his daughter Mary, and she sadly inherited it when she was just six months old. In 1677, she married Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Baronet, when he was 21 and she was 12. That transactional marriage proved to be a wise one from the Grosvenors’ perspective. To this day the family remains one of the biggest landowners in London.

As for the mourning ring, it is currently at the British Museum where it will be valued by experts. A local Norfolk museum will then be given the opportunity to pay the assessed value to the finder and landowner to secure the ring. If they don’t want it, other museums will be given a bite at the apple.

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Norway gives lost Chinese 1927 silent film to China

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The only known surviving copy of a classic 1927 Chinese silent film has returned home. The restored copy of <em>Pan Si Dong (The Cave of the Silken Web) was handed over to the China Film Archive in Beijing on Tuesday. After the ceremony and a reception attended by invited guests, the film, accompanied live by Chinese pianist Jin Ye, was screened at a sold out show in front of an audience of 600.

The film was thought to be lost until a nitrate print from 1929 was discovered in the National Library of Norway. It was found in 2011 when the library decided to examine all 9,000 cans of film in its collection. At first they didn’t realize what a treasure they had. The film had no opening credits to easily identify it and it was too delicate for careful examination of the whole movie. After an initial cleaning, the nitrate film was sent to a laboratory where it was copied onto stock that does not spontaneously burst into flames. Library researchers then began to investigate the history of the movie. That’s when they discovered that they had the only existing copy in the world.

Pan Si Dong, directed by Dan Duyu for the Shanghai Shadow Play company, tells a story taken from Journey to the West, a 16th century book by Wu Cheng’en that is considered one of China’s four classic novels. The hero is Hiuen Tsiang Tang, a Buddist monk sent to the “Western regions,” ie, India, by Emperor T’ai Tsung to bring back sacred texts. Accompanied by three protectors — Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy — and riding a fourth companion, the Dragon prince, in the guise of white horse, the monk arrives at the spider valley where they find themselves in a cave where seven beautiful women live.

The women are actually spider spirits in disguise who want to devour the monk, believing this will make them immortal. They succeed in capturing the party, but then one of the spider spirits is busted trying to double-cross the rest so she and her demon lover can eat him on their own. In the ensuing battle, Xuanzang and his spirit compadres escape. The spider women and their webs are destroyed by purifying fire.

The movie was hugely popular in China and a sequel was made in 1929. While the sequel was playing in China, the original made its way to Norway. Pan Si Dong was the first Chinese picture to be shown in Norway. It premiered in Oslo’s Chat Noir Cabaret Theater on January 18th, 1929, accompanied by the Colosseum orchestra. The print was customized for Norwegian audiences, with Norwegian translations appearing alongside the original Chinese on the title slides. The translation is not always accurate to the original. The translator interspersed his own comments in brackets next to some titles, and the Chinese is sometimes upside-down or backwards. This was noticed in some of the contemporary reviews which were generally positive, if patronizing. Norwegian reviewers found it “distinctive and interesting,” “quite strange,” and “worthwhile as a curiosity.”

Side note of interest: one of the great things about silent movies is how universal they were. Movie theaters all over the world could easily created title cards in their language. There was no need for post-production translations of complex dialogue and dubbing. That means it really doesn’t matter where a lost silent picture is found, because the movie retains its integrity even when the title card translations are tonally questionable or inaccurate.

Movies from this period are rare survivals in China, thanks to censorship, war and after 1949, the Communist rejection of Western and traditional Chinese arts. Since the revival of Chinese cinema in the 1990s and the loosening up of markets, China is as keen to retrieve its lost cinematic patrimony as it is its dispersed antiquities. Diplomatic relations between China and Norway have been tense since 2010 when the Nobel Committee gave the Peace Prize to democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his political writings. Last fall Norway agreed to return seven marble columns looted from the Old Summer Palace, and now they’ve restored and returned Pan Si Dong.

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Mausoleum of Augustus restoration to begin this year

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Happy 43rd birthday, Tom Carroll! This one’s for you.

Caesar Augustus, adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar and first emperor of Rome, died on August 19th, 14 A.D., 57 years to the day after he was first “elected” consul of Rome. (He showed up at the city gates with eight legions, so it wasn’t much of an election.) According to Cassius Dio (Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 30), on his deathbed Augustus declared: “I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.” Suetonius agrees, noting in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars that “since the city was not adorned as the dignity of the empire demanded, and was exposed to flood and fire, he so beautified it that he could justly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble.”

The first of Augustus’ many marble-clad improvements to the city of Rome was a monumental tomb for himself and his family. Construction began upon his return from Egypt in 31 B.C. after the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. With Antony dead by his own hand and Lepidus exiled, Augustus was the last triumvir standing and the sole ruler of Rome. While in Egypt, Augustus had visited the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, leaving flowers and placing a golden diadem on Alexander’s head. The grand Hellenistic mausoleum inspired the Augustus’ version built on the Campus Martius in Rome.

The tomb was completed in 28 B.C. Here’s Strabo’s description of it in Geography, Book V, Chapter 3:

The most noteworthy [among the great tombs on the Campus Martius] is what is called the Mausoleum, a great mound near the river on a lofty foundation of white marble, thickly covered with ever-green trees to the very summit. Now on top is a bronze image of Augustus Caesar; beneath the mound are the tombs of himself and his kinsmen and intimates; behind the mound is a large sacred precinct with wonderful promenades; and in the centre of the Campus is the wall (this too of white marble) round his crematorium; the wall is surrounded by a circular iron fence and the space within the wall is planted with black poplars.

The circular walls of the tomb were made of brick and clad in white marble or travertine. The roof was supported by vaults which left the inside sectioned for family burials. The entry arch was framed on either side with red granite obelisks pillaged from Egypt. The finished Mausoleum was 295 feet in diameter and an estimated 137 feet high (not counting the height of the cypress trees).

The first to be buried in the Mausoleum was Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, who died in 23 B.C. The ashes of Augustus’ mother Atia Balba, who had died in 43 B.C., were moved to the family tomb at the same time. Next was Augustus’ greatest general and son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 12 B.C. Three years later was the turn of Nero Claudius Drusus, Augustus’ stepson. His sister Octavia also died and was buried around that time (her exact year of death is unknown, either 11 or 9 B.C.). The sons of Agrippa and Augustus’ daughter Julia were next, Lucius in 2 A.D., Gaius in 4 A.D. Augustus himself followed Gaius 10 years later.

After Augustus’ death, his wife Livia followed, then Germanicus, Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina’s daughter Livilla, Germanicus’ sons Nero and Drusus Caesar, Caligula, Tiberius, Tiberius’ son Drusus Julius Caesar, Claudius’ parents Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia, then Claudius, his son Britannicus and Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina (whose body was embalmed rather than cremated). The last emperor to join the illustrious crowd in the Mausoleum was Nerva, who died in 98 A.D.

Basically, the entire cast of I, Claudius wound up in the Mausoleum. The only exceptions were the exiled and disgraced Julio-Claudians, like Augustus’ only daughter Julia who died shortly after her father and was explicitly prohibited from being buried with her dad by the terms of his will. Her daughter Julia suffered the same fate. The Emperor Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian line, was buried with his paternal family in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi.

The monument remained one of the most important ones in Rome until it was pillaged by the Visigoths in the 5th century. After that, like so many of its brethren it was used as a source of construction materials by Romans. The pink granite obelisks were toppled and buried. The first was rediscovered in the 16th century by Pope Sixtus V who moved it to the Piazza dell’Esquilino where it flanks the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The other was rediscovered in the 18th century and moved to the fountain between the equestrian statues of the Dioscuri on the Quirinal hill.

And so Augustus’ legacy reverted from marble back to brick. As would later happen to the tomb of Hadrian, now the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Mausoleum of Augustus was converted into a fortress in the 12th century by the Colonna family. When they were defeated by the Counts of Tusculum in the Battle of Monte Porzio in 1167, the Mausoleum was stripped of its fortifications leaving it in ruin.

It still maintained its cachet to Romans, however. Cola di Rienzo, Tribune of the People, Senator of Rome, who briefly ruled the city over the howls of the Pope and endlessly bickering Roman nobility, was brutally killed in 1354 on my birthday, no less (well, 618 years before my birthday, but on the same day, is my point), and after his corpse was outraged for two days and a night, it was taken to the Mausoleum of Augustus and burned.

In 1519, Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, had what was left of the travertine cladding removed to use as paving stones for the Via Ripetta, the street that leads to the Mausoleum. Pope Paul III sold the Mausoleum in 1546 to Monsignor Francesco Soderini who excavated the site looking for ancient sculptures and then converted the Mausoleum into a sculpture garden with a hedge labyrinth that was popular with artists, classicists and antiquarians. The Soderini’s financial difficulties gradually saw the sculptures dispersed, although the Mausoleum remained a garden until 1780 when it was acquired by the Marquess Francesco Saverio Vivaldi-Armentieri. He turned it into an amphitheater with elegant boxes and seating for 1,000. There he staged bullfights and buffalo fights (of the water buffalo variety, not the American bison variety), operas, theatricals and on summer nights, fireworks displays at which all the noblewomen of Rome wore white dresses so the colors bursting in air would be reflected in their garments.

The amphitheater wasn’t very profitable and in 1802 the Pope Pius VII bought the Mausoleum back. It was still used for spectacles of various sorts — animal fights, balls, carnivals, circuses, lottery drawings, plays, equestrian displays, even a test of fire-retardant materials like that asbestos suit I mentioned in a recent entry. After the Unification of Italy, the Vatican sold the Mausoleum to the Count Telfener who put a roof on it and renamed it the Amphitheater Umberto I after the new King of Italy. It was used for plays, concerts and operas, no more buffalo fights.

In 1909 it was refurbished yet again in Art Nouveau style and named the Augusteo in recognition of its original builder. Expanded to seat 3,500 people, the Augusteo was the seat of Rome’s main orchestra conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini, among others. Mussolini put an end to all that in 1936. He kicked out all the musicians, tore down the Renaissance buildings around it and ripped out all the theatrical modifications to return the Mausoleum to its original Roman masonry. This was a key part of his program of associating himself with the glory of ancient Rome and depicting himself as a second Augustus. Unfortunately, he did a piss-poor job of it. He had cypresses planted on top of the walls, in the mistaken belief that that’s where they had been placed originally instead of on the earthen tumulus. Inside the Mausoleum he had a squat two-storey tower built to mark the spot where Augustus’ ashes were once enshrined.

The end result of this brutal hack job was a Mausoleum in tatters, a derelict island in the middle of a traffic-engorged piazza. Homeless people found refuge under its walls and fences went up in a futile attempt to keep them out. Colonnaded Fascist buildings line the square while the real thing continues to decay. You can see its unfortunate current situation on Google Street View. Hadrian’s mausoleum, still clad in its medieval fortress trappings, is one of the icons of Rome, but Augustus’ tomb, which held the ashes of the first emperor and so many other august (*cough*) personages, doesn’t even make it onto postcards.

There was a plan to restore it in 2006 when the new glass enclosure of the Ara Pacis was built, but the funding never materialized, and the recession has starved Rome of the budget to maintain its ancient treasures.

Now Rome is reaching out to private donors to make up for its slashed budgets and it seems someone has stepped up to the plate for the Mausoleum of Augustus, one of the most expensive and difficult restorations in Rome. Mayor Ignazio Marino says a Saudi prince has approached him, expressing interest in funding the work. Who knows if that will come through, but meanwhile two million euros of public moneys have been allocated to get the process started. The mayor claims work will begin before the end of the year so that it will be in concert with the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’ death.

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Oldest message in a bottle found by Baltic fishermen

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

When Konrad Fischer, skipper of the Maria I, found a brown bottle in his net while fishing in the Baltic off the city of Kiel in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, he figured it was just a common beer bottle and went to throw it back into the sea. One of his crew members stopped him, noticing that there seemed to be something inside. They opened up the bottle — the porcelain cap was crumbling anyway — and found a Danish postcard rolled up inside. There was writing on the postcard but much of it was too faded to read. The only clearly identifiable elements were a message written in German asking that the card be sent to an address in Berlin and two five-Pfenning stamps to pay for postage.

The postcard was dated May 17th, 1913, just two months short of 101 years before it was fished out of the sea, which makes it the oldest message in a bottle ever found. The previous record holder was found in 2012, almost 98 years after it was sent. Excited by its advanced age, Fischer brought the bottle and its message to the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg where researchers set about finding out more about the sender.

The address in Berlin led them to identify him as Richard Platz, the son of a baker who was 20 years old in 1913. He was hiking on the Baltic coast with a nature appreciation group when he threw the bottle in the sea. Platz was just 54 when he died in 1946. He was survived by two daughters, Gudrun and Sieglinde, neither of them still living. Berlin genealogist Veit Godoj was able to locate Sieglinde’s daughter, one Angela Erdmann, now 62, who was born six years after her grandfather’s death.

On March 13th, Godoj contacted Erdmann and told her they’d found a message from the grandfather she never knew. Deeply moved by the discovery, she immediately called her cousin Dagmar Born who has been researching the family history for some years. Born sent her cousin a number of Platz’s documents, letters and photographs. The handwriting on the letters confirmed that he was indeed the author of the message in the bottle. It’s possible the bottle has a family connection as well, since his wife, Ella’s father owned a brewery.

The whole family is excited by the find. Erdmann says it has brought them closer together as they look into the family history. They plan to go visit the bottle and message currently on display at the International Maritime Museum until May 1st. After that, researchers will take it out of public view to work on deciphering the faded text.

Its ultimate fate is unknown at this time. The finder Konrad Fischer owns it now, and he has only loaned it to the museum. He could sell it or keep it once he gets it back.

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18th c. gilded French salon reopens in San Francisco

Monday, April 7th, 2014

After 233 years, eight moves including one transatlantic and one transcontinental, and a meticulous 18-month conservation, the Salon Doré reopened Saturday at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. The long strange journey of this gilded room began in 1781 when it was created as the formal receiving room for the Hôtel de La Trémoille, the palace of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, duc de la Trémoille and his wife Marie-Maximilienne, Princesse de Salm-Kirbourg, on rue Saint-Dominique in Paris’ fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood where many of the old aristocracy had town homes.

The paneling (boiserie in French) was neoclassical in design, with 15-foot gilded Corinthian pilasters framing four arched mirrors and four large doors. It was similar in style to the 18th century neoclassical decoration of the Hôtel de Salm, which was built on the Rue de Lille for Marie-Maximilienne’s relative Prince Frederick III, Fürst of Salm-Kyrburg, between 1782 and 1787. The Hôtel de Salm is now the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur. The Legion of Honor building in San Francisco which now houses the Salon Doré was designed to be a 2/3 scale replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur.

The de la Trémoilles suffered greatly during the French Revolution. They were dedicated royalists, very close to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In 1789, Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, Marie-Maximilienne and their eldest son Charles Bretagne Marie fled France, with father and son joining the émigré army assembled by Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, in Coblenz, Germany. Charles Bretagne’s wife Louise-Emmanuelle de Châtillon, whom he had wed the same year the Salon Doré was built, would not leave Marie Antoinette’s side. She was arrested after the fall of the Tuileries palace on August 10, 1792, because she refused to testify against the queen. In September she managed to make a break for it, leaving the country in disguise and joining her husband in England. Two of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy and Marie-Maximilienne’s sons were guillotined at the peak of the Terror in 1794.

By the mid-19th century, the Hôtel de La Trémoille belonged to the Marquise de Croix but he didn’t get to enjoy it for long. In 1877, the house was demolished during the third phase of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. Haussmann himself was no longer in charge by then, having been fired by Emperor Napoleon III in 1870 under pressure from Republican opponents in Parliament. The emperor died in 1873 and despite the intense opposition to Haussmann’s renovations when the Napoleon III wanted them, four years later the Third Republic picked up where he left off and finished remodeling of Paris into a city of wide boulevards and elegant squares. The rue Saint-Dominique where the Hôtel de La Trémoille stood became part of today’s Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The Marquise de Croix stripped the paneling off the walls before the demolition and had it installed in a first floor room in her new home, the Hôtel d’Humières on the rue de Lille. In 1905, this historic mansion also met a painfully premature demise and apartment buildings were constructed in its place. Again the Salon Doré’s boiserie was saved and in 1918, it was installed as the “French salon” in the Italianate mansion of financier Otto Kahn on East 91st Street in New York City.

The mansion was sold shortly after Kahn’s death in 1934 to the Convent of the Sacred Heart and is now schoolhouse to some very lucky middle and high school students. The Salon Doré was not part of the deal. It was stripped yet again and sold to the Duveen Brothers art dealership where it was installed a showroom in the firm’s Fifth Avenue gallery. In 1952, Duveen sold the room to steel magnate Richard Rheem who hired the French decorating firm Decour to install the salon in La Dolphine, his mansion in Burlingame, California.

In 1959, Rheem donated the Salon Doré to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. At the time, the museum had a policy against period rooms, but they changed it solely to accommodate the beautiful and historic Salon Doré. It was installed in 1962 and the Legion of Honor became the proud owner of one of the finest examples of French neoclassical interior design in the world. The path wasn’t smooth yet, however. In 1990 the boiserie was stripped once more as part of a major seismic retrofit of the building. When it was reinstalled, it was in a different room minus the parquet floor, ceiling, windows and two of the four doors.

All the moves and reinstallations had left the room far from its original configuration. The museum didn’t even know the proper history of the salon because the Duveens had lied about its provenance to connect it to a more famous palace and architect and presumably charge a higher price for it. Martin Chapman, the museum’s curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, recognized the importance of the room and decided to thoroughly research it so it could be restored to a more period accurate condition.

In 2013, the room was closed for a full refurbishment. The paneling was removed for restoration of its carved elements and gilding. Watch it come down in this time lapse video:

“The aim of this project has been to reinstate this paneling as an architectural entity as well as recreating its program for furnishing based on the 1790 inventory of the room. It was also to provide a full picture of how these salons functioned in the years before the Revolution swept away the culture of the ancien régime and to understand the essential relationship between the furniture and the interior architecture,” said Martin Chapman.

In order to achieve this extensive restoration project, a laboratory was set up in an adjacent gallery that could be viewed by visitors to the museum. In this space, up to 16 specialists worked on the carving and gilding under the direction of Fine Arts Museums’ head objects conservator, Lesley Bone, and the Museums’ conservator of frames and gilded surfaces, Natasa Morovic. The furniture’s upholstery was researched and executed by Xavier Bonnet of Atelier Saint-Louis, Paris. The silk incorporated in the room was woven by Tassinari and Chatel in Lyon, France to a design matched to an 18th century document in that city’s Musée de Tissus et des Arts décoratifs. The trimming by Declercq was laboriously made using traditional techniques and designs derived from 18th century models.

You can see the gilding restoration in this video:

And the master carver doing his magic in this one:

Cutting edge technology worked side-by-side with traditional crafts. Conservators used 3D printer to recreate the missing cradle of an 18th French century clock for the Salon Doré.

The restored panels were installed according to the original floor plan in a new room with period appropriate parquet flooring donated by French antiques dealer Benjamin Steinitz, a coved ceiling, windows and new lighting. Some of the furniture and accessories (a chandelier, three Sèvres vase) came from the Legion of Honor’s collection. Other pieces — a large mirror, a console, chairs — were purchased from various antiques dealers in Paris.

The end result is nothing short of exquisite.

“The Salon Doré will be the only pre-Revolutionary Parisian salon in the United States displayed with its full complement of furnishings. Returning the room to its original glory and revealing its initial purpose, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco present the Salon Doré as an example of how a period room can engage a 21st century audience,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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