Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Iconic Bach portrait returns to Leipzig

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

The most famous and best-preserved portrait of composer Johann Sebastian Bach has returned home to Leipzig after an absence of at least more than a century, possibly two. It was painted in Leipzig by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748, the second of two virtually identical portraits he made of the Baroque composer. The first iteration, painted in 1746 and now in the Stadtgeschichtlichen Museum Leipzig, was damaged by excessive cleaning and overpainting particularly on the face. With the exception of a small overpainted area of the background, the 1748 Haussmann portrait is entirely original. The colors are vibrant and rich. The difference is so pronounced that the 1748 portrait is considered to be the sole authentic depiction of Bach’s facial features.

The Haussmann portraits are the only surviving images of Bach painted during his lifetime. They are also the only portraits commissioned by Bach. They depict him in a serious, formal pose wearing his Sunday coat and peruke and holding a sheet of music entitled “Canon triplex à 6 Voc[ibus]” (triple canon for six voices) signed “by J. S. Bach.” Bach chose not to be painted with a keyboard instrument or with a conductor’s baton, but with one of his counterpoint canons. He wanted to be immortalized as a composer, even though during his lifetime he was better known for his playing.

Before he died in 1750, Johann Sebastian gave the 1748 portrait to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Carl died in 1788. We know the painting was still in the possession of his widow two years later because it is described in detail in a 1790 inventory of Carl’s estate. After that it’s unclear where the painting went until the 19th century when it was in the possession of the Jenke family of Breslau (present-day Wrocław, western Poland), Silesia. The family was Jewish, so in 1936 descendant Walter Jenke hastened out of Germany to Dorset where Rolf Gardiner, an old friend from their days together at a German youth camp, had a country estate. When war broke out Jenke was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man; the painting stayed in Dorset out of harm’s way.

After the war, the Walter reclaimed the painting but soon had to sell it to support his family. In 1952 it was put up for auction. The buyer was oil baron, collector, philanthropist and accomplished Bach Scholar William H. Scheide who kept it in his Princeton, New Jersey, home for more than 60 years. When Scheide died at a venerable 100 years of age on November 14th, 2014, he bequeathed the painting to the Leipzig Bach Archive.

As coincidence, fate or inspiration would have it, Rolf Gardiner’s son John Eliot, who grew up under the gaze of the Haussmann portrait, would become one of the preeminent musicians and conductors of our time, renown for his performances of Baroque music on original instruments. He has published a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach and is today the president of the Leipzig Bach Archive.

On June 12th, the opening of Leipzig’s Bach Festival, the portrait was unveiled in St. Nicholas Church by Leipzig’s mayor Burkhard Jung, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Mr. Scheide’s widow Judith and daughter Barbara. Hundreds of dignitaries attended the event which was broadcast live on a huge screen in the city’s market square. The choir of St. Thomas Church, where Bach served as cantor for 27 years, sang to mark the joyous homecoming.

As of today, the portrait is in the Bach Archive Museum’s Treasure Room along with the only known surviving painting of Johann Sebastian’s father Johann Ambrosius Bach. In the archive’s historic 16th century building across from St. Thomas Church, the 1748 Haussmann portrait is now on permanent public display for the first time in 267 years.


18th c. horse skeleton unearthed in St. Augustine

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

An archaeological excavation on the site of future construction in St. Augustine, Florida, has unearthed the intact and articulated skeleton of a small horse. The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but fragments of ceramic pieces in the layer alongside the horse are from the late 18th century. It’s the only horse burial ever found in the colonial downtown district of the city.

The site once housed the Spanish Dragoon barracks in a pre-existing two-story early Spanish structure. The dragoons and their stables were there from 1792 until the waning days of Spanish control. The deteriorating buildings were razed in 1822 but the dragoons were long gone by then as Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. The horse was therefore probably a mount belonging to a dragoon officer, which explains its careful burial.

“I think there’s reverence here,” [St. Augustine archaeologist Carl] Halbirt said. “They actually laid it out on its side with the legs folded in the chest area. That’s a sign of reverence.”

It was once a companion that meant a lot to a St. Augustine man – a dragoon – who relied on it.

“It was a cavalry man’s life,” [colonial cavalry researcher Amanda] LaPorta said. “They were a special kind of soldier. The horse was their best friend. It was all important to them.”

LaPorta thinks the small size of the horse indicates it was a Marsh Tacky, one of several horse breeds descended from the Iberian horse stock the Spanish brought to the Americas. At less than 15 hands (about five feet) at the withers, the petite horse was agile on Florida’s swampy terrain, easy to house and feed. There are other Colonial Spanish Horse breeds, however, that are just as small as the Marsh Tacky — for example the Banker horse and the Florida Cracker Horse — so only DNA testing can determine its breed with certainty.

The horse skeleton has been removed from the site and will be kept at St. Augustine’s archaeology lab.

St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States, but its history long predates Columbus. Archaeological investigations in the area have discovered 3,000-year-old shell middens. In the city itself, Native American artifacts and human remains have been found dating to between 1100 and 1300 A.D., and when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found well-established Timucua towns. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spanish governor Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in a section of the Timucua town of Seloy. According to Spanish accounts, at first relations between the Spanish and Timucua were friendly — the locals allowed the Spanish use of their homes and territory on the site of what is now the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park — but soon the Spanish outstayed their welcome and relations grew strained. After less than a year, the Spanish moved across the bay to Anastasia Island. In 1572 they moved back to the mainland to what is now the downtown St. Augustine area.

St. Augustine was the capital of Florida for 259 years, through the entire duration of Spanish rule, the period of British control from 1763 until 1783, and the early American era until it was moved to Tallahassee in 1824. Because of its unique and long history, the city of St. Augustine has extensive heritage protection regulations. Its Archaeology Preservation Ordinance requires that all “subsurface disturbances” (ie, ground-penetrating construction), whether on private or public land, are subject to archaeological review for their potential effect on buried history. It has a city archaeologist, currently Carl D. Halbirt, who performs reviews, archaeological surveys before construction and test excavations and monitors all ongoing construction in case it turns up anything that needs further investigation or salvage. This archaeology-focused approach is relatively common in European countries, but it’s a regulatory unicorn in the US where generally people can do whatever they want on private property even in places that are famously packed with ancient remains.


Explore the Revolutionary gunboat Philadelphia

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

In the early days of the American Revolution, the northern border with Quebec was of great strategic importance as a potential entry point for British troops. After some initial successes like Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, the Continental Army launched a pre-emptive invasion of Quebec. They captured Montreal on November 13th, 1775, and moved on to attack Quebec City where they were soundly defeated on December 31, 1775. By spring of 1776, the Continental Army had retreated out of Canada back to Fort Ticonderoga.

Licking their wounds and anxious to prevent the British from traveling south via the Hudson into New York, Continental Congress ordered the construction of a fleet of 15 ships to replace the ones Arnold had destroyed to keep them out of British hands. At Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall) in upstate New York at the head of Lake Champlain, Hermanus Schuyler, the assistant deputy commissary general of the Northern Department, oversaw the construction of four galleys and eight gundalows, larger and armed versions of the flat-bottomed cargo boats used for transportation across the lake. It was the summer of 1776 and this was the first American Navy.

Commanded by Benedict Arnold, who as a civilian had captained his own ships as a successful merchant in the West Indies trade, the small fleet patrolled Lake Champlain getting in the way of the British invasion. On October 11th, 1776, most of the fleet met its end at the Battle of Valcour Island, but not before fighting the larger and much fancier British fleet to a standstill. One of the fatalities was the Philadelphia, a 54 foot, 29-ton gundalow armed with one 12-pounder cannon, two 9-pounders and mounts for up to eight more swivel guns. It was struck by a British cannonball and sank to the floor of Lake Champlain.

For 160 years the Philadelphia rested in the frigid embrace of the northern waters. In 1935 civil engineer and World War I veteran Lorenzo F. Haggulund, who had discovered Arnold’s flagship the Royal Savage in 1932, found the Philadelphia sitting straight up on the bottom of the lake. It was in excellent condition, considering the beating it had taken a century and a half earlier. The mast was missing its top but was otherwise still in place, as were the timbers of the hull. So much of it remained that there were three clear holes shot into the hull, one of them with the 24-pound cannon ball still lodged inside it. That was the proverbial smoking gun, the actual hit that took down the ship still in place after all those years. Hundreds of artifacts from tools to clothes to cooking gear and human remains were also found.

Using a system of slings and spreaders, Haggulund raised the wreck on August 2, 1935. Here is footage of the raising of the Philadelphia, its incredible white pine mast standing proud:

Haggulund put the Philadelphia on a barge and exhibited her at various places on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. He continued to search for other wrecks from the fleet but only made one more find: a gunboat he raised in 1952. He was unable to secure funding to maintain and display the gunboat and it soon decayed and was picked away at by looters until there was nothing left to display.

In the wake of that sad loss, Hagglund approached the Smithsonian Institution to see to the long-term safety of the Philadelphia, and in 1961, bequeathed her and associated artifacts to the SI where they were thoroughly studied. When the National Museum of American History opened in 1965, the Philadelphia was on display.

Conservation of the wreck is an ongoing problem, and since visitors to the museum can only observe it from the front and over its decks, in 2013 the Smithsonian made a digital 3D model of the Philadelphia. For curators, it gives them the tools to ensure the ship’s stability and preservation. For the rest of us, the model gives us the opportunity to virtually explore the floating gun platform that was deployed against the might of Britain’s navy.

You can click and drag to change the angle of the model. Scroll to zoom in and out. Be sure to click the dropdown menu on the top left to view the model fullscreen. Once you’ve done that, click the globe icon of the expanded left menu and select “#1 Gunboat Philadelphia Overview” to kick off the guided tour. It takes you through the different parts of the ship, its design, its weapons, the cannonball that took it down and more.

Edit: I’ve removed the embedded 3D model because it may cause mobile devices to crash. Here again is the link to it.


LACMA acquires, restores 18th c. Damascus Room

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

In late Ottoman-era Damascus, the wealthy had homes built in the Old City that looked plain on the outside but only because they were saving all the good stuff for the interiors. Richly decorated rooms with elaborately carved and painted wood panels and colorful stone inlays faced onto courtyards kept cool and fragrant by fountains and fruit trees. The rooms were designed to welcome and impress important visitors with luxurious comfort. They would enter the home through a modest door and walk down an unassuming hallway before turning the corner onto a courtyard surrounded by living spaces often on two stories. The more expensive the home, the more courtyards it had.

There were 17,000 of these 18th and 19th century courtyard homes still standing in Damascus in 1900, but the clock was ticking. The great beauty of the rooms made them worth more than the homes when they were stripped and sold to museums and collectors overseas. Doris Duke bought two of them and installed them in her Honolulu home Shangri La, now the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City scored their Damascus Room in 1970.

Most of the late Ottoman homes were demolished in the late 1970s when a building boom laid waste to the Old City. One of the casualties of the boom was a courtyard house built around 1766 that was demolished during the construction of a road in the al-Bahsa quarter. Before it was destroyed in 1978, a Lebanese art dealer bought the home’s 15 by 20-foot reception room, known as the qa’a. The decorated wood panels on the walls, the inlaid stone floor, an inlaid limestone and marble wall fountain, everything that was nailed down was unnailed and moved to Beirut where it was stored in a warehouse for thirty years.

After somehow surviving more than three decades in a war zone, the dismantled room caught the eye of Linda Komaroff, head of the Middle Eastern art department at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 2011 she saw pictures of it and by the end of the year she was actively lobbying the museum to acquire the room. As the conflict in Syria took an increasingly monstrous toll on the country’s cultural heritage, Komaroff’s advocacy took on additional urgency. Finally in spring of 2014, the purchase was finalized and LACMA became the proud owner of an 18th century Damascus Room of its own.

The room is in excellent condition. Only one important part of it — the ceiling — is missing, likely due to water intrusion since the wall panels have visible water damage up top where they would have once joined the ceiling. Unlike most of its compatriots, this room was never renovated, altered or painted over so the original surfaces are still brilliant and saturated underneath a few layers of grime.

As is typical, it has multicolored inlaid stone floors, painted wood walls, elaborate cupboard doors and storage niches, a spectacular arch with plaster voussoirs decorated with colored inlays that served to divide the room into upper and lower sections separated by a single tall step; and an intricately inlaid stone wall fountain with a carved and painted hood. Perhaps because the room remained in storage for so many years and had never been reinstalled or restored, it is largely in its original, though aged, state, with one of the best-preserved painted surfaces—including bright pinks, oranges, blues, and greens—of any similar room of the period. The decoration, mainly floral, incorporates on the cornices detailed depictions of platters of fruit, nuts, and even baklava, which must have served to whet the appetites of visitors to the room as they awaited the same types of refreshment.

The poplar wood panels were decorated using a technique called ‘ajami in which a thick layer of gypsum and glue was applied to the wood and carved in relief before being painted and accented with tin leaf which itself would be painted with colored glazes. Gold leaf accents added shine while egg tempera paints produced contrasting matte surfaces. Because LACMA’s room has managed to avoid the fate of so many others of its kind and has such a well preserved original surface, researchers expert to learn more about the ‘ajami technique and materials used by examining it.

Cleaning and conservation on the room has begun, funded in large part by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The stone only needs cleaning; it’s the wood panels that need to be cleaned, repaired and stabilized for permanent display. The LACMA team is also taking an innovative approach by building an armature for the room so that it can be moved whole to different exhibition spaces.

This will be immediately relevant because the renovated room will first go on display in Dhahran at the inaugural exhibition of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in March of next year. Accompanied by 130 of the best pieces from LACMA’s extensive Islamic Art collection, the room will be in Saudi Arabia for two years before returning to Los Angeles. That gives LACMA a breather because they have no idea where to put this room. The problem is they need ceilings 20 feet high and LACMA’s current building doesn’t have any of those. There’s a new building in the works, but construction isn’t even scheduled to begin until 2018.


1917 blackboard lessons found in Oklahoma City school

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Workers dismantling old blackboards at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City to make way for new whiteboards and Smart Boards discovered blackboards with lessons and drawings intact from November of 1917. Instead of being removed, they had been covered up with new “Slate Black Boards” installed by D. J. Gers & Co. We know this because janitor R. J. Scott signed and dated three of the old ones (November 30th, December 1st and December 4th, 1917) before the new ones were put in place. The new ones were larger than the ones they were covering so there are only a few holes and some adhesive marring the old blackboards. The writing, arithmetic and art are all in exceptional, like-new condition.

The 1917 blackboards were found in four classrooms. They wrap around the rooms, a blackboard perimeter surrounding students with learning. Lessons include addition, subtraction, simple multiplication on one board, a multiplication wheel on another, musical notation, in-class homework titled “Busy Work” with assignments like “draw a 5 in. square,” “Name 8 kinds of trees” and “How many pints in a half gallon?” A student has left us important hygiene tips in a list entitled “My Rules to Keep Clean” — “1. Wash my hands / 2. Wash my teeth / 3. Comb my hair” etc. — and there’s a list of names, probably students, next to some subtraction problems (Robert, Agnes, May, Sophia, Homer, Franco, Ray, Gladys, Mabel and Newton).

The glory of the collection is the drawings, though. In bright colors, there’s a little girl in a blue dress blowing a soap bubble and another girl in a bright pink dress who I suspect is sprinkling salt on a turkey’s tail feathers. That’s the largest turkey, but there are at least two others. This being November, the first Thanksgiving was a recurring theme in all three class rooms. There are plain white chalk outline drawings of pilgrims and two mutli-color scenes of the Mayflower arriving at Plymouth, complete with Plymouth Rock marked 1620.

The girl in pink with the salted turkey has her back to a calendar. It’s titled December but it’s actually a November calendar. That’s why Thursday the 29th is in red, because that’s Thanksgiving which was obviously a seasonal theme of the lessons. The class had just begun to change the dates to December — the title, the 1st-3rd of November erased and replaced with Saturday, the 1st of December — but stopped before they got to the second row.

The origins of the classroom blackboard are shrouded in mystery. Individual erasable slates were used by students for centuries and larger boards used in the front of the class to teach music as early as the 16th century. There are documentary references to writing with chalk on a blackboard in mid-18th century England, but the first blackboard known to have been used in the United States was at West Point in 1801. President Thomas Jefferson signed the act officially establishing the United States Military Academy on March 16th, 1802, so they were still just getting their act together as a school for anything besides artillery training when the blackboard made its first appearance in the first class at West Point on September 21st, 1801. The teacher was mathematician George Baron who was English. He brought with him a standing slate board he wrote on in white chalk to illustrate his lesson for the 12 cadets that made up the entirety of the West Point student body at the time.

Colored chalk may have first been used in class by James Pillans, Scottish classicist, educator, reformer and an early adopter of blackboard technology. He apparently had his own recipe for making colored chalk out of ground gypsum, porridge and dyes. Some sources also grant him the honor of having been the first to strap together individual slates to make one large enough for front-of-the-room usage, but that’s almost certainly apocryphal. Pillans was an undergraduate at Edinburgh University when Baron used his slate board and in fact actively resisted becoming a teacher until 1810 when he was elected Rector of Edinburgh High School and began to teach Greek, Latin and classical geography.

In an 1814 letter to his colleague Mr. Fox, Pillans expounds at some length on the value of blackboard drawings with colored chalk for his classical geography class at Edinburgh High School.

A sketch or outline of each country is drawn by the Master on a black board with white chalk; the mountains are represented in green, and the rivers in blue. In this state the board is first presented to the pupils and the Master, with a rod, explains the physical features of the country, points out and names the leading ranges of mountains, and the rivers that fall from them. The board as yet presenting so little detail, the eye, and the mind through the eye, readily takes in and retains the information. At this stage also the length, breadth, longitude, latitude, and boundaries are fixed. The next lesson presents the towns, (drawn thus # in pink chalk,) which are to be found on the rivers already learned, descending from the source to the mouth. These towns are demonstrated by the Master in the same way, care being taken to mention at the time some striking facts respecting the situation, inhabitants, history, or neighbourhood of each, which may be associated with its name and position on the board. Having thus made out a sort of skeleton or frame-work of the country, by presenting, in striking relief, without those details which confound the eye in maps, the great physical features, the next object is to mark out in dotted lines the artificial divisions : and when these are well fixed, the remaining towns of importance, whose position is not indicated by rivers, are referred to the province or shire, and associated again with those already known. The situations of great battles are pointed out by a cross in red chalk. The object being to make a strong impression on the eye, and to set the imagination and conception to work, the chalks being of different colours is a circumstance not to be despised.

A century later, blackboard drawings as a pedagogical tool had moved far beyond colored maps for geography lessons. Blackboard Sketching by Frederick Whitney, Director of Art, State Normal School, Salem, Massachusetts, was published in 1908 to teach teachers how to make chalkboard masterpieces that would catch the eye of students bored with lectures. It’s brilliant and very short (a pamphlet, really), so be sure leaf through the whole thing.

Quick correction: Whitney wrote in the instructions to Plate 14 that the log cabin in Plate 16 is Lincoln’s birthplace. It’s not. Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky and spent much of his boyhood in another one-room log cabin in Indiana. The two-room cabin so adroitly drawn in chalk was his father and stepmother’s place near Lerna, Illinois. Lincoln was already a member of the Illinois House of Representatives when his father built that cabin in the early 1840s and visited it seldom. It was dismantled for display in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and was either lost or destroyed in a fire before it could be reconstructed. The current Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site is a replica built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 from photographs.

As for the Emerson High School 1917 blackboards, administrators are working with the school district on a preservation program that will keep these rare artifacts of the 1917 classroom frozen in time, if not in place. Here’s an extensive photo gallery and below is a news story with some great views of the blackboards and classrooms.


Oldest tea in Britain found in museum stores

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Researchers have identified the oldest known tea in Britain in the stores of the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. The small box of loose-leaf green tea is part of a collection of “Vegetables and Vegetable Substances” that was bequeathed to the nation by Hans Sloane, physician to three monarchs in a row, president of the Royal Society and avid collector of curiosities. Sloane’s natural history specimens became the nucleus of the NHM when in 1881 it became a museum in its own right instead of the neglected and abused natural history department of the British Museum, so this box of tea has been there since the very beginning.

It wasn’t until a recent study of the Vegetable Substances collection that the specimen was properly documented and made easily accessible to scholars. PhD candidate Victoria Pickering, who is doing her doctoral studies on Sloane’s Vegetable Substances, created a searchable digital transcript of the catalogue. That’s why historians from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) were able to find the sample while researching an upcoming book on the history of tea, and they’re the ones who pinned down its age and historical significance.

The tea is labeled “A sort of tea from China” and note marks it as a gift “from Mr Cuninghame.” That is the clue that helped establish the age of the tea. James Cuninghame was a Scottish surgeon, explorer and dedicated specimen hunter who had gotten in touch with Hans Sloane, then Secretary to the Royal Society, after returning from a voyage to the East Indies in 1696. The next year Cuninghame boarded the private trading ship Tuscan on its illicit (because it violated the East India Company and New Company’s monopoly on Asian trade) voyage to the Chinese city of Amoy, today’s Xiamen. There he collected a large number of plant and animal specimens for Sloane. Upon Cuninghame’s return in 1699, Sloane was so delighted with the haul he nominated his friend for election as a fellow of the Royal Society. Cuninghame’s Amoy specimens were the first collected by a European in China to arrive safe and intact back home.

Cuninghame went back to China just six months later, this time on an authorized East India Company (EIC) ship the Eaton. That authorization didn’t make things easier the second time around. Cuninghame’s was ship’s surgeon so he was inextricably connected to the trade mission. The mission failed in China so in 1702 they moved on to the island of Pulo Condore in what is today Vietnam. The settlement and garrison were obliterated in 1705 when the locals massacred almost everyone for reasons that are unclear today. Cuninghame was one of few survivors. He was wounded, though, and taken prisoner for two years. After his release in 1707, Cuninghame was sent by the EIC to its trading post in Banjarmassin, southeastern Borneo. That settlement was also attacked by locals three weeks after Cuninghame’s arrival. That’s when the good doctor decided it was time to head home. He wrote to Sloane in January of 1709 telling him he was on his way back. That was the last anybody heard from him. The ship that was bringing him home, the Anna, disappeared without a trace.

Because Cuninghame regularly sent specimens to his correspondents back home while he was still abroad, the tea could have been collected when he was in Amoy (1698-99) or when he was in Chusan (present-day Zhoushan) between 1700 and 1702. The Amoy collection was larger with many dried plant specimens and Amoy was an early center for the tea trade, but tea was also grown and processed in Chusan and we know he found wild tea plants there and witnessed its manufacture.

Ubiquitous today, the common cup of tea was once considered an exotic and fashionable pleasure. [QMUL researcher and co-author of the book Dr. Richard] Coulton says the consumption of tea in Britain did not become widespread until decades later.

“In the seventeenth century, the simple act of blending hot water with infused leaves was considered pretty extraordinary. It was priced as a luxury item and the best tea was ten times more expensive than the best coffee. In 1663, tea was priced at up to 60 shillings per pound for the finest quality, whereas the best coffee was only six shillings per pound. What makes this discovery so fascinating is that it captures the very moment at which tea was about to lay claim to a mass market in Britain.” [...]

“The tea is loose-leaf green tea, manufactured by peasant labourers on small-holdings in China. The basic process for manual tea production hasn’t really changed, so we might assume that this tea would have tasted much like an artisanal green tea today, albeit one of the rough-and-ready rather than boutique variety. The ‘green’-ness of the tea is interesting: for its first half century, so 1650-1700, Britain’s tea-habit was almost entirely green. It wasn’t until the second quarter of the eighteenth century that darker teas started to take over.”

For more about the early history of tea in England, see this excellent blog by the Queen Mary University of London research team. Their book, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, is available for pre-order on Amazon, but can be purchased directly from the publisher now.


400 years of fashion porn at the Rijksmuseum

Friday, June 5th, 2015

In 2009, the Rijksmuseum acquired two vast collections of fashion plates: the Raymond Gaudriault Collection and the MA Ghering-van Ierlant Collection. The two collections brought more than 8,000 prints, many of the hand-colored engravings, from the year 1600 through the first half of the 20th century to the museum. It took years for curators to catalogue and document this exceptional record of historical clothing and costume. This month, more than 300 prints will go on display for the first time at the New for Now: The Origin of Fashion Magazines exhibition which runs from June 12th to September 27th, 2015.

The first fashion plates — mechanically reproduced portraits depicting the contemporary clothes worn in given place and time rather than a specific individual — appeared in the 16th century. Books like Omnium fere gentium nostrae aetatis habitus (1563) by Ferdinando Bertelli and Trachtenbuch (1577) by Hans Weigel showed what people wore in different countries in significant detail. Books on what different classes wore within one country, on hairstyles and accessories followed. Bohemian printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, a highly prolific and varied artist who made etchings of the rich and famous, landscapes, anatomical studies, maps, ruins, animals, architecture, religious subjects, heraldry and much more, published two series of costume prints of women wearing fashionable outfits, Theatrum Mulierum in 1643 and Aula Veneris in 1644.

Thirty years later, the Mercure Galant, a periodical by Jean Donneau de Visé, published fashion plates and articles on the styles of the season in supplementary issues. France under King Louis XIV set fashion trends all over Europe. People wanted to see what courtiers were wearing and de Visé obliged. The plates were also sold separately as prints of elegantly attired men and women were increasingly popular. In the 18th century series of fashion plates were published for retail and subscription. They weren’t magazines — they were captioned but that was it as far as words were concerned — but they were periodically published glossy prints designed to make contemporary fashion look damn good.

The publishers of fashion prints did everything to make their product as attractive as possible. They attracted skilled illustrators for this purpose, some of whom went on to become specialists in this area: true ‘fashion illustrators’. The trick was to portray the models on the prints as skillfully as possible and with a great sense of elegance. The printmaker was responsible for transferring the design sketches onto an engraving that could reproduce the design. A so-called ‘colourist’ subsequently added colours to each individual image by hand.

This painstaking process continued well into the age of multi-colored lithography because brilliant, varied colors and crisp details were of paramount importance in making the clothes look their best.

In the second half of the 18th century, the periodicals like the Galerie des Modes et Costumes Francais and the Collection de la Parure des Dames captured the last hurrah of Ancien Régime style. They were printed in sets called cahiers (notebooks) in the decade before the French Revolution and they celebrated the indulgence and extravagance of aristocratic fashion in clothing, hairstyles and accessories. The French fashion spigot was nearly cut off during the Revolution when anything that suggested appreciation for nobility could land a person in front of a tribunal or in the cold embrace of Madame Guillotine.

With the advent of the Directory and the revival of imperial grandeur, fashion magazines like the Journal des Dames et des Modes picked up where their predecessors had left off. The epicenter of style had shifted. No longer were the prints focused on the latest elaborate coiffure and gown worn by the First Estate at court. Muses like Josephine de Beauharnais inspired imitation, but editors like Journal des Dames et des Modes‘ Jean Baptiste Sellèque sought out the latest trends worn by fashionable people frequenting the theater, public promenades, balls the Parisian hotspots.

The fashion glossies spread across the continent, the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. People wanted to see the latest in Parisian and French fashion and replicate them as closely as possible. Fashion plates were widely copied and reprinted. By the 1830s the fashion plates were accompanied by patterns giving readers a template to bring to their seamstresses or to make on their own. In the 19th century we also see the rapid development of what we now recognize as fashion magazines with more and increasingly diverse content. Issues of the Magasin des Demoiselles included editorials, plays, articles on history and nature, how-to guides, detailed explanations of the outfits in the plates and closed with a rebus.

Even the advent of photography couldn’t stop the fashion plate. The color and detail that could be produced with illustrations remained the option of choice for fashion magazines until indoor color photography became widespread in the 1950s.

What makes the Rijksmuseum’s collection so signficant is that it covers almost the entire history of fashion glossies from their antecedents in the costume books well into their modern magazine setting, 400 years of what-are-they-wearing. And the best part, which I have deliberately saved for last, is that you will soon be able to browse the whole thing. The fashion plates are being digitized and integrated in the museum’s exceptional online database of high resolution photographs of the art and objects in its permanent collection. While they’re not quite done with the digitization project, there are already thousands of images you can peruse. I count 5,915 plates uploaded as of this moment although some of them — almost all of them from the 20th century — have no photographs attached yet.

Have I scrolled through all 5,915 search results, you ask? Yes. Yes I have. It’s historical fashion porn of the highest quality. You can refine the search to narrow them down by date, place, maker, etc. if you’re looking for something in particular, or you can just spend the forseeable future bingeing on the whole beautiful buffet of style.


17th c. French noblewoman found fully clothed in lead coffin

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

The remains of a noblewoman buried at the Convent of the Jacobins in the northwestern French city of Rennes in 1656 have been found in exceptional condition. Discovered in March of 2014, the remains have been quietly studied by a multidisciplinary team who are now revealing the results of their investigations.

The 14th century Convent of the Jacobins site was thoroughly excavated by archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) before construction of a convention center would damage the archaeological record. The location was known to have been inhabited from the 1st century when it was the intersection of four major roads just outside the Gallo-Roman city of Condate. It was left to its own devices in the 4th century when the city contracted to the 3rd century walls for protection against marauders. It wasn’t until the 14th century that the area came back to prominence with the construction of a Dominican convent on the site.

The convent was built in 1369, funded by a local burger but officially founded by John IV of Montfort, Duke of Brittany, after his final defeat of Charles of Blois at the Battle of Auray (September 29th, 1364) in the War of the Breton Succession. In the 15th century a painting on wood of the Madonna and Child known as Our Lady of Good News became a popular object of veneration and as a result, the convent grew into a major draw for pilgrims and preachers. Because of the painting, the convent became known as the Convent of the Good News. It also played a significant political role. It was at the Convent of the Jacobins that the 14-year-old Anne of Brittany was engaged, under extreme duress, to King Charles VIII of France two days after Rennes fell to his besieging army in November of 1491.

For the next 300 years, the convent served as an important burial ground not just for the religious who called it home, but for the devout who wished to be buried in the shadow of Our Lady of Good News. It all came to an end in 1793 when the Convent of the Jacobins was claimed by the French Revolutionary Army which had expanded geometrically early in the year with the introduction of recruitment quotas and then mass conscription by the summer. They used it as barracks and sports club off an on for more than two centuries, finally selling it to the city of Rennes in 2002. It has been unoccupied and unused since then.

After the city decided to restore the convent’s historical buildings and integrate them into a contemporary space that will include two auditoriums and underground convention rooms beneath the medieval foundations, INRAP was called in to excavate the site starting in 2011. They found evidence of its Roman life (road remains and artifacts dating to the 1st century A.D. when there was a small shrine which by the 3rd century was a full-on temple surrounded by large townhouses), medieval masonry and more than 800 burials, mainly in the chapter room.

Out of those 800 burials, five were in lead coffins, an indication of the wealth and prestige of the deceased. Four of them were found in the church choir, and their remains, while skeletonized, were in good enough condition to show the tell-tale marks of embalming, a funerary practice reserved for the elite in the 17th century. The fifth lead coffin was unearthed at the base of a wall of the Chapel of St. Joseph. As soon as the archaeologists opened it, they saw it was completely different from the other four.

“We saw right away that there was a lot of volume, fabric, shoes,” said Rozenn Colleter, an archaeologist at the French national institute for preventive archaeological research.

Colleter also said that beneath the cape, archaeologists could distinguish “hands that were holding a crucifix”.

To discover what they could about the deceased, archaeologists enlisted the aid of experts at the University Hospital of Toulouse. They had to act quickly, like within 72 hours after opening, because after 350 years protected in a lead coffin, the remains were in grave danger from environmental conditions and insects. The body was scanned and X-rayed and a virtually autopsy was performed. She was a woman of about 60 years old at the time of her death. Lesions in the lungs indicate she died from a respiratory infection like pneumonia or most likely tuberculosis. She also had kidney stones. The mummification was natural.

She was buried wearing a multi-layer religious habit: a cape, chasuble, a brown gown of coarse wool twill, a linen shirt, wool leggings or stockings, a devotional scapular wrapped around her right arm and leather mules with cork soles on her feet. Her face was covered by a shroud and her head was covered by two bonnets and a cap held in place by a headband. This is an exceptional find. Complete habits from the 17th century, the fabric still supple, don’t crop up very often.

The woman was not, however, a nun, not for most of her life, anyway. We know this because her husband’s heart told us so. All five of the lead coffins were found with lead heart-shaped containers next to their heads. Each of them held a heart, some wrapped in fabric and plant matter, probably embalming plants. Four of the hearts were engraved, including the one next to our well-preserved lady. It was inscribed “This is the heart of Toussaint de Perrien, knight of Brefeillac, whose body lies at the Savior near Carhay in the convent of the Discalced Carmelites that he founded and died at Rennes the 30th of August, 1649.” Documentary research found a reference to one Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, who died in 1656 and was buried in St. Joseph Chapel next to the heart of her husband.

The removal of hearts and burials in multiple locations were a common practice among the elite of medieval, Renaissance and early modern France. Indeed, Louise herself is missing her heart. It was removed before burial — the ligatures in her chest testify to this posthumous operation having been performed by a highly skilled surgeon — and was likely buried next to her husband’s body just like his heart was buried next to hers.

It was also fairly common for noble widows to retire to a convent. That would explain why Louise was buried in a habit. Even if she never took the vows, she may have given the convent a large donation and been buried in religious garb as an honorific.

The garments are being cleaned and conserved. They were acquired by the Museum of Brittany and will go on public display. When the investigation is complete, Louise de Quengo’s remains, currently in a freezer in Toulouse, will be reinterred in the North Cemetery in Rennes.

The French language video on this page has excellent footage of the convent excavation and of Louise’s remains.


Genoa port dredge finds cannons, huge anchor

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

A dredging project in the port of Genoa has recovered a record haul of English cannons, other artillery and anchors dating from the 16th century through the 19th. The project has been ongoing since 2009 to make the port accessible to high tonnage commercial container and cruise ships. So far they’ve moved three and a half million cubic meters of port sludge which, after being sifted through for artifacts and unexploded ordnance from World War II (20 of them have been found and disarmed so far), is being used to expand the container dock of Calata Bettolo.

The artillery recovered includes five 17th century front-loading cast iron cannons almost three meters (10 feet) long each weighing around one ton. These are all of English manufacture. Earlier weapons found include two breechloading light cannons small enough to be fired by one person that are 1.5 meters (five feet) long and weigh a quintal (100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds). They are of unknown manufacture and date from the late 16th to the middle of 17th century.

The rarest piece discovered is a bronze falconetto cannon. About two meters (6’6″) long and weighing two quintals, the small caliber cannon bears the mark of the Alberghetti family, a Venetian foundry active in the second half of the 16th century. The German Landsknecht mercenary troops famously used a falconetto in the Battle of Governolo on November 25, 1526, to take down Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, scion of the Medici family and leader of the papal troops. The falconetto shot hit his right leg leaving a wound so severe the surgeon had to amputate. The operation was too late and possibly too circumspect; a recent exhumation of his remains found that only his foot was amputated when witnesses like poet Pietro Aretino reported his wound was at the knee. (Aretino wrote that the surgeon ordered 10 men to hold Giovanni down, but the warrior insisted not even 20 men could hold him down, so he just picked up the candle to illuminate his own surgery and told the doctor to get to it. The scene was too much for Aretino who fled the room to return only after it was all over. “I’m cured,” Giovanni told him.) Four days later, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere died from gangrene. The Landsknechts would take their falconetti and go on to sack Rome.

The anchor haul is impressive as well. Most of them are from the 19th century — a Rodger’s Small Palms anchor from 1832, several British Admiralty examples from the 1840s — but one is a British example from the 18th century and it’s massive. The anchor is five meters (16 feet) long and weighs four tons. It is the largest anchor and the only one of its kind ever recovered from Italian waters.

You can get a better look at how huge the anchor is in this Italian language video.

If you’re worrying about those cannons and anchors being left out in the sun, fear not. Artifacts retrieved after centuries in the ocean (eg, the Erebus‘ bell and the H. L. Hunley submarine) need to take very long baths to ensure their stability, and the artifacts are currently beginning their conservation with a leisurely desalinization treatment. Once they’ve been stabilized and cleaned of their copious incrustations, the cannons and anchors will go on display, likely at Genoa’s Galata Museo del Mare, the largest maritime museum in the Mediterranean, and at the Palace of St. George right across the street from the city’s Ancient Port.


Pieces of triumphal Arch of Titus found in Circus Maximus

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

Arch of Titus relief of Roman soldiers carrying spoils from the Temple in JerusalemThe Arch of Titus which still stands today at the end of the Via Sacra next to the Roman Forum, famous for its period depiction of spoils from the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., is an honorific arch commemorating the emperor’s greatest deeds and apotheosis, not a triumphal arch. Built by his brother Domitian in 82 A.D., the year after Titus’ death and deification, it’s often called a triumphal arch because of the high relief depictions of Roman soldiers carrying the treasures of the Second Temple — the seven-branched Menorah, the silver trumpets, the Table of the Shew Bread — in Titus’ triumphal procession of 71 A.D.

Apotheosis of Titus relief on the vault of the Arch of TitusThat’s just one motif, however. The central panel in the single arch’s soffit relief depicts Titus being carried to the heavens by an eagle. The inscription also emphasizes the recently deceased emperor’s divinity: “SENATUS/ POPULUSQUE ROMANUS/ DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F(ilio)/ VESPASIANO AUGUSTO” (The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the divine Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian).

Titus’ real triumphal arch was erected in 81 A.D., the year he died, at the curved east end of the Circus Maximus. The triple arch was explicitly dedicated to Titus’ conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. It’s not very well known today because in the Middle Ages it fell victim to the Roman thirst for building materials, leaving only old epigraphic records, coins and drawings testifying to its existence. It was still standing with a relatively intact capital Codex Einsiedelnsis, page 71v with inscription from the triumphal Arch of Titus at the eastern curve of the Circus Maximus, author unknown, ca. 800 A.D.when one of the anonymous authors of the Codex Einsidlensis (Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326) recorded the inscription in Inscriptiones Urbis Romae, an invaluable record of pagan and Christian epigraphy on monuments in the city of Rome that was written in the late 8th, early 9th century.

A marked contrast with the inscription on the extant arch, the wording on the Circus Maximus arch’s inscription leaves no doubt that it was a genuine triumphal arch:

Senatus populusque Romanus imp(eratori) Tito Ceasari divi Vespasiani f(ilio) Vespasiani Augusto pontif(ici) max(imo), trib(unicia) pot(estate) x, imp(eratori) XVII, [c]o(n)s(uli) VIII, p(atri) p(atriae), principi suo, quod praeceptis patri(is) consiliisq(ue) et auspiciis gentem Iudaeorum domuit et urbem Hierusolymam, omnibus ante se ducibus regibus gentibus aut frustra petitam aut omnino intem(p)tatam, delevit.

The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the Emperor Titus [snip many titles], because by his father’s counsel and good auspices, he conquered the people of Judaea and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which all of the generals, kings, and peoples before him had either failed to do or even to attempt.

In the 12th century the central arch was used as part of the Mariana aqueduct that Pope Calixtus II built to convey fresh water to the city in 1122. A few years later the powerful Frangipani family had control of the Circus Maximus. They built a mill powered by the Mariana and a tower, the Torre della Moletta, was integrated into the Frangipani’s defensive fortifications extending up the Palatine. Modest homes and squatters’ huts grew up all over what had once been a triumphal arch. The grounds of the Circus Maximus were converted to agricultural use, irrigated by the Mariana.

Engraving of Circus Maximus in antiquity, Arch of Titus right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600.
Engraving of Circus Maximus ca. 1560 when it was irrigated farmland, mill, tower, dwellings and decaying fortifactions right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600

After the Unification of Italy in 1870, construction of the huge retaining walls along the banks of the Tiber and the Lungotevere boulevards cut off the Mariana or drove it underground into culverts. Most of the medieval construction around the Arch of Titus was demolished in the 1930s and 1940s, leaving only the tower, where Saint Francis of Assisi reputedly stayed on his last trip to Rome in 1223 as guest of the Graziano Frangipani’s widow and Franciscan lay sister Jacopa, still standing. Excavations at the time revealed medieval canals and walls made of ancient marbles pilfered from the arch.

Remains of Arch of Titus at Circus MaximusNow archaeologists excavating the eastern hemicycle of the Circus Maximus have found large blocks of Carrara marble (marmor lunensis) that were part of the ​​attic, entablature and columns of the Arch.

Archaeologists found more than 300 marble fragments of the monument, some of them the size of a small car.

They discovered the bases of the four giant columns that formed the front of the arch, as well as the plinths on which they rested and traces of the original travertine pavement.

From the remains experts were able to calculate the arch’s original dimensions. It was 17 meters (56 feet) wide, 15 meters (49 feet) deep with columns 10 meters (33 feet) high. The full height including the attic has yet to be determined. In antiquity there was the monumental bronze sculpture of a quadriga on top of the arch which would have added significant vertical heft.

Excavation is difficult because the remains were found about 10 feet below ground level, which is on the wrong side of the water table. Further digging is going to require blocking off the water in the area, a particular challenge considering a river literally ran through the arch and its ruins for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists want to reconstruct as much of the arch as possible using the technique of anastylosis which attempts to put the ancient pieces back together as accurately as possible with only the modern materials necessary for structural stability. In order to do that, they’ll have to find a solution to the water seepage problem and a million euros, two daunting prospects. Since that’s sure to take time, the foundations will be reburied shortly for their own protection. Meanwhile, archaeologists are working on a virtual model of the triumphal Arch of Titus.

Here’s a puny slideshow of the site. The only really good views of the waterlogged excavation I could find are in this unembeddable ( :angry: ) Italian TV news story.






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