Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Boston time capsule from 1795 (and 1855) opened

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

The time capsule excavated out of the cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston last month was opened on Tuesday in front of dignitaries and press at the Museum of Fine Arts. Before the assembled audience including members of the press, Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, MFA conservator Pam Hatchfield and Michael Comeau, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Archives, carefully pried open the lid of the 5-1/2 x 7-1/2 x 1-1/2″ box against the fitting backdrop of Thomas Sully’s monumental 1819 painting of George Washington and his ragtag army crossing the frozen Delaware River, The Passage of the Delaware, in the museum’s Art of Americas wing.

The collection, originally in a cowhide pouch, was first placed at the cornerstone by then-Governor of Massachusetts Samuel Adams, silversmith patriot Paul Revere and militia Colonel William Scollay at the dedication of the building in 1795. It was rediscovered during repair work on the Statehouse foundations in 1855 after which officials added a few pieces of their own before sealing the artifacts in a new metal box that was mortared into the underside of the cornerstone.

Technically, it’s not a time capsule because they are deliberately intended to be reopened at some point in the future. This was a foundational offering, part of an ancient tradition of depositing ritually significant objects under new buildings. The original deposit was made at the culmination of a Masonic ceremony celebrating the laying of the cornerstone held on July 4th, 1795. That’s why Paul Revere and William Scollay were so prominently involved: Revere was the “Most Worshipful Grand Master” and Scollay the “Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master” of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Governor Adams invited the Grand Lodge to perform the cornerstone ceremony, a traditional Masonic ritual that has been performed for hundreds of years, one of only two Masonic rituals that is performed in public (the other is a funeral).

The massive granite cornerstone was transported in a procession from the Old State House to the site of the new one on a wagon drawn by 15 white horses, one for each of the states in the Union. When it arrived, a troop of fusiliers gave a 15-gun salute and Governor Adams, Paul Revere and William Scollay lay the pouch between two sheets of lead under the cornerstone. Adams declared the building to be constructed upon this stone should be “fixed, unimpaired, in full vigor, till time shall be no more” and Revere gave a supermasonic speech linking the foundation of the new statehouse to the founding of the nation.

Worshipful Brethren, I congratulate you on this auspicious day: — when the Arts and Sciences are establishing themselves in our happy Country, a Country distinguished from the rest of the World, by being a Government of Laws. — Where Liberty has found a Safe and Secure abode, — and where her Sons are determined to support and protect her.

Brethren, we are called this day by our Venerable + patriotic Governor, his Excellency Samuel Adams, to Assist him in laying the Corner Stone of a Building to be erected for the use of the Legislature and Executive branches of Government of this Commonwealth. May we my Brethren, so Square our Actions thro life as to shew to the World of Mankind, that we mean to live within the Compass of Good Citizens that we wish to Stand upon a Level with them that when we part we may be admitted into that Temple where Reigns Silence & peace.

When the artifacts were recovered and reburied in 1855, the Grand Master of the Lodge was asked to do the honors again.

The metal box has been in the MFA laboratory for the past three weeks being examined with non-invasive techniques so conservators had an idea of what to expect when they opened it. X-rays revealed that, as expected, there were coins, a metal plaque and papers inside. X-ray fluorescence determined that the box itself was not copper but rather brass, as are all eight of the screws keeping the capsule shut.

Pam Hatchfield, who had spent six hours on her back in the snow chiseling out the box from the cornerstone, then had more chiseling to do. She removed chunks of plaster from the top of the box and carefully dug away at the plaster around the heads of the screws. A little solvent was applied to help loosen the screws as well. Hatchfield turned her attention to the lead solder sealing the edges of the lid to the box, chiseling it away so the box would actually be openable at the press conference.

When the lid was removed, the first artifacts they found were five folded newspapers from the 19th century. Under them were 23 silver and copper coins dating from 1652 to 1855, a copper medal depicting George Washington, a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records, a number of calling cards, the seal of the Commonwealth and lastly, a silver plaque inscribed by Paul Revere marking the cornerstone ceremony that still has visible fingerprints on it.

(The 1652 coin is a rare and significant pine tree schilling which may not have been minted in 1652. John Hull and Robert Sanderson established the Boston mint in 1652 by permission of the General Court of Massachusetts and continued to strike pine tree schillings until 1682, but every coin no matter what the production year was stamped with the 1652 date. Some say this was done to commemorate the founding of the first mint in Massachusetts. Others think it was a tricksy way of giving them plausible deniability should the monarch, restored to the throne after the interregnum of the Protectorate, take issue with his colony minting its own currency without his permission. “Oh these coins? Oh yeah those were struck during the late unpleasantness. Nothing to see here, Your Majesty.”)

The artifacts and brass box will go on display at the museum after conservation, but only for a short time. The objects will be returned to the cornerstone. Officials haven’t decided yet whether they’ll add yet another round of mementos to the box. Space is tight in there and Governor Patrick said at the opening that he didn’t want to “taint” the historical nature of the capsule with modern geegaws.

There’s a nice video of the excavation, X-ray and conservator Pam Hatchfield getting the box opened here. Fair warning: it autoplays. Below is film of the entire opening:

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Mark Twain plaque stolen from his grave

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

A bronze plaque bearing a profile of Mark Twain has been stolen from a monument on his grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, upstate New York. The missing plaque was reported to cemetery authorities by a visitor to the grave over the holidays. It’s not clear when exactly it was stolen, but it was sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The culprit had to use a ladder to reach the one foot square plaque, so it wasn’t a random vandal, and it’s unlikely to have been stolen just for its scrap value because the plaque right below it depicting Ossip Gabrilowitsch, husband of Twain’s daughter Clara, is still in place.

Mark Twain died in 1910 and was buried in his wife Olivia Langdon’s family plot in her hometown of Elmira. The 12-foot granite monument was commissioned in 1937 by Clara to honor her father and husband. Swedish immigrant and Elmira resident Ernfred Anderson designed the piece after Clara was impressed by a bust he had made of her father. The height of the marker is a deliberate reference to the great author. Twelve feet is two fathoms, the safe depth for a steamboat. Riverboat leadsmen on the Mississippi in the 1850s would call out “mark twain” to alert the crew they were in safe waters. The young Samuel Clemens trained as a pilot aboard a steamboat on the Mighty Mississip from 1857 to 1859 and continued to pilot a riverboat until the Civil War broke out in 1861. He first signed the pen name Mark Twain to an 1863 article for the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada.

Woodlawn workers did a thorough search of the cemetery grounds and adjoining woods looking for the plaque, but there was no sign of it. The Elmira community has rallied around the cause, offering reward money for any information leading to the recovery of the plaque. If worst comes to worst, the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes has pledged to donated up to $10,000 to replace the plaque. Rare bookseller and Mark Twain expert Kevin MacDonnell has offered the use of a plaster cast of Twain made by Ernfred Anderson to make a new mold for a replacement. It wouldn’t be the same as the missing piece, however, so local artist Denny Smith is working with Anderson’s family to locate the original plaster cast he used to make the bronze plaque.

Next, a foundry and a bronze artist will have to be selected. Also, the replacement plaque will need to be given a patina to match what is already on the Gabrilowitsch plaque so they look similar, she said. Finally, a decision will need to be made on who will install the plaque, she said.

“What’s been wonderful has been the community outpouring,” Hayden said. “Also, the Community Foundation is interested in the future in working with the Friends of Woodlawn to investigate the possibility of installing a security device to see that this doesn’t happen again.”

The cemetery hasn’t given up on getting the original plaque back. They’re asking for anyone who might have information on the theft to contact the Elmira Police Department at (607) 271-HALT or (607) 737-5626.

While we’re on the subject of Mark Twain-related monuments, I have to recommend the outstanding Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, where Mark, Olivia and their children lived from 1874 until money troubles forced them to move to Europe in 1891. Twain still loved the Gothic Revival masterpiece most of all, even though he never lived there again. It’s gorgeous inside and out.

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Letters reveal mysterious final illness of Oscar Wilde’s wife

Monday, January 5th, 2015

Constance Lloyd, photographed in Heidelberg in 1896 when she was 36 years oldConstance Lloyd, wife of Oscar Wilde and mother of his two sons, was just 39 years old when she died. It was a botched gynecological operation that claimed her life, but for ten years before that she had suffered from a neurological disorder that hasn’t been identified. Now Merlin Holland, son of Constance and Oscar’s youngest son Vyvyan, has found key evidence in some of her private letters to her brother Otho.

Constance was an accomplished woman in her own right. She was a published author of children’s books and an advocate for dress reform and women’s rights. After the disaster of Wilde’s 1895 criminal libel action against John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, father of his feckless idiot of a lover Alfred Douglas, for accusing him of sodomy and Wilde’s subsequent conviction and imprisonment for homosexual acts, Constance took the kids, changed their last name to Holland, and fled to the continent. They wound up in a small town outside Genoa, a location that would prove fateful since it put her in close proximity to Italian obstetrician and gynecologist Luigi Maria Bossi.

Bossi dilatorLuigi Maria Bossi was appointed to the first professorship of gynecology in Italy in 1887. He invented a four-pronged dilator to dilate the cervix and speed up delivery in women with eclampsia and other dangerous conditions. The Bossi uterine dilator was an effective device, dilating the cervix in a matter of minutes and giving patients a chance to survive and heal from complications that were often fatal to mother and infant without having to risk surgery, infection and permanent damage to the reproductive organs.

He also opened an ob/gyn clinic in Genoa that reserved half the beds for poor women in labour, was vociferously opposed to the then-common idea that uterine cancer was contagious and advocated that women with tuberculosis not be compelled to terminate their pregnancies. He founded two gynecology and obstetrics journals, one for doctors and one for midwives.

"Manual of Obstectrics for Midwives" by Luigi Bossi, 1913So he wasn’t a total quack, but he had … issues. In 1918 he was suspended from practice at the Institute for Gynecology and Obstetrics of the University of Genoa for two years over a question of “moral character,” which, considering that the next year he would be murdered by the husband of one of his patients, seems likely to have been a grossly unethical personal relationship with a patient (or several patients). Most relevant to his treatment of Constance Lloyd, Bossi was a dedicated proponent of the theory that women’s nervous problems — symptoms including tremors, aches and pains, fainting spells, shortness of breath, fatigue — were caused by their lady parts. Her “neuralgia,” mobility problems, exhaustion and all the rest were symptoms of uterine disorder and the cure for it was to be found in her reproductive organs.

Dr. Swift curing the incurable with "neck to knee" massageThat old hysteria chestnut had plagued Western medicine since Hippocrates first babbled about wandering uteri in the 5th century B.C., but it really took off with the rise of medical gynecology in the second half of the 19th century. The invention of the vibrator to cure hysteria through orgasm was a benign result of this misunderstanding of anatomy and psychology, but there were plenty of monstrous approaches attempted as well, a flurry of medical professionals removing ovaries and uteruses and then congratulating themselves on having “fixed” hysterical symptoms like dysmenhorrea (painful menstruation).

Bossi believed that at least half of all female suicides were of gynecological origin, that suicide was somehow tied to menstruation, and that surgical interventions on the uterus and ovaries could cure the symptoms of hysteria. He persisted in his beliefs long after most of the ob/gyn community had abandoned hysteria to the province of psychiatry, publishing his theories in a German medical journal in 1911. The response was almost unanimous condemnation from gynecologists and psychiatrists. They considered the idea that the uterus was responsible for mental illness medically unfounded and socially dangerous since it would encourage families of mentally ill women to push them into needless gynecological surgery to avoid the madhouse. Only one prominent gynecologist, 84-year-old German gynecology professor Bernhard Schultze (who had for years been an advocate for gynecological surgery on inmates of insane asylums), supported him. Bossi wrote a book on hysteria and gynecology in 1917; it was the last gasp of this ugly chapter in medical history.

Oscar, Constance and their son Cyril in happier daysThe tide turned conclusively against the physiological hysteria theory thanks to painfully obvious studies published in the first couple of years of the 20th century. (It turns out, men had those exact same symptoms too, and they didn’t have any ovaries and uteruses to excise.) That was too late for Constance Lloyd. By the time she sought treatment from Bossi in late 1895, she was having severe difficulty walking. Bossi thought the cause of her mobility issues was a bladder prolapse that he could repair surgically, leaving her right as rain within six weeks. The operation took place in December of 1895. It didn’t work. In April of 1896, Constance declared herself “lamer than ever” and sought alternative therapies — galvanism, hot baths — from a doctor in Heidelberg.

All these therapeutic manoeuvres failed, and by October, 1896, in addition to the persistent lameness of her leg, a tremor appeared in her right arm. This so disrupted her handwriting that she was eventually forced to use a typewriter. “I am tired of doctors and no doctor finding out what to do with me,” she lamented. Moreover, she suffered protracted and excruciating headaches as well as extreme fatigue brought on by the mildest exertion. This was observed by her brother who, in July, 1897, noted that after only a few minutes’ walk to the station she collapsed on the road from exhaustion and had to be dragged to safety. And, if this was not enough, she developed a left facial palsy towards the end of her life.

According to the unpublished correspondence of Constance and her brother, her 9-year illness was characterised by widespread pains, right leg weakness, tremor of the right arm, profound fatigue, and a left facial paralysis. For the first 7 years the clinical picture was dominated by intermittent acute episodes followed by extended periods of recovery; in the last 2 years her disability became permanent with gradual deterioration. A likely diagnosis is multiple sclerosis of the relapsing-remitting type that subsequently developed into secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.

MS had been identified as a distinct disease and named in 1868 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. (Coincidentally, Charcot had some crazy ideas about hysteria too. He thought it was an inherited neurological disorder centered in the ovaries, uncurable but treatable with pressure on the ovary or ovariectomy and observable through hypnosis. Before his death in 1893 he would come to accept that hysteria was psychological in nature rather than neurological.) Multiple sclerosis was described in detail in an important neurology text by Sir William Gowers in 1888, but in the 1890s it still wasn’t widely known in the general medical profession.

In 1898, a desperate Constance returned to Bossi. This time he proposed that the culprit of her genitourinary and mobility problems was a uterine fibroid. She had surgery to remove the putative fibroid on April 2nd, 1898.

On the third or fourth postoperative day, Constance developed intractable vomiting. Profoundly dehydrated and in the absence of intravenous fluids, she grew progressively weaker, lapsed into unconsciousness, and died on April 7, 1898. This sequence of events suggests that she could have developed severe paralytic ileus, either as a direct result of the surgery or secondary to intra-abdominal sepsis.

Multiple sclerosis is associated with genitourinary symptoms in about two-thirds of female patients. It is conceivable, in Constance’s case, that the apparent pressure effects on the bladder (supposedly due to a fibroid) were really a manifestation of multiple sclerosis.

 

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Oliver Cromwell’s burial plate sells for $116,719

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

A gilt copper plate that was placed over Oliver Cromwell’s chest when he was laid to rest in his coffin sold at a Sotheby’s auction last month for £74,500 ($116,719), six times its pre-sale estimate of £8,000 – £12,000. Bidding started at the low estimate and rapidly increased in increments of thousands. The hammer price was £60,000 (the rest of the cost is the buyer’s premium) and the buyer, who was in the room, is anonymous.

The plaque is 6.5″ by 5.5″ and is engraved on both sides. The front is engraved with the coat of arms of the Protectorate — the flags of England, Scotland, Ireland with Cromwell’s personal arms, an argent lion rampant borrowed from the arms of his ancestors the Princes of Powys, on an inescutcheon in the center, a crowned English lion supporting the left and the Welsh red dragon (a replacement for the Scottish unicorn James I had placed on the Royal Arms) supporting the right — and the motto “Pax quaeritur bello,” meaning “Peace is sought by war.” The inscription on the back gives Cromwell’s vital statistics: “Oliver Protector of the Republic of England, Scotland and Ireland. Born 25 April year 1599. Inaugurated 16 December 1653. Died 3 September year 1658. Here he lies.”

He didn’t lie there for long. After his death from malarial fever, Cromwell’s body was embalmed and put in a lead anthropoid coffin which was sealed and then placed in an elaborately decorated wooden coffin. The coffin and an effigy of the Lord Protector dressed in velvet, gold lace and ermin accessorized with the Imperial crown, orb and scepter, lay in state at Somerset House from September 20th until early November. The funeral procession took place on November 23rd, but he had already been quietly interred at Westminster Abbey two weeks earlier because his body was poorly embalmed and the stench had become problematic two months after his death. After enough pomp and ceremony to rival any royal funeral (Cromwell’s was in fact modeled after the funerary ceremonies of James I), Cromwell was officially buried in a vault in the Henry VII Lady Chapel.

Less than two years later, Charles I’s son was restored to the throne. Although on August 29th, 1660, the Cavalier Parliament passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act pardoning almost everyone involved in the execution of Charles I, the 59 signatories of the king’s death warrant were specifically exempt from Charles II’s mercy. That fall, 10 of the regicides still living were tried, convicted and executed. The penalty for High Treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered; ie, the condemned were tied to a horse and dragged to the gallows where they were hanged until almost dead, then disemboweled, castrated, beheaded and their bodies cut into four sections.

On December 4th, Parliament passed a bill of attainder posthumously declaring Oliver Cromwell, his son-in-law Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw, president of the High Court of Justice for the trial of King Charles I, guilty of High Treason. Bradshaw had died a month after Cromwell and was buried the day before him. Ireton had been dead and buried for nine years. All three were interred in the same chapel at Westminster Abbey. Parliament ordered the bodies exhumed and on January 30th, the 12th anniversary of Charles I’s execution, the corpses were dragged in their coffins to the west London execution site of Tyburn where their shrouded bodies were hanged. After hanging for an hour, the corpses were taken down, decapitated and the bodies tossed in a pit beneath the gallows. The heads were placed on 20-foot spikes in front of Westminster Hall where Charles I’s trial had taken place.

It was during this ugly process that the coffin plate was taken. It was “found in a leaden canister, lying on the breast of the corpse” by James Norfolke, Serjeant-at-Arms to the Speaker of the House of Commons, who had been tasked with exhuming the regicides’ bodies. He helped himself to the plaque and it remained in his family for hundreds of years until it was acquired by the Harcourt family in the 19th century. The sellers have chosen to remain anonymous so we don’t know if it’s been with the Harcourts since then or sold to another party at some point.

Either way, the plaque has had a much easier ride than Cromwell’s head. It stayed on its spike at Westminster Hall for close to 30 years. There are differing reports on what happened to it — blown down in a storm, surreptitiously removed in the dark of night — and the relic went underground until 1710 when it went on display at Claudius Du Puy’s private museum of curiosities in London. After Du Puy’s death, it passed through at least three more hands, including the Hughes brothers who again put it on macabre display, before being purchased by Josiah Henry Wilkinson in 1814. The Wilkinsons kept it in a velvet lined box, whipping it out for house guests to gasp over, for generations until Horace Wilkinson gave it to Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College, Cromwell’s alma mater, for proper burial in 1960. The burial was kept secret until 1962 and the exact location has never been revealed.

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Digitized Freer|Sackler collections up and running

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

As promised, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s digitized collections went live on January 1st, 2015. The new website is called Open F|S and is populated with high resolution images of the museums’ 40,000 works of Asian art. You can search by keyword or browse by object type, topic, name, culture, place, date and whether it’s currently on display.

Just to take the database for a quick spin, I did a keyword search for “peacock” because I am thoroughly obsessed by the Peacock Room, originally a dining/Chinese porcelain display room in the London home of shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland that was lavishly decorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1876-7. The entire room was purchased in 1904 by future museum founder Charles Lang Freer who had it installed in his Detroit home. It was moved to the new Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after Freer’s death in 1919. All that moving wasn’t good for the room. Attempts to repair structural damage in the late 1940s neglected much of Whistler’s work, leaving colors darkened and patterns obscured. The room was returned to its early splendour by a punctilious cleaning and conservation in 1993 and is now on display in all its glory.

The Peacock Room exhibition page has a nice image gallery, but the photographs are too small to feast upon the details to my satisfaction. Those dark days are over now. The Open F|S entry on the Peacock Room has four huge pictures that you can click on to zoom in or that you can download.

The peacock search results pointed me to a wealth of other beautiful objects. The textiles are particularly fantastic to view in high resolution because you can see the details of the stitching and fabric, like in this late 18th century painting on silk by Mori Sosen. I also love seeing ceramics, like this gazelle vessel made in 12th-14th century Syria that is part of Freer’s ceramic collection on display in the Peacock Room, in extreme close-up because the cracks and flakes give you a whole new perspective on the glazing and design.

If you plan to enjoy this resource for browsing or to make art work of your own using the Freer and Sackler collection images, consider signing up as a beta tester. They are looking people willing and eager to go down the rabbit holes of this vast digital wonderland and report back on any issues. So far I’ve encountered a couple of minor weirdnesses — the zoom feature cutting the picture in half, difficulty clicking between the different Peacock Room images — but they were quickly resolved by refreshing. The only actual feature that I reported as questionable is that you can zoom past the native resolution which gives you a close-up view of a lot of pixellated, blurry edges. I think the zoom should max out at the highest res. Beta testers will also be given early access to future closed test versions of Open F|S which sounds like good clean fun to me.

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224th anniversary of Aztec Sun Stone’s rediscovery

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

On Wednesday, December 17th, Mexico City celebrated the 224th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Aztec Sun Stone, the basalt monolith carved under the reign of Moctezuma II just a few years before the Spanish conquest. The circular stone, 12 feet in diameter and weighing more than 24 tons, was originally painted in brilliant red, blue, yellow and white. Archaeologists believe it was placed on top of the main platform of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), perhaps initially intended to be a sacrificial altar but then erected vertically when the massive stone cracked so it was no longer the thick drum-shape of traditional altars.

It is a world-famous icon of Aztec sculpture, but there are competing theories on what the imagery carved onto the stone represents. According to the National Museum of Anthropology, at the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity Tonatiuh inside the glyph “ollin” meaning “movement.” He holds a human heart in each hand and his tongue is the stone knife used for sacrifices. Four squares around his face contain the glyphs for the four previous cycles of creation and destruction. Concentric rings surrounding the central figure contain multiple calendar glyphs: the first ring has the glyphs for 20 of the 260 days in the Aztec calendar, the second features small boxes that may represent the 52 years of an Aztec century. You can examine the carving in glorious high resolution on Google Art Project.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered all Aztec religious icons removed and replaced them with Christian ones. The Sun Stone was toppled and dumped carved side up on the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. A few decades later, Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar, the second Archbishop of Mexico, ordered the stone, which he considered an evil, satanic influence on the city’s residents, flipped carved side down and buried. There it remained entirely forgotten until December 17th, 1790, when it was unearthed less than two feet under the surface by workers repaving the square. They propped it upright next to the find spot.

Mexican astronomer, anthropologist, historian and writer Antonio de León y Gama documented the find. He commissioned Francisco de Agüera to make a highly accurate and detailed drawing of the Sun Stone, the first known image of it ever made. In 1792, León y Gama published Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasión del nuevo empedrado que se esta formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790 [Historical and Chronological Description of the Two Stones that were Discovered in 1790 in the Main Square of Mexico City] about the discovery of the stone and the statue of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue. It was León y Gama who, recognizing the calendar glyphs, interpreted the monolith as a timekeeping device, a giant sundial to mark astronomical events like solstices. His view dominated the scholarship for close to a hundred years. Even today the piece is commonly called the Aztec Calendar Stone.

It was Antonio de León y Gama who rescued the stone from further disrespect. The Viceroy of New Spain and the Church wanted to use the stone as a step leading up to the entrance of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, the church built in the shadow of the Templo Mayor ruins 20 years or so after Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar had ordered the Sun Stone buried for its satanism. Letting parishioners stomp their dirty shoes all over a sacred Aztec artifact would have been a satisfying symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. It also would have been a conservation disaster. León y Gama persuaded Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, that since the stone wasn’t really a pagan idol like the statue of Coatlicue, but rather a calendar, it should be properly displayed, not trampled. The stone placed on the exterior wall of the Cathedral’s southwest tower where it became a popular attraction known as “Montezuma’s Clock.”

The Aztec Sun Stone stayed on the Cathedral until 1882 when it was moved along custom-built tracks two blocks to the new National Museum. Three years after that it moved the museum’s Gallery of Monoliths. In 1964, the Sun Stone was moved one last time, to the newly built National Museum of Anthropology. Now the museum can celebrate its own 50 year anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the Sun Stone’s final move and the 224th anniversary of the stone’s rediscovery all at the same time.

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Købke’s romantic sunset is actually a sunny day

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) have discovered that View of Lake Sortedam, an 1838 landscape by Christen Købke that was thought for decades to depict a romantic sunset reflected in the russet lake waters, is in fact a bright sunny day over blue lake waters. Two women standing on a jetty seeing off a party in the rowboat on a summer evening at sundown is a wistful, melancholic scene. Make it high noon and the romantic theme of separation is distinctly less emphatic.

The artist painted the lake, which was then outside the old city of Copenhagen in a liminal suburb between the city and the rural country, with the express goal of getting it into the yearly exhibit of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Rumor had it the Danish King was interested in acquiring the painting for the Royal Picture Gallery (now absorbed into the National Gallery of Denmark), and indeed, after the landscape was exhibited at the Royal Academy show in 1839, it was purchased by the monarch. View of Lake Sortedam was the first painting by Christen Købke in the Royal Picture Gallery.

That proved to be the pinnacle of his career during his lifetime. At the end of 1838, flush with a travel stipend from the Royal Academy, he traveled to Italy. Upon his return in 1840, he abandoned the romantic nationalism of his earlier work in favor of scenes based on sketches from his travels. These were not well received. He submitted one of those Italian landscapes in his application to become of a member of the Academy in 1846 and was rejected. Two years later he died of pneumonia at the age of just 37.

The importance of View of Lake Sortedam, in terms of subject matter, execution and period, was not recognized for more than a century after his death. In 1841 the King had the painting moved to his private apartment in Christiansborg Castle where it remained for 25 years. It only went on public view in 1864 when it was returned to the Royal Picture Gallery. When the National Gallery was established in 1896, Lake Sortedam moved there with the rest of the Royal Collection of Paintings, but as recently as the 1970s it was hanging above a door, not a location commensurate with its significance.

In the 1980s, art historians began to recognize the piece was one of Christen Købke’s most important paintings and it took a prominent place in exhibition of the artist’s work at home and abroad. It is now considered one of the signature Danish Golden Age paintings in the collection.

With little attention paid to it for a century and a half after it was painted, View of Lake Sortedam changed without people noticing it. The contrast between the pale blue of the sky and the red of the lake had caused some art historians to wonder if it was a natural phenomenon — the sun setting out of frame to the right could make the lake red while the sky was still light — or if perhaps the color had shifted over time.

Conservators at the SMK took small samples of paint from the lake and sky both in areas where they had been protected from the sun and exposed to it. The samples were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy to identify the chemical components of the paints Købke used.

The colours have changed due to a chemical reaction in the blue pigment, which is known as Prussian blue. The colour changes have been exacerbated by 176 years of exposure to light.

The sky has become paler and lighter. And the lake, which was painted using a mixture of red, blue, and white pigments, was originally a bluish grey. Now, however, it has taken on a reddish, purplish hue. The frame in which the work is set has protected the original colours out at the very edge – and this difference in colour piqued the conservator’s curiosity.

Kasper Monrad, senior researcher at the SMK, states that this new discovery completely changes how we should look at this painting. Up until this point the work was believed to be a romantic sunset scene. In the mid-1830s Købke painted many romantic artworks – and this work has been regarded as part of that group. In light of the new knowledge – that the scene actually shows a bright summer’s day – the work must be regarded as far less romantic in scope.

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Charlottenburg Palace’s New Wing reopens after restoration

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Charlottenburg Palace, home of King Frederick the Great’s first court after he ascended the throne in 1740, reopened on December 26th after two years of renovations. It started out as a small private retreat in Lietzow, a village a mile or so west of Berlin, commissioned in 1695 by Electress Sophie Charlotte, sister of British King George I and wife of Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg. In 1701, Frederick would declare himself “King Frederick I in Prussia” (the “in” was to assure the Holy Roman Emperor that his aspirations to kingship would not bleed across the boundaries of the empire into his role as Prince-elector of Brandenburg).

Once her husband’s promotion made her a queen, Sophie Charlotte hired Swedish builder Johann Friedrich Eosander to expand her little country retreat into a Baroque palace modeled after Louis XIV’s Versailles. There she collected poets, painters, scholars, theologians and musicians around her, creating a vibrant cultural community at her Lietzow court. She died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1705. She was just 36 years old. In her honor, Frederick renamed the palace and the town that grew up around it Charlottenburg.

Charlottenburg Palace was the original home of the fabled Amber Room. It was designed by Andreas Schlüter, the German baroque sculptor and architect who helped complete the palace after Johann Arnold Nering died in 1695, and built by Danish amber master craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Frederick I commissioned it in 1701 in the afterglow of his coronation in Königsberg, a Baltic port city that had been famous for its amber artistry since the Middle Ages. Königsberg amber of every shade was pieced together into mosaic panels that were installed on the walls of a small game parlour in Charlottenburg Palace. Construction took a decade, from 1701 to 1711.

Tsar Peter the Great remarked on the room’s beauty during a visit to the palace. Recalling the tsar’s appreciation, in 1716 King Frederick William I of Prussia gave the room to Peter as a diplomatic gift marking Brandenburg-Prussia’s 1715 alliance with Russia against Sweden in the Great Northern War. He received “55 very tall Russian soldiers” in return. Frederick William shared little of his parents’ interest in the arts; expanding Prussia’s military was his thing, which is why he was more than willing to strip the amber off the walls to seal a military alliance and secure an elite cadre of leggy troops.

Charlottenburg, palace and town, were neglected under Frederick William’s reign. He stopped all building projects and even tried to revoke the town’s charter, although he did use the palace to receive state visitors and host grand family affairs. It wasn’t until his son Frederick II of Prussia, later dubbed Frederick the Great, came to the throne in 1740 that Charlottenburg was returned to its former prominence. Construction resumed and Frederick commissioned the Superintendent of all the Royal Palaces, Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, to build a new east wing following Eosander’s design from four decades before.

The New Wing was lavishly appointed in rococo style. Rooms included the First and Second apartments of the King, the White Hall, the Banqueting Hall, the Golden Gallery and the Throne Room. Frederick housed his extensive collection of French paintings in the palace and later kings added a collection of marble and plaster sculptures that are excellent illustrations of the development of Berlin sculpture heavily influenced by classical Greece and Rome.

The palace was severely damaged by Allied bombing raids in 1943 and 1945. After the war it was rebuilt, unlike many other war-damaged palaces, making it the largest surviving Hohenzollern residence in Berlin. There were additional renovations in the 1950s and 60s, but the systems installed then are now outdated, inefficient and not in compliance with energy consumption, accessibility and fire safety regulations. In 2008, a major program of refurbishment began to address all the issues of Charlottenburg Palace in a comprehensive manner. The program has been divided into 10 parts so that visitors can continue to enjoy much of the palace even as work makes some areas inaccessible.

It’s the restoration of the New Wing that has just ended and while some of the biggest upgrades are unseen — new insulation between roof and ceiling, new climate control systems for the White Hall and Golden Gallery, a basement full of new fire monitoring technology — the entire envelope of the building has been carefully restored, from plaster and masonry elements of the façade to the windows, doors, wrought iron railings, external paint and roof tiles. With restoration complete, the sculpture and French painting collections are again on display in the newly reopened wing.

The two phases of the New Wing restoration cost €4.5 million while the entire project is expected to cost €14.3 million and will be completed in 2017.

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Artifacts from Scotland Yard’s Black Museum to go on public display

Saturday, December 27th, 2014

In 1869 the passage of the Prisoners Property Act had made it legal for the police to use the property of prisoners for instructional purposes, so when the Central Prisoners Property Store was created at London’s Metropolitan Police headquarters in April of 1874, one Inspector Neame began to put together a small collection of objects to train recruits on the detection of burglary using the tools of the burglar’s trade. From that kernel the collection grew over the course of a year into a permanent museum of evidence from a range of crimes housed in the Met’s headquarters at 4 Whitehall Place whose back entrance, No. 1 Great Scotland Yard, became a metonym for the force itself.

For the first two years of its existence there are no records of the museum having any special visitors. It performed an educational function training police and Inspector Neame made certain it stuck to its purview. When a reporter from The Observer newspaper asked to be granted access to the museum, Neame refused spurring the reporter to print an article dubbing it “the Black Museum.” The first officially recorded visitors were police bigwigs in October of 1877. After that, the museum’s visitors book records a parade of celebrities including Gilbert and Sullivan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, all keen to take a gander at the first museum dedicated to the tools of crime and its perpetrators.

As Scotland Yard (figurative) moved from Scotland Yard (literal), first to the other end of Whitehall Place in 1890 and then to Victoria Street in 1967, the museum moved with it. The current iteration dates to 1981 and is on the first floor of New Scotland Yard on Victoria Street. It has two rooms. The first is a replica of the original 1875 museum in Whitehall and contains weapons used to kill or cause serious injury in London (walking swords were very popular), objects from some of the Yard’s most notorious 19th century cases — Jack the Ripper’s “From Hell” and “Dear Boss” letters, Charles Peace’s burglary kit/violin case — full-head death masks of convicts hanged at Newgate Prison that were used in the Victorian era for phrenological study of their criminal skull bumps, hangman’s nooses labelled with the name of the person who swung from them until dead.

The second room covers 20th century crimes and has display cabinets dedicated to Famous Murders, Notorious Poisoners, Murder of Police Officers, Royalty, Bank Robberies, Espionage, Sieges, Hostages and Hijacking. Dennis Nilsen, serial killer of at least 12 boys and young men, is eerily represented by the small white stove and stock pot he used to boil the flesh off the bones of his victims before disposing of them. There’s the oil drum John George Haigh used to dissolve his six victims in concentrated sulfuric acid and the gallstone that survived the acid bath to help identify the victim. The museum has the ricin pellet used to assassinate Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov and a replica of the umbrella used to fire the pellet into him as he waited at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge on September 7th, 1978.

The museum’s macabre displays and exclusivity have inspired documentaries, a radio show hosted by Orson Welles and the 1959 horror classic Horrors of the Black Museum (in HypnoVista!) whose producer and writer, Herman Cohen, finagled a pass to visit the Black Museum via an inspector friend. It’s still part of the Met’s Crime Academy, mainly used today as a lecture theater, and you still have to make an appointment to see its collection of 20,000 objects. Appointments are very hard to come by; even serving police officers have to book a date.

Every once in a while there has been talk of the museum opening to the public to raise money for the police in this age of budget cuts, but nothing’s ever come of it. Now it seems something might. The Mayor’s Office and the Metropolitan Police are negotiating with the Museum of London to put some of the Black Museum’s artifacts on public display.

Stephen Greenhalgh, deputy mayor for policing and crime, confirmed the meetings with the museum “about how the fantastic story of the Met Police can be told in their museum,” adding the talks were ongoing and they were looking for sponsorship.

Despite anticipated interest, few exhibitions make money and no decision has yet been made whether visitors will be charged to see the planned exhibition. Curators are currently visiting the historical sites to identify the items they want to display. Officials will then discuss the ethical considerations of putting them on show.

The ethnical considerations primarily being the impact on the families of the victims (or of the criminals, for that matter). I wager they’ll stick to the historical crimes, the developement of modern policing, etc., things that are distant enough not to be horrific reminders to anyone connected with the many tragedies on display.

While the parties sort out the details, you can virtually experience a visit to the Black Museum of yore, courtesy of Hargrave L. Adam’s 1914 book Police Work from Within. (Scroll back to chapter two if you want to enjoy Adam’s extra-special thoughts on how the “education” and “emancipation” of women, scare quotes original, inevitably lead to criminality and death. Sneak preview: the ladies ruined America.)

Also, the full 1954 The Black Museum radio series is available at the Internet Archive. It’s rather fabulous, replete with classic radio dramatic music and re-enactments of the crimes. Each episode covers one particular artifact and tells its story. I’m embedding the playlist below because I can.

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Sailor’s coat from USS Monitor ready for display

Friday, December 26th, 2014

After more than a dozen years, a sailor’s coat that was recovered from the gun turret of the Civil War ironclad warship USS Monitor is about to go on public display. Conserving this compelling artifact was an incredibly hard task, starting with the act of removing it from the ship. The 150-ton revolving gun turret, a revolutionary innovation that made a strong impression with its two massive Dahlgren artillery guns manned by 14 sailors but that was problematic in practice, was raised from the protected wreck site on August 5th, 2002. It was found inverted as it had flipped upside-down when the ship capsized and the skeletal remains of two crewmen were buried under coal, assorted debris and the Dahlgren guns.

Amidst that debris was a wet mass of fabric wrapped around a group of gun tools including a rammer and a worm (a device used to clean unspent powder from the barrel). It was heavily concreted, part of a hardened mass of iron corrosion salts, marine life and sediment that formed over the 141 years the wreck spent under 220 feet of salt water. The concretion had grown into the woven fiber of fabric, and removing the textile from so firm an embrace required painstakingly precise use of hand and pneumatic chisels. It took days of work just to dislodge it.

That was just the beginning. We have very few textiles recovered from shipwrecks as they tend to decay quickly in the ocean water, so there isn’t exactly a manual of how to go about preserving a Civil War-era wool coat pried out of the jaws of an iron-clad gun turret. Conservators next placed it in a long, leisurely fresh water bath to slowly leach the ocean minerals out of the fabric. It would take many, many more baths over the next decade plus. In between soakings, conservators worked on cleaning the concretions still on the surface and interior of the coat using ultrasonic dental scalers. Then they worked on removing the rust stains.

They found that although the very fine merino-type wool was still in surprisingly pliable condition, the cotton threads that had stitched the sections together were long gone. Add to that the stress from the wreck and ocean living and the garment had come apart into 180 pieces. An estimated 85-90% of it had survived but far from intact, and there was no chance it could be completely stitched back together because the fabric was just too fragile.

Textile conservators Colleen Callahan and Newbold Richardson reached out to the museum and conservation community to see if anybody could recognize the garment from the pieces. Karen France, Chief Curator of the Navy Museum, identified it as a double-breasted sack jacket known as a “pilot’s jacket.” The Monitor‘s may be the only one of its kind to have survived. It was privately made and then modified for military use. Black rubber buttons marked “U.S.N” over two stars and an anchor that had come off when the cotton string fixing them to the coat rotted away, were found next to the coat.

Callahan and Richardson worked hard to piece together some of the 180 fragments so that they could be mounted on archival backing and arranged for display in a way that made it look like a proper coat even if still in pieces.

Following a trail of evidence left by residual stains, stitching holes and the weave of the fabric, Richardson reassembled the front and back panels of the coat, while Callahan worked on the sleeves.

“It was like a jigsaw puzzle,” Callahan says, “and even after all our work we could not find a place for every piece.”

Now fully laid out on their protective mounts, the sections of the coat look much as they might have before being assembled by their original maker.

Six long-separated black rubber buttons bearing the letter “U.S.N.”and an anchor have been reunited with the fabric, fastened down through hidden magnets.

Part of an iron handle from a gunnery tool remains embedded in the cloth, too, left to preserve both the fragile weave and a dramatic part of the Monitor’s story.

“What better way to tell the story of the ship’s sinking — and to put people back in that exact moment of time — than a coat that was discarded by someone trying to escape the turret,” Hoffman says.

Conservators have freeze-dried the coat pieces to remove the last water still in the textile from the many baths and now they are ready for display at the USS Monitor Center.

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