Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Roof of Ara Pacis leaks onto Augustan monument

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

The glass roof covering the Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) is leaking water over the marble monument built in 9 B.C. to celebrate Augustus’ military success in Hispania and Gaul. Torrential rains in Italy have caused major flooding and even loss of life in Sardinia, the region worst hit by downpours. The new roof, built in 2006, was unable to withstand the pressure and flooded the enclosure the night of Tuesday, November 19th. The night staff didn’t notice, leaving the water to accumulate until the next morning. The museum was closed for the day so conservators could drape the Altar with tarpaulins and mop and vacuum the water off the floor. It reopened on Thursday the 21st.

The enclosure that is supposed to be protecting the symbol of Augustus’victories has been a bone of contention from the beginning. Built in 2006, the airy glass structure was designed by eminent American architect Richard Meier, designer of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the High Museum in Atlanta. Its modernist design was controversial as many felt it was not in keeping with the classical and Fascist neo-classical architecture of the historic center. Francesco Rutelli, the center-left mayor of Rome when the designs were first proposed in 2000, strongly endorsed Meier’s vision, believing there was room in the ancient and baroque downtown for modernist structures as well.

Advocates of the new museum pointed to the deplorable condition of the previous roof, built in 1938 by architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, as requiring immediate intervention to prevent exposing the Altar, which had only been completely excavated a year earlier, to the elements. Some think reports of the old Fascist-era enclosure’s dire condition may have been overstated at the time because Rutelli was so keen to have a world-class modernist piece in Rome. The irony is strong here, since Morpurgo’s building lasted 68 years without anybody needing to cover the Ara Pacis with a tarp to protect it from a downpour. After the museum was constructed, center-right mayor Gianni Alemanno (elected in 2008), threatened to tear the whole thing down, an obviously empty threat that never went anywhere.

An aide of Meier’s flew to Rome to determine why the roof leaked. His assessment was that leak was caused by a failure to perform necessary maintenance. If that’s so, then that was a design flaw too because seven-year-old roofs shouldn’t need a lot of maintenance to keep the water out.

On a completely unrelated note, Happy Thanksgiving, USers! I’m going to give thanks for that 30-year warranty on my roof.


Bay Psalm Book sells for $14,165,000

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in what would become the United States, has sold at a Sotheby’s auction tonight for $14,165,000. This is a new world record for a printed book, eclipsing the $11.5 million James Audubon’s Birds of America sold for in 2010. Even so, this astronomical figure is below expectations. The pre-sale estimate was $15,000,000 — $30,000,000.

There was much excitement surrounding this sale because there are only 11 surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book, and only six of them still have their title pages. Seventeen hundred copies of the book were printed in 1640 on a press imported from London and operated in Boston by indentured locksmith Stephen Daye. This was a huge number considering the Massachusetts Bay Colony only had an estimated 3,500 families living there at the time for a total population of around 15,000 or 20,000.

So many were published because the entire congregation singing psalms (as opposed to a dedicated choir) was an important part of Puritan worship and the ministers of the colony were unhappy with the psalm books used by the Church of England and the separatist Pilgrims. The former they deemed to be replete with interpolations and added verbiage not in the original Hebrew; the latter they found difficult to sing. So a group of 30 “pious and learned” ministers were tasked with created a new more literal book of psalms to use a hymnal.

The volume was instantly popular and a later edition continued to be printed well into the 18th century. Because this was a book meant to be used early and often, those original 1,700 copies were hard worn. By the mid-19th century, it was extremely rare and highly sought after by sacrilegiously unscrupulous collectors. By the mid-20th century, Bay Psalm Books were so rare that a 1947 sale of one set a record of its own when it commanded $151,000. That was the last time one came up for public auction until tonight.

That copy, purchased by rare book dealer Abraham Rosenbach acting for a consortium of Yale University alumni, is now in the Yale University Library. Eight of the other surviving copies are also owned by libraries, including the Library of Congress and the Bodleian. The last two are actually in the Boston Public Library, but they belong to Boston’s Old South Church (est. 1669). They decided earlier this year to sell the book because they have another even more pristine copy of it and they needed the money to fund their extensive ministries. They obviously have a very positive attitude and don’t appear to be disappointed at all that it didn’t garner the $30,000,000 figure bandied about.

Nancy S. Taylor, Senior Minister and CEO of Old South Church, said: “Old South Church has millions of reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving. We have re-acquainted America with this amazing book and its extraordinary story. And, we have turned it into fuel for our ministries – from homelessness to housing, from youth violence prevention to elder care, from food insecurity to public education. We are delighted.”

In a rare break from the endless litany of anonymous private collectors, we actually know who the buyer is and the news is just about as good as it gets. The book was purchased by private equity billionaire and history buff David Rubenstein. He is a philanthropist of the old school and has spent tens of millions preserving history for the public. Last year he donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument after it was damaged by an earthquake in 2011. After buying the only privately-owned copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, he loaned it to the National Archives and then gave them $13.5 million to build it a new custom display case.

His plans for the Bay Psalm Book are equally civic-minded. He will loan the volume to libraries all over the country (interest in this book was so great when the news broke of the impending sale that it traveled to Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Houston, San Francisco and Texas, drawing crowds wherever it went) and then will choose one library to place it in on long-term loan.


Irate ghost hunters burn LeBeau mansion to the ground

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

The LeBeau Plantation mansion in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, was burned to the ground by a group of thwarted ghost hunters in the early hours of Friday, November 22nd. The house had survived war, fire and hurricanes for 160 years and was one of only two plantation houses in the area still standing. Now all that’s left of it are its four chimneys, still surprisingly straight and uncharred amidst the smoldering ruins, and part of an internal brick wall. It is unrecoverable.

The mansion was built around 1854 by Francios Barthelemy LeBeau, a wealthy businessman from New Orleans, as an elegant weekend retreat overlooking the Mississippi River. It was a lavish Greek Revival mansion with a central cupola and 16 rooms spread over 10,000 square feet. The internal doorways were 13 feet high. Although LeBeau built all but the one central staircase outside to avoid the tax on interior staircases, he spared no expense on decorative features like black Egyptian marble mantelpieces, ornamental plaster, imported European wall-to-wall carpeting and nine-foot mirrors in gilt frames. It was the most ornate plantation on the lower Mississippi.

LeBeau died at the young age of 48 just months after construction on the house was completed. His left the property to his son Louis who along with his mother Christine Sylvanie decided to live in the mansion full-time and make it a working plantation. The site had been used to farm everything from cypresses to rice to indigo, but the soil was too impoverished to grow high intensity crops. Instead, they grew oranges and raised cattle for sale to local markets and slaughterhouses.

It remained in the family until 1905 when it was sold to a realty company who converted it into the Friscoville Hotel. This was not just a nice place to spend the night. It was a hotel, bar and casino, the fanciest gambling establishment of several along the Friscoville Road. New Orleans had outlawed gambling in the city limits of Orleans Parish, and Arabi, once part of Orleans Parish but incorporated as a town in St. Bernard Parish in the 1880s, was ideally located to take advantage of the ousted gambling traffic. You could get there on a New Orleans city streetcar.

It was a rollicking spot during Prohibition, a speakeasy and casino that was regularly raided by police. Gun turrets were installed in closets next to the front door, although there is no record of them ever having been used. In 1928, the mansion and the other Friscoville casinos were raided on the orders of Governor Huey Long and 225 people were arrested.

By the 1930s, it was being used as a private home again. It passed through various hands until it was purchased by real estate entrepreneur Joseph Mereux in 1967. The house was in bad shape by then. Mereux installed caretaker on the site and he restored it after a 1986 fire damaged the cupola and interior, but the overall condition of the mansion was still in decline. After Mereux’s death in 1992, he bequeathed the property to the Mereux Foundation which has been administering it ever since. Calls for preservation led the Foundation to stabilize the house in 2003, a project that doubtless saved the home’s life when Hurricane Katrina struck, devastating St. Bernard Parish.

It came out of the storm in terrible condition, with windows broken and holes in the roof. Already a popular spot for vandals and thrill-seekers who had long heard tales of the old house being haunted by mistreated slaves, a woman in white or mysterious lights in the cupola, the damage from the storm made the mansion a target for looters who stripped the interior of many of its prized features.

Still, as long as it stood, there was hope that it might be revived. The Mereux Foundation, widely criticized for its failure to maintain the historic property (among many other controversies), was said to be considering several restoration plans. Those hopes were dashed Friday.

The men, between the ages of 17 and 31, arrived at the home late Thursday night, likely entering through a gap in the fence around the property that had been cut out by other curious trespassers over the years, according to Col. John Doran, who oversees the Sheriff’s Office’s criminal enforcement.

“They had been looking for ghosts, trying to summon spirits, beating on the floors,” Doran said. [...]

Doran said the men appear to have become frustrated when no ghosts materialized. Police believe that in a haze of alcohol and marijuana, one of them decided to burn the place to the ground.

Seven men have been arrested on arson, burglary, criminal damage and trespassing. Dusten Davenport of Fort Worth, Texas, the genius who started stacking wood to punish the house for not being ghostly enough, is the oldest of the group at 31.


The Maltese Falcon sells for $4,085,000

Monday, November 25th, 2013

The Maltese Falcon sold for $3,500,000 ($4,085,000 including buyer’s premium) at a Bonhams auction in New York today. It was part of a sale of movie memorabilia curated in conjunction with the eminent film nerds of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, source of all high-density bottlenecks on my DVR. This particular falcon was one of two surviving lead props made for the classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett’s private investigator Sam Spade.

When I first wrote about the sale of the iconic Black Bird, I mistakenly thought this example was the second lead prop made by artist Fred Sexton after the first was damaged during shooting. In fact, the one that sold today is the one that was damaged. It has a bent tail garnered in an epic incident on the set.

One of the Taplinger memos [, Robert S. Taplinger was Warner Bros.' Director of Publicity,] mentions a significant incident during filming of the finale: actress Lee Patrick (as Spade’s secretary Effie, the woman who delivers the falcon to his apartment) dropped the statuette while handing it over to Bogart. Bogart pushed Patrick out of the way of the falling bird, but in so doing his own foot caught the brunt of the falcon’s weight, causing him to injure two toenails. The right tail feather of the falcon was reportedly damaged in the fall, and the damage is visible as Sam carries the bird out of his apartment at the end of the film

The stuff that dreams are made of, as Spade described the bird, was the star of the auction, but there were a number of other wonderful pieces. Leaf through the catalog to spot your favorite. I defy you not to swoon at the 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca that was so prominently featured in the immortal final scenes of the movie. This is the vehicle in which Renault drives Rick, Ilsa and Victor to the airport. The “here’s looking at you” final dialogue between Rick and Ilsa takes place next to the car. It unexpectedly sold for $380,000, below the low estimate of $450,000.

On the less expensive end of things, I was charmed by a portrait of Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy painted by John Decker in the 1930s. It sold for $9,500. Mary Pickford’s monogrammed Louis Vuiton trunk went for $2,600, a steal for vintage Vuiton with Mary Pickford’s initials emblazoned on the side while Mr. Vuiton’s were discretely relegated to the brass locks. It was a subtler time for high fashion.

It wasn’t just the older classics represented. Indy’s braided leather bullwhip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was bought for $8,000. A can of new! delicious Soylent Green, ostensibly the “miracle food of high energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world” but I get the feeling they might be leaving out a key ingredient, went for $1,800. It comes with a Soylent Green cracker which is actually a piece of painted balsa wood. Movie magic, y’all.

From the sexy days of pre-code silent films, the snake headdress and pyramid earrings worn by Theda Bara in the 1917 Fox version of Cleopatra sold for $28,000. I wonder if her impressive risqué snake bra has survived. It reminds of Princess Lea’s famous gold bikini from Return of the Jedi, only Theda’s version offers significantly less coverage.

My favorite non-Bogey lot is a 1929 nude portrait of Clara Bow painted by Hungary artist Geza Kende. The portrait was commissioned by a far more famous Hungarian, Bela Lugosi, when he was still treading the boards.

In 1929, Lugosi was touring the United States appearing in the play Dracula, soon to be optioned by Universal for a film adaptation. One of the audience members at a Los Angeles performance was the silent film star Clara Bow. Sound films had recently taken hold in Hollywood and Bow was anxious about whether her thick Brookyln accent would appeal to audiences. Having read in the press that Lugosi spoke his lines phonetically without knowing English, Bow was determined to find out more about the Hungarian actor. Bow biographer David Stenn describes their meeting: “Clara sat transfixed through Dracula, and when the final curtain fell, she made a beeline for Lugosi’s dressing room. ‘How d’ya know your lines?’ she immediately asked him. Lugosi, who still spoke no English, gesticulated that he learned from cues by other actors. Without further ado, Clara invited him home’”

Clara Bow was so game. I love her. Oh, and her accent is basically non-existent, to modern ears anyway. Here she is in 1932′s Call Her Savage:

The painting sold for $24,000.


“Dueling Dinosaurs” fossil fails to sell

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

The fossil of two large dinosaurs frozen in what appears to be a combat posture failed to sell at a Bonhams’ auction Tuesday. This will doubtless gladden the heart of the scientific community which was dismayed that this unique specimen was being sold to the highest bidder instead of to a museum or institution of learning. The sellers, the owners of the Montana ranch where the fossil was unearthed in 2006, had offered it to museums but for ungodly sums (they asked the Smithsonian for $15 million) so they turned to the open market. The pre-sale estimate was $7 million to $9 million, but the expectation was this piece would blow past those figures to eclipse the standing record for a fossil sale (T-Rex Sue, sold in 1997 to the Field Museum of Chicago for $8.36 million).

Instead, the bidding stopped at 5.5 million which wasn’t even enough to meet the undisclosed reserve price. I’m sure the Smithsonian is discreetly hiding a little smirk behind its fan right now, especially since the next step is private negotiations with, you guessed it, museums.

“The story isn’t over,” said Thomas Lindgren, co-consulting director of the natural history department at Bonhams in Los Angeles, who put together today’s natural history auction in New York, which drew a crowd prospective buyers, curious onlookers and reporters.

“Behind the scenes, before the sale occurred today, I’ve had museums mention that they have difficulty coming up with funds this quickly, but should the lot not sell — which of course occurred — they want us to be in negotiations immediately,” Lindgren said during a press conference after the sale. “I’m very confident we’re going to find a scientific home for these dinosaurs.”

If the prices hadn’t been so ludicrously exorbitant, I’m very confident these dinosaurs would already have a scientific home. Apparently Mr. Lindgren had some concerns, unstated in the publicity rush leading up to the sale, of course, that this rare discovery of a herbivore (Triceratops relative Chasmosaurine ceratopsian) and a carnivore (one of only two examples of Nanotyrannus lancensis ever found) locked together would fall into the black hole of a private collection and be lost to science.

Lindgren said he had been guiding the sale toward the institutions and donors that would house the fossils in a public collection, adding that he wasn’t thrilled with the idea that they could “disappear to a private individual who would not make them available.”

There’s only so much guiding you can do when the sellers are looking to make $15 million, however, so its failure to get anywhere near the price tag they were hoping for will hopefully be the correction they need to make something happen with a museum or school.


Priscilla Catacombs re-opened and Google Mapped

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

The Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, an eight-mile network of warrens on several levels dug out of soft volcanic tufa used for Christian burials from the second century A.D. through the fifth, have been re-opened after five years of conservation. Restorers used laser technology to clean the wall paintings, a highly significant collection of early Christian iconography that includes the earliest known depiction of the Madonna and Child dating to around 230 A.D. and, in a room known as the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, a later third century depiction a woman with arms outstretched wearing what the Vatican’s Italian language website calls “a rich liturgical vestment” (the English version calls it “a rich purple garment”) which some consider evidence of female clergy in early Christianity. In the newly-dubbed Cubiculum of Lazarus, lasers revealed a fourth-century fresco of Christ raising Lazurus, still wrapped in his shroud, from the dead. This work had been obscured by centuries of grime.

The Priscilla catacombs are thought to have been named after the wife of Manius Acilius Glabrio, Roman Consul in 91 A.D. (the future emperor Trajan was his co-consul) executed by Domitian for atheism, ie, his refusal to worship the Roman gods because he was Christian. She had him buried in what was once a quarry and donated the property to the church so others could be buried there. It’s known as the “Queen of the Catacombs” because of the art work and because so many martyrs and popes were buried there. Popes Saint Marcellinus (296-304), Saint Marcellus I (308-309), Saint Sylvester I (314-335), Liberius (352-366), Saint Siricius (384-399), Saint Celestine I (422-432) and Vigilius (537-555) were laid to rest in the Catacombs of Priscilla, as were the following martyrs: brothers Felix and Philip, probably killed under Diocletian, their mother Felicity and five of their other brothers (Alexander, Martial, Vitale, Silanus and Januarius), Saint Philomena, Saint Pudens and his daughter Saint Praxedes. His other daughter Saint Pudentiana is buried next to her father, but there are no surviving accounts of whether she was martyred.

Such a rich connection to important figures of the early Church made the Priscilla catacomb a target of looters. That’s why it was forgotten for almost a thousand years, because, like many other catacombs at the time, its entrances were deliberately blocked and hidden in the sixth century to protect it during a period when Rome was being sacked on a regular basis. It was one of the first catacombs to be rediscovered in the 16th century, and then the local sackers got to work stealing tombstones, sarcophagi, tufa blocks and the remains of presumed martyrs.

Thankfully they left the paint of the walls, and eight labyrinthine miles are hard to completely strip of all their contents so when archaeologists began excavating the site in the late 19th century, they found around 750 marble fragments of funerary art. These pieces of sarcophagi and funerary inscriptions have been kept for a century plus in a space in the basilica of San Silvestro, a new church built over the foundations of a fourth century one in 1907. In addition to the conservation of the catacombs themselves, the project saw the construction of an innovative new museum to house these pieces. They needed restoration and they needed to be displayed in a suitable context, so a museum was built over what was still an open archaeological site.

They covered the foundations of the ancient church, which still contains many burials, with a pavement made out of panels of clear glass, metal gratings or imperial travertine. The clear panels cover the areas with significant archaeological remains so visitors to the museum can look down and see the ruins. The gratings provide air flow to the remains to ensure moisture levels don’t rise encouraging the growth of destructive vegetation and microorganisms. They also provide easy access for future maintenance of the archaeological material because they can be easily removed. The travertine was chosen because of its durability and because it is aesthetically in keeping with its surroundings. Its opacity obscures cables and other unsightly fundamentals of modern construction.

The Museum of Priscilla has its own website now and it’s actually good, something worth noting since so many archaeological sites have truly atrocious websites if they have any web presence at all. It’s only in Italian but it’s worth browsing even if you have to use an online translator. The videos do not have English captions but I still think you should watch them if only to see how the museum came together. It’s quite spectacular.

This video covers the process of museum construction from early rejected concepts to final execution. Watch it to see the space go from display room with a solid floor covering ruins protected solely by burial in sand into a floorless archaeological site into a handsome, multi-layer, non-invasive one-room museum.

This one describes the construction of the floor, the three different kinds of panels, their uses, why the materials were chosen:

Doesn’t that combination floor look great? I think it’s brilliant.

The following video shows the restoration of the 750 fragments. My quick translation of the main points: three restorers worked on the fragments for two and a half years. In the early 1900s, the marbles were affixed to the church wall with iron hooks and mortar. They needed to be cleaned of oxidized iron, cementacious materials and concretions accumulated over the centuries underground. The cement was so much harder than the ancient marble that removing it with power microdrills without damaging the marble was a great challenge. They had to use the smallest of bits to do the work. Once cleaned, the fragments were reunited using a special glue. The biggest surprise was the discovery of traces of the original polychrome paint. The figures of people were outlined in red. The fruit is fuxia (I’d call it a raspberry or a purple more than a bright pink, but I’m not there and the restorer is so what she says goes.) There’s so little left because “restorers” in the past scrubbed the marble raw with wire brushes (like the British Museum did to the Elgin marbles in the 19th century). In fact, the one feature all these fragments have in common is that their surfaces are thoroughly scratched.

Finally, if you’d like to get a more detailed view of the Catacombs of Priscilla but can’t make your way to Rome right at this minute, you can tour them on Google Maps! The whole eight miles haven’t been scanned, but you can follow basically the same route you’d take if you were there in person and then some. According to the Giorgia Abeltino of Google Italy, the had to build specialized cameras and instruments to take the Street View process underground, and it pays off. I’ve been in my fair share of catacombs and they are dark, y’all. The virtual tour is illuminated and detailed beyond my wildest expectations.


Seven score and ten years ago…

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

I was going to do a sort of Gettysburg Address inception thing where I rewrite the speech to describe the creation and delivery of the speech, but it was hackneyed and cheesy so I’ll just celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of the greatest two-minute speech in history the old-fashioned way.

On November 19th, 1863, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was inaugurated, more than four months after the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). In the immediate aftermath of the carnage, the dead had been buried on the field, in churchyards, field hospital sites, anywhere a space could be found. Gettysburg attorney David Wills had the idea to create a national cemetery funded by the state governments of the Union soldiers who died there rather than funded by plot purchases by the families of the dead. Pennsylvania governor Andrew Gregg Curtin approved of the idea and appointed Wills to secure the land, contract designers, arrange reburials and organize a dedication event.

Wills invited Edward Everett, a pastor, classicist, politician and renown public speaker, to delivered the featured speech, a two-hour oration that covered ancient Greek burial practices, the Battle of Marathon, the military conflicts leading up to Gettysburg, Gettysburg itself, whose fault the war was, civil wars throughout history and how the states in rebellion wouldn’t hold a grudge once the war was over and we’d all come together again under the Union. (Read the whole oration here.) Wills asked Lincoln to follow Everett with a few brief remarks, and he made it clear in the formal invitation which was sent on November 2nd, two months after Everett had received his invite, that he meant brief. From the invitation:

It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the Great Battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.

There’s a widely circulated story that the press at the time panned Lincoln’s speech because ears were accustomed in those days to lengthy declamations so his short remarks were considered unworthy. In fact, most of the reviews in the media were positive, many recognizing the power of Lincoln’s words. One of the more famously grouchy reactions was an editorial in the Harrisburg Patriot & Union printed almost a week after the ceremony. Believing all speeches delivered on the occasion to be shameless exploitation of the noble dead by Republican Party shills eager to promote their agenda, the Patriot & Union panned both Everett’s oration and Lincoln’s speech. Lincoln got it worse, though; the editorial veritably seethes with contempt for him.

To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead [...]

We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and the liberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth. Hi oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy the occasion and the man. We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.

A century and a half later here we are repeating and thinking of those words. The Patriot & Union’s descendant, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, has recently seen the light and issued a charming formal apology.

In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.

Regrets the error… I love that. :lol:

The Internet is full of Gettysburg-themed events today. The Google Cultural Institute has three online exhibitions about the address: one curated by Cornell University that explores the Bancroft Copy of the speech and contemporary depictions of its delivery, one about early drafts and multiple versions of the speech, and the last about the cultural impact of the address which is still very much felt today.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has created a website encouraging people to upload videos of themselves reciting the Gettysburg Address. Here’s a mashed up version from famous artists, journalists, pundits and politicians, including all five living presidents:

For more about the Address, see the Library of Congress’ fine online exhibition.


Sarcophagus found under Lincoln Castle opened

Monday, November 18th, 2013

A limestone sarcophagus discovered earlier this year underneath Lincoln Castle during an archaeological survey before construction of an elevator shaft has been opened. It was a lengthy, delicate process. When the stone coffin was first unearthed, only the side was visible. The trench was deep and the sarcophagus very heavy; it took months to dig it out. Finally in October archaeologists were able to gingerly remove the sarcophagus from its berth 10 feet under ground level, sliding it out horizontally.

The team had hoped that once the lid was exposed they’d find an inscription identifying who was buried within, but they were not so lucky. The lid of the stone coffin was mortared down for burial and since then had cracked all the way across horizontally in two places. In order to lift it, the team had to remove the lid in three sections. Archaeologists had gotten a glimpse of the contents when they threaded an endoscopic camera into the sarcophagus after the initial discovery so they knew it contained an articulated skeleton. When the first section of the lid was removed, they found the remains of leather boots or shoes, a very unusual discovery that confirmed the deceased was someone of great status in the community.

The mere fact of his having been buried in a sarcophagus indicated he was someone of wealth and/or prestige. The bones have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but pottery found in the same layer as the burials dates to the 10th century, a hundred or so years before the Norman invasion and the construction of Lincoln Castle by William the Conqueror in 1068. It seems William chose the site of an Anglo-Saxon chapel or church upon which to build his castle, a chapel in which the community’s elite were buried. Anglo-Saxons didn’t typically use sarcophaguses to bury the dead. It was probably a Roman-era coffin recycled for a local dignitary, perhaps a king or a religious leader.

In addition to the one in the sarcophagus, eight other bodies were found in the small 10-by-10-foot space. Seven were buried in wooden coffins, one wrapped in a finely woven woolen shroud and laid to rest in a niche in the foundations of the wall. Archaeologists believe the shrouded burial was a votive, that the man was someone holy and his remains were placed in the foundations of the church to sanctify it.

Before the lid was removed, experts took a 3D scan of the complete sarcophagus. Once the lid came off, the interior was also 3D scanned. This will allow researchers to examine the burial in detail without risking damage to the human remains or any artifacts that might still be there.

Mary Powell, Programme Manager for Lincoln Castle Revealed project, said: [...]

“Finding a sarcophagus from this period that’s still undisturbed is extremely rare, so this discovery is of national significance.

“The next step will be to thoroughly analyse both the sarcophagus and the remains to learn as much as we can from it. This will undoubtedly increase what we know about Saxon Lincoln.”

It pretty much has to, because historians know very little about Lincoln after the Romans left and before the Normans came. That’s why the discovery of the church, of which there are no surviving records so nobody even knew it was there, and burials is of national significance.

They will also attempt a facial reconstruction extrapolated from the remains of the skull, but they have to put it back together first. Judging from the pictures, it looks heavily damaged.


One-of-a-kind toy bank coasts to $266,500

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

The only example of a cast iron mechanical bank that heretofore was known only by an ad in an 1884 catalog sold at auction in Philadelphia on Wednesday for $220,000 ($266,500 including buyer’s premium), many times the pre-sale estimate of $30,000-50,000. The Coasting Bank is considered the Impossible Black Tulip of toy bank collectors, only unlike the cartographical impossible black tulip which has a handful of surviving copies, there is only one Coasting Bank known to exist.

It was found in the attic of a home in Peebles, Scotland, of all random places, in excellent condition. The owners have no idea how it got from the US to their attic or when. The sellers too it to Lyon & Turnbull auctioneers in Edinburgh and they suggested it be sold at their partner auction house Freeman’s so it could be sold directly to American toy collectors, obviously a wise business decision.

Before 1955, even hardcore collectors had no idea it had ever existed. It was antique dealer William J. Stackhouse who ferreted it out. He was browsing a second hand shop in Norwich, New York, which was going out of business. In a pile of old magazines that were shop owner planned to throw away, Stackhouse came across a copy of the Winter 1994 issue of Ehrich’s Fashion Quarterly Wholesale Catalog, the mail order catalog of the dry goods emporium founded by the Ehrich Brothers on Eighth Avenue at 24th Street in New York City. On page 426, he found a number of advertisements for toy banks. One of them was the Coasting Bank, on sale for 95 cents. The ad describes the bank’s action:

Upon placing the sled at the top of the hill and pulling the string, the sled swiftly makes the descent until it meets an obstruction that lands the coaster on his head and deposits the coin in the bank.

An article by F.H. Griffith in the April, 1955, issue of Hobbies magazine published the discovery of the catalog and it’s double secret bank. It confirmed that there was no known example of this bank in any collection, nor is there a patent on file for it which is not surprising since many toy bank models never were patented. The other banks on the page are all real, though, and this was a catalog of inexpensive ready-made objects so if it was listed for sale, that means it had to have been produced.

Griffith noted that the mechanism bears some similarity Shoot The Chute Bank, a bank designed by Charles A. Bailey for J. & E. Stevens Company in 1906. (You can see the patent here. Stevens Co., based in Cromwell, Connecticut, was the oldest toy manufacturing company in the United States and became the number one sellers of toy banks in the country. Bailey was a toy-maker who had his own shop in the back of his Cobalt, Connecticut, house who also freelanced for J. & E. Stevens Co. He is considered a shining star in the firmament of mechanical bank designers, and in fact happens to have designed two of the other banks offered for sale on that catalog page, the Bismark Pig Bank and the German Exchange Bank. (You can’t tell from the catalog illustration because they’re trying to keep it a surprise, but the Bismark Pig Bank was so named because after you put the coin in the slot and press his tail, Otto von Bismark, “the cause of [the depositor's] trouble,” pops out. This is a reference to the German chancellor’s blocking imports of US pork, thus causing the American pig seller’s trouble.)

In addition to the slide mechanism, the Shoot The Chute Bank and Coasting Bank also have materials — lead or white metal — and design elements — cast iron floral scrollwork on triangular coin receptacles — in common. It’s likely that the Shoot The Chute Bank was a descendant of the Coasting Bank, a second attempt to make the slide concept pay off after the first one disappeared into obscurity. I think the timing suggests it was inspired by the Shoot the Chute rides in Coney Island’s Luna Park (built in 1903) and Dreamland (built in 1904) which were the parks’ most popular rides. Bailey did note in the patent application that the figures would ride “a miniature boat or toboggan” down the chute and the production model looks more boat-like

If that was his aim, piggy-backing off the popularity of the rides didn’t work. The Chute sold almost as poorly as the Coasting Bank and today it sells much worse, despite its rarity. A very fine example of the Shoot the Chute mechanical bank sold in 2008 for $18,000, well below the pre-sale estimate of $25,000 – $35,000. As of that auction, there were only 12 original Shoot the Chute castings known to exist.

Not even a hot comic strip merchandising deal could make it sell. Popular comic strip figures of Buster Brown and his dog Tige were shooting the chute, you’d think they’d have fared better on the market. Richard Outcault began drawing the adventures of young Buster — a sort of Dennis the Menace dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy-like suit — and Tige — a pit bullish pup with the attitude and grin of the dog in The Mask when he channels the spirit of god of mischief Loki — in 1902. The strip was published in the New York Herald and was an immediate hit. In 1904 Outcault, a merchandising visionary, signed a reported 200 licensing deals at the Saint Louis World’s Fair. One of them was St. Louis shoe company Brown Shoes whose Buster Browns line of children’s shoes was so successful it is still going strong and the logo still stars Buster and Tige. They also bought the rights to the name of Buster’s sister in the comic, Mary Jane. That was the birth of the now-iconic Mary Jane shoe.


Da Vinci, a cello and a harpsichord walk into a bar

Friday, November 15th, 2013

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s many brilliant ideas was to create a musical instrument that combined the fingerwork of a keyboard with the sustained sound of a stringed instrument. He called it a viola organista and explored various mechanisms of foot-treadle operated rotating wheels that pull a bow across strings, sketching different designs for it in his notebooks including the Codex Atlanticus, (page 93r), now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and Manuscript H (page 28r) in Paris’ Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France. As far as we know none of these designs ever made it to the prototype stage.

Almost a hundred years later in 1575, church organist Hans Hyden of Nuremberg created the first functional bowed keyboard instrument operated by a foot-treadle. He used gut strings (later switched to metal when the gut strings failed to say in tune) and five or six parchment-wrapped wheels which, when turned by the treadle and a hand-crank at the far end operated by a helper, would be drawn against individual strings determined by which keys were played. Hyden claimed his instrument could produce crescendos, diminuendos, vibrato and sustain notes indefinitely solely through finger pressure on the keys. He even said it could duplicate the voice of a drunk man.

He called it a Geigenwerk (meaning “fiddle organ”) which is the German translation of da Vinci’s name for it, but although some sources imply or claim he based his design on da Vinci’s, I have serious doubts about that. Leonardo was hugely famous in his lifetime and after, but it was for his art, not his notebooks. Bequeathed to his friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi, the notebooks were sold off piecemeal by the Melzi family after Francesco’s death in 1579. Pages were scattered to courts and collectors all over Europe. Some of Leonardo’s notes on painting were published in 1651, but the bulk of the notebooks only made it into print in the 19th century. I don’t see how Hyden could have had had access to them.

None of Hyden’s Geigenwerks — he’s reputed to have built as many as 32 of them although only two are thoroughly documented — have survived. The details of its operation and the sole surviving illustration of the instrument have come down to us from German composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius who included one of Hyden’s original pamphlets describing the machine and a woodcut of it in the appendix to the second volume of his Syntagma Musicum, published as the Theatrum Instrumentorum seu Sciagraphia in 1620.

Imitations have survived, the earliest of which made by Spanish monk Raymundo Truchado in 1625. It is now in Brussels’ Musical Instruments Museum. Truchado’s Geigenwerk is an oddly truncated little thing which could only have been played sitting on the ground or perched on a low table. It had no foot-treadle, just the hand-crank in the back. The instrument is no longer playable today. Given its design it doesn’t look like it was ever comfortably playable at all, but it must have been worth it because it was used on occasion in the Cathedral of Toledo until the late 18th century.

Since then, many people have made versions of the bowed keyboard instrument, some of them using Leonardo’s designs as the starting point. They haven’t all been successful. This 2009 version of a portable viola organista made from one of Leonardo’s sketches is serving hilariously awkward one-man-band realness. Pianist and keyboard instrument builder Akio Obuchi has made several Geigenwerks which can indeed produce the kind of sounds Hyden described.

Now Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has joined the fray with a viola organista that is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to.

The instrument’s exterior is painted in a rich hue of midnight blue adorned with golden swirls painted on the side. The inside of its lid is a deep raspberry inscribed with a Latin quote in gold leaf by 12th-century German nun, mystic and philosopher, Saint Hildegard.

“Holy prophets and scholars immersed in the sea of arts both human and divine, dreamt up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul,” it says.

The flat bed of its interior is lined with golden spruce. Sixty-one gleaming steel strings run across it, similar to the inside of a baby grand. Each one is connected to the keyboard complete with smaller black keys for sharp and flat notes. But unlike a piano, it has no hammered dulcimers. Instead, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse tail hair, like violin bows. To turn them, Zubrzycki pumps a peddle below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft.

As he tinkles the keys, they press the strings down onto the wheels emitting rich, sonorous tones reminiscent of a cello, an organ and even an accordion.

It took him three years and $9,700 to build the instrument. Zubrzycki’s viola organista had its debut last month at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival where it was given a standing ovation by an audience of virtuoso musicians and music lovers. It truly is magnificent, so rich and full you keep looking for the rest of the orchestra.

If you only have the time to watch one video, start with this one in which Zubrzycki tells the story of how he made the piece and plays it in his home. There are great closeups of the instrument and its moving parts. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

Here he is performing a piece by Carl Friederich Abel for the viola da gamba (the predecessor of the cello) at Krakow’s Church of St. Peter and Paul on October 21st:

This are snippets of several pieces he played at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival: