Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Picasso curtain will move to NY Historical Society

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

The biggest Picasso in the United States will be leaving its home on a wall at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York for what one hopes will be greener pastures at the New York Historical Society. RFR Holding, owner of the historic Seagram Building where the Four Seasons and the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain have lived together in harmony since 1957, planned to remove the work last year. It claimed the wall on which it hung was structurally unsound due to a leaking steam pipe and informed the New York Landmarks Conservancy, owner of the painting since it was donated to it by Vivendi Universal, then owner of the Seagram Building, in 2005, that the curtain would be coming down immediately.

The Conservancy challenged the plan in court. They said the curtain was far too fragile to be moved, especially by rolling the canvas up “one click at a time” and transporting it in a rental van. At the last minute, the court sided with the Conservancy and issued a temporary restraining order. Since then, RFR Holding and the Landmarks Conservancy have been locked in a struggle over the fate of the historical curtain. The discussions have now apparently borne fruit, and the front cloth painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 for a production of the Ballets Russes’ Le Tricorne will be moved to the New York Historical Society, conserved and put on display, all at RFR’s expense.

To move the Picasso, workers will mount hydraulic lifts to detach the top of the curtain from the wall. It will then be wrapped around a wide roller, starting at the bottom. The curtain will first go to a conservator, for cleaning and restoration work. The historical society plans to have it installed for an exhibition in May.

That process sounds a lot like the original “one click at a time” plan which the Conservancy deemed far too dangerous. The art mover agreed that the painting could “crack like a potato chip” under the strain. The Conservancy isn’t too thrilled about it, judging from their press release, but they will have conservators on the ground during the removal and transport stages.

The impetus for this compromise is the looming defeat in court the Conservancy expected. The donation was made on the condition that the curtain remain where it was at the Four Seasons, but that wasn’t going to be able to trump RFR’s solid legal position. From the Landmarks Conservancy press release:

We did our best to maintain it in place. But our only leverage was that the Curtain is specifically included in the current restaurant lease. It was made clear to us that the Curtain would not be included in whatever new lease is negotiated. So, if we had prevailed in Court, the most a judge could grant is that the Curtain stay until the end of the current lease.

Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, purchased and installed the curtain in 1957. She’s not in favor of this plan.

“It sort of breaks my heart,” she said.

Vivendi bought the Seagram company, including its large art collection, in 2000, around the time Mr. Rosen bought the Seagram Building. Later, the financially ailing Vivendi moved to sell the entire Seagram art collection, but Ms. Lambert persuaded Vivendi to bequeath the Picasso to the conservancy.

Lambert has every reason to be bummed. The curtain is an iconic part of what has become a beloved and famous interior. However, the Conservancy had few options here, and it’s undoubtedly better for its long-term prospects for the painting to be in the hands of a museum instead of a company owned by a man who once called the curtain a “schmatte” (Yiddish for “rag”) and who appears to be keen to install works from his own modern art collection in the space. The pressing issue is how to ensure the least possible trauma in the removal and transportation.

The New York Historical Society is thrilled to have it. They plan to make Le Tricorne the centerpiece of the second-floor gallery.

 

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Shriver relatives reinterred in Causten Vault

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Timothy Shriver, son of Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother of journalist and former California First Lady Maria Shriver, attended a memorial service Wednesday for relatives he didn’t know he had. They were prominent people in their day, but over time their final resting place in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery had fallen into disrepair and was in dire need of restoration. Since the brick vault could not be repaired while the remains were still inside, in 2009 Douglas Owsley, head of the Natural History museum’s Physical Anthropology Department, was asked to excavate it and identify the remains for future reburial. After years of research and restoration, the skeletal remains of 16 people were reinterred in the tomb attended by a small group of Shriver relatives.

The Causten Vault was built in 1835 by lawyer and international diplomat James H. Causten after the tragic death of his first son, Charles Isaac, who passed away just days short of his second birthday. According to his obituary, little Charles “was a child of uncommon intelligence and excited the admiration and affectionate regard of all that knew him. His family have much cause to regret the early fall of one so interesting and promising.”

James Causten would outlive all but one of his children, and his daughter Josephine only outlived him by four years. His eldest daughter Henrietta Jane was the Shriver connection. She married Joseph Shriver, scion of an important Baltimore family that included a signer of the 1776 Maryland Constitution. Henrietta died in 1863 of a sudden heart attack when she was 52, “leaving both families overwhelmed in grief at this loss of their richest jewels.” She was buried in the vault, joining her daughter Josephine Shriver who had died 14 years before her mother at the age of four.

After his death in 1874 at the age of 86, Causten was buried in the family vault, which was already so sadly well-populated by then. It would eventually hold the remains of 22 members of the extended family, and that’s not counting the eight temporary residents who were placed in the vault while arrangements were made for permanent burials elsewhere. One of them was First Lady Dolley Madison. Her niece and adopted daughter was Annie Payne Causten, wife of Dr. James H. Causten Jr., the founder’s son. After Dolley died in July of 1849, she was buried in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery ostensibly just until arrangements could be made to bury her by her husband’s side at his Virginia estate Montpelier. Unfortunately her gambling, alcoholic wastrel son, whose endless debts were a major reason for her poverty in old age, set aside no money for her burial. When he died of typhoid fever less than three years after his mother, she was still in the Public Vault. A month later, Annie Payne Causten had Dolley’s remains moved to the Causten Vault. Unfortunately she died a few months later aged just 33, so Dolley’s remains stayed in the vault for another six years. Finally the Caustens saw to it that she was buried in Montpelier.

The last burials in the Causten Vault were at the end of the 19th century. After that, the fate of the vault matched the fate of the Congressional Cemetery. It stopped being a fashionable place for Washington politicos and society figures to be buried and gradually fell into neglectful decay. Vaults crumbled, headstones broke, drug dealers and prostitutes plied their trades amidst the historical dead. In 1976 the non-profit Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery took over management of the cemetery, but it wasn’t until the '90s when volunteers and innovative programs began to boost restoration projects. Its inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1997 brought it fresh attention, including, finally, some maintenance funding from Congress.

Restoration is an ongoing process. The Causten Vault became a priority in 2009 because its mortar was crumbling and the barrel roof was on the verge of collapse. When Douglas Owsley and his team opened the tomb, they found that the interior was in even more dire condition. Over the years the shelves that held coffins had fallen apart, pancaking caskets and human remains in a chaotic pile several feet thick. The remains were carefully removed and transported to Owsley’s lab at the National Museum of Natural History.

Over the past five years, a team of archaeologists and anthropologists analyzed the skeletons taken from the vault, the hardware on the coffins (which helps date the caskets) and personal artifacts found inside. Bones provide all sorts of information, Owsley said, from gender and age to lifestyle (years of heavy labor, for example, take a toll), diet and probable cause of death.

In the final tally, the remains of 16 people were found. The six people known to have been buried in the vault whose remains were not found are thought to have been buried near the bottom of the vault where the damp conditions caused brushite to form on the bones and eventually disintegrate them. The remains of the 16 were identified and placed either in white boxes or in their original cast iron coffins, several of which survived in usable condition. They have all now been reinterred, with their family in attendance, in the Causten Vault.

 

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One of Vermeer’s first paintings authenticated

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Saint Praxedis, an oil painting depicting the 2nd century saint cleaning the blood of a decapitated martyr, was first attributed to Johannes Vermeer in 1969. That year it had gone on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Florentine Baroque Art from American Collections as a work by Felice Ficherelli, aka Il Riposo. It was thought to be a second version of a nearly identical 1640-5 work by Ficherelli, but University of London art historian Michael Kitson proposed a very different hand was behind the copy. In his opinion, the signature “Meer 1655″ on the bottom left of the painting “correspond[ed] exactly to those on Vermeer’s early works, particularly the Maid Asleep.” He also thought the treatment of the historical subject had elements in common with Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, namely its “breadth of form and handling and a similar gravity (though not sickness) of mood.”

Kitson’s tentative attribution wasn’t widely accepted. Saint Praxedis was an unusual subject in Dutch painting in general and for Vermeer in particular, even though he did start out treating historical scenes like Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and Diana and her Companions, both of which were painted during Vermeer’s earliest productive years (1654-1656). Also, this would be the sole example of Vermeer copying the work of an Italian master, or anybody else for that matter.

In 1986, Arthur Wheelock Jr., the influential curator of Northern Baroque painting at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, boosted Saint Praxedis‘s fortunes. Wheelock agreed with Kitson that there were stylistic similarities between Saint Praxedis and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. He also suggested that the painting of the saint’s face was characteristically Dutch in modeling, comparable in its downcast posture to the young woman in A Maid Asleep. Wheelock noted a second potential signature on the right side. It’s barely distinguishable, but Wheelock posited that it said “Meer N R o o,” originally “[Ver]Meer N[aar] R[ip]o[s]o” or “Vermeer after Riposo.”

Wheelock’s arguments were controversial. Several important art historians and experts in Dutch painting thought the brushwork, lighting and quality had little in common with Vermeer’s known works. One of them couldn’t even find the so-called second signature, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have found it persuasive since it’s the only example of a signature shouting out the original artist. Many experts were convinced Saint Praxedis was of Florentine origin, painted by a student of Ficherelli’s, and that the signature was a later addition referencing an artist named Meer or van der Meer.

The painting was purchased the year after Wheelock’s first publication by Polish-American art collector Barbara Piasecka Johnson. She died last year, and works from the fine collection she and her husband Johnson & Johnson co-founder John Seward Johnson I put together will be going up for auction at Christie’s London on July 8th (view the catalogue here). With a potential pre-sale estimate of $11,000,000-$13,000,000 if she could be shown conclusively to have been painted by Vermeer’s hand, Christie’s enlisted experts from the Rijksmuseum and Amsterdam’s Free University to test Saint Praxedis.

The results are pretty spectacular. From the Christie’s catalogue:

Particles of lead taken from samples of lead white pigment used in Saint Praxedis were submitted for high precision lead isotope ratio analysis at the Free University, Amsterdam. The results placed the lead white squarely in the Dutch/Flemish cluster of samples, establishing with certainty that its origin is north European and entirely consistent with mid-seventeenth century painting in Holland. Two separate samples from the picture have been tested to certify this result. This provides incontrovertible scientific proof that the picture was not painted in Italy. Furthermore, a lead white sample taken from Diana and her Companions was tested in the same manner to allow for comparison between Saint Praxedis and a work from the same approximate date that is universally accepted as by Vermeer. The outcome of this was extraordinary, providing an almost identical match of isotope abundance values between the two samples. They relate so precisely as to even suggest that the exact same batch of paint could have been used for both pictures.

As for why Vermeer would copy a work by a second-rate Italian artist on a subject of little resonance in Dutch Protestant culture, the simple answer is that it was a learning project. We don’t know very much about Vermeer’s life, but there is no solid evidence that he was ever apprenticed to or tutored by an established artist. Vermeer appears to have taught himself to paint, amazingly enough, and as a highly knowledgeable fan of Italian art and as a recent convert to Catholicism, the 22-year-old artist had reason to appreciate Ficherelli’s original even if his contemporaries did not. Saint Praxedis was a particular favorite of Jesuits in the late 16th century, and Vermeer’s mother-in-law lived next to an order of them in Delft.

This is one of only two works attributed to Johannes Vermeer that is privately owned, so even though Saint Praxedis doesn’t look much like the works Vermeer is famous for today, the incredibly rare chance to buy any piece by Vermeer could drive the price through the stratosphere.

 

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1733 portrait of freed slave acquired by Yorktown museum

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare, 1733, Jamestown-Yorktown FoundationA previously unknown portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773), an aristocrat from what is today Senegal who was sold into slavery in 1730 but made his way back home through a series of fortunate events, has been acquired by Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Along with its companion piece by the same artist, this is the earliest known portrait of a slave from the 13 colonies and the first Western portrait of a named African sitter. Its ultimate destination is the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown which is slated to open in 2016, but it will be on display at the Yorktown Victory Center from June 14th through August 3rd.

Ayube Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon in England, was the scion of a wealthy family of Muslim clerics and rulers in the West African Kingdom of Futa. While on a mission to the Gambia River to barter two slaves in exchange for supplies, Diallo was kidnapped and sold into slavery himself. He told the British slavers who bought him from his Mandingo kidnappers that his family would ransom him, but when the message didn’t get to his family in time, William and Henry Hunt loaded him into the ship and sold him to a dealer in Annapolis, Maryland.

He wound up the property of one Mr. Tolsey, a tobacco farmer on Kent Island, Maryland, who first attempted to put Diallo to work in the fields. He couldn’t hack it. This was back-breaking labor, and Diallo was a soft scholar. He was assigned to tending cattle instead, which he was a little better at. After being mocked by children for his prayers, in June of 1731 Diallo ran away. He was soon captured and put in prison in the Kent County Courthouse. There he met a British lawyer named Thomas Bluett whose curiosity was piqued by Diallo’s fine carriage and composure.

Bluett enlisted a translator and found out Diallo came from a wealthy family of important people. Tolsey, keen to derive some kind of profit from this liability of a slave, allowed Diallo to write a letter back home and then gladly allowed an official from the Royal African Company in London to buy his freedom. Diallo and Bluett sailed to London in March of 1733 where the cleric, nobleman and former slave made a social splash. He was commissioned by the future founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, to translate Arabic manuscripts in his library. He was introduced at Court by the Duke of Montagu. And he had his portrait painted by William Hoare.

Bluett describes the painting of the portrait in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, one of the earliest slave narratives (albeit not written in first person):

JOB’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr. Hoare. When the Face was finished, Mr. Hoare ask’d what Dress would be most proper to draw him in; and, upon JOB’s desiring to be drawn in his own Country Dress, told him he could not draw it, unless he had seen it, or had it described to him by one who had: Upon which JOB answered, If you can’t draw a Dress you never saw, why do some of you Painters presume to draw God, whom no one ever saw?

Hoare figured it out in the end, painting Diallo in a white robe and turban, wearing verses from the Qur’an in a pouch around his neck. The use of national dress makes this portrait unique. Other prominent named Africans would be painted after Diallo, but they were depicted wearing English dress and wigs.

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare, 1733, National Portrait GalleryHoare painted two versions of this portrait, although for centuries only one was known and it was long thought lost. The only evidence of it was a 1750 print. It turns out to have been in the same family since 1840 and was rediscovered in December 2009 when the owners put it up for auction at Christie’s in London. The Qatar Museums Authority purchased it for £554,937.50 ($932,517). The Culture Minister put a temporary export block on the painting to give the National Portrait Gallery a chance to raise the money by the end of August 2010. They came within £60,000 of the goal on August 12th, 2010. I was unable to discover if they actually managed to raise the full amount on time, but either way, the NPG made the QMA a purchase offer which it refused. The QMA did withdraw its export application, however, and eventually negotiated a long-term loan with the National Portrait Gallery.

The publicity from the NPG’s fundraising campaign brought attention to the portrait, inspiring the owners of the second version to engage in private sale negotiations with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., purchased the oil-on-canvas painting with funds raised privately, including a lead gift from Foundation trustee Fred D. Thompson, Jr., of Thompson Hospitality, the country’s largest minority-owned food service company. “This portrait is a powerful symbol of the diversity of colonial America’s population, which included people from many different African cultures,” says Thompson. “Diallo – his image and story – is an ideal teaching opportunity for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries.”

“For approximately three years now, the Foundation has been in confidential negotiations to acquire this important portrait,” says Thomas E. Davidson, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation senior curator. “Diallo’s visage speaks for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who remain largely unknown, yet who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population.”

 

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Harvard confirms book bound in human skin

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Scientists have confirmed that one book in Harvard’s Houghton Library — Des destinées de l’ame (The Destinies of the Soul) by French poet and essayist Arsène Houssaye, first published in 1879 — is bound in human skin. The book belonged to Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a doctor and book collector from Metz in the northeastern French province of Lorraine who combined his professional vocation with his interest in books and book binding in a rather macabre way. Arsène Houssaye was a personal friend of his. He gave the doctor a copy of his new book and Bouland had it rebound. A handwritten letter signed by Bouland found inside the book describes the new binding:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”

There used to be a typed document with the book that elaborated on the source of the skin. The original is gone, but we know from notes that the skin came from “the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.” The second book Bouland refers to that uses the same skin is now in the Wellcome Library, and according to a 1910 article in a French magazine, Bouland got the piece of skin when he was a medical student at a hospital in Metz. He received his medical degree in 1865, which means he held on to that poor lady’s skin for decades before sectioning it for use in binding at least two books.

The note Bouland wrote on the flyleaf of De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis, a 1663 edition of the influential book by Doctor Séverin Pineau that described the hymen in great anatomical detail (little of it accurate compared to the modern understanding of that intriguing membrane) and provided valuable instruction on how to tell if a virgin had been “corrupted,” is a creepier version of the Des destinées de l’ame explanation:

“This curious little book on virginity, which seemed to me to deserve a binding in keeping with its subject matter, is bound with a piece of woman’s skin that I tanned myself with some sumac.”

As far as Bouland was concerned, a book on the immortal soul and one on hymens were equally well-suited to be bound in the skin of a destitute mentally ill woman who had the misfortune to die of a stroke in the hospital where he was studying.

Two other books at Harvard, one in the Law School Library, one in the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine, had inscriptions identifying them as examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy (the official term for book binding using human skin). The Law School book is Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, a treatise on Spanish law by Juan Gutiérrez published in Madrid in 1605. A dramatic inscription on the last page of the book claimed:

“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

The book’s binding was DNA tested in 1992 but the results were inconclusive, most likely because of the tanning process. A year after that, a new analytical technique called peptide mass fingerprinting was developed. Peptide mass fingerprinting breaks proteins up into component peptides whose masses can be measured by mass spectrometer and the results compared to a database of known proteins. Two months ago, peptide mass fingerprinting conclusively proved the binding to be sheepskin, not the product of Jonas Wright’s flaying.

The Countway Library book is a 1597 French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which has a faint inscription in pencil on the inside cover stating simply “Bound in human skin,” but experts doubted its accuracy because the binding doesn’t look like other confirmed human leather bindings. Peptide mass fingerprinting proved that it too had a sheepskin binding.

With two of the three claimed human skin bindings proved false, peptide mass fingerprinting was enlisted once again to test the binding of Des destinées de l’ame. This time the peptide mass fingerprint matched the human references, but while it eliminated the usual suspects like sheep and cow, it couldn’t conclusively exclude other primates because we don’t have the comparison data for them.

Although unlikely that the binding was made from a primate source, the samples were further analyzed using Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS) to determine the order of amino acids, the building blocks of each peptide, which can be different in each species.

“The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” said [Director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory Bill] Lane.

 

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Beached whale revealed in 17th c. Dutch painting

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen seemed like an unassuming beach scene when conservator Shan Kuang first began to work on it. Painted in 1641 and donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873 along with a group of other Dutch landscapes by patron Richard Kerrich, View of Scheveningen Sands was sent to the museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for conservation while the Dutch Golden Age gallery was closed for a year-long refurbishment. Its resin varnish coating had yellowed over time, so Kuang was tasked with removing it to freshen up the painting for the grand reopening of the gallery.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, before restorationKuang began to painstakingly clean the canvas. Her work soon revealed an incongruous lone figure of a man standing on the horizon. There was only sea underneath him and sky above, so it was unclear how he fit into the composition. More cleaning of the area next to him exposed a dark grey triangular shape, which led Kuang to speculate that the man might be in the rigging of a sailboat that had been overpainted. She could see that the ocean in that spot was more crudely painted than in the rest of the painting.

After much discussion with Hamilton Kerr conservation experts and Fitzwilliam curators, they decided the overpaint was not the work of van Anthonissen. Its thick impasto and inferior quality indicated a later alteration done in the 18th or early 19th century. By the time the painting was donated in 1873, nobody knew it had been overpainted. Removing it was still a risky prospect. It’s difficult to take away just the paint layer that was added without harming the original paint, and you never know what ugly surprises might be concealed by the overpaint.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, after restorationThey decided to take the plunge, and Kuang set about removing the thick overpaint with a scalpel and a few carefully chosen solvents. To ensure she didn’t damage the original, she viewed the work under the microscope. Under the paint she found not a ship, but a beached sperm whale.

The man who seemed to be standing on the horizon is, in fact, balanced on the whale’s back where Kuang suggests that he might even be measuring its length.The chosen focus of the painting resonates with a surge of public interest in whales: contemporary records show many instances of whale beaching on the coastline of the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. While the Anthonissen painting seeks to represent the whale in a realistic manner, some prints from the period portray whales as rampaging monsters of the deep and omens of disaster.

"Beached Sperm Whale at Beverwijk on 19 December 1601" by Jan SaenredamRealistic depictions of beached whales and viewing them as omens of disaster was not mutually exclusive. The Dutch Republic in the late 16th, early 17th century was experiencing the religious and political upheaval of the Eighty Years’ War, a period that coincides with the heyday of the beached whale in Dutch art, literature and political writing. The appearance of a whale was seen as a portent of defeat in battle or a sign of God’s displeasure at the prospect of a truce between religious factions. A 1602 engraving by Jan Saenredam of a beached whale at Beverwijk has a long Latin note underneath detailing the exact measurements of the mammal (60 feet long, 14 feet high, 36 feet in circumference, 14-foot tail, 12-foot lower jaw) while above the tableau is a frame of allegorical references to earthquakes, eclipses and the passage of time. There are also more anatomically correct details of the whale after decomposition gases caused it to explode and Death shooting Amsterdam with a plague arrow.

By the time Anthonissen painted his beached whale landscape, the trend was losing steam. Negotiations between Spain and the Dutch Republic began in 1646, and a Treaty formalizing Dutch independence was signed in 1648. The prophetic vision of beached whales no longer bedeviled the stable, confident Republic. With the interest in the subject long faded, someone decided to hide the dead whale altogether, perhaps to make it more palatable to a wider market as an innocuous beach scene.

View of Scheveningen Sands, with a Stranded Sperm Whale is now on display in the reopened Dutch Golden Age gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

 

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Richard III’s spine recreated by 3D printer

Friday, May 30th, 2014

3D printed recreation of Richard III's spine; pictures used to create the animation copyright the University of LeicesterFor those of you who are over all this Richard III malarkey (hi anja!), I hope you understand why this post has to be. There’s a rotating spine gif here, people. How can I be expected to resist that? I’m only human. Besides, the question of Richard’s spinal deformity, its existence, nature and extent, has been the subject of many histories and even more theatrical performances for more than five centuries.

Now we have some real answers courtesy of the University of Leicester team which has published a brief paper on Richard’s spine in The Lancet. You can read it free of charge if you register on the site.

When a body decomposes, different parts break down at different rates. Ligaments that hold the spine together are some of the last ones to decompose, so usually the way the spine is found in the grave is how it was in life. The curvature in Richard’s spine could not have been a function of how he was placed. This was confirmed by examination of the bones, which found that the vertebrae of the curve are slightly different shapes and sizes. The only way those bones would fit together in life was in a spine with scoliosis.

The skeleton laid out on a flat surface, however, only shows the sideways curvature of the spine. It takes a 3D model to see the full picture of the condition. The bones were scanned on a multi-detector CT scanner which takes high resolution images from every side, allowing them to be viewed as a whole 3D structure or in slices across any plane. The bones obviously were not joined, since the soft tissue is all gone and there is no software that will take the disconnected bones and put them back together the way they were in life. Usually that work is done by creating models.

Richard III's skeleton laid out in the labThe team was able to use the imaging data to generate a model which was printed out in a polymer using the advanced 3D printing equipment of the Wolfson School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering at Loughborough University in Leicestershire. This produces a near identical copy of the bones, only the model is durable, light weight and easily passed around, giving scientists the opportunity to study the skeletal structure without having to handle fragile human remains. Even after the king has been reburied, therefore, experts will still be able to examine his bones.

The bones of the spine join at three places: the gap between two vertebrae where there’s a disc and two facet joints at the back. With the plastic model, experts drilled a small hole in the center of each vertebra and ran a wire through them, separating each bone with a felt pad standing in for the disc. They then joined the facet joints using a similar technique. They saw that while the lumbar vertebrae in the lower spine appeared quite normal and fit together in a standard way, as they rose in the spine the osteoarthritic degeneration in the facet joints that was caused by the scoliosis increased markedly, deforming the joints. That deformity meant the bones fit together in a very specific way, an enforced thoracic curve that is the s-shaped bend in the spine we saw in the photographs of the skeleton in situ and in the lab. The measurement of the extent of the spinal curvature, called a Cobb angle, is 65-85 degrees. In today’s scoliosis patients that would be considered a large curvature to be corrected by the surgical implantation of metal rods. Once they reached the upper thoracic vertebrae, the facet joints returned to normal and the spine straightened out.

In addition to the sideways s-curve, the 3D model illuminates the spiral twist of the spine that you can only see when the spine is rotated. (You could see it even more clearly if the ribs were attached, but they haven’t 3D printed any ribs yet and probably won’t because many of them were broken when unearthed.) The model shows that the ribs on Richard’s back would have stuck out significantly on the right side, while they were sunken on the left. When he leaned forward, the prominent ribs on the right side of his back would have formed a hump. This would not have been visible, however, when he was clothed and in most any other position than leaning over, so all those pillows stuffed under costumes are way off.

The physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight since he had a well balanced curve. His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this. A curve of 70—90° would not have caused impaired exercise tolerance from reduced lung capacity, and we identified no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp, because the leg bones are symmetric and well formed.

He may or may not have had back pain. If his spinal curvature had been magically straightened, he’d have been 5'8" tall, about average for a man of the period. With the scoliosis he was two to three inches shorter.

The polymer model was photographed from 19 angles and the images used to create an interactive 3D model. You can click on it and drag it from side to side to examine the recreated spine from any perspective.

 

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Half of Saddle Ridge Hoard coins sold in 72 hours

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Saddle Ridge Hoard coins for saleThe first round of coins from the Saddle Ridge Hoard, the 1,427 gold coins discovered in Northern California in February of 2013 by a couple walking their dog, has gone up for sale and is being snapped up by collectors. Since sales began on Tuesday, more than half of the coins have sold.

The festivities began at 7:30 PM on Tuesday at the Old Mint in San Francisco, the very same building where many of the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins were first struck. Sixty of them were put on display, including the most important and valuable single coin in the collection: an 1866 $20 Double Eagle that is missing the motto “In God We Trust” on the back. 1886 coin from Saddle Ridge HoardIt’s an extremely rare piece, as Congress had passed a law in March of 1865 authorizing the placement of the motto on all gold coins that “shall admit the inscription thereon.” The San Francisco mint apparently lacked the proper equipment to include the motto at that time. That little oversight makes the coin valued at $1.2 million.

An hour after the exhibition, one coin went up for auction at the Old Mint: an 1874 $20 Double Eagle. It sold for $15,000, with all the proceeds going to restore the National Historic Landmark and converting it into the San Francisco Museum at the Mint. The buyer was Ray Lent with Placer Partners, which is heavily involved in the cause. The mint museum will be the first museum dedicated to the history of the city, believe it or not. You’d think a place like San Francisco would be lousy with them. Here’s a video of the culmination of the auction and an interview with Ray Lent explaining why they secured the coin for the museum. There are some great shots of the space and the exhibition.

With the non-profit part done, commerce began. Coin dealer Kagin’s Inc. put up hundreds of coins for sale Tuesday night. By midnight, 225 coins offered for sale on the website were bought for a total of $2.4 million. Even more coins were listed on Amazon Tuesday night. Within an hour, 346 of them had sold for more than $1 million. At this rate, the initial estimate of the hoard’s value at $10 million will be surpassed by at least a million.

Two of the 14 finest offered for sale in one lot on AmazonOriginal can, part of the 14-coin lotThe 14 finest coins are being sold in a single lot along with the original can that was their home for near a century and a half. They’re available on Amazon for a cool $2,750,000 and yes, you can buy them with 1-Click. As of this writing, 572 coins from the hoard are for sale individually on Amazon, priced between $2,975 and $17,500. Kagin’s has 55 coins for sale on its website and numbers are diminishing rapidly.

Saddle Ridge Hoard coins, cans and lidsIt’s the condition of the coins and their Robert Louis Stevenson-like story that underpins their commercial success. The gold coins are nearly all in mint condition, with coins struck between 1847 and 1894 and barely circulated. They were buried in eight metal cans in the Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada mountain until their rediscovery by the property owners last year.

Eventually almost all of the coins will be sold. The owners, known only as John and Mary, will keep a few coins for sentimental reasons.

 

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WWI memorial plaques found on dirt floor basement

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

World War I memorial plaques in a pile on basement floorKaren O’Maxfield was in the Ice House, a public works outbuilding at Colt Park in Hartford, Connecticut, last year when she stumbled on a large number of cast iron plaques. They were in a pile on the dirt floor of the basement, topped and surrounded with junk like an old plastic milk jug and random bits of tubing. O’Maxfield took some pictures and shared them on Facebook where they were spotted by Hartford history buffs Greg Secord and Lynn Ferrari. The three got together and began researching and inventorying the plaques.

They discovered in the archives of the Hartford Courant that the plaques had once been part of a memorial to the 207 Hartford men who died in World War I. The memorial began in 1920 with the planting of 189 elm trees along the pathways encircling the track, dance floor (cool park!) and baseball diamonds in Colt Park. Mayor Newton C. Brainard, himself a history lover who decades later would become president of the Connecticut Historical Society, presided over the ceremony. Each tree was adorned with a small name marker. It was called the Trees of Honor memorial.

Undated picture of Trees of Honor memorial in Colt ParkSix years later, the Rau-Locke American Legion Post 8 replaced the four-inch name markers with substantial cast iron ones on poles beside the trees, now a complete set of 207. Each plaque was approximately 12-by-10 inches and embossed with the name of a deceased soldier, his rank, the location where he fell and the date. For years the city commemorated their sacrifice at the memorial every Armistice Day (renamed to Veterans Day in 1954) on November 11th.

It’s unclear when exactly the plaques were removed, but it was in the 1960s that almost all of the trees were killed by Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by bark beetles that first arrived in New England in 1928. The trees were destroyed and the plaques put into storage. The basement of the Ice House was not a great place for them. The dirt floor was prone to flooding and over time the plaques were damaged. Some were cracked; all were tarnished. Others were lost altogether.

Rusted plaques in need of restorationWhen they were rediscovered, there were only 179 plaques out of the original 207. We know the names of the men whose plaques are missing, thanks to a list published in the 1920s by the Hartford Courant. (You can see the complete list here.) Secord, Ferrari and O’Maxfield are working to replace the 30 missing and broken plaques. They’ve started a Facebook group, Hartford Heroes, and a GoFundMe project to raise money for the replacements. Each one costs $325 for a total of $9,750.

Thankfully Competitive Edge Coatings, a South Windsor powder coating company, stepped up to the plate and offered to restore the existing plaques free of charge.

“To know that these plaques in memory of people who lived in Hartford were put down in this building and left unnoticed, I feel that they should be out where people can see them,” said Damon Schuster, who co-owns the shop with Chris Scutnik. They cut the tarnish with a blast of glass beads, which brought out the original metal and redefined the details. They then applied a number of powder coatings to some plaques.

Cast iron map of the plaques in Colt ParkThe American Legion post that originally funded the plaques in 1926 is still in existence today. It is working with other organizations and the city to recreate the memorial in Colt Park, complete with new trees. Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it would be fitting if the goal could be accomplished this year.

 

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When Argentinian women wore hair combs four feet wide

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Portrait of Doña Isabel Cabos de Porcel wearing a mantilla, by Francisco Goya, ca. 1805It began with the peineta, the tall comb worn by Spanish women under the mantilla, a traditional translucent lace head covering, or by flamenco dancers as decorative hairpieces. Aspects of the comb tradition go back hundreds of years, but the accessory as we know it today took root in the 18th century and came to its full fulgor in the early 19th century. It crossed the Atlantic, establishing itself in Spanish Latin America where it soon took on a unique character.

This was a turbulent time for Spain’s old colonies. Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and while the motherland poured money and might into the fight for the next six years, the colonies struggled for their own independence and the Empire splintered under the pressure. As independence movements grew, Latin American fashions followed, branching off into their own distinctive development.

They had the raw materials for it: the shells of Caribbean sea turtles. They were widely traded in South America, used by artisans to craft jewelry and decorative items like hair combs. With an embarrassment of riches purloined from what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of marine turtles (not coincidentally, they’re endangered now), artists could expand the boundaries of the traditional design.

Peinetones in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos AiresIn 1823, Spanish machinist Manuel Mateo Masculino started a business in Buenos Aires making combs and comb-making machines. He advertised that his gear and employees could produce more than a thousand combs a day. His business took off. Soon he had 106 employees making his designs using three different kinds of turtle shells (including a very expensive Indian import), ivory and mother of pearl. The material was cut, punctured, carved, polished, stamped, embossed, heat fused and polished. Masculino’s machines and the templates he designed brought a whole new complexity to the peineta, creating elaborate openwork filigree in place of the more solid edged Spanish pieces.

He also went big, not home, expanding the Spanish originals into combs one foot square. Every year his designs got bigger and fancier. The original wedge shape morphed into crescents, crowns, bell shapes, baskets. By the early 1830s, the average width was three feet. No longer were they peinetas. Now they were peinetones.

Peinetones in the home, lithograph in "Extravagancias de 1834" by César Hipólito BacleThe massive combs and the ladies who wore them were cause for much comment in the media. They became socio-political footballs, representing the evils of female vanity and wastefulness and the rejection of the ideal of the modest virtues of the household. Journalists tut-tutted at their impracticality; poets wrote verse imprecations against women who bankrupted their families and turned to prostitution to support their Peinetones on the street in "Extravagancias de 1834" by César Hipólito Baclepeineton habit; artists satirized the increasingly absurd dimensions. A series of lithographs by French artist César Hipólito Bacle published in a magazine called Extravagancias de 1834 caricatured the giant hair combs as literal homewreckers, knocking down walls on their way out, assaulting men on the street and ruining their view at the theater.

Peineton just shy of three feet wideThe National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires has two exceptional examples from its collection online which prove the satires had a kernel of truth. This piece is a fraction of an inch under three feet wide and just over one foot high. It’s modest compared to this beautiful behemoth which is three feet ten inches wide and one foot four inches high. The elegant lady who wore that didn’t knock down walls, but she definitely had to walk through doors sideways.

Peineton nearly four feet wide featuring central silhouette of Juan Manuel de RosasNotice in the center of that comb is a carved silhouette of Juan Manuel de Rosas, military leader and Federalist governor (read: dictator) of the province of Buenos Aires who ruled from 1829 until 1852, covering the heyday of the peineton. The oval is surrounded by oak leaves, a nod to the high Roman military decoration the corona civica, and topped with a Phrygian cap, a symbol of liberty. Underneath the oak wreath is carved the slogan “Federation or Death,” which helps date the hairpiece to 1832 at the earliest, the year de Rosas decreed that that phrase be used in all federal badges. There are few surviving examples of this slogan in a fashionable accessory.

Peinetones in the theater, "Extravagancias de 1834" by César Hipólito BacleBy the time Bacle’s Extravagancias came out, Rosas had turned on the peinetones. Once symbols of Argentine patriotism, a way for women to display their support for Argentine independence in the public sphere, the huge combs were now dangerously subversive, as far as the government was concerned. Bacle ran the official government press, so he wasn’t just printing a fashion magazine. He was actively working on Rosas’ behalf to associate the peineton with women of questionable virtue and even more questionable politics.

It worked. The trend toward giantism reversed, and even though peinetones remained in fashion through the 1850s, the day of the four-footer was over.

 

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