Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

152-year-old shipwreck found in Lake Huron

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Great Lakes shipwreck hunter David Trotter has found the wreck of the Keystone State, a wooden sidewheel steamer that sank into the cold, clear waters of Lake Huron with all 33 hands on board in November of 1861. It was discovered about 50 miles north of Port Austin, the last place it was sighted already in distress, and unlike some of the other 100 shipwrecks Trotter’s team has found which sank straight down and remained virtually intact on the lake floor, much of the Keystone State was found scattered along the bottom. However its most dramatic features — two massive paddle wheels 40 feet in diameter, its engine and two boilers — were standing where they fell in 175 feet of water.

The Keystone State was both a jewel and a workhorse in its day. It was built in Buffalo in 1849, a 288-foot steamship designed for the transportation of rich travelers, poor immigrants and considerable cargo.

It was the second-largest steamship on the Great Lakes at the time and was among a class known as palace steamers, said maritime historian, author and artist Robert McGreevy.

“The interiors were made to look like the finest hotels. They were quite beautiful inside,” he said. “They had leaded glass windows and carved arches and mahogany trim.”

Along with posh accommodations for the wealthy, its steerage had plenty of space for immigrant travelers heading from Buffalo to destinations like Chicago or Milwaukee. Records show the boat also had room for 6,000 barrels of freight.

It was almost passé from the time when it was born, thanks to the advent of the railroads which would soon make canal and lake transportation obsolete, and in 1857 it was taken out of operation because it cost more to run than it could make. With the arrival of the Civil War, the old wooden steamships were pulled out of mothballs because there was profiteering to be done. The Keystone State was refurbished and sent to Detroit to pick up its cargo.

The planned route was hugging the western coast of Lake Huron up to Cheboygan, then crossing the Straits of Mackinac into Lake Michigan and going south to its final destination in Milwaukee. The ship was last seen by witnesses off the coast of Port Austin around November 9th, 1861, then nobody heard or saw anything of it for the next couple of days. Finally some wreckage washed up in Lexington, south of Port Austin closer to where the ship began its journey than where it ended.

This final voyage was a mysterious one. It left in a hurry without any lifeboats. Its cargo manifest claimed it was hauling iron hardware, farm equipment and grain, but who buys that stuff in November in Wisconsin? It’s not exactly prime planting or threshing season. Also, given the inclement weather on the Great Lakes in November, hauling farm gear doesn’t seem like sufficient motivation to brave the journey so late in the year. Rumors quickly sprung up that she was on a secret mission, surreptitiously carrying Civil War arms and munitions or gold bullion or gold coins.

The diving team saw no evidence of mysterious cargo or the gleam of golden treasure in more than 30 dives to the site from July through September of this year. The cargo hold was completely empty, perhaps because the crew dumped its freight in a desperate attempt to save the disabled ship. Thus the mystery of the Keystone State‘s last trip remains unsolved.

Here’s a video describing the significance of the wreck and the discovery. The boat work start around 1:55. You can see the wreck beginning at the three minute mark. Those paddle wheels look magnificent in the crisp blue waters of Lake Huron.


Medieval bones go online at Digital Diseases

Monday, December 9th, 2013

More than 1,600 archaeological bones, mainly Medieval, from collections across the UK have been scanned and digitized to create a rich online database of pathological specimens accessible to all. These bones cannot be seen in person by laypeople because they are restricted to scholarly research. In some cases, they are so fragile that even scientists aren’t allowed to handle them. The Digital Diseases team has used 3D laser scanning, computer tomography scans and high resolution photography to create photo-realistic 3D digital models that visitors to the website will be able to examine at a forensic level of detail that wouldn’t be possible in person.

This record of bones affected by more than 90 pathological conditions like leprosy, bone tumors, tuberculosis, congenital deformations, force trauma both sharp and blunt will be an invaluable resource for medical students, doctors, historians and researchers all over the world who have no access to pathological specimens. The fact that they’re archaeological remains makes them particularly significant because researchers will be able to study the skeletal impact of disease and injury on people who in all likelihood experienced nothing or very little in the way of effective medical intervention. It also gives archaeologists the chance to examine bones taking all the time they need without concern that they won’t be finished before legal reburial requirements kick in.

“We believe this will be a unique resource both for archaeologists and medical historians to identify diseases in ancient specimens, but also for clinicians who can see extreme forms of chronic diseases which they would never see nowadays in their consulting rooms, left to progress unchecked before any medical treatment was available. These bones show conditions only available before either by travelling to see them, or in grainy black and white photographs in old textbooks,” said Andrew Wilson, senior lecturer in forensic and archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford and the lead researcher on the project He added: “I do think members of the public will also find them gripping – they do have what one observer called ‘a grotesque beauty’.”

They’re also just plain interesting. You don’t have to have an aesthetic appreciation of, say, a giant benign bone tumor on a mandible, to find it worth examining and reading about.

The Digital Diseases website officially opens any minute now. It is being launched at an event at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and judging from the project’s Twitter feed, the party has started. The site has a preview on the landing page, but hasn’t gone fully live yet as of this typing. Some images are still missing, some menu links go nowhere, there’s no search function I could find and the home page doesn’t quite exist yet. Still, you can browse categories and click on some examples for more details. Once it is live, visitors will be able to examine bone models in 3D via their web browsers or to download them to their smartphone or tablet device.

The project’s blog is a good place to start right now while the site is still being tinkered with. During the course of the two years spent digitizing the specimens, team members have been blogging about their efforts and particularly interesting bone pathologies they’ve encountered. Take a look at the big hole in this right femur.

That’s some gunshot wound. There’s no date on it (I’m sure once the site is functioning we can find that info there), but judging from the big round hole, that was ball shot, like from a musket. Amazingly, the bone is healed, so the injury did not prove to be fatal.

This vertebral column and ribs is an example of advanced ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory arthritis that can eventually result in fusion of the spine. That’s what has happened here. Even the ribs have fused to the vertebrae via the ossification of the ligaments attaching them to the spine. Galen first documented some symptoms as distinct from rheumatoid arthritis in the second century A.D., but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that doctors fully identified the disease.

This skull has played a supporting role in the archaeological story of the year/decade/century, the discovery of the skeletal remains of King Richard III. It once belonged to a man who met a bloody end along with so many others during the War of the Roses at the Battle of Towton on March 29th, 1461, Palm Sunday. Inside a mass grave from the battle discovered in 1996, archaeologists found the full articulated remains of 37 men. This was a highly significant find because often in mass graves the remains are so jumbled up it’s impossible to put individuals back together. Articulated skeletons can tell us much more about the injuries sustained in battle and before.

This skull and other bones from the Battle of Towton grave were used by University of Leicester osteologist Dr. Jo Appleby to compare wounds with the skull of the scoliotic skeleton found at the Greyfriars dig site. Richard III and this anonymous but not forgotten fellow both fought and died in the same war, albeit more than 20 years apart (Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth on August 25th, 1485). To confirm that the Richard III candidate’s extensive head wounds properly fit the period’s weapons and battle tactics, Dr. Appleby and Bob Woosnam-Savage, Senior Curator of European Edged Weapons at the Royal Armouries, examined the Towton skull’s peri-mortem weapon injuries. As we now know, they were found to be compatible.

The Digital Diseases database will make that kind of work possible on a far vaster scale since most people in the world aren’t able to visit these collections in person.


8th century Japanese statue digitally re-colored

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

When the life-sized clay statue of the Buddhist deity Shukongojin was made for the Todaiji Temple in Nara, southeastern Japan, in 733 A.D., it was painted in vibrant colors and liberally gilded. Although much of the polychromy has been lost over time, there’s still an unusual amount of color paint and gilding surviving on the surface. So much has pigment has survived because Shukongojin is a hidden god — he is extra powerful because he is kept behind closed doors at all times and only revealed to the public one day a year — and has therefore been protected from exposure to the elements and our various emanations and effluvia.

The particularly great state of preservation of this oldest Shukongojin figure in the country has made it possible to extrapolate what the whole statue looked like when it was new 1,280 years ago. Researchers from the Tokyo University of the Arts and the Tokyo University of Science spent two years studying the statue to detect trace pigment remnants and recreating the original colors digitally.

The result is as striking in 8th century clay as it is in first century marble:

Gold was an indicator of divinity in Japanese Buddhist iconography, while red symbolized the quelling of demons and protection from illness. Shukongojin is a protector deity, the thunderbolt-bearing guardian of the laws of Buddhism and its faithful. His furious expression, crowned in bright red hair, and his thunderbolt ready to strike ward off the evil spirits who would bedevil the devoted at prayer in the temple. He was originally an Indian deity, one of the vajrapani or thunderbolt-holders who were said to have been personal guardians of the historical Buddha. His thunderbolt broke everything it was flung at while being itself unbreakable, a symbol of faith’s ability to destroy evil without being damaged by the encounter.

The bright colors and elaborate adornment served a political function as well. Emperor Shomu (reigned 724-749 A.D.) saw the establishment of government-controlled Buddhist temples and shrines as a means to unify and protect the country. His reign had been plagued with rebellions, smallpox outbreaks and crop failures. In 743, he issued an edict requiring people to help build temples and shrines in every province, with Todaiji as the head of all provincial temples. He believed a new, widespread piety would appeal to the Buddha and spare the country further disasters. Shukongojin, with his full armour, gold shine, blinding colors and powerful intensity of expression, was modeled after depictions of Chinese guardian generals. His role is religious, but his intimidating presence and elaborately decorated outfit are meant to convey the protection of a unified faith, already well-established in India and China, a protection inextricably linked to the emperor’s government at this time.

This particular Shukongojin has another connection to the early history of Buddhism in Japan. According to the Nihon Ryoiki, the oldest collection of Buddhist myths and legends in Japan (it dates to the late 8th/early 9th centuries), the monk Roben, second patriarch of the Kegon school of Buddhism and founder of the Todaiji Temple, was helped in the creation of the temple by a magical sculpture of Shikkongoushin. Tradition has it that this is that very Shikkongoushin who supported Roben’s work. It was first made for the Kinshoji, the temple Roben established in 733 a decade before the emperor ordered construction of Todaiji. The former Kinshoji is now the Hokkedo (Lotus Hall), the oldest building in the Todaiji temple complex, and is still Shikkongoushin’s home today.


Mr. Peanut goes to the Smithsonian

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

A cast iron Mr. Peanut who once stood debonair watch on the fence post of a Planters factory will now stand debonair watch at the National Museum of American History. It was donated by Kraft Foods, which acquired the Planters brand when it bought Nabisco in 2000, and will be part of the museum’s upcoming American Enterprise exhibition which opens in 2015. Mr. Peanut will adorn the exhibition’s Marketing Moments section, as suits so iconic a brand logo.

“American advertising has gone through a tremendous transformation since the early years of the nation,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “But while it has become a high-tech industry deeply affecting the American experience, icons like Mr. Peanut demonstrate the resilience of branding and the use of spokes-characters throughout much of that transformation.”

It’s fitting that an exhibition on the history of American business should prominently feature the work of two first-generation Italian immigrants and one second-generation. The Planters Peanut Company was founded in 1906 by 29-year-old Amedeo Obici, an immigrant who had left his hometown of Oderzo, 40 miles northeast of Venice, when he was just 11 years old to join his uncle in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He worked at a cigar factory making 80 cents a week while he learned English going to night school. A year later he moved to Wilkes-Barre where he worked at a fruit stand that also sold roasted peanuts.

This inspired the young Amedeo to get a fruit stand of his own with a peanut cart and a cheap roaster that he modified himself from scrapyard parts. He added a steam whistle so his cart would go off like a tea kettle when the roasting was done and an automated stirring mechanism which allowed him to focus on his customers without concern that the peanuts would burn. Showing an early understanding of marketing that would soon blossom into the dandiest of anthropomorphic peanuts, Obici called himself “The Peanut Specialist” and was soon doing very brisk business from the back of a horse-drawn wagon. By the time he was 18 years old in 1895, Amedeo had saved enough money to bring his mother and siblings to live with him in the United States and still had money left over to buy his own restaurant that specialized in roasted nuts and, weirdly, oyster stew.

There he experimented further with the roasting process. He added salt — can you imagine the days before peanuts were a salty snack? — and, since salt sticks better to peeled and skinned peanuts, started blanching them first to remove their outerwear before roasting them in oil and salting them. He also made chocolate-covered peanuts to cover all bases, savory and sweet.

It was when he joined forces with his future brother-in-law Mario Peruzzi that the Planters we know today was born. Peruzzi invented a superior process for blanching and roasting whole peanuts. When the Planters Peanut Company opened its doors in 1906, their focus was on quality. Obici wanted to elevate the lowly peanut, then considered animal feed, or at best for people who couldn’t afford anything better (hence the phrase “peanut gallery,” meaning the distant seats cheap enough for peanut-eaters). That’s why he picked the name “Planters,” because the thought it redolent of the landed aristocracy.

The company was successful, its product genuinely superior to many of its competitors’. To cut out the middlemen and decrease exorbitant transportation costs, in 1913 Obici moved the main peanut processing factory to Suffolk, Virginia, where the peanut plantations were. That’s where the second-generation Italian comes into the picture. In 1916, annoyed by the many inferior imitations of Planters’ roasted nuts that had sprung up in the wake of their success, the company ran a contest for a new trademark design that would appeal to adults and children alike. The chosen design would win five dollars. The lucky winner was a 13-year-old Suffolk boy by the name of Anthony Gentile. He drew a smiling peanut in the shell with arms, legs and in at least one drawing, a cane. He named it “Mr. P. Nut Planter — from Virginia.”

There is some question as to whether there may have been some bias in the selection. The Italian community in Suffolk was small and it’s highly unlikely that the Obicis and Gentiles were strangers. They certainly weren’t from that point forward. Amedeo Obici payed Anthony’s way through college and medical school, and he paid for the college education of all of Anthony’s surviving siblings (minus one who didn’t want to go). Anthony Gentile died of a heart attack when he was just 36 years old.

He lives on his immortal creation, however. Obici sent Anthony’s drawings to a commercial artist in Wilkes-Barre to gussy them up for the campaign. The artist, whose name has sadly not come down to us, added the top hat, white gloves, monocle and spats to give Mr. Peanut that classy look Mr. Obici was always keen to project on his modest far. The first official Mr. Peanut made his debut in the April 20th, 1918, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Notice the focus in the early ads on branding, on the unmistakable identification of the quality genuine Planters peanut versus the pale imitators who have neither the transparent bag nor the Fred Astaire of peanuts to distinguish them. This was the first national advertising campaign for roast salted nuts.

He was a raging success, soon becoming a highly coveted item in his own right thanks to the company’s vast array of promotional products. Cast iron versions like the one now in the Smithsonian decorated Planters factories and along with other such pieces pioneered the practice of outdoor three-dimensional advertising. He was even enlisted in the war effort, appearing butched up and stripped of all his fancy accessories on one of the greatest of all World War II propaganda posters issued by the Department of Agriculture to promote the many uses of peanuts in wartime.

To this day Mr. Peanut remains highly collectible and widely beloved. Planters ran an online poll in 2006 asking which new accessory — bow tie, cufflinks or pocketwatch — Mr. Peanut should don and all were rejected in favor of keeping him just as he is.

For more about the National Museum of American History’s American Enterprise exhibition, see its dedicated website. It has an overview of the show and some interesting articles like this one about the history of pawnshops and their symbol.


Happy birthday, oldest synagogue in the U.S.!

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Yesterday the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, blew out 250 candles on its metaphoric cake. Built between 1759 and 1763 by English architect Peter Harrison, it was the second synagogue constructed in what would become the United States. The first was built in 1730 for the Congregation Shearith Israel on Mill Street in lower Manhattan, but that was demolished in 1818 to make room for a larger synagogue on the same spot leaving the Touro Synagogue the oldest synagogue in the country. It is now the only surviving synagogue from the colonial era.

Newport had had a small but vibrant Jewish community since the first 15 families arrived from Barbados in 1658. These were Spanish and Portuguese Jews, a subset of Sephardic Jews descended from conversos, forced converts to Christianity under the Inquisition who reverted to their ancestral Judaism when they left Spain and Portugal for more tolerant pastures, including colonies in South America and the West Indies. The Shearith Israel congregation was established in New Amsterdam against the strident wishes of Governor Peter Stuyvesant thanks to the intervention of Jewish directors of the Dutch West India Company, while Jews were banned from British North America as they had been in all British territory since King Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290. It was Oliver Cromwell who, in exchange for financing, let them come back almost 400 years later in 1657. That opened the door in the colonies as well, and the Newport Jews were the first to walk through.

They still have to deal with colonial laws that prohibited them from public worship, from holding office and from voting. The Jewish congregations in New York and Rhode Island used their private homes as synagogues for decades until in the laws changed in the first half of the 18th century. The Shearith Israel synagogue was built at the first opportunity to attend to the spiritual needs of the relatively large Manhattan congregation. The smaller Congregation Yeshuat Israel in Newport reached a critical mass of about 70 congregants three decades later and what is now known as the Touro Synagogue was built.

Peter Harrison was a self-taught architect who is known for being the first to introduce Palladian design to colonial America. The elegant exterior of the Newport synagogue has Palladian elements while for the interior he relied on the memory of cantor Isaac Touro, a recent arrival from Amsterdam via the West Indies. He described to Harrison the Sephardic synagogues he had known in Amsterdam and they informed the architects’ design. The Yeshuat Israel synagogue was dedicated during Chanukah celebrations on December 2nd, 1763.

On the eve of the Revolution, there were an estimated 1,175 Jews in Newport, 300 of them regular attendants at the synagogue. Newport was hard hit by the onset of hostilities. The English took the city in the fall of 1776, confiscating patriot ships, buildings and businesses. Many pro-Independence residents fled to Massachusetts and elsewhere. A few stayed behind at great risk to themselves, among them Isaac Touro and Moses Seixas, an ardent patriot and the founder of the King David Masonic Lodge in Newport, the oldest Jewish lodge in the country. They kept watch over the synagogue which had been commandeered by the British for use as a hospital and public assembly hall. Its usefulness is what kept it intact even as the British demolished a great many colonial Newport structures to burn their wood during the winter.

The British left Newport in 1779 and the ousted patriots began to return to put their homes and businesses back together. In September of 1780, the first post-occupation General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island convened in the synagogue. Ten years later on August 17-18th, 1790, the Congregation Yeshuat Israel played host to President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Governor George Clinton of New York, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Blair of Virginia, and U.S. Congressman William Loughton Smith of South Carolina. Rhode Island had a long tradition of religious tolerance going back to its founder Roger Williams who was banished from Massachusetts for his heretical religious beliefs, so it was the last state to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790, and only did so after it was assured that a Bill of Rights would be added. Washington visited Newport, and very pointedly the synagogue, to rally support for the Bill of Rights which was still being debated in the legislatures of Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Georgia at the time.

At the time of his visit, Moses Seixas was the president of the synagogue. As a fellow high-ranking mason, a civilian hero of the Revolution and the brother of Shearith Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Gershon Mendes Seixas, aka the “patriot rabbi” who was one of 14 religious leaders to officiate at Washington’s 1789 Inauguration, Moses was tasked with delivering a welcome address to the President. His eloquent words in favor of democracy and freedom of conscience and George Washington’s quotation of them in his response have gone down in history as a seminal exchange on the subject of religious freedom at the dawn of the United States.

The key passage from the Seixas address:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine[.]

On August 21nd, 1790, George Washington sent a letter to the Congregation Yeshuat Israel in response. The oft-quoted passage therefrom:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. [...]

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Washington’s reply, in particular his repetition of Moses Seixas’ phrase, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” has become emblematic of the new nation’s dedication to religious liberty and the separation of church and state. The original manuscript of the address is part of the George Washington Papers in the Library of Congress and the original Washington response belongs to Frederick Phillips of New York, but so important is this exchange that even contemporary newspaper print versions are incredibly valuable. The address and letter were printed in the Gazette of the United States, an early Federal newspaper in Philadelphia, on September 15th, 1790. That page and another from the September 11th, 1790, issue that describes the President’s visit to Newport are going on sale at a Bonhams’ Judaica auction on December 10th. The pre-sale estimate is $80,000 – $100,000.

The Congregation Yeshuat Israel synagogue went through some hard times after Washington’s visit. In 1791 regular services stopped as the once bustling commercial life of Newport slumped and much of the merchant class moved to New York. The Jewish community was reduced to a few longtime residents and regular visitors who returned to attend an occasional holy day service or funeral. The cemetery continued to be used as former residents often asked to be buried in the traditional cemetery of their fathers. It was the Touro family, Isaac’s sons Abraham and Judah, who donated money to fund maintenance on the synagogue and cemetery in their old hometown. In the first half of the 19th century, they both made substantial bequests to the state of Rhode Island for the perpetual care of the Congregation properties. That’s when the synagogue became known as the Touro Synagogue

It wasn’t until the population of Jews in Newport was boosted by Eastern European immigrants in 1883 that the synagogue reopened for regular worship again. Although the Jewish population of Newport is small today — an estimated 200 people — the synagogue’s commitment to its rich history is unflagging and it is visited by thousands of tourists a year. The synagogue holds an annual public reading of George Washington’s famous letter that is so popular you have to make reservations to attend. This year the keynote speaker was Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan who said: “In the early years of the Republic, every word George Washington said was addressed to the larger country, and every aspect of that lesson resonates today as strongly as it did in 1790.”


Gold shines anew on Ghiberti’s first Baptistery doors

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor and goldsmith who created the gilded bronze doors to Florence’s Baptistery of San Giovanni that Michelangelo considered “so beautiful that they would do well for the gates of Paradise”, started out with a more modest assignment. The Arte di Calimala, the cloth importers guild of Florence, held a contest in 1401 to design a new set of doors for the Baptistery that would complement the bronze ones made by Andrea Pisano in 1330. Pisano’s doors graced the east side of the Baptistery in place of pride facing the Duomo, and consisted of 28 barbed quatrefoil panels depicting the life of St. John the Baptist and the eight virtues. Each contestant was given a year to submit a test panel on the subject of The Sacrifice of Isaac.

Vasari describes each submission in his Lives of the Artists and it’s clear that in his opinion Ghiberti’s was superior to everyone’s, including Donatello’s and Jacopo della Quercia’s. The two finalists were the young Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, future builder of the Duomo’s dome. Ghiberti claims in his autobiography that he was the unanimous winner; Vasari agrees. Brunelleschi’s biographer Antonio Manetti says Giberti and Brunelleschi were both given the assignment but Brunelleschi had no interest in collaborating so he went off to study architecture in Rome and left Ghiberti to do all the work himself.

Ghiberti spent 21 years from 1403 to 1424 crafting his 28 barbed quatrefoil panels depicting the life of Christ, the four evangelists and the Church Fathers. The high relief gilded bronze scenes demonstrated his impressive command of design and casting. The dimension and dynamism of the composition eclipsed the more static, flat designs of Pisano’s making the doors huge hits and the artist famous. Pisano’s doors were moved to the west portal (later moved again to the south portal) and Ghiberti’s new ones took pole position on the east side.

So thrilled was the Calimala organization with the doors, as soon as they were installed the guild commissioned Ghiberti to make a new set. This time they put no conditions on him whatsoever, no need to match the look of the Pisano doors and therefore no need to squeeze 28 small scenes into barbed quatrefoil borders. For this project Ghiberti chose to expand his canvas, dividing the door into 10 large squares that could accommodate his novel vision of several scenes from Old Testament episodes sharing space on the same panel. He used deep perspective and different depths of relief to capture figures in motion, taking full advantage of the architectural space. It took him 27 years to make these doors, his masterpiece, which would become known as the Gates of Paradise.

When complete, they were installed in the east portal. Ghiberti’s first doors were moved to the north portal where they still stand today. Centuries of pollution, vandalism, aggressive polishing and exposure to the elements coated the panels with thick blank gunk and damaged the gilding that remained underneath it. In 1980, experts with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure di Firenze, a public art restoration institute, initiated a long-term plan of study and conservation of the Gates of Paradise. The learning curve was steep; new laser technology even had to be developed to clean the gilding without overheating it. After 27 years of intensive work, the gleaming gold Gates of Paradise were returned to their former splendor and put on display in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. (A replica is in place in the Baptistery.)

Now it’s the north doors’ turn. All the hard-learned lessons from the restoration of the Gates of Paradise has drastically decreased the time projected to clean the north doors. In just a few months, already two of the panels, The Baptism of Christ and The Temptation of Christ have gone from black to shiny gold. The remaining 26 panels, the decorative borders, the 47 heads of prophets, sibyls and Ghiberti himself wearing a dashing turban are scheduled to be completed in autumn of 2015, after which they will go on permanent display in a compressed air case next to the Gates of Paradise in the new Museo dell’Opera.


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.