Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

The history of writing in 1.5 hours

Monday, November 15th, 2021

Among the many treasures of this summer’s virtual lecture series accompanying the Getty Museum’s exhibition on 3000 years of Mesopotamian history, there was one particularly sparkly jewel. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia was an absolute revelation, and I’m not just saying that because it was hosted by my favorite Assyriologist, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum. Dr. Finkel and Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts cover an enormous amount of ground on the origins and evolution of cuneiform: the first known writing system, its beginnings as a combination of pictograms and impressions, the incredible complexity of early Mesopotamian mathematics, writing’s shift from drawing to symbol to sound and ever so much more. The discussion lasted an hour and a half and I was riveted the entire time.

The webinar took place on August 11th, and I have been waiting impatiently ever since for the Getty to upload it to their YouTube channel as they did for the other videos in the series soon after the live debut. Finally two weeks ago I emailed the Getty’s Public Programs coordinator asking forlornly whether something had gone awry with the one video I was keenest to share. Something had — they didn’t get into specifics, just that they had experienced difficulties with the upload — but they were optimistic it would be up within a couple of weeks.

The couple of weeks have elapsed and the video is at long last available. Set aside a block of time and bask in the illumination:


Ghost stories with Irving Finkel

Saturday, October 30th, 2021

Thursday’s live-streamed discussion about Mesopotamian beliefs on ghosts hosted by historian Bettany Hughes with British Museum Assyriologist, cuneiform expert and raconteur extraordinaire Dr. Irving Finkel was, as expected, a highly entertaining and information-rich exploration of what the earliest writers in the world recorded about the care, feeding and, when necessary, forcible removal of the spirits of the dead.

It has now been uploaded to the BM’s YouTube Channel so if you missed it live, you can catch it now to celebrate Halloween Assyrian-style.

Irving Finkel goes into even more detail on ancient Mesopotamian ghost beliefs in this earlier video that I somehow missed until now. It’s a presentation by him alone rather than the interview/discussion style of the webinar, and let’s face it, in any given circumstance, the more Finkel the better.

His rant about The Exorcist at 13:15 is an absolute treasure, as is the mumbo jumbo section at 23:15. The discussion of the newly-identified ghost drawing is at 33:35. 


Virtual Mesopotamian civilization

Thursday, July 29th, 2021

The Getty Villa Museum is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Mesopotamian history from the dawn of the first cities in the Fertile Crescent around 3200 B.C. to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. An array of rare artifacts — sculptures, cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, jewelry, paintings, bricks, decorative friezes — of exceptional quality, almost all of them on loan from the Louvre, are on display at the museum in Malibu through August 16th. It was scheduled to open on March 18th, 2020, but was preempted by you-know-what. The Louvre was kind enough to extend the loan for more than a year and the exhibition finally opened on April 21st.

The Getty has put together a fun and informative series of workshops and lectures to accompany the exhibition. Circumstances forced them online, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy events virtually that we would not have been able to attend in person. Want an excuse to make a ton of cookies while learning how to write cuneiform? Now you’ve got one.

For an overview of Mesopotamian history as represented by the artifacts in the exhibition, watch this lecture by Dr. Ariane Thomas, director of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Louvre. I particularly love that the inscriptions on the objects are fully translated on the presentation slides, which is essential given the central role of cuneiform to Mesopotamian civilizations. Also 22 minutes in is an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out loud. This is the first time I’ve heard Babylonian spoken.

Delve deeper into cuneiform tablets in this presentation by historian Dr. Amanda Podany who examines the religious, political, legal and economic significance of writing in Mesopotamia and examines the lives of three ancient Mesopotamians as revealed in cuneiform inscriptions: Enheduanna (24th century B.C.), daughter of King Sargon, high priestess of the moon god Nanna, the world’s first known poet, the 18th century B.C. scribe Pagirum and Hammurabi, king and lawgiver.

Next archaeologist Tate Paulette, expert on ancient spirituous beverages, explores Mesopotamia’s rich beer culture as documented in written, artistic and archaeological records. The lecture covers the history of beer in Mesopotamia, how it was brewed and drunk, and modern attempts to recreate it.

Last but certainly not least is my favorite internationally-renown cuneiform expert, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum, whose last visit to the Getty featured him taking on all comers at the Royal Game of Ur. Being a more innocent pre-pandemic era, that event was not filmed, much to my disappointment, but this time his discussion of the origins of writing is open to all of us from the comfort of our own homes via Zoom. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia kicks off on August 11th at 11:00 AM Pacific Time. Registration is required and free. Presumably the recording will be made available on YouTube like its predecessors. See you there!


Newly released film of Hindenburg disaster

Wednesday, May 26th, 2021

On May 6, 1937, newsreel crews were at the Lakehurst Naval Station to record the arrival of the pride and joy of the German airship fleet, the Hindenburg. The newsreel cameras were all clustered in a mooring area facing the bow of the dirigible, so when it suddenly burst into flames claiming the lives of 35 passengers, crew and one member of the ground crew, all of the footage of the disaster captured it from the front.

The investigation into the disaster relied primarily on witness statements. The Hindenburg itself was obliterated in the conflagration, so there was no physical evidence to go on to explain the cause of the fire. German officers, including Captain Ernst Lehmann who would die of his injuries the next day, blamed the disaster on sabotage. Others speculated that power from a radio transmitter on the field was responsible; one witness bruited the possibility that high-frequency radio induction had ignited the gas. The Commerce Department report could only conclude that a gas leak in the stern of the airship had created a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air that was ignited by electrostatic discharge of some kind, but they could not determine the source of it.

An amateur videographer was also on the field that day. Harold Schenck was standing next to Hangar One with his trusty Kodak 8-millimeter camera. Unlike the news cameras, Schenck was positioned to get a broad view of the airship as it attempted to land. The film for this little cam could only record two minutes, so he took short clips that he would later put together with explanatory intertitles. He captured the Hindenburg’s approach first and filmed its full length as it burned. It is the only known footage that shows the nose and tail at the same time.

Schenck offered his footage to the Commerce Department investigators but they weren’t interested because they had all the newsreel footage already and didn’t seek out different angles. Thankfully he kept it, and so did his family after he passed away. In 2012, Dan Grossman, a historian, writer and airship expert who has studied the Hindenburg disaster for years, met Bob Schenck, Harold’s nephew, at the 75th anniversary memorial of the disaster on the Lakehurst airfield. Grossman viewed the Schenck footage and was stunned by its unique coverage and perspective of the fire.

The film has now been shown to the public for the first time in an episode of the excellent PBS show Nova. The show used it as a jumping point for a new investigation of the disaster. The episode lays out the background of the flight, the difficulties it encountered, the timeline of the disaster, putting the new footage in context. It explores the footage itself, confirming it authenticity with a film restoration expert, and explains the science behind what we see in the footage.

Every step of the investigation combines historical research and the scientific method to present a highly compelling case for what set off the deadly fire. Highlights include the curators at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen watching the footage in amazement, and the series of experiments designed by Konstantinos Giapis, Professor of Chemical Engineering at CalTech. The Schenck film does not show the source of the spark, so Giapis experiments with various possibilities.

The end-result is genuinely exciting both from a science fair perspective and a historical one. It’s a eureka moment for sure. I won’t spoil it because it’s seriously riveting to follow the progression of the investigation. Watch this show.

You can see a sneak preview of the Schenck footage in this trailer:


Unframed Botticelli reveals original paint

Monday, May 3rd, 2021

The removal of the frame encasing Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Kings in London’s National Gallery has revealed original paint, giving conservators a rich source of information to restore the tempera-on-wood masterpiece. The work has suffered hardships in the six centuries since it was painted, some accidental (water damage), some blunderous (drastic overcleaning). It was bought by The National Gallery in 1857, and it was so brutally “restored” that many details were lost.

In order to conserve it by modern standards, the National Gallery team first took X-rays which showed that the painting continued underneath the top of the frame. When restorer Jill Dunkerton and conservator Britta New removed it from its frame, they found that while very dirty, the paint underneath was in excellent condition compared to the main part of the composition which was sadly flattened by the terrible 19th century cleaning. The unframing also made new sense of the proportions of the figures and their grouping in three levels. The bottom of the frame had hidden a step and made the figures on the left and center look like they were different sizes for no reason.

The painting’s dimensions — 20 inches high and 54 inches wide — suggest that it may have originally been designed to fit a piece of furniture, so it’s unclear when it was first framed. The one that was removed dates to the 19th century when framers in Florence created a custom-carved frame that would accommodate the concave warp the long panel had developed by then.

Here’s a video of the frame being removed piece by piece:

It was painted around 1470, early in the careers of Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi. Botticelli had just struck out on his own after working as an apprentice in the studio of Fra Filippo Lippi, Filippino’s natural father, who had died the year before. Filippino completed his apprenticeship in Botticelli’s new workshop and was listed as his sole assistant in the guild records of 1472. In an unusual twist, The Adoration of the Kings was started by Filippino and then completed by Sandro. Generally apprentices completed the works of the masters, not the other way around. Botticelli is likely responsible for the crowd of kings, horses and onlookers on the left, the dwarf and the man gazing upwards in the central section and the shepherds on the right; Filippino’s hand is evident in the Virgin and Child, the kneeling king kissing Christ’s foot and the entourage behind him.

The distant town, lake and rocks in the center background were copied from Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata by Jan van Eyck, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Early Northern Renaissance art was much in fashion in Florence at the time, and drawings of important works made their way south where Florentine artists used versions of them in their own designs.

Botticelli and Lippi’s northern inspiration gave Jill Dunkerton a unique window into what the original would have looked like before the scrubbing. She was able to study Van Eyck’s piece to recreate some of the lost detail, and the results of her retouching are pretty spectacular so far. Check out this video of her at work. The before and after of the rocks is a particularly striking contrast.


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.





January 2022


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