Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Drone flight over the Mausoleum of Augustus

Monday, April 5th, 2021

After so many centuries of hardship and an arduous restoration, the Mausoleum of Augustus finally reopened in March. The response was huge. Tickets, which were limited by pandemic measures, sold out immediately. Things were looking up for the largest circular tomb in the world, and then it hit the wall of the latest lockdown.

Mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi commemorated the one-month anniversary of the all-too-brief reopening by posting a cool new drone video of the mausoleum on her Facebook page. It starts as an overhead of the exterior, then flies into the tomb itself. The footage conveys the scale and dimension of the site far more effectively than still photographs. As usual, I just wish it were longer.


Medieval aphrodisiacs, humors, fasting and a really old callback

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

More than 11 years ago when this blog was new (well… less old, at any rate), I wrote about medieval penitentials and the brilliant sex flowchart derived therefrom by University of Kansas history professor emeritus James A. Brundage for his seminal text Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. It is still one of the most viewed posts in History Blog history.

Written by Irish monks starting in the 6th century, penitentials listed sins commonly encountered in confession and suggested suitable penances for each sin. They are remarkably explicit and specific in their descriptions of sinful sex acts, and the penances consistently prescribe rigorous fasting. A wide variety of sexual experiences — same-sex, extra-marital, marital but done at the wrong time, beastiality, masturbation — all earned the penitents years of fasting.

There was some discussion in the comments of what that level of fasting might entail. One comment from Mary clarified that a fasting penance in this context enjoined penitent sinners to abstain from certain kinds of food, not all food, mostly rich foods like meat and wine.

I was reminded of this exchange when watching the highly entertaining and illuminating webinar Love, Lust, and Libido: Aphrodisiacs in Medieval Europe hosted by food historian Ken Albala and Getty manuscripts curator Larisa Grollemond. Albala explanes the Humor Theory and how inextricably linked it was to food which was not just a menu but medicine. What foods you were allowed to eat while doing penance for sexual sins was determined by the humors, because some ingredients — ginger, meat, salt — stimulated libido/performance/fertility while others — spinach, beans, fruit — suppressed them. Grollemond adds some visual aids in the form of manuscript illuminations from the Getty’s collection. It is an impressively thorough and eminently watchable treatment of the question.

Also not to be missed are three videos of Albala making recipes mentioned in the webinar. That almond milk creamed spinach from 1420 looks pretty great to me, especially if you add the garlic the author warned against as it is known to inflame lust.


New virtual tours of 8 Rome museums

Saturday, March 20th, 2021

Eight of Rome’s civic museums are offering new virtual tours. Available in Italian and English, to tours allow visitors to explore the museums floor-by-floor, in aerial views, through video, audio and information panels.

It’s a curated approach. Select objects on display and important features of the museums themselves are highlighted. You navigate by clicking on arrows, then click on hotspots targeting an object or area and the label/information pops up. If there is video or audio, clickable icons appear on the screen.  You can also bounce around using the map icon in the bottom right. It’s a little awkward to navigate and it’s not the kind of virtual tour that allows you to browse objects on display for hours because even when the collections are huge like the ones in Capitoline very few pieces are hotspots. It’s more about moving through some extremely cool spaces and seeing some celebrated pieces.

This is most effective for the smaller museums, particularly the Museo delle Mura and the Ara Pacis because the collection is comparatively sparse and the structure itself is the focus of the tour. The reliefs of the Ara Pacis are so complex, being able to zoom in on an area virtually and read detailed explanations is very satisfying. The Museo delle Mura was one of my favorite discoveries on my 2018 Rome trip and the best part was getting to clamber through the walls. The virtual tour gives you even more of that unbelievable view from the roof of the Porta Appia and connected defensive walls.

Here are the new virtual tours:

Musei Capitolini
Museo dell’Ara Pacis
Museo Napoleonico
Mercati di Traiano – Museo dei Fori Imperiali
Casino Nobile di Villa Torlonia
Centrale Montemartini
Museo delle Mura
Museo di Roma


Too Much Johnson, now with commentary

Sunday, March 14th, 2021

Too Much Johnson was one of Orson Welles’ innovative theories that failed so thoroughly in practice that audiences wouldn’t get to see it for 75 years. It was meant to be an accompaniment to a play of the same name, an 1894 farce of adultery, false names and mistaken identity adapted from a French original by William Gillette who would go on to become hugely famous portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage more than 1,300 times. Welles’ theatrical company, The Mercury Theater, was staging the play with his trusty stable of actors including Joseph Cotten and Arlene Francis. His idea was to create a Keystone Kops-style slapstick silent movie introduction before each of the three acts. He filmed it on shoestring budget in 10 days and edited 25,000 feet of highly flammable nitrate film in a hotel room to create a 66-minute rough cut.

It was never shown. The Stony Creek Theater in Branford, Connecticut, where the play was staged, was not equipped to project the film. Welles had heavily edited the play to blend seamlessly with the filmed intros, so without it the theatrical production flopped too. That was August 1938, a month after the Mercury Theater’s radio productions began, two months before one of those radio productions would adapt a certain H.G. Wells alien invasion story into a news broadcast style and make headlines around the country. Suddenly very much in demand, Orson Welles packed up the 10 reels of Too Much Johnson and went on with his life, cutting the sweet deal with RKO that would result in his immortal third movie, Citizen Kane.

He thought the never-seen experimental film had been destroyed in a fire at his home in Madrid in 1970, but thankfully he was wrong about that. Too Much Johnson, all 10 reels of it, was found in a crate of old Welles films that had been abandoned in the Pordenone warehouse decades earlier. Nine of the reels were in surprisingly good condition. The tenth was decomposing rapidly and had to receive specialized treatment by film conservators.

The film society that rescued and identified the collection in the shipping warehouse crate reached out to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which is world-renown for its film conservation department. They secured a grant to restore the picture and in October 2013, Too Much Johnson finally had its world premiere at a silent movie festival in Pordenone. It made its US debut days later at the George Eastman House in an exclusive showing for museum members. Too Much Johnson had its cable television premiere on Turner Classic Movies in May 2015. The National Film Preservation Foundation digitized the restored film and made it available online with notes on the sidebar explaining how the film was designed to interact with the play.

The Eastman showings had special features only seen there, including a new piano score by Philip C. Carli who used the original Mercury Theater stage score for inspiration, and a voice-over commentary by Anthony L’Abbate, preservation manager, and Caroline Yeager, associate curator, of the George Eastman Museum who worked on its restoration. The museum has now released their special edition of Too Much Johnson on Vimeo.

“For the first time, people from all over the world will have access to this unique material with the voice-over commentary and musical accompaniment, previously only available for in-person screenings,” said Peter Bagrov, curator in charge, Moving Image Department, George Eastman Museum. “The original commentary was written by the museum and has been performed all over the world. It is essential for the understanding of this unfinished work by one of the great masters of cinema; the context it provides enhances the viewing experience for everyone.”

The voice-over commentary includes a story of the print’s discovery and the meticulous preservation process, as well as the history of the film’s creation—its casting, the filming locations in New York City (many of which are now gone), and why it never made it to the big screen.

It opens with a brief introduction about the film’s conservation and the research that went into piecing together how the film was shot. At 6:44 the movie begins, and as someone who has watched three versions (the TCM version, the NFPF version with side notes and this one), I can unequivocally state that this voice-over commentary is essential. It adds so much to the viewer’s understanding of the movie, what is going on in the story, where the scenes are being filmed. It turns a fascinating glimpse into Welles’ nascent directorial genius into a full-featured documentary. I wish every commentary were recorded by film conservators instead of woolgathering directors and verbose actors.

Watch it here.


Raphael cartoons FINALLY in high res

Monday, February 1st, 2021

The cartoons created by Renaissance master Raphael for the monumental tapestries that once adorned the walls of the Sistine Chapel are enormous at 10 feet high and between 10 and 16 feet wide. Their digital form, however, has been relatively puny. In my first post about just shy of 11 years ago, the available pictures were so inadequate I considered not writing it at all because of how disappointing it is to read about something so cool without having a chance to see it in at least some detail.

Originally a set of 10, seven of the cartoons depicting scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul survive today.  They were used to create tapestries, not just the original tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1513, but for later customers who wanted a piece of Raphael’s genius in woven form, Henry VIII among them. As part of the weaving process, the cartoons were folded, cut, punctured and generally put through the wringer until they simply fell apart.

The surviving cartoons were acquired by the future King Charles I in the 1620s and while they are still today personally owned by the monarch, they have been on long-term loan to what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum since 1865. In 2019 and 2020 the V&A refurbished the Raphael Court and conservators had the opportunity to study and record the cartoons with the latest technology. They were unframed, the punctured and torn surface scanned in high-definition 3D and the images recorded in infrared and panoramic composite photography. Custom scaffolding was installed to scan the cartoons while they were still mounted on the walls of the gallery because they are too fragile to move. The 3D scans alone took 95 hours per cartoon to complete.

The reopening of the refurbished Raphael Court has been delayed by lockdown, but the new digital content collected during the process has now been made available on the V&A website, and it grants unprecedented access to the cartoons.

Through interactive features and in-depth stories, audiences will be able to learn about the extraordinary design and making of the Cartoons and their long 500-year history, exploring the monumental works of art as never before by zooming into ultra-high-resolution photography, infrared imagery, and 3D scans. […]

Key online features include The Story of the Cartoons, which explores the Cartoons’ commission, production and incredible survival, as well the complex process of translating a Cartoon into a tapestry. It also reveals in-depth details about Raphael’s compositions which translate the Biblical narrative into painterly images with their wealth of characters and complex scenes. Exploring the Cartoons uses the new HD imagery of the Cartoons to enable newcomers and specialists alike to examine the making and design of the Cartoons in more detail by zooming into high-resolution panoramic photography of their painted scenes, infrared imagery showing the charcoal drawing underneath, and 3D scans of their paper surface. Users are able to transition between the layers to see subtle differences between the underdrawing, the paint layer, and the surface texture – from the tiny pinholes that were made to translate the Cartoons into tapestries, to the composite sheets of paper that make up each Cartoon, the creases and tears, and subsequent restoration and repair throughout their lifetime.

Without further ado, check out the V&A’s new Raphael Cartoons page to finally see these extraordinary survivors in all their glorious detail.


Rome in 3D

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

History in 3D lives up to its name. The virtual recreations of ancient temples, cities, palaces and fortresses are vividly rendered in granular detail with realistic lighting effects and animated fly-ins. They’ve built models of everything from Sevastopol in 1914 to the flooding of Titanic’s grand staircase to Corinth in the 2nd century.

Four years ago, their most ambitious project, a reconstruction of Rome’s city center as it was in 320 A.D. Rome in 3D, made its debut on their YouTube channel. They had already been working on it for years and had enough of it ready to make a riveting trailer, a few tantalizing minutes of what promised to be the most comprehensive virtual recreation of ancient Rome ever made. The aim was to integrate it into a game engine, building a fully realized city based on the latest, most accurate information to provide an immersive experience of walking its streets.

At the time of the trailer’s debut in March 2016, the project was scheduled to be completed in a few months. In June, a second trailer with new buildings (mainly the Capitoline temples), debuted.

Almost two years passed before the next trailer, a walk-through of the Colosseum, was posted.

The entire ancient city of Rome, it seems, proved to a very, VERY big bite, and while History in 3D was determined to chew it, the jaws would have to grind for much longer than expected. In the meantime, they released pieces of the whole to give a glimpse into their work. Trajan’s column in all its original polychrome glory is a straight masterpiece. Even setting aside that it’s only part of an infinitely greater whole, on its own it represents years of research and modelling.

Last month, History in 3D released their latest Rome in 3D video. They assured followers that the project was still ongoing, that they had encountered challenges and obstacles but were surmounting them and coming back better than ever, deploying new technological tools to redesign buildings and objects. The new trailer showcases the Forum, the beating heart of Roman society, and it is a huge leap forward in quality.  (This blog entry describes what you’re seeing as you stroll/fly through downtown Rome.)

There’s no specific timeline for the completion of the project, but fingers crossed, they expect a walk-through app will be ready for release in a few months. Trajan’s Column will get an app of its own so it can be explored scene by scene in all its spiral glory. This is something I have dreamed about, because it’s shocking to me that there is basically no high-resolution photography online detailing Trajan’s Column whose reliefs are so densely populated and complex that naked-eye view can never satisfy.

Follow History in 3D on YouTube and Facebook to stay apprised of all exciting developments.


A jolly holly horror to you!

Thursday, December 24th, 2020

Here’s an early Christmas present for all you boys and girls, if you consider triggering a gamut of emotions from uncomfortable to sheer terror a festive gift.

"Twinkle, twinkle little star" ; Edison Talking Doll cylinder, brown wax ; Rolfs collection. Photo courtesy National Parks Service.I’ve posted several stories about the first “talking” dolls, the products of Thomas Edison’s infinite ability to find new markets for his technologies. They were 22″-tall cyborgs with metal torsos that held miniature versions of Edison’s phonograph. A crank on the back was turned to play the short songs engraved first on tin and then on wax cylinders. Even with pretty bisques faces, arms and legs and dressed in frilly finery, their weight, difficult operation and tendency to break made them unpopular with the target audience of young girls. Edison sold fewer than 500 Talking Dolls and many of them were returned due to defects, mainly scratched and eroded cylinders that no longer played.

With the wax cylinders easily damaged and the early tin cylinders easily deformed, surviving Edison Talking Doll cylinders were muted for decades. Technology eventually came to the aid of the history of technology when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California developed the IRENE-3D optical scanner capable of reading the surface of historical media without any contact. The first resurrected Edison doll recording was an absolutely chilling Little Jack Horner recovered from a tin cylinder in the collection of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. A distinctly less threatening Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star emerged the next year.

I’ve just stumbled on another six of them. Eight of the cylinders known to survive of the different rhymes spoken by the Edison Talking Doll (including the above-mentioned Little Jack Horner and Twinkle, Twinkle) have been digitized by the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts using the IRENE-3D scanning technology. They’ve all been uploaded to the National Parks Service website in both unrestored and restored versions.

My recommendations: Hickory, dickory, dock is thoroughly bloodcurdling, as is this second version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and Now I lay me down to sleep should ensure you never will again. The time you would have one spent sleeping peacefully you can while away by reading this fascinating Cultural History of the Edison Talking Doll Record. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page for each recording to browse photos of the associated dolls, mechanisms and cylinders.


Artemisia exhibition film: a review

Saturday, November 28th, 2020

This year London’s National Gallery is putting on the first exhibition in the UK dedicated solely to Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. The exhibition has been postponed twice due to COVID and is currently shut down until December 2nd. With major showcases like this that rely on priceless artworks loaned from other collections, changing the dates requires an enormous amount of effort and forbearance, not to mention expense, and with in-person museum attendance in ashes right now, the National Gallery is offering a curator-led film tour of the exhibition on demand for £8.

It’s an idea with possibilities, even under non-pandemic circumstances, and I was curious to see whether it was worth the price of admission, so I booked a ticket. You do you have to create an account on the National Gallery website first ; name, email, phone number and address are all required. You are allowed a single “booking,” which will grant your account access to the film tour for 48 hours. The film can only be viewed on the National Gallery website. To watch, click your email address in the upper right of the screen, and select “online films” from the menu listing under “My account” on the left. Click the Watch Now button to view.

The movie is hosted by Letizia Treves, the museum’s curator of Later Italian, Spanish and French 17th-century Paintings. She walks through the galleries, starting with works from Artemisia’s early years in Rome. Treves gives a brief biography of Artemisia and introduces the viewer to the artist’s first signed work, Susannah and the Elders, painted when she was 17 years old. Treves then relays how Artemisia was raped by her father’s colleague Agostino Tassi and how we know every detail of the ensuing trial because the original transcripts have survived. That transcript is on display in this gallery, loaned out for the first time by the State Archive in Rome.

Treves continues a chronological narration of Artemisia’s life and moves to the next gallery featuring works from her time in Florence. She painted some of her most famous pieces during this time, including two versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes, which Treves focuses on in her explanation. She then moves to the other side of the room and a series of self-portraits.

Artemisia achieved fame and success as an artist in Florence, enough that she became both author and subject of commissioned portraits when she returned to Rome. In the next gallery is a portrait of her done by another artist and portraits she made of noble subjects, but the real get are letters she wrote to her lover, rediscovered in 2011 in the Archivio Frescobaldi and on display here for the first time. Treves doesn’t read any of them verbatim, sadly, but she does summarize a few intriguing passages.

The next gallery features works from Artemisia’s artistic peak, paintings of Biblical and Classical motifs with women protagonists — Judith, Susannah, Mary Magdalene, Lucretia — done in dramatic light to satisfy buyers’ tastes for Caravaggismo. The works shift in scale and subject in the next gallery, following her move to Naples. Then under Spanish rule, Naples offered Artemisia a wide international pool of patrons, and it’s here that she painted her first monumental altarpieces. These were also her first collaborative works.

Except for a brief stay in London, she would live in Naples until her death, expanding her repertoire to literary subjects and allegories. The next gallery features a monumental Birth of St. John the Baptist she painted for the King of Spain and her last documented painting, a Susannah and the Elders. The final gallery in the show presents paintings she and her father Orazio, who were reunited in London, made in the closing years of their careers. One allegory, a personification of painting, that is likely a self-portrait is the only work documented to have been painted when she was in London.

Once the walkthrough of the exhibition’s galleries is concluded, Trevers takes a closer look at a few highlight pieces: the earliest Susannah, Judith sawing Holofernes’ head off in gore aplenty, Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes in a basket, a later Susannah and the Birth of St John the Baptist.

So was the film worth the price of admission? It was interesting and a nice overview of an exhibition I’ll never get to see, but it was a little sparse for my taste. It’s short at just under half an hour, and it felt like Trevers was in a rush (which she was). Also, there was a missed opportunity here to mix media. In my ideal guided tour, there would be links that allow you to explore gigapixel images of the works themselves, plus transcripts and translations of the documents.

No regrets whatsoever, though. Museums have been brutalized this year, and I’ll gladly pay 10 bucks for content. They generate so much of it for free, it’s the very, VERY least I could do.


Remember, Remember

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

Happy Guy Fawkes Day! To commemorate the 415th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, the UK National Archives has posted a great blog about how they’ve used their new multispectral imaging system on letters between the plotters that has secret messages written in orange juice. Just like the lemon juice letters of many of childhoods, the orange juice letters fade when they dry only to reappear again when the paper is heated.

Four centuries after they written, some of the secret ink letters are hard to read with the naked eye. Imaging in non-RGB areas of the electromagnetic spectrum like ultraviolet and infrared can drastically increase readability of the once-invisible ink.

Both inks are visible in a RGB colour photograph to varying degrees (top left) but imaging in the ultraviolet (UV) region of the electromagnetic spectrum increases the readability of the orange juice (top right).

To image this way, the letter is illuminated with UV light and the reflected UV light is recorded. Both the orange juice and iron gall ink absorb UV light, making the inks appear darker. Reflectance images appear on a greyscale but by combining a RGB colour photograph with a UV reflectance image we can create a false colour image (bottom left). These images keep the luminance of the UV image and blend it with the hue and saturation of the RGB colour photo, allowing for a more intuitive reading of the information on the letter.

The final image I took was an image in the infrared (IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum (bottom right). Imaging in the IR region is frequently used to reveal underdrawings and concealed features. This is because the radiation penetrates deeper into the material and many materials, like organic pigments, become transparent.

In the IR region the orange juice completely disappears because it is an organic material. However the iron gall ink which contains iron salts is still partly visible, enabling us to clearly distinguish the two types of inks.

Another Guy Fawkes-themed offering from the National Archives is this podcast from 2009 which tells the story of the Gunpowder Plot and the subsequent investigation using a selection of documents from the archives to explore events from the perspective of eye witnesses.

Last but not least is an absolutely devilish online jigsaw puzzle of Guy Fawkes’ confession letter.

Incidentally, just in case you happen to be in the market for a number of soothingly distracting rabbitholes to fall into, the National Archives has tons of great video and audio content. I first discovered got into it in August when I watched the Stinking Fish, Beer and Brewing Controversies around 1800 live webinar which was even more interesting and entertaining than the title already suggested it would be. Since then, I’ve been going through their archived video and audio and there isn’t a dud in the bunch. The Film of the Month and What’s Online features tend to be my favorite videos, but it’s all gold, and the podcasts may well be the most information-rich ones I’ve ever heard. There are entire conferences from keynote addresses to panel sessions available, and the podcasts cover everything from topical issues to how to use public records — wills, census data, birth/marriage/death registers — to the curse(s) of Tutankhamun.


Is this the self-portrait of mason hidden in a column capital?

Sunday, November 1st, 2020

Carved figure that may be self-portrait of mason on column capital in the nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo courtesy Jennifer Alexander.A possible self-portrait of a mason has been discovered carved in the capital of a column inside the nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Easter egg was spotted by art historian Dr. Jennifer Alexander during a detailed survey the 11th century cathedral’s Romanesque architecture.

Alexander was conducting a stone-by-stone analysis to work out its construction sequence, in a project funded by the Galician regional government. It was when she was studying the capitals, about 13 metres above the pavement, that “this little figure popped out”, she recalled.

“A lovely image of a chap hanging on to the middle of the capital as if his life depended on it. It’s in a row of identical off-the-peg capitals where they’ve been knocking them out in granite – ‘we need another 15 of that design’ – and suddenly there’s one that’s different. So we think it’s the man himself.

Some of the column capitals in the central nave of the church have uniquely-carved variants featuring animals, angels, devils, Biblical scenes and the like. They imparted at-a-glance theology to the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the cathedral, and added visual drama to the space. Those capitals are in less obscure locations, however, and this guy is a little too regular compared to the fantastical and Biblical figures on the splashier capitals.

The carved figure is about a foot high and has a round face with large ears reminiscent of a Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with eyes and no glasses. His arms are bent at the elbow so they can comfortably nestle in the chevron shapes formed by the wide banana leaves decorating the capital, basically in a shrug emoji posture. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ His right hand is curled into a fist. He has no left hand. He could be a mason, sure. Then again he could not be one too.

In other Santiago de Compostela news, The Portico of Glory, the cathedral’s high-drama three-arched entrance façade built in the 12th century by French architect Master Mateo, underwent a 12-year program of restoration that was completed in 2018. As much as possible, the polychrome paint on the portico’s 200+ figures was conserved, but much of it was lost centuries ago and what remains is mostly the result of later interventions. During the restoration work, the portico was documented in unprecedented detail with more than 2,700 gigapixel photographs capturing every inch of the elaborately-decorated  surfaces. Those photographs were converted into a digital 3D model and made available in a ground-breaking free app that allows users to crawl over every last detail of The Portico of Glory, see it before and after restoration, learn about the deterioration of the carvings and the treatments, all accompanied by an audio tour.

The app goes a giant step beyond the visuals with the music. The characters on the portico include 21 who bear musical instruments. Researchers recreated those instruments in 3D and then recreated the music they played, so while you examine the masterpiece of medieval art, you are accompanied by a soundtrack that not only matches the period, but the specific musicians on the archway itself. It is unbelievable, truly.

You can download The Portico of Glory app for iOS here and for Android here.





April 2021


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