Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Ring ostensibly owned by Joan of Arc sells for $333,000

Saturday, February 27th, 2016

A ring that was ostensibly owned by Saint Joan of Arc sold on Friday at Timeline Auctions for £240,000 ($333,000), blowing through the presale estimate of £10,000-14,000 ($13,990-19,590). Including buyer’s premium the final cost was £297,600 ($412,845). According to Timeline spokesperson, “The ring is returning to France.” Some news reports assume the French government is the buyer, but the auction house was vague on the particulars so it could just as well be a private collector.

The ring is silver-gilt inscribed with the letters “I” and “M” on the shoulders and “IHS” and “MAR” on the face. Those are abbreviations for Jesus and Mary. Along the shank are lozenges with very worn florals inside. It was made around 1400 and has an illustrious ownership history that can in theory be traced all the way back to the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431.

After Joan’s arrest, her ring was taken by Bishop Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, chaplain to the Duke of Burgundy and ally of the English, who presided over her trial for heresy. According to the ownership history established by researchers in the 20th century, Cauchon gave the ring to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial. It remained in his family, the Cavendish-Bentinck family (Dukes of Portland), for 500 years until the early 20th century when Lady Ottoline Morrell gave it to artist Augustus John a few years before 1914. It was through John that it first entered the auction market in 1914. The ring passed through several hands before physician James Hasson acquired it at a Sotheby’s auction in 1947 for the grand sum of £175. The current seller was Dr. Hasson’s son Robert Hasson.

Joan’s rings came up several times at her trial, as documented in the extant transcript (English translation here). The prosecution kept trying to make something of them, asking leading questions insinuating that her rings were seen as objects of devotion and power like the rings of kings, popes and saints. From the transcript:

Asked if she herself did not have some rings, she replied to us, bishop: “You have one of mine; give it back to me.” She said the Burgundians have another ring; and she asked us, if we had her ring, to show it to her.

Asked who gave her the ring which the Burgundians had, she answered her father or her mother; and she thought the names Jhesus Maria were written thereon; she did not know who had them written; she did not think there was any stone in it; and she was given the ring at Domrémy. She said that her brother gave her the other ring which we had and she charged us to give it to the Church. She said she never cured any one with any of her rings. [...]

Asked whether the good wives of the town did not touch her ring with their own, she answered that “many women touched my hands and my rings; but I do not know with what thought or intention.” [...]

Asked of what substance one of her rings was, on which the words Jhesus Maria were written, she answered that she did not properly know; and if it was of gold, it was not of fine gold; and she did not know whether it was of gold or brass; she thought there were three crosses, and to her knowledge no other signs save the words Jhesus Maria.

Asked why she gladly looked at this ring when she was going to battle, she answered that it was out of pleasure, and in honor of her father and mother; and having her ring in her hand and on her finger she touched St. Catherine who appeared before her.

According to the auction house and the documentation (all of which dates to the 20th century), the ring matches this description, but I think it’s a pretty huge fudge to say the ring has three crosses on it like Joan said it did. There are no crosses engraved on the ring. The lot description describes: “incised niello-filled florid lozenges and triangles, the design giving the appearance of three crosses.” I don’t really see Joan of Arc being so subtle as to describe crosses formed by negative space instead of just the plain fact of the lozenge decoration.

The wear, ring style and engraving are consistent with a 15th century date, so whoever dropped more than a quarter of a million dollars on the piece has a nifty medieval devotional ring to show for it, plus the Cavendish-Bentinck family lore, a hundred years of speculation and several museum exhibitions in France and England connecting it to Joan of Arc.

Medieval painting saved by Reformation recycling

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The English Reformation of the 16th century saw the widespread destruction of religious art associated with the Catholic Church. What the zealots of the Reformation missed the zealots of the English Civil War destroyed. An estimated 97% of the UK’s religious art was destroyed during the Reformation and Civil War. The few pre-Reformation church paintings that managed to survive are usually defaced or damaged. Conservators at Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute have discovered that a rare 15th century panel painting managed to survive the artmageddon in excellent condition because it was recycled during the Reformation.

The Kiss of Judas is an oil on panel work painted in bright colors with silver and gold leaf details in around 1460. It captures Judas in the act of betrayal as Roman soldiers crowd the background and Peter draws his sword. Underneath is an inscription painted in gold letters: “Jhesu mercy and eue[r] mercy Ffor in thy mercy fully trust.” The subject matter makes its survival even more remarkable since images of Judas were often gouged or scratched by faithful Catholics as well.

The painting was acquired by the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. The seller was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire. Unable to afford to keep the delicate panel painting in proper conservation conditions, the church sold it, after getting permission from a special Faculty of the Diocese of Peterborough, to the museum. The proceeds of the sale were used to repair to the roof and other features of the 13th century Norman church.

When the painting arrived at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, it was in bad condition. It was covered in dirt, darkened varnish and bat guano, so much so that the image was hard to discern. Conservators used X-ray imaging and examined it with infra-red and UV light to identify obscured details, the original pigments and which areas needed the most urgent attention. They cleaned the dirt and bat feces, removed the darkened varnish, treated the wood to keep insects from doing any more damage and applied a layer of protective varnish restoring the original vibrance of the paint and precious metals.

It was the back of the painting that provided the clue to its history. It was covered with a plywood backing board that was removed for conservation. When examining the back of the boards that make up the panel, conservators found traces of what looked like lettering. Infra-red photography revealed that it was indeed lettering and from the 16th century. It seems the excessively Catholic painting was just turned around and the back used as a board for writing. The lettering isn’t legible, but experts think it may have been the Ten Commandments because they were commonly hung on the walls of Protestant churches.

It could have just been a parsimonious choice, a practical way to reuse a painting that was no longer acceptable to the mores of the time. On the other hand, someone may have done this on purpose to keep the painting from almost certain destruction. We’ll never know. The history of The Kiss of Judas is vague. It wasn’t originally painted for St. Mary’s — it was first documented there in the early 1900s — and it may have been part of a larger piece like a rood screen. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood found that it came from a tree in the eastern Baltic that was cut down after 1423. It was painted in Britain between 1437 and 1469. One hint of its origins was a coat of arms discovered by infra-red photography hidden under the paint. The closest match to the coat of arms was traced to a branch of the Belgrave family in Leicestershire.

The painting is now on display in the Rothschild Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

12th c. “archaeological ruin” icon restored

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

The 12th century Bogolyubskaya Icon of Theotokos (Greek for the Mother of God), once deemed an unfixable “archaeological ruin,” has been restored not quite to its original splendor but to its original colors. This is a great achievement for a revered artwork that is one of only about 30 icons from the 12th century that still survive. An exhibition at the Grabar Art Conservation Centre in Moscow tells the tale of its checkered life, from miraculous conception to this latest restoration.

The story begins in 1155 with Grand Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (“Andrew the God-Loving”). He was traveling to the city of Vladimir, the new capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality which arose from the demise of the Kievan Rus, a demise Andrei vigorously and successfully fought to accelerate. With him he carried a precious icon now known as the Miracle-Working Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The icon was Byzantine, made in Constantinople in 1131, but was believed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist. It was also believed to have miraculous powers of protection, particularly in battle, which is why Andrei carried it with him.

Seven miles outside of the city near the banks of the Klyazma River, Andrei’s horses suddenly refused to take another step. The prince prayed before the icon the whole night and received a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a scroll in her right hand. She commanded him to take the icon to Vladimir and build a church and cloister on the place where she had appeared to him. Andrei did what she told him to and more besides, commissioning a new icon commemorating his holy vision.

The icon depicted Mary holding a scroll in her right hand, just as Andrei has seen, her left hand raised in prayer to Jesus shown as an adult in the upper right hand corner. As promised, Prince Andrei built his own palace and a church, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, on the site of his vision. The icon was installed in the Convent of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (later known as the Bogolyubsky Convent). When another church in Vladimir, the Dormition or Holy Assumption Cathedral, was completed, the icon was translated to it.

Under Andrey Bogolyubsky, Vladimir grew into the dominant cultural, economic and political center of the region and remained so until 1237 when it was besieged by the Mongol Golden Horde commanded by its founder Batu Khan. It fell on February 8th, 1238, and never again regained the prosperity and power it had once enjoyed. Dozens of Vladimir’s characteristic white limestone churches and public buildings were burned, but the icon survived the Mongol onslaught.

It nonetheless suffered many slings and arrows over the centuries. In 1722 the church building collapsed and the Bogolyubskaya Icon was trapped under the rubble for days. In 1771, Vladimir was struck by plague. The icon was paraded through the city and the epidemic miraculously ended. Every year after that the icon was brought to the city from May 21st until July 16th during which the miraculous procession was repeated in towns and villages all over the region.

The annual parades almost destroyed the icon. Exposed to the elements, the centuries-old paint weakened and the wood panel deteriorated. After the revolution church art was nationalized by the Bolshevik government. A restoration commission headed by artist, art historian and founder of the conservation center that bears his name, Igor Grabar examined the icon. When they removed the metal casing, they were horrified to find the icon blackened, the paint crumbling, the gesso rotting, the panel bored with holes from wood worm and the surface crawling with live larvae. Dismayed restorer Alexander Anisimov called it an “archaeological ruin.” Thanks to Grabar’s judicious reluctance to interfere with what was left of the icon, a prescient approach that was not common then, the team documented it photographically, killed the pests and strengthened the board as best they could.

Later restorers were not so circumspect. In a 1946 attempt to restore the icon, or at least prevent further deterioration, Vladimir museum restorer and artist F.A. Modorov came up with the idea of covering the surface with hot paraffin wax. He thought this would strengthen and protect the flaking paint layer. Who could have predicted that pouring hot wax on a delicate, wood worm-tunneled, flaking, 700-year-old painting would be hugely destructive? (Anyone. Anyone could have predicted that.) Subsequent attempts at restoration were able to better reveal Mary’s face and some of her clothes. They could not repair the decay of the gesso layer and the paint, but the icon was stable and under the constant supervision of conservators.

With the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cathedral of the Holy Assumption Convent in Vladimir claimed the icon. It was transferred to the convent in 1993 where it was put on display in a climate-controlled, hermetically sealed encasement made by the same outfit that made Lenin’s glass coffin. Lenin still looks great, but his encasement is constantly monitored and repaired. The icon received no such attention. Of the four batteries that powered the microclimate, only two of them worked and one of them had been sold by the nuns to raise money for the church, so really it was just a clear box with a lock. Meanwhile pilgrims left fresh flowers in vases of water at the feet of the icon, releasing humidity right into the box. On top of that, the original white limestone floor was replaced when a sponsor offered to install a new granite floor. Enter groundwater penetration, drainage problems, and perpetual damp. When one of the tiles was lifted later, mushrooms were growing underneath it.

This disaster was discovered in 2009 when nuns reported there was some sort of fungus growing on the surface of the icon. The failure to properly care for one of the first icons ever painted in Russia and one of very few religious artifacts to survive the Mongol invasion caused a scandal. The Bogolyubskaya Icon was moved to the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum in Vladimir and a new program of restoration under Aleksandr Gormatyuk of the Grabar Art Conservation Centre began. Aided by the latest restoration technology — 3D scanning, CT scanning, scanning electron microscope examination, X-rays — Gormatyuk assessed the condition of the piece and traced the history writ on its paint. He identified no fewer than 20 interventions on the piece in its 858 years. The average for icons is 3 to 4 interventions.

For six years Gormatyuk and his team worked to remove wax and resin layers and overpainting to reveal the original 12th century paint which by some miracle still survived. The Bogolyubskaya Icon now lives in a specially equipped restoration room with FUNCTIONING climate control systems. Only 12 people are allowed inside the room to eliminate human emissions and effluvia from the conservation equation as much as possible. The icon will be kept in the room and monitored for two more years at least.

Since the icon is still far too fragile to travel, the Moscow exhibition uses life-sized photographs, orginal documents, weapons from the 12th century, white stone carvings from Vladimir to give visitors an understanding of the history of the Bogolyubskaya icon and its restoration. Friday, February 26th, is the last day of the exhibition, so if you’re in Moscow there is no time to waste.

Martha Brown, the real Tess of the D’Urbevilles

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

Saturday, August 9th, 1856, Elizabeth Martha Brown was hanged in front of Dorchester Gaol. A month earlier she had killed her husband John with multiple hatchet blows to the head. The marriage, needless to say, had not been a happy one. She was a housekeeper, he a servant at Blackmanston Farm. She was said to be a handsome woman with a beautiful head of thick, curly hair, but she was 20 years older than her husband and it was generally thought that he married her for money. Her £50 savings allowed the couple to move to Birdsmoorgate in the Marshwood Vale and open a shop. Soon she suspected him of having an affair with a younger woman, Mary Davis, who ran a shop near theirs, and according to Martha, he became verbally and physically abusive towards her. One night he got home in the wee hours and by morning he was dead.

At first she denied having murdered him. She claimed he’d been kicked in the head by a horse 200 yards away from the house and somehow made his way home where he expired. A doctor found that there was no way he could have walked home with the injuries he’d suffered. Martha stuck to her story but the jury at the Dorchester Crown Court were not persuaded and she was condemned to hang. It was widely believed that her insistence on sticking to her patently false cover story sealed her doom, that if she had confessed and repented, her life would have been spared. On top of the horse kick lie, her calm demeanor at the trial was interpreted as callousness.

Just before she was executed, Martha Brown signed a full confession.

“My husband, John Anthony Brown, deceased, came home on Sunday morning, the 6th of July, at two o’clock, in liquour, and was sick. He had no hat on. I asked him what he had done with his hat. He abused me, and said, ‘What is it to you, d–n you.’ He then asked for some cold tea. I said that I had none, but would make some warm. He replied, ‘Drink that yourself, and be d—d.’ I then said, ‘What makes you so cross? Have you been at Mary Davis’s?’ He then kicked out the bottom of the chair upon which I had been sitting.

We continued quarrelling until about three o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of my head, which confused me so much that I was obliged to sit down. Supper was on the table, and he said, ‘Eat it yourself, and be d—d.’ At the same time he reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy horse-whip, with a plain end, and struck me across the shoulders with it three times. Each time I screamed out.

I said, ‘If you strike me again I will cry, Murder.’ He retorted, ‘If you do, I will kick your brains out through the window.’ He also added, ‘I hope I shall find you dead in the morning.’ He then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain, and he immediately stooped down to untie his boots.

I was much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion, on being so abused and struck, I directly seized a hatchet which was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been using to break coal with to keep up the fire and keep his summer warm, and with it (the hatchet) I struck him several violent blows on the head. I could not say how many.

He fell at the first blow on his head, with his face towards the fireplace. He never spoke or moved afterwards. As soon as I had done it, I wished I had not, and would have given the world not to have done it. I had never struck him before, after all his ill treatment, but, when he hit me so hard at this time, I was almost out of my senses and hardly knew what I was doing.

By all accounts, Martha was composed and calm as she climbed the scaffold. Her attendants and the chaplain were more upset than she. The hangman tied a rope around her dress at the ankles to prevent her gown from flying up and exposing her during the drop. A white hood was placed over her head. The Reading Mercury of August 16th, 1856, reported that “the wretched woman fell with great force, and after a few struggles ceased to exist.”

Martha Brown was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorset. Dorchester, which had a centuries-long history of exceptionally brutal public executions, hadn’t had a hanging in 26 years and people flocked to see this woman breathe her last. Close to 4,000 people filled North Square for the revival of what had once been called “hang fairs.” One of the spectators was a 16-year-old apprentice architect named Thomas Hardy. The hanging of Martha Brown made an indelible impression on the young man, so much so that 35 years later he would write a novel about a tragic heroine who staves in the head of the abuser who ruined her life and is hanged for it.

Writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles couldn’t exorcise the memory of Martha Brown. Seventy years later in 1925 Thomas Hardy found himself in Martha’s old stomping grounds when he visited the estate of Racedown in the Marshwood Vale where Wordsworth and Coleridge had once stayed. He asked Racedown’s owner, Lady Hester Pinney, to find out more about Martha Brown. In correspondence with Lady Hester he explained his personal connection to the case.

“I am ashamed to say I saw her hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons… I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.

The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but look at the figure… turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began to rain, and then I saw they had put a cloth over the face how as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a tree. It was curious the two dropping together.”

Hardy’s second wife Florence also wrote to Lady Pinney: “Of course the account TH gives of the hanging is vivid and terrible. What a pity that a boy of sixteen should have been permitted to see such a sight. It may have given a tinge of bitterness and gloom to his life’s work.”

A little more than a tinge, I’d say. The next year Lady Pinney visited Hardy and they talked about Tess and Martha “whose stories have much in common, just as if they were in the next room. His sympathy for these unhappy women was wonderful.”

The Dorchester prison was closed in 2013 and developers plan to build homes on the site. An archaeological survey found human remains, not in the prison burial ground but outside consecrated ground. This was not unexpected. The dead of Dorchester Gaol were buried in a cemetery on the grounds and outside of it. The remains were left in situ and any that will be disturbed by future construction will be removed and reburied.

The thing is, one of those buried individuals may be Martha Brown, and there are a lot of Thomas Hardy fans who want this possibility explored.

Nick Gilbey, a Dorset-based film-maker and Hardy fan, said: “I don’t think it would be too difficult to establish if any of the remains are those of a woman. If they are, they are almost certain to be the remains of Martha.”

He said a full examination of the prison site should take place. “I think more work needs to be done, and we need to make sure that whatever remains are found there are given a proper, decent burial. Martha is an important historical figure because of the Hardy connection.”

French police tackle 103-year-old cold case

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

In December of 1913, workers looking to dig a cellar under a sharecropper’s house adjoining the Château of Montcigoux in the town of Saint-Pierre-de-Frugie in Dordogne, southwestern France, made a grisly discovery: human skeletal remains. The bones were buried in a shallow grave — the skull was just 10 inches beneath the surface — under the floor near the fireplace. There was no clothing or objects of any kind that might help identify the deceased. There was no sign of decomposition in the soil and the bones were bleached white.

The discovery of the skeleton made the news at the time, but the authorities had no interest in pursuing a death investigation. In 1933, local newspaper Le Courrier du Centre did an investigation of their own and published a series of stories claiming to have solved the mystery. And a truly lurid solution it was. According to the paper, the bones belonged to one Ernest de Fontaubert who in 1850 had left France with his sister Ernestine to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush. They were more than just brother and sister, the story alleged. They were incestuous lovers who lived as a couple in the manor house while their younger brother Arthur, who they hated, was forced to live in the small sharecropper’s house. Over the course of their unholy relationship, they had five still-born children who they surreptitiously buried on the estate.

When they returned from California, Arthur killed Ernest with a hatchet blow to the head and buried his brother under the floorboards of his room. He then slaughtered two bullocks at the entrance to the manor so the stench of their decomposition would mask Ernest’s. When she realized her brother/husband was missing, Ernestine went mad and Arthur locked her in the tower.

This very juicy story got a foothold in the local lore, and soon it was being recited as fact. Author Robert Margerit wrote a novel based on the account in 1958 which became a bestseller in Dordogne. In 1987 a documentary was filmed about the purported murder. In 1989 Bertran Visage wrote another novel inspired by the 1933 news articles. The result was a renewed interest in the bones and their context. Tourists queued up to visit Ernest’s remains and the town took full advantage of its notorious boney resident, promoting the château and hosting all kinds of Ernest-related events and tours.

The boost was significant, because while the Château of Montcigoux is lovely, it’s a comparatively modest manor house, not the kind of palatial mansion that people think of when they think of châteaux in, say, the Loire Valley. The first Montcigoux castle was built in the 12th century, but only a single round tower survives from the medieval château. (That’s where Arthur was supposed to have imprisoned Ernestine.) The manor that stands now dates to the 17th century. It was the seat of the Rolle family from 1540 until 1826 when the château was acquired by Pierre Paignon de Fontaubert. Pierre’s son Francois Ernest was the Ernest of skeleton fame. His other son Francois Arthure was the alleged fratricide.

In 2011, Bernard-Jean Aumasson visited Montcigoux and took a tour of locations from the story. A retired mineral expert for a geophysics company, Aumasson was immediately skeptical of the Ernest-Ernestine-Arthur story. He decided to see if he could find any answers himself, and spent the next two years combing through archives in France and the United States for clues about what really happened. He discovered that Ernest was murdered, but not in the Château of Montcigoux, and not by his brother.

Ernest had indeed caught the gold bug and emigrated to California in 1850, as the story said. Like all wise 49ers, he focused on selling things to the masses hoping to strike it rich, not on panning for gold himself. Apparently he was quite successful and respected, but these were dangerous times and on February 26th, 1862, Ernest was found dead in Cave City, Calaveras county.

In Calveras county records Aumasson found that Ernest’s sister gave a statement to an investigating judge. She said her brother had left the day before at nine in the morning carrying 2.6 kilos (5.7 pounds) in gold. His body was found by a neighbor just half a mile from his Cave City home. The gold was gone. The next morning his horse returned home alone.

The murder got a blurb in the Stockton Daily Independent newspaper.

A French merchant named De Fontambert, who has for years done business at Cave City in Calaveras county, was early last week murdered by some ruffians for $1,500 in gold dust which he was carrying to San Andreas for exchange. This is the second time within two years that Mr. De Fontambert’s life was attempted by robbers. He was a most estimable gentleman, highly educated, polished in his manners and a member of a distinguished French family.

Aumasson also found that Ernest was married, a fact entirely elided in favor of the incest angle. He’d been married to Thérese de Tessieres for 10 years before he left for California. Thérese stayed behind and helped manage the estate when Ernest was gone. Ernestine corresponded with her regularly. One letter from 1855 survives and it’s apparently very affectionate. Thérese died in 1860, two years before her long-distance husband was murdered. It would have been exceptionally challenging for Ernest to have knocked up his sister five times in the active presence of his wife and other siblings. Besides Aumasson checked the local records and found five babies born to the family had died of natural causes and been buried on the estate in an entirely above-board fashion. Oh, and her name wasn’t Ernestine. It was Catherine.

Catherine stayed in California another three years after her brother’s death. When she returned to France in 1865, she had a significant sum of 600 francs on her and seemed fine at first. Her sister Hortense welcomed her warmly and she stayed with her in Paris before returning to Montcigoux. Then things went awry. Catherine decided she would go to Paris, but when she missed the train to Limoges, she decided to just walk the 300 miles to the capital. She was found 100 miles away in Chateauroux. In 1866, the family were granted guardianship of their unstable sister. She died the next year.

Aumasson’s research bummed out the locals who love their lore and their skeleton which is kept in a glass-topped box almost like a relic of a saint, but it also inspired the authorities to finally take a look at the bones. On Monday, police packed up the whole box and transported the remains the Institute for Criminal Research of the national police of Cergy-Pontoise. There the bones will be examined forensically in an attempt to determine the individual’s age, sex and possible cause of death.

Gilbert Chabaud, who has owned the Montcigoux manor since 1977 and is the mayor of the hamlet of some 400 inhabitants, said he was sad to say goodbye to “Ernest”.

But Chabrol reassured the townsfolk: “As soon as he has had these little tests, he will return to his place. We will return him to the village.”

Lost cantata by Mozart and Salieri found in Prague

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri has been rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece last month while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.

The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri. The daughter of Stefano Storace, an Italian double bass player and composer who would become the musical director of Vauxhall Gardens in London, and Elizabeth Trusler, daughter of the owner of the concert venue Marylebone Gardens, Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.

Stefano sent Stephen to Naples to study composition and in 1778 Nancy and her parents joined him there. Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.

When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna. Her brother Stephen came on as a composer. The inaugural production of the emperor’s new Italian Opera company was La Scuola de’ Gelosi by Antonio Salieri. Nancy played the lead role of the Countess. She enchanted audiences and composers alike with her talent and beauty.

Stefano Storace had died in 1780 or 1781, so Nancy’s mother Elizabeth went with her children to Vienna in 1783. Elizabeth arranged for her daughter to marry composer John Abraham Fisher who was 22 years her senior, more than double her age. It was an unmitigated disaster. Within months after their wedding on March 24th, 1784, rumors were flying around Vienna that Fisher was physically abusing Nancy. Emperor Joseph banished Fisher from the city and that was the end of the marriage, but the consequences of this ill-fated match far outlasted it.

In June of 1785, Stephen Storace’s first opera, Gli Sposi Malcontenti premiered with Nancy in the lead. Suddenly, in the middle of an aria, Nancy lost her voice. The performance had to be cut short. A few weeks later she gave birth to a daughter, Josepha Fisher. Elizabeth Storace wanted nothing to do with the child. She left her with a foundling hospital and reportedly announced that neither she nor Nancy cared if Josepha lived or died. The baby girl only lived a month.

It took Nancy five months for her voice to recover enough for her to be able to perform again. On October 12th, 1785, she returned to the stage singing the part of Ofelia in Salieri’s opera La Grotta di Trofonio. To celebrate her return, Mozart, Salieri and the mysterious Cornetti (possibly Nancy’s brother Stephen) composed Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia. Unfortunately Nancy’s health was not fully recovered. It’s a testament to how beloved she was that Mozart and Salieri both tweaked their operas to accommodate her new vocal limitations. Mozart worked with her on the music for The Marriage of Figaro which debuted on May 1st, 1786, with Nancy as Susanna. He had to lower the pitch of certain parts to ensure Nancy’s voice would hold up.

Less than a year later, Nancy left Vienna to return to London. Mozart wrote the aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? (“You ask that I forget you?”) for her farewell concert in Vienna on February 23rd, 1787. Nancy Storace went on to have a very successful career in London, but her voice never was the same.

We know from period newspaper ads that copies of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia were printed and distributed in Vienna by music publishers Artaria & Co., but none were known to survive. Not even the text of Da Ponte’s libretto, a 30 stanza pastoral poem, could be found. The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.

Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms. When it came to Nancy Storace, they were even collaborators.

And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.

I can’t speak Czech and there are no functioning English subtitles, so I have no idea what this Czech National Museum curator is saying, but she flips through the pages of the rediscovered work very slowly and the quality of the film is good enough that you can get an excellent look at the libretto and the fold-out music.

Astronaut graffiti found in Apollo 11 command module

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Smithsonian staff have discovered graffiti written on the inside walls of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. The command module, the only part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth after Neil Armstrong took that giant step for mankind on July 20th, 1969, was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1970. It is on display in the Milestones of Flight Hall but visitors and scholars can only see the outside of it. To allow people to explore the inside of the historic vessel, experts with the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program have been 3D scanning the command module. It was during the scanning process that the notes left by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage were seen for the first time in 50 years.

The writings include numerical calculations, a calendar, labels and notes. One panel to left of the sextant and telescope has figures and other notes copied from Houston mission control audio transmissions. Researchers will compare the notes to recordings and transcripts of the voice transmissions to determine who took the notes, when and what the figures mean. Initial comparisons have already found that the notes on the right side of the lower panel are coordinates sent from mission control that were estimates (inaccurate ones, as it happens) of the Lunar Module’s location on the Moon. The main control panel is also peppered with notes, mainly numbers, which will also be compared to mission control records in order to figure out their meaning and author.

Some of the notes show how the astronauts had to think on their feet and improvise a little once they were in space. NASA had detailed lists of where everything was to be stored and there are stowage maps on the walls of the command module. The astronauts took liberties with the plans, however, and wrote their own labels on several of the lockers. One of the stowage lockers, for example, was meant to store equipment related to the waste management system, but the astronauts repurposed it to hold filled urine bags from launch day before the waste disposal system was operational. They wisely labeled the locker with its contents so there would be no nasty surprises.

The calendar is my favorite because it captures the very human excitement of the moment. It’s a small rectangle with two rows of seven boxes. Nine of the boxes have dates in them, the dates of the mission, July 16th through 24th. All of the dates are crossed out except for the last one. Splashdown day never did get crossed off.

“As curator of what is arguably one of the most iconic artifacts in the entire Smithsonian collection, it’s thrilling to know that we can still learn new things about Columbia,” said Allan Needell, curator of space history at the museum. “This isn’t just a piece of machinery, it’s a living artifact.”

Laser scanning the interior and exterior of this living artifact has not been an easy task. Made primarily of aluminum alloy, stainless steel and titanium, the Apollo 11 command module is one big reflective surface which the scanners have difficulty reading. Add to that the complexity of the dashboards with their multiple small, delicate switches and indicators and buttons and the standard 3D capture tools weren’t going to cut it.

Because of the complicated nature of this scan, the Smithsonian 3D team brought in its technology partner, Autodesk Inc. Autodesk, a leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, deployed specially designed equipment to scan the artifact, and its advanced Memento software was able to process complex data from multiple 3-D capture devices to create one highly detailed and accurate model.

The model is a work in progress at the moment. It’s scheduled to be completed in June when it will be uploaded to the Smithsonian’s excellent site. That same month a major renovation of the Milestones of Flight Hall will be finished and the Apollo 11 Command Module will be temporarily taken off view. It will go back on display in 2020 in the museum’s new, state-of-the-art Destination Moon exhibition. The 3D model will be used to create an interactive display for the new exhibition.

Here is an early preview of the 3D model still in progress.

Happy Birthday, Teddy Bear!

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

On November 14th, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt was hunting bear in Mississippi with a party including Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino, several reporters and guide Holt Collier. Collier, born a slave in 1848, was a bear hunter of almost legendary status. He’d hunted bear from Texas to Alaska, killing thousands of them. He claimed to have stopped counting when he killed his 2,212th bear. In the Mississippi Delta, nobody was more qualified than Holt Collier to give the big-game hunting President the bear hunt of his dreams. When he was interviewed by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, Collier relayed how “It was going to be a ten day hunt, but the President was impatient. ‘I must see a live bear the first day,’ he said. I told him he would if I had to tie one and bring it to him.”

And that’s pretty much how it went. Collier and his specially trained pack of dogs cornered an old, grey-muzzled 235-pound black bear in a pond. The bear took out several of Collier’s dogs before the huntsman struck him on the skull with the butt of his rifle and managed to rope the wounded animal and tie him to a tree. When the rest of the party caught up, Roosevelt refused to shoot the injured, tied up bear. He thought it was “too easy.” John M. Parker, future governor of Louisiana and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s, had no such scruples. Guided by Collier, he stabbed the bear in the heart.

The reporters in the party recounted the President’s refusal to shoot the tied bear to their papers and the story made national news. On November 16th, 1902, a cartoon by Clifford Berryman ran on the front page of the Washington Post. In it, TR, dressed in his full Rough Rider uniform, stands with his back to a (white) guide holding a sweet, scared-looking bear cub by a rope tied around his neck. The President’s hand is raised, rejecting the offering of the tied bear. The caption says “Drawing the line in Mississippi.”

TR had little idea of the impact the bear story and Berryman’s cartoon would have. At a train stop in Newton, North Carolina, on his way back to Washington, D.C., a week after the event, Teddy spoke to the small crowd that had assembled clamouring to hear from him. Someone in the audience asked him “How about the bear?” and Roosevelt replied, laughing, “There was nothing about the bear.”

Businesses, on the other hand, quickly recognized the bear sensation could be of value to them. As early as November 23rd an umbrella company used the President and a bear to advertise its wares, but the real money idea came to a candy shop owner in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Morris Michtom, a Jewish immigrant who had fled the pogroms of his native Russia while still a teenager in 1887, and his wife Rose read the stories of Roosevelt’s sportsmanlike refusal to shoot. They had a penny candy shop that also sold other small items like toys that Rose would make in the evenings. Inspired by Berryman’s cartoon of the sweet little bear, Rose cut some brown plush velvet into the shape of a bear cub, sewed it, stuffed it and put it in the shop window the next day. Morris named it “Teddy’s Bear.” By the end of the day, a dozen customers had asked to buy it.

Morris realized they could have a successful sideline in stuffed bear sales, but he was concerned that he might get in trouble for using the President’s name without permission, so he wrote Roosevelt asking for his blessing. A little while later he received a reply from Teddy Roosevelt telling him to have at it, although he doubted his name would increase sales. TR’s modesty was misplaced. On February 15th, 1903, the first Teddy’s Bears went on sale at the Michtoms’ shop and they flew off the shelves, so much so that soon Morris Michtom dumped the penny candy business altogether and started the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company to mass-produce teddy bears.

Teddy bears were instantly popular and almost instantly copied by other toy manufacturers. By 1906 the craze had swept the country, ushering in a new era of soft, cuddly plush toys replacing the dolls of yore. There was even a fashion among adult woman to drive teddy bears around in their cars and to carry around wherever they went.

Of course there was some handwringing about the new fad. Rev. Father Michael G. Esper of St. Joseph, Michigan, denounced teddy bears from the pulpit as the instruments of “race suicide,” an obsession in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that “native” stock (ie, descendant of early European colonists, not actual Native Americans) were being outbred by more recent immigrants of the inferior “races” like the Irish and southern Italians. Esper fulminated:

“There is something natural in the care of a doll by a little girl. It is the first manifestation of the feeling of motherhood. In the development of those motherly instincts is the hope of all nations.

It is a monstrous crime to do anything that will tend to destroy these instincts. That is what the ‘Teddy bear’ is doing, and this is why it is going to be a factor in the race suicide problem if the custom is not suppressed. It is terrible enough that the present generation of parents in this country is leading us into grave danger by the practice of race suicide. If we cannot awaken the present generation let us at least save the future ones.”

Others rebutted that girls still treated their stuffed bears like babies, so the maternal instinct appeared intact. The September 12th, 1907, issue of The Nation gave the teddy bear even more credit: “The bear which waits around the corner to devour naughty little boys and girls loses its terrors when the child knows by experience what an amiable, comfortable beast it is. Thus the toy may have robbed childhood of one of its terrors.”

The fad was so inescapable that Theodore Roosevelt himself embraced the teddy bear as a personal emblem and of the Republican Party he led. Stuffed animal representatives became a recurring theme in political cartoons and campaigns. Toy companies, fearing that the teddy bear’s popularity would fade with its namesake out of office, rushed to figure out a new mascot associated with Roosevelt’s successor William Howard Taft. Taft’s gluttony provided just the opportunity. At a banquet in Atlanta, the new President requested “possum and taters” which he received in spades: an 18-pound opossum surrounded by sweet potatoes. And thus was born Billy Possum, the stuffed animal that was to displace the teddy bear. It lasted a year before manufacturers gave up. The teddy bear, meanwhile, remains a toy industry staple to this day.

Buy Michelangelo’s country villa

Saturday, February 13th, 2016

A drop-dead gorgeous villa in Tuscany that once belonged to the Renaissance genius Michelangelo Buonarrotti can be yours today for a mere $8,441,193. Nestled in the verdant Chianti hills just 22 miles from Florence and nine miles southwest of Siena, this masonry villa looks frozen in time, like Michelangelo might storm up any second and ask just what the hell you’re doing in his house. Except it has bathrooms now. Seven of them. Also eight bedrooms, fireplaces you could spit-roast an ox in and a kitchen that pulls off that rare miracle of integrating modern conveniences with ancient glories. Don’t even get me started on the ceilings.

Michelangelo bought the property in 1549 when he was 74 years old. He was hugely famous and in demand as a painter, sculptor and architect. Just one year after Michelangelo bought the villa, Giorgio Vasari would publish his biography of the master in his seminal work of art history, the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It was the first biography of a living artist and testifies to the high esteem in which he was held by Vasari and most everyone else at this time. Michelangelo had had bouts of serious ill-health in the 1540s and suffered great personal losses when his close friend Vittoria Colonna and his brother Giovansimone Buonarrotti died within a year of each other, but he was still very much active, working on a variety of papal commissions and personal projects in Rome.

He’d been appointed architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1546 and worked on it steadily until his death. In 1542 he was commissioned by Pope Paul III to paint two frescoes, the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, in the Pauline Chapel, a newly built chapel in the Apostolic Palace a door down from the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo had just completed the Last Judgment in 1541. He finished the murals in 1549, the same year he bought the villa in Tuscany. You can see both frescoes, restored to their original brilliant colors in 2009, in this virtual tour of the chapel. They’re almost exactly to the right and left of your default position when you enter the room. From 1547 through 1550 he worked on completing the facade and courtyard of the Palazzo Farnese (Paul III was born Alessandro Farnese). He also started the Rondanini Pietà around 1547.

So Michelangelo was swamped with work which kept him in Rome and left him little free time to return home to his beloved Tuscany, chug Chianti and chill. (He didn’t drink, actually. Michelangelo lived something of an ascetic lifestyle.) As a committed Republican, he also had serious ideological differences with Cosimo I de’ Medici, first Granduke of Tuscany, which kept Michelangelo from returning to Florence no matter how thoroughly Cosimo showered him with inducements.

Michelangelo was in Rome when he died on February 18th, 1564, less than three weeks from his 89th birthday. His nephew Lionardo Buonarroti went to Rome to recover his uncle’s body and arrange its transport to Florence. Vasari’s second edition of the Lives claims, probably hyperbolically, that Roman authorities didn’t want to release the body because they wanted the great artist buried in St. Peter’s so Lionardo hid the corpse in a basket and smuggled it out of the city in the middle of the night. By whatever means, Michelangelo’s mortal remains were interred in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Lionardo inherited the Chianti villa after Michelangelo’s death along with everything else the artist had left behind, including the Casa Buonarroti in Florence which Michelangelo had bought but never lived in and which is now a museum with a rich family archive. The hillside villa remained in the Buonarrotti family for more than three centuries until it was sold in 1867.

The current owner has renovated it with due care for its historical significance and original elements. He also owns the original documents and deed to the home, which I presume comes with the house because you’d have to be a monster to separate the villa and the historic paperwork. That’s almost worth $8 million right there.

Massive illegal dumpsite found in Roman catacomb

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Roman police have discovered tons of refuse, everything from household trash to industrial waste, illegally dumped in the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. catacombs of Tor Fiscale, an archaeological park in east Rome. Situated on the Via Latina near the junction with the ancient Appian Way, the Tor Fiscale park is part of the vast Appian Way Regional Park. The small park is dense with archaeological riches. It is at the crossroads of six Roman and one Renaissance aqueduct whose arched galleries dominate the landscape alongside the 13th century tower that gives the park its name. It is replete with remains of ancient luxury villas, homes, tombs and underground caves dug out of soft volcanic tufa. Initially carved to quarry the stone, the caves were used by early Christians for gatherings and burials during the imperial era when the religion was viewed with suspicion and its adherents sometimes persecuted.

Authorities came to suspect something was rotten underground during an investigation of illegal car scrapyards and waste disposal rackets in the area. On January 26th, about 20 people — police officers, personnel from Italy’s Regional Environmental Protection Agency (ARPA), municipal workers and members of the archaeological speleology organization Sotterranei di Roma (Undergrounds of Rome) — worked together to explore miles of the underground tunnels. They found a shocking amount of waste, including old refrigerators, mattresses, electronics, tires, batteries, hundreds of bags of organic materials full of various molds that may have been used in the cultivation of mushrooms.

In one of the deepest tunnels, they found a veritable lake of greasy black goo that is likely used motor oil. On the surface alone this lake of hydrocarbon pollution covers about 200 square meters (2,150 square feet), and preliminary analysis found the lake is more than a foot deep, so the total volume of toxic filth in this one spot alone is something in the neighborhood of 800 cubic meters (28,250 cubic feet). At some points the vaults of the tunnel appear to be impregnated with the goop, suggesting it was dumped from above rather than transported deep into the caves. The team took samples of the fluid to identify it and they will examine the surface to locate the entry point. There will also be extensive testing to assess whether the oil has seeped into the water table.

After making the shocking discovery, police used drones to fully explore the network of bat-and-mice-infested tunnels to try to establish the extent of the dumping.

It is thought that local businesses and residents have been using the site to cheaply dispose of their unwanted goods for years. Police even discovered that unscrupulous dumpers had drilled shafts down into the caves from above, which they used as rubbish chutes to quickly dispose of their unwanted goods.

Authorities have closed the entrances to the caves on Via Demetriade and Via di Torre Branca, but of course that won’t stop people from using their homemade garbage chutes. The municipal police are investigating the case in the hopes of finding who is responsible, at least most recently, for this ruthless assault on Rome’s cultural history and environmental health.




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