Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Tour the Winchester Mystery House

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

The famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is closed until at least April 7th, but the museum has compiled a comprehensive 41-minute video tour for our remote enjoyment.

The manchester was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of rifle tycoon William Wirt Winchester. When he died in 1881, his wife inherited a huge fortune in cash and stock, making her worth a half billion dollars in today’s money and one of the richest women in the world. Legend has it — and it is very much legendary as Sarah left no correspondence or journals on the subject, nor did any family, friends or loyal employees ever volunteer an explanation — that, devastated by the loss of her husband and daughter, she sought the advice of a Boston medium named Adam Coons. After a séance, he told her that she was haunted by the thousands of Civil War soldiers and Indians who had been killed by Winchester firearms, and that the only way to appease the vengeful spirits was to use the Winchester money she’d inherited to build them a house. Another origin story claims that a medium told her she would die as soon as the house was finished, so she saw to it that construction continued until her last breath. There is zero evidence that any of this ever happened.

In 1884, she moved to California and bought a 161-acre farm in Santa Clara Valley from Dr. Robert Caldwell. There was a modest eight room farmhouse already on the property, but Sarah’s vision was far vaster. For 38 years, she had her crew of carpenters and masons work in shifts so construction continued 24-7, 365 days a year. (Again, this is the legend; somebody probably took some time off now and again.) built and built, creating a mansion with hundreds of rooms, rooms-within-rooms, unfinished rooms, mazes of corridors, dead ends, staircases that are short cuts from one part of the house to the other, staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up to walls, doors that open to the outside two stories up, small doors, big doors, cupolas, turrets, windows of every shape and size, skylights in floors, prime numbers, especially 13, everywhere. There was even a seven story tower at one point, but it was destroyed in the 1906 Frisco quake.

When she died on September 5th, 1922, work immediately stopped. There are still nails half-hammered in to the walls. The rich reclusive widow and her labyrinthine mansion were already famous by then. The villa was known as the Spirit House and rumors abounded of nightly séances, copious hauntings and “evil spirits” confounded by Sarah Winchester’s architectural follies.

She left her estate to the charities she supported, dedicated employees and family. The furnishings of the house were sold and the mansion itself opened to tours in 1923. Millions of visitors have trod its eccentric floors in the century since then. You can now join them virtually from the comfort of your home, maybe chasing the tour with a viewing of the horror thriller Winchester starring Helen Mirren now showing on Showtime and streaming on Hulu.

You can also buy discounted ticket vouchers for a visit to the mansion that will be valid through May 2021. The vouchers cost $26, $13 off the regular ticket price. The income from the voucher sales will help keep the lights on and food on the table for the museum’s employees while the Winchester House is closed.

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#UffiziDecameron

Sunday, March 15th, 2020

More than once over the past few weeks I have thought about the Decameron, the early Italian-language masterpiece written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the mid-14th century as the Black Death ravaged Tuscany, the peninsula, the continent. In it, 10 youths, seven women and three men, flee plague-ridden Florence and hole up in a villa in the countryside for two weeks. To alleviate the boredom of their self-quarantine, they tell each other stories for 10 nights of the 14 (with exceptions for the two Sundays, and one day per week dedicated to chores which is rather impressive roommating considering the circumstances, actually). By the end of their stay, they’ve told 100 stories.

With all of Italy on lockdown, museums and heritage sites closed, people stuck in their abodes for days at a time, the Uffizi Gallery has launched a digital Decameron to entertain and console the shut-in with photographs, videos and stories shared on all its social media platforms — Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram — under #UffiziDecameron.

The Uffizi picks from the immense wealth of artworks in its Gallery of Statues and Paintings, in the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, posts a photo or clip, and their social media curators explain the background and meaning of each piece. The first video posted was a wordless tour of the Boboli gardens with aerial and terrestrial footage that is just breathtakingly beautiful. The second is a tour by museum assistant Cristina De Caro of the Uffizi’s Contini Bonacossi collection, something I knew not a single thing about before today.

The portrait by Bronzino of Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de Medici, wearing an exquisitely brocaded gown, her arm draped around the shoulders of their son and heir, is world-famous. Less well-known is the ring Cosimo gave her for their wedding: a Roman intaglio stone with matrimonial motifs (cornucopias, intertwined hands) he had set by Florentine goldsmiths. It is one of very few surviving examples of secular gold work from the early Medici dukes in Florence today because the family treasure was so widely dispersed. The reason it’s in the Uffizi today is that Eleonora was buried with it. It was found when the remains of the 50 Medici family members buried in tombs in the walls of San Lorenzo were moved to the crypt under the church in 1857.

Over on Instagram the quarantine festivities kicked off with a 19th century painting by Vincenzo Cabianca of a scene from the Decameron. More recently they posted a riveting explanation of the complex imagery in a section of the Siena Duomo’s unbelievable inlaid marble mosaic floor designed by Pinturicchio in 1504. 

As a companion to the Uffizi Decameron initiative, the museum will also publish images, video and content dedicated to Raphael. It’s the 500th anniversary of his death this year, and the Scuderie del Quirinale museum in Rome was hosting an unprecedented exhibition dedicated to the Renaissance master. My plans to write about the show were derailed by horror, so it warms the cockles of my broken heart that the Uffizi, which loaned 50 of its works out of the 200 or so on display, will be sharing online what cannot be shared in person right now.

“Even if museums have had to close their doors, art doesn’t stop,” explained Uffizi director Eike Schmidt. “This is why from now on we will address our public also through Facebook. The treasures of the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitta and the Boboli Gardens will keep you company in these weeks of the common commitment against the spread of the virus. Today we begin Uffizi Decameron: as in the masterpiece by Boccaccio, every day we will tell stories, the works, the personages of our most beautiful museums, uniting us in the name of culture, of art, and — why not — of amusement. The Uffizi will be with you, in your homes, to overcome all together the current moment of difficulty. We avoid all contagion, except that of beauty.”

So much lump in throat right now. Hai tutto il mio amore, Italia.

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Smithsonian releases 2.8 million free images and more

Friday, February 28th, 2020

The Smithsonian Institution has released 2.8 million images from its digital collection for broad public use, and that’s just for starters. The Smithsonian Open Access initiative removes copyright restrictions from images and data, releasing its vast database into the public domain with a Creative Commons Zero license, meaning digital files can be used in any way, including for commercial purposes, without requiring permission or even attribution.

Museums like the Metropolitan, Getty and Rijksmuseum have been making high resolution images of their collections available online for personal or non-profit use in recent years, including the Smithsonian which already has more than 4.7 million images from its collection available for personal use. The Smithsonian Open Access program expands the scope of digitization by a cultural institution, extending the use license to CC0 for nearly 3 million of those images, plus much more.  Any digital asset owned by the Smithsonian — research data, text, sound recordings, 3D models and more — is being designated open access. More will be added on an ongoing basis, with more than 3 million images designated open access by the end of the year.

All of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo contributed images or data to this launch. The program includes content across the arts, sciences, history, culture, technology and design, from portraits of historic American figures to 3D scans of dinosaur skeletons.

Visit the Smithsonian Open Access portal to search the digital collections for high-resolution 2D and 3D images. You can also browse by platforms like Learning Lab for K-12 educational resources and Figshare for research datasets. The Smithsonian has also published open-source tools for the creation of 3D content. Use Voyager to view one the museum’s 2,200 3D models or to author and publish your own.

Open access furthers the Smithsonian’s mission which has been the same since its founding in 1846: for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.“ Remarkably, the Smithsonian’s founder James Smithson, an English chemist and mineralogist who died in 1829, provided some blueprints for the initiative. His biographer Heather Ewing talks about Smithson’s view that the natural world could only ever be understood with many people participating in, assembling, and sharing information. Smithson used commonly found objects when conducting his experiments so others could replicate his experiments as he sought to understand everything from snake venom to ancient Egyptian pigments to improved methods for making coffee.

“It is only by exchange and mutual assistance that naturallists [sic] can possibly ever succeed in assembling together a collection of subjects of their study, which nature has made so numerous, and disseminated in such various and distant parts of the world,” James Smithson

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Janet Stephens is back!

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

It’s been more than a year and a half since Janet Stephens posted one of her epic historic hairstyling tutorials using period-accurate tools and it’s been three years since the last Roman hairstyle. Now she’s back with an intricate 9-strand braid worn by the Empress Herennia Etruscilla in the mid-3rd century A.D.

The 3rd century was a chaotic time for the Roman Empire. After the assassination of the last Severan emperor, Severus Alexander, in 235, the combination of internal political turmoil, civil wars, Germanic invasions, increasing expansion of the Persian Sassanid Empire, economic depression and plagues, nearly drove the empire to collapse. By 268, like the Gaul of Julius Caesar’s time, the empire itself was divided into three parts — the Gallic Roman Empire (Gaul, Britannia and Hispania), the  Palmyrene Empire (Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor) and the Roman Empire (Italy). It would be reunited under in 270 by Aurelian, builder of the walls around Rome. The Crisis would come to its full end with the ascension of Diocletian in 284, 26 dead emperors after it began.

So when Herennia Etruscilla was getting her hair did by extremely nimble-fingered ornatrices, she was enjoying what would be a very brief window of time at the top. Her husband Decius was acclaimed as emperor in September 249 after he killed his predecessor Philip the Arab. His reign lasted less than two years, ending with his death in battle at the hands of the Goths in June 251. His and Herennia Etruscilla’s oldest son and co-emperor died with him. Their youngest son, 13-year-old Hostilian, succeeded to the throne, but only as co-emperor to the troops’ choice Trebonianus Gallus, and only for a few months before his death either from plague or at the hand of said Trebonianus Gallus.

During those few months of Hostilian’s rise to the purple, Herennia Etruscilla acted as regent. Almost nothing is known about her life, but thanks to the devaluation of currency and the constant cranking out of coinage, we have a surprisingly rich record of her portraiture. There are 13 different coins from aurei to sestertii that feature her profile with views of her elaborate hairstyling.

From one of those coin portraits, Janet selected a nine-strand braid arranged in a column style, meaning in a single thick plait up the back of the head. It requires a dexterity beyond my comprehension and hair of such length and thickness that it’s no wonder it took Janet a decade to get to this look. It is truly a masterful feat of patience and skill. My one regret is that she wasn’t able to include the stephane — a Hellenic style of diadem that comes to a point in the front — that Herennia Etruscilla Augusta wears in all of her coins.

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Lumière’s train in 4K

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, filmed by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1895 and first shown to an amazed public in January 1896, has gone upscale, 4K upscale, to be precise. Urban legend has it that when audiences first viewed the train barreling towards them on the screen, they screamed and ran for the back of the room. There is no evidence that any such reaction actually happened, no contemporary accounts of it in the press or police reports, but the Lumière Brothers’ thoughtful camera placement certainly created a dynamic 50 seconds of film that caused a sensation.

Surviving prints of the original 35 mm film, while still perfectly viewable, show their age; they’re grainy, faded, scratched. Upscaling film using photochemical restoration methods costs tens of thousands of dollars. Videographer Denis Shiryaev used Gigapixel AI software, an application that deploys artificial intelligence algorithms to fill in the gaps in the images and upscale the 125-year-old film to 4K. He also used the freeware app Dain to interpolate missing frames. That’s a lot of bang for very few bucks.

Shiryaev’s digital restoration benefitted majorly from a source video that had already been restored, eliminating the striations, bubbles, stains, etc. and giving him a pristine slate.

Comparison time! Here’s a version of the original with an assortment of defects typical of old film:

Here’s the digitally restored version Shiryaev used as a source:

And here’s Shiryaev’s 4K, 60 frames per second upscale version:

I’m fascinated by the richness and depth of the images, but it’s giving me a bit of an uncanny valley vibe too. He also made a colorized version which is even uncannier.

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Herculaneum and its papyri live on video

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

During the first excavation of the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum, the team unearthed the villa’s entire library, more than 1,800 scrolls still tightly rolled and neatly stacked in shelves. That was in 1754, 1,675 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius instantly carbonized organized material in clouds of superheated gases and ash and then buried the city in 60 feet of hard volcanic rock. The volcano destroyed the city, and at the same time preserved the only complete ancient library in the world.

Naturally scholars were desperate to read those scrolls which could contain a wealth of long-lost texts. Early attempts at unrolling the scrolls did identify a few Epicurean texts, but unrolling carbonized papyrus almost certainly results in its destruction, and the vast majority of the villa’s scrolls were left to the hopefully more tender mercies of the future. Non-invasive technology like X-rays and CT scans were deployed, but with little success.

Ultrabright synchroton X-rays has been successful where other imaging techniques have failed, reading erased works by Galen, virtually opening a 17th century mystery box and recovering the image of a hopelessly tarnished daguerreotype. In 2015, the power of the synchroton particle collider was first deployed on Herculaneum papyri. It was a test of the possibilities and the results were very encouraging, albeit limited. The work proceeds apace, however, and two scrolls from the L’Institut de France are now being scanned by the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchroton science facility.

The use of carbon ink is one of the main reasons these scrolls have evaded deciphering, according to [University of Kentucky’s Professor Brent Seales]. Unlike metal-based inks, such as the iron gall used to write medieval documents, carbon ink has a density similar to that of the carbonized papyrus on which it sits. Therefore, it appears invisible in X-ray scans.

“We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization. First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible, and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits. In addition, we believe strongly—and contrary to conventional wisdom–that tomography does indeed capture subtle, non-density-based evidence of ink, even when it is invisible to the naked eye in the scan data. The machine learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it–pixel by pixel–from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is—voxel by voxel—in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragments. The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader.”

You can learn more about the study of the carbonized scrolls, past, present and future, in a live-streamed discussion from the Getty Villa. It will be shown on the Getty’s YouTube channel from 4-6PM PST (7-9 PM EST).

Speaking of Herculaneum and the Getty, Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri, the seminal exhibition at the Getty Villa, ends a week from Monday. For those of us who haven’t been able to make it to Malibu to visit this extraordinary assemblage of statuary, frescoes, mosaic floors and more than a thousand of those famed carbonized papyrus scrolls, the Getty will be broadcasting a special curatorial tour of the exhibition live on its Facebook page on Thursday, October 24th, at 9:15 AM PST (12:15 PM EST).

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Bingewatching the Lost Dress of Elizabeth I

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

The always excellent Historic Royal Palaces YouTube channel has three new videos about the Bacton Altar Cloth, believed to be the only surviving fabric from a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I. If it wasn’t hers, it had to have belonged to a woman of the highest nobility or royalty. There were literally laws against anyone of lesser rank wearing so sumptuous a textile. (Sumptuary laws, donchaknow.)

Its provenance can’t be definitively traced through historical records, but the pivotal connection between queen and parish altar cloth is Blanche Perry, one of Elizabeth’s longest-serving and most dedicated ladies-in-waiting. By the end of her 57 of years of service, starting when the queen was a young princess, Perry held the title of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The Queen was known to have given her hand-me-downs, and Perry donated the textile to her parish church, St Faith’s in Bacton, where her ancestors and her own heart are buried. Historic Royal Palaces curators confirmed that the silver chamblet silk richly embroidered with animals, people and botanicals in gold and silver thread, was once a dress.  There is evidence of pattern cutting that would not be present had the piece not been a garment later recut and sewn to make a cross-shaped altar cloth.

The conserved Bacton Altar Cloth has gone on display at Hampton Court Palace alongside the iconic Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth wearing a gown that features the elaborate embroidery and precious materials also seen in the Bacton Altar Cloth. The exhibition runs through February 23, 2020. The Historic Royal Palaces videos present fascinating background on the cloth, its conservation and installation.


This is a overview of the find, starting with an absolutely delightful visit at St. Faith’s with historian Ruth E. Richardson, former church warden Charles Hunter and Historic Royal Palaces Curator and Tudor fashion expert Eleri Lynn. The parishioners always knew their altar cloth was reputedly a piece of one of Queen Elizabeth’s gowns, but until they raised the 3 pounds some-odd necessary to frame it and hang it on the church wall in 1909, it was apparently stashed under the vicar’s bed for safekeeping. God I love history so much.


This all-too-short video gives us a glimpse at the conservation of the altar cloth. You see close-ups of the embroidery in brilliant like-new color (a view you don’t get in any of the photographs), the removal of the backing cloth and the patches underneath that while simple are meaningful historical textiles in and of themselves. I wish it were feature length, seriously.


This is a behind-the-scenes video showing the installation of the altar cloth and Rainbow Portrait. Even though there is no narration, it is riveting because you see the nuts and bolts of curatorial work, the mounting of the pieces, the detailed touch-ups on the frames, how they have to navigate through the confines of medieval spaces like those glorious but really quite short Gothic arched stone doorways. I also loved seeing the magnificent artworks casually leaning against the walls of back corridors. It conveys in a few seconds how incredibly deep a bench of cultural heritage is in Hampton Court Palace and, I’m sure, in every other site maintained by Historic Royal Palaces. Oh, and the wallpaper! A big to the dark emerald green damask wallpaper in the room where the portrait and altar cloth are now on display. 

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Man as Industrial Palace now in motion

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

It has been almost a decade since I first saved a draft post about Dr. Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), the gynecologist and popular science writer who in 1926 designed an image you’ve almost certainly seen before: “Man as Industrial Palace,” an infographic depicting the functions of the human body as an industrial complex. It has taken me this long to delve as deeply as I felt this image deserved because detailed information about Kahn is hard to find on the Internet and because I wanted to include copious English-language labels for the amazing illustration. The originals are in German, and even then very little of what you see is labeled in the intricate poster. The visual takes precedence over the verbal. An exceptional trilingual monograph of Fritz Kahn’s life and works by Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz came to my rescue on every count. I owe this post to them.

The analogy of man to machine was a widespread cultural trend in the 1920s and 30s. The explosion of industry and consumer technology in the early 20th century inspired new approaches to art and literature, integrating the human experience into the dynamic speed, power and sharp edges of the machine age. Futurists stuffed steel ball bearings into roast chicken, Fritz Lang made men cogs in one machine and made a woman out of another, and Fritz Kahn diagrammed the complexities of human biology by comparing them to industrial and household machines.

Born in 1888 in Halle der Saale, Fritz was the son of Arthur and Hedwig Kahn. Arthur was a physician and a writer and his son would follow in his father’s footsteps. He started writing popular science articles for the journal Kosmos while still an undergraduate at Berlin University in 1907. By the time he graduated from medical school as a gynecologist in 1914, he’d already written a book about astronomy for the general public, and after serving as a medic in World War I, he continued to work both as a doctor and as an author, publishing a successful book about the cell in 1919 and writing articles on, among other things, archaeology, aviation, Jewish history and his war experience.

His books sold briskly, going into repeated print runs in their first years, but it was his knack for illustration and design that would become his trademark. (Quite literally, in fact, as in later years a team of illustrators would bring his design concepts to fruition and those images would be stamped with his FK trademark.) From 1922 through 1931, the heyday of the Weimar Republic, Kahn published a five-volume study of human biology, Das Leben des Menschen  (“The Life of Man”), to international best-selling acclaim, wrote articles for Kosmos and other magazines, gave lectures, edited the Encyclopaedia Judaica all the while continuing to practice medicine.

It was in Das Leben des Menschen that Fritz Kahn published the image that would become most indelibly associated with him. The supplementary folding plate entitled Man as Industrial Palace depicted the primary functions of the body as a complex factory complete with homunculi busily operating the controls. Men in suits in the conference rooms of the brain make decisions as Reason and Will; the Mind is run by a librarian. A man in a headset operates a telegraph for Hearing. A photographer snaps the shutter of the bellows camera for Sight. Men at lightboards monitor valves and signals of the Muscle, Gland and Nerve Control Centers. Workers shift gears to move food through the digestive tract. A man seated at a stamping machine produces red corpuscles in the Blood Marrow. Winches, pulleys, pistons, cables and tubes form the infrastructure of all of the body’s systems.

Here is an illustration that labels the “Man as Industrial Palace” graphic in detail. It was included in an explanatory supplement to the poster printed in 1926. I’ve put the lettered and numbered labels translated into English in this pdf file.

 

 

Illustration from an explanatory supplement to the "Man as Industrial Palace" poster, 1926.

 

That was the last of Fritz Kahn’s books initially published in Europe. Kahn, whose grandfather had been a cantor, whose father was deeply devout in his Judaism, who had published tracts against anti-Semitism in the 1920s and was a committed Zionist, happened to be in Palestine when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He wisely decided to stay where he was, and he and his family settled in Jerusalem. In Germany his books were banned and burned, but that didn’t stop his publisher from reprinting a version of Das Leben des Menschen, illustrations included, without attribution and with the addition of a vile new chapter by Nazi sympathizer Gerhard Venzmer promoting scientific racism and anti-Semitism.

He left Palestine in 1939 and moved to France where he barely managed to stay ahead of the German invaders. In 1940 he was interned in Vichy France, but thanks to the Herculean efforts of his wife and humanitarian Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, he was released and the couple fled to Spain and Portugal. They were able to emigrate to the United States in 1941 thanks to the intervention of Albert Einstein. “As I have a high opinion of Dr. Kahn as personality and as author I should be thankful if the visa would be granted to him,” Einstein wrote to the US Consul in Lisbon.

Kahn’s books were already known in the US, but it took him a while to get a foothold in the American literary market. When Das Leben des Menschen was translated into English and published in the United States as Man in Structure and Function in 1943, he finally had a hit again. He continued to publish popular science books even as his generalist approach began to fall out of fashion in favor of specialist authors, and he eventually returned to Europe. He died in Switzerland in 1968.

Some of his books remained in print into the 1980s, but the appetite for his approach had waned and his striking imagery faded from the wider cultural consciousness. Nonetheless, his man-machine visions had a profound influence on many, from his contemporaries like patent medicine hawker Dr. Ferdinand-Gabriel-Aimé Brunerye, to modern-day artists like Madrid illustrator Fernando Vicente who channels a Frankenstein creature of Vargas, Vesalius and Kahn to create dissected biomechanical pin-up girls.

In the Internet era, his images, particularly Man as Industrial Palace, took on new life. His prescient grasp of what would become the ubiquitous infographic — a picture conveying simplified data — made Kahn’s work on trend once again. Photos of them are widely shared and reproductions of the poster are easily available online. The originals will run you a cool two grand on eBay.  The larger format promotional posters subscribers to Das Leben des Menschen received sell for much more than that ($3,750 at a 2007 Christie’s auction, for example). Institutions have given Kahn long overdue attention in the past decade as well, and exhibitions including his work have been displayed at the Berlin Medical Historical Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Art Basel and other museums around the world.

Some of those exhibitions have included an interactive animated display of Man as Industrial Palace created by graphic artist Henning M. Lederer, and the animation is so awesome that it inspired this entire post. If any graphic in the world was ideally designed to see in movement, Fritz Kahn’s man-machine is that graphic.

From the moment on that Henning Lederer got to know Kahn’s poster “Man as Industrial Palace” in 2006, he had the idea to animate this complex and strange way of explaining the functions of a body. He wanted to continue Fritz Kahn’s act of replacing a biological with a technological structure by transferring this depiction with the help of motion graphics and animation. In addition to the moving images, as a framework, Henning created a cabinet for his work including a mixture of old and new technology. This new version of the “Industrial Palace“ is an interactive installation for the audience to interact with – and by this to explore the different cycles of this human machinery.

If you missed this installation in the many museums where it has been exhibited alongside Kahn’s originals, you won’t get to explore the full genius of Lederer’s animation which divides the diagram into six cycles (Respiration, Blood Circulation, Digestive Circuit, Control Center and Industrial Palace) and allows visitors to push a button to see each in action.  Thankfully, Lederer uploaded the Industrial Palace animation to Vimeo for the benefit of biomech/history/anatomy/industrial arts nerds everywhere.

 

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Ali Atar sword digitized in 3D

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

An exquisite sword designed by the finest metalworkers of Grenada and wielded by one of the last great military leaders in Muslim Spain has been digitized in 3D. It belonged to Ali Atar, Warden of Loja and Lord of Zagra, who has become a heroic figure with many tales of dubious accuracy told about his background, bravery and generosity.

According to legend, Ali Atar started out as a trader in spices who climbed the ranks of Andalusian military leadership thanks to his skill in battle. He served Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada, known by Christians as King Boabdil. Muhammad was also related to Ali Atar, having married Atar’s beautiful daughter Moraima whom he loved beyond all others. Muhammad’s reign was a tumultuous one riven by internecine warfare. Christian rulers took advantage of Grenada’s weakness to take Muslim cities and chip away at what was left of the last sultanate. The Sultan tried to flip the script and in April 1483, he and Ali Atar tried to take the Christian city of Lucena (Cordoba). The battle was lost and Ali Atar, then 90 years old, died in the fight, his trusty sword in hand.

Ali Atar’s long life and battlefield death mirrored the final century of Muslim rule in Spain. The Nasrid dynasty, rulers of the Emirate of Grenada, was the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula. Muhammed XII was captured at the Battle of Lucena and was only freed after he swore allegiance to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was a meaningless allegiance as their Most Catholic Majesties had no interest in maintaining any kind of Islamic rule in Iberia, even under their ostensible suzerainty. In 1491, Ferdinand and Isabella besieged Grenada and on January 2nd, 1492, nine years after Ali Atar’s death, Muhammad XII surrendered the Alhambra palace to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I and went into exile in Morocco.

His sword’s fame outlived Ali Atar. Covered in gold and ivory, the sword was taken by Christian forces after Atar’s defeat at Lucena and is now one of the most precious treasures of the Toledo Army Museum. Researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia and Toledo company IngHeritag3D worked together to create a 3D model of this storied weapon.

Its design and materials posed challenges to the digitizing team.

First they photographed the sword from many angles using a technique called photogrammetry. Then they overlapped all the images, drew planimetries (drawings of the meticulous filigree of the grip) and generated its 3D model.

“These techniques offer the possibility of valuing relevant pieces inside and outside museums, since three-dimensional modelling is prepared both for specialists -who can manipulate the piece virtually-, and for being shared publicly and interactively through the Internet,” says engineer Margot Gil-Melitón, co-author of the work.

Using a web viewer, any user can use their mouse to check an exact replica of the handle of this genet sword, a type of genuinely Nasrid weapon introduced in Al-Andalus by the Zenetas (Berber people from whom it takes its name). Ali Atar’s sword has a knob in the shape of a bulbous dome, an ivory fist carved with drawings and Arabic letters, and a golden arriax (sword grip) topped with zoomorphic figures.

To record the details of this fine ornamentation, the researchers have devised solutions that have facilitated the analysis of highly reflective materials and complicated geometries. Their workflow could also be applied to characterize other museum pieces.

Here’s the completed 3D model of the grip of the sword:

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800 medieval illuminated manuscripts digitized

Saturday, March 16th, 2019

England and France may have had one or two little issues with each other in the Middle Ages, but all is forgiven now and 800 medieval illuminated manuscripts have been digitized and made available to the public on the websites of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The BL and BnF have the largest collections of medieval illuminated manuscripts in the world. To make some of these masterpieces accessible to the general public, both libraries worked together with funding from the Polonsky Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on preserving and sharing cultural heritage primarily through the digitizing of important collections.

The carefully curated collection features works created in Medieval England and France between 700 and 1200 A.D.

The manuscripts have been selected for their historical significance in terms of relations between France and England during the Middle Ages. They are also of unique artistic, historical or literary interest. Produced between the eighth and the end of the twelfth century, they cover a wide range of subjects, illustrating intellectual production during the early middle ages and the Roman period. Among these manuscripts are a few precious, sumptuously illuminated examples such as the Benedictional of Winchester around the year 1000, the Bible de Chartres around 1140 or the Great Canterbury Anglo-Catalan Psalter produced circa 1200.

With this corpus being of undisputable scientific interest, the programme is also characterised by several manuscript recovery operations: digitisation, online dissemination, restoration, scientific description and even mediation.

The BnF portal provides access to all 800 manuscripts. They are grouped according to themes, authors, places and centuries for ease of navigation and can be searched in English, French and Italian. The technical tools are downright nifty. Manuscripts can be viewed side-by-side for comparison. They can be annotated online and the annotations downloaded as json files for sharing. Manuscript pages can be downloaded as individual images or the entire manuscript can be download as a PDF.

The BL portal presents a selection of manuscripts. Articles on subjects like medieval legal, medical and musical writing place the works in their historical context and significance. There are also pieces on the wider background of illumination, book-making, science and learning in the Middle Ages. A few of the manuscripts in the collection have been highlighted here, and boy are they showstoppers — lavish illustrations, intricately carved ivory and precious metal covers, hymnals, psalters and a phenomenal bestiary.

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