Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

New York Public Library puts 20,000 maps online

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

The New York Public Library, in addition to having a glorious Beaux Arts main building, has a vast collection of historic images. More than 800,000 images are available for perusal in its Digital Collections, an invaluable resource on the history of New York. I would have made much use of it in this blog but high resolution images are only available for a fee of at least $50 apiece which is rather pricey for works out of copyright.

This has bummed me out for years, so when I read that the NYPL was releasing more than 20,000 digitized maps, I assumed that we’d only be to view these cartographical works in versions too small to appreciate the details, which is bad enough with pictures of people or buildings but is infinitely worse with maps. Something something ass u me, because the entire collection can be viewed in exquisitely high resolution on the website and can even be downloaded! All you have to do is create an account free of charge on the NYPL’s Map Warper site and once that’s done, you see an Export tab on each map entry from which you can download the high resolution file.

Fair warning: the Map Warper takes ages to load, or at least it has for me at various times over several days. Everything I’ve accessed has eventually loaded without errors, but it took minutes. I suggest opening it in a new tab to wait out the load time. Once you have your account, be prepared to wait again for the maps to load. From the comments on the NYPL’s blog entry announcing the release, it appears to be your basic birthing pains and they have top men on it. Top. Men.

In any case, gems like these are worth the wait.

We’ve been scanning maps for about 15 years, both as part of the NYPL’s general work but mostly through grant funded projects like the 2001 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded American Shores: Maps of the MidAtlantic to 1850, the 2004 Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded Building a Globally Distributed Historical Sheet Map Set and the 2010 NEH funded New York City Historical GIS.

Through these projects, we’ve built up a great collection of: 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic United States and cities from the 16th to 19th centuries, mostly drawn from the Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection; a detailed collection of more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian empire created between 1877 and 1914; a collection of 2,800 maps from state, county and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey); a huge collection of more than 10,300 maps from property, zoning, topographic, but mostly fire insurance atlases of New York City dating from 1852 to 1922; and an incredibly diverse collection of more than 1,000 maps of New York City, its boroughs and neighborhoods, dating from 1660 to 1922, which detail transportation, vice, real estate development, urban renewal, industrial development and pollution, political geography among many, many other things.

One of the neatest features the Map Warper offers is the ability for members to rectify a map, meaning overlay it as accurately as possible over a modern digital Google Map using control points on both maps. Here’s a handy tutorial on how to rectify:

And here’s a before and after of a particularly warp-heavy map from sea to shining sea:

I love this one of New Orleans because the 1860 map is basically identical to the modern map only of course the city boundaries have sprawled much further afield now:


1940s Chicago in living color

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

A rare color film of Chicago made in the 1940s was discovered at an estate sale in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago by a professional film colorist, fortuitously enough. The canister was labeled “Chicago Print 1″ which was intriguing enough to entice Jeff Altman to spend $40 to buy the film even though nobody at the sale knew what it was or what kind of condition it was in.

The film turned out to be a 32-minute tour of the city sponsored by the Chicago Board of Education with footage of everything from the glamour of the Wrigley Building to the manufacturing plants of the South Shore. Street scenes are interspersed with dramatic aerial footage shot from United Airlines planes. It was in good condition but needed some color adjustments which its new owner just happened to have the skills to make.

Chicago – A Film from the Chicago Board Of Education from Fading Dyes on Vimeo.

The city looks great — the aerial views of the lakefront are particularly breathtaking — and I’m a sucker for that fabulously stentorian narratorial tone that was so prevalent in publicity films and newsreels from the 1940s. The shots of the L moving through skyscrapers (around the 3:50 mark) look like something from Metropolis.

There are no references in the footage or narration to what the specific purpose of the film was, probably attracting tourism or maybe new businesses, which would explain the unusual coverage of the industrial areas of the city. The Board of Education has so far been unable to locate any records of the production in their archives, but the date can be extrapolated from what we see and hear. The sad fate of that wonderful narrator is a key piece of evidence.

It’s unclear exactly when the video was produced, but portions of it seem to have been filmed in 1940s, judging by the models of cars and what seems to be a marquee for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film “Conflict.”

The video was likely released between January 1945 and September 1946, as John Howatt, credited as the board’s business manager, was elected to the post on Jan. 8, 1945, while narrator Johnnie Neblett died on Sept. 15, 1946, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.

The 1945/6 is confirmed by one of the comments on Vimeo points out that you can see the USS Sable aircraft carrier anchored on Lake Michigan. It was decommissioned at the end of 1945 and broken up for scrap in July 1946.


Voyage to the center of Piranesi’s imaginary prison

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the son of stonemason and nephew of an engineer, first trained under that uncle as an architect maintaining the intricate waterworks of his native Venice. Even though he only ever got one job as an architect in his all too short life, he never lost the passion for buildings. It was as an artist that he made his name. He learned etching in Rome and combined his artistic talent with his favorite subject matter to create views of the city that became popular among Grand Tourists. Piranesi’s etchings of ancient Roman architecture were not only captured with the meticulous understanding of the builder, but were drawn with such powerful chiaroscuro dynamism that Goethe, for one, who first came to know the city through Piranesi’s books, was actually disappointed when he saw the real thing.

Piranesi didn’t limit himself to depictions of Rome and its ruins for the pilgrims and tourists. In 1745, he began work on an entirely new vision, combining his artistic style and understanding of ancient monumental construction to create a unique group of etchings called Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The imaginary part is that they bear no relation to any actual prisons of the era which were mostly cramped dungeon cells in the towers and palaces of the Church and aristocracy. Piranesi’s invented prisons were cavernous labyrinths peppered with intimidatingly suggestive mechanisms where human figures are barely present and dwarfed by their surroundings.

The first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione was published in 1750. It was a collection of 14 untitled etchings drawn in a rough sketch-like style. You can see all 14 of the original Carceri in order here. Ten years later, he would return to his imaginary prisons and do a major revamp of the etchings. He added two new ones and fleshed out the others with even more complex architectural features, increased contrasts of shadow and light, arches, staircases and vaults that lead nowhere.

The prison etchings were part of an artistic tradition called the capriccio, a fantasy aggregation of structures and art works that doesn’t exist in real life. These sorts of imaginary viewpoints were popular with tourists because they compressed the “must see” ruins and artworks into one painting. What Piranesi did with the form, however, was entirely new. The prisons were expressions of visions in his mind, not of tourist bullet points. They wouldn’t be purchased as pre-photography postcards, but the prisons’ tenebrous atmosphere and emotional impact were highly influential for the Romantics of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The irrational elements like infinitely regressing passageways would later inspire the Surrealists and if Escher’s Relativity doesn’t owe Piranesi a huge debt, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

In 2010, the Sale del Convitto in Venice held an exhibition Le Arti di Piranesi: architetto, incisore, antiquario, vedutista, designer (The Arts of Piranesi: architect, engraver, antiquarian, vedutista, designer) to coincide with the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The Carceri etchings played a central part in the show, and graphic artist Gregoire Dupond of Factum Arte brought them to virtual life with an absolutely riveting animation. He took the 16 prints of the second edition and transformed them into a three-dimensional space so viewers can travel deep into Piranesi’s imagination.

It’s 12 minutes long and it’s nothing short of riveting.


The first film of a New York City snowstorm

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Mired in a winter that keeps insisting on snapping back to sub-freezing temperatures and traffic-clogging snow and ice, it warms the cockles of my frozen heart to see the first film footage of New York City during a monster snowstorm. It was filmed for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on February 17, 1902, by Edwin S. Porter, a groundbreaking director who pioneered techniques like dissolves, cross-cutting and close-ups. It records a view of Madison Square, back when Madison Square Garden was actually on Madison Square, buried under massive snowdrifts.

Those are the New York Fire Department’s horse-drawn engines trying to negotiate the snowy terrain. You can see the trolleys trying to keep on schedule, a myriad dedicated pedestrians, carts hauling large barrels of what I assume are spirituous beverages but really could be anything, the snow-covered statue of William Seward and the luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel, once host to US Presidents and crowned heads of Europe but in decline by the time the film was shot. The always awesome Bowery Boys think the beams at the end of the film are a glimpse of the construction site of the iconic Flatiron Building which would be completed just a few months after the film in the summer of 1902.

I think my favorite part is the hansome cab that appears horse-first at 1:24. Patented by Joseph Hansom in England in 1834, by the end of the 19th century these small, fast, highly maneuverable carriages were ubiquitous in cities like London and New York. Cab is short for cabriolet, the type of carriage, and when automated taximeters were added to calculate fares, the hansomes became known as taxicabs. That low little one-horse carriage is the progenitor of the yellow cars that are ubiquitous in New York today. You can see in the film that the era of the hansome cab was already winding down in 1902. By the 1920s, motor vehicles had taken over.

Edison titled the film “New York City in a Blizzard,” but he was being dramatic. The storm didn’t actually rise to the blizzard level. Although this snowstorm produced crazy drifts up to five feet high, on the whole New York City wasn’t actually hit that hard. Winds of 40 miles an hour and deep snow caused traffic, train and shipping delays, but there were no major accidents which is impressive considering you can see the horses struggle to keep their footing in the film. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees, keeping the snow relatively wet and conditions bearable. The blizzard of March 1888 saw temperatures drop to six degrees below zero, winds of 60 miles an hour and two feet of snowfall. Compared to that, the 1902 storm was a cakewalk. Connecticut and the rest of New England were hit much harder.

The year after he shot the snow storm, Edwin S. Porter would move very far beyond the shots of daily life and secure his place in film history by directing the seminal picture The Great Train Robbery.


Good morrow, Richard III nerds; you are early stirring

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Okay, it’s not that early. I just couldn’t resist mooching from Shakespeare for obvious reasons. This is your official History Blog wakeup call: one hour from now the St. Louis University colloquium on the excavation and identification of the remains of King Richard III kicks off. Station yourself on the R3@SLU website to watch the event streaming. Geneticist Dr. Turi King and the dig’s fieldwork director Matthew Morris will be on hand to discuss the find along with history, humanities, forensic pathology and English professors from SLU.

The colloquium lasts six hours but they will break for nature and lunch, so you probably won’t have to use that Snapple bottle you haven’t recycled yet. Alternatively, you could just wait for the entire video to be uploaded to the site after the discussion is over. Dr. Jonathan Sawday from the St. Louis University English department and one of the organizers of the event, was kind enough to comment on the first post to assure us that the video will be available, and the site now confirms it will be found on the Schedule page.

Right now that page contains the actual schedule. Matthew Moris and Turi King will be on in the afternoon, but don’t skip the St. Louis University talks because it all looks like gold, Jerry. There’s something for everyone. As I am also a forensic pathology nerd, I am very much looking forward to Dr. Michael Graham discussion of Medico-legal Death Investigation: Now and Then.

I’ll be watching today, updating this post with any nerdy commentary as the proverbial spirit moves me. Join me in the comments, if the proverbial spirit moves you. :boogie:

And we’re on! It’s cool to hear to the perspective of Leicesterians from Dr. Sawday.

Oh hey, I didn’t know Sir Walter Scott invented the term “War of the Roses.”

Archaeologist Thomas Finan: Leading a dig is “less of an Indiana Jones experience and more of an Eisenhower experience.” Nicely put.

Dammit, the stream has stopped for me. :angry: Okay it’s back. I missed a chunk of Dr. Finan’s presentation about his finds in the UK which I will catch up when the full video is uploaded.

Archaeologists see an unidentified skeleton as a sample of the wider population, a source of information about the population’s health, age, diet, physical attributes, etc. The individual’s cause of death is not often writ on the skeletal remains. If they’ve died of disease or old age or a sudden heart attack, say, you’re not going necessarily going to find evidence of that on the bones.

Now that the recovery of ancient DNA is possible, it opens the door to a whole new investigation into the remains as an individual rather than as a source of data for the wider population.

It’s pathology time! Ooh, interesting that China was doing forensic death investigations in the 13th century.

The coroner’s office was established in England in the 8th or 9th century. That is crazy. They didn’t include autopsies until much later, however, so even if Richard’s death had been investigated, his body would have been looked at but nothing more.

The US is still under the coroner system today. Frontline did a fantastic and terrifying expose’ of what a slapdash disaster death investigations can be in the United States. You can watch that program online on the PBS website and I highly, HIGHLY recommend it.

The choppiness is getting me down, y’all. I might have to wait for the finished video.

Stab wound with hilt mark and hesitation marks on the wrist. That slice with the lined up pinpoints indicate a serrated weapon was used, in this case a saw. Wound interpretation is fascinating.

Now there’s what I’m sure is a compelling round table conversation on how archaeologists, curators, etc. handle human remains in a respectful way but it’s like an audio version of a strobe light and I just can’t take it anymore. I’m giving up for now, but I’ll try again regularly.

Huh. They seem to have gone back to Dr. Finan’s presentation and it sounds and looks fine. I’ll take it!

Okay, it appears they used the break to replay the presentation that was so choppy. Now it’s back to the live colloquium with Dr. Anthony Hasler’s talk Richard’s World. There are still some moments when the stream has to catch up with itself, but that constant choppiness has cleared up.

Spoke too soon. The choppiness is back.

Okay it’s 1:20 EST and they’re replaying Anthony Hasler’s presentation during the lunch break. The replays all seem to be work well, which means the final video will be good quality.

…. Aaand choppiness again. I’m officially conceding defeat. I’ll try again after lunch.

It’s 2:34 EST and Matthew Morris is up. The stream still stutters. I’m going to go ahead and wait for the completed video. :skull:


Getty launches free Virtual Library

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Yesterday, Getty Publications, publishers of exhibition catalogs, art history monographs and studies of archaeology, history, conservation, photography, architecture, and so much more, launched Virtual Library which makes freely available more than 250 titles published since 1966. The books can be read online or downloaded in their entirety in pdf format and are fully searchable.

The publications, the earliest of which dates from 1966, span the Getty’s rich publishing history, and include collection catalogues that highlight masterpieces from Getty collections, translations of groundbreaking texts on the visual arts, essential works of art historical research, exhibition catalogues, journals, and publications that serve as key resources in the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage. The Virtual Library includes titles published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute. Titles will be added to the Virtual Library on an ongoing basis.

There are some real treasures on the list. I’ve already downloaded Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum, a short 1982 text on the beautiful Roman Egyptian mummy portraits also known as the Fayum Portraits, The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, sure to feed my fascination with the painstaking process of decorating Greek pottery, The Restoration of Ancient Bronzes: Naples and Beyond, an essay collection on the history of restoration and conservation of ancient Greek and Roman bronzes centered around Naples where so many bronzes were retrieved from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and a thematically related book, History of Restoration of Ancient Stone Sculptures, which covers restoration practices from antiquity to today.

One of the great things about the Virtual Library books is the quality of the scans. Often pdf versions of books are so low resolution they’re really glorified text files for reading. The Getty, on the other hand, has seen to it that the images in these books are just as compelling as the text. You can zoom in to an impressive degree and enjoy flipping through the photographs just as you would with the hard copy. Since, let’s face it, looking at the pictures is the main reason people buy exhibition catalogs, this is an important facet of a library containing so many books on artifacts and paintings in the museum collection.

Some of the picture-intensive books I’ve got my eye on are Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolors, Greek Gold from Hellenistic Egypt and Gardens of the Roman World. The second of those is a subject that I literally know nothing about, and according to the summary, the experts don’t know much about them either. The book is about a collection of glorious Hellenist gold jewelry in the J. Paul Getty Museum that is unprovenanced (looted?) and it covers the turbulent history of Egypt from Alexander the Great through the last ruler of his general Ptolemy’s dynasty: Cleopatra VII.

The Virtual Library is part of a larger initiative the Getty has undertaken to share their rich cultural and educational resources as part of their educational mission. Last year they launched the Open Content Program, a database of high resolution images of artworks in the Getty Museum collections and the special collections of the Getty Research Institute. There are more than 10,000 images available now, all of them free to download and use. I have lost many a weekend browsing the Medieval and Renaissance illuminations, photographs from the Civil War to Walker Evans and great art works in the museum.


British Library releases 1 million images

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

The British Library has released more than one million high resolution images scanned from public domain books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries on their Flickr account. Scanned as part of a digitization collaboration with Microsoft that began in 2008, the images illustrate a vast range of topics from literary classics like Charles Dickens novels to anthropological studies, travel guides, histories, song collections, children’s books and ever so much more. Even those decorative swirls that separate chapters and fancy initial capitals made the cut.

Each image is tagged by author, date of publication and book title, so if opening one picture inspires you to see every other image in the book, say, just click the link at the bottom of the description and you’ll see them all. Another link at the bottom of the description will show you every image in the collection published that year. That’s just the beginning, though. Starting next year, the British Library will tap into crowd powder to add details, new classifications and, hopefully, research inspirations.

We plan to launch a crowdsourcing application at the beginning of next year, to help describe what the images portray. Our intention is to use this data to train automated classifiers that will run against the whole of the content. The data from this will be as openly licensed as is sensible (given the nature of crowdsourcing) and the code, as always, will be under an open licence.

The manifests of images, with descriptions of the works that they were taken from, are available on github and are also released under a public-domain ‘licence’. This set of metadata being on github should indicate that we fully intend people to work with it, to adapt it, and to push back improvements that should help others work with this release.

There are very few datasets of this nature free for any use and by putting it online we hope to stimulate and support research concerning printed illustrations, maps and other material not currently studied. Given that the images are derived from just 65,000 volumes and that the library holds many millions of items.

Since the images are public domain, they can be used without conditions. At the very least it’s a huge free stock collection that I can envision coming in very handy for everyone from graphic designers to parents looking to make an extremely nerdy coloring book for their kids (or themselves; coloring is the best). The British Library wants to know how people are using the pictures and they’ve offered their enthusiastic collaboration with any project readers may devise. You can Email or tweet them with any questions or ideas.


Medieval bones go online at Digital Diseases

Monday, December 9th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Priscilla Catacombs re-opened and Google Mapped

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

The Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, an eight-mile network of warrens on several levels dug out of soft volcanic tufa used for Christian burials from the second century A.D. through the fifth, have been re-opened after five years of conservation. Restorers used laser technology to clean the wall paintings, a highly significant collection of early Christian iconography that includes the earliest known depiction of the Madonna and Child dating to around 230 A.D. and, in a room known as the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, a later third century depiction a woman with arms outstretched wearing what the Vatican’s Italian language website calls “a rich liturgical vestment” (the English version calls it “a rich purple garment”) which some consider evidence of female clergy in early Christianity. In the newly-dubbed Cubiculum of Lazarus, lasers revealed a fourth-century fresco of Christ raising Lazurus, still wrapped in his shroud, from the dead. This work had been obscured by centuries of grime.

The Priscilla catacombs are thought to have been named after the wife of Manius Acilius Glabrio, Roman Consul in 91 A.D. (the future emperor Trajan was his co-consul) executed by Domitian for atheism, ie, his refusal to worship the Roman gods because he was Christian. She had him buried in what was once a quarry and donated the property to the church so others could be buried there. It’s known as the “Queen of the Catacombs” because of the art work and because so many martyrs and popes were buried there. Popes Saint Marcellinus (296-304), Saint Marcellus I (308-309), Saint Sylvester I (314-335), Liberius (352-366), Saint Siricius (384-399), Saint Celestine I (422-432) and Vigilius (537-555) were laid to rest in the Catacombs of Priscilla, as were the following martyrs: brothers Felix and Philip, probably killed under Diocletian, their mother Felicity and five of their other brothers (Alexander, Martial, Vitale, Silanus and Januarius), Saint Philomena, Saint Pudens and his daughter Saint Praxedes. His other daughter Saint Pudentiana is buried next to her father, but there are no surviving accounts of whether she was martyred.

Such a rich connection to important figures of the early Church made the Priscilla catacomb a target of looters. That’s why it was forgotten for almost a thousand years, because, like many other catacombs at the time, its entrances were deliberately blocked and hidden in the sixth century to protect it during a period when Rome was being sacked on a regular basis. It was one of the first catacombs to be rediscovered in the 16th century, and then the local sackers got to work stealing tombstones, sarcophagi, tufa blocks and the remains of presumed martyrs.

Thankfully they left the paint of the walls, and eight labyrinthine miles are hard to completely strip of all their contents so when archaeologists began excavating the site in the late 19th century, they found around 750 marble fragments of funerary art. These pieces of sarcophagi and funerary inscriptions have been kept for a century plus in a space in the basilica of San Silvestro, a new church built over the foundations of a fourth century one in 1907. In addition to the conservation of the catacombs themselves, the project saw the construction of an innovative new museum to house these pieces. They needed restoration and they needed to be displayed in a suitable context, so a museum was built over what was still an open archaeological site.

They covered the foundations of the ancient church, which still contains many burials, with a pavement made out of panels of clear glass, metal gratings or imperial travertine. The clear panels cover the areas with significant archaeological remains so visitors to the museum can look down and see the ruins. The gratings provide air flow to the remains to ensure moisture levels don’t rise encouraging the growth of destructive vegetation and microorganisms. They also provide easy access for future maintenance of the archaeological material because they can be easily removed. The travertine was chosen because of its durability and because it is aesthetically in keeping with its surroundings. Its opacity obscures cables and other unsightly fundamentals of modern construction.

The Museum of Priscilla has its own website now and it’s actually good, something worth noting since so many archaeological sites have truly atrocious websites if they have any web presence at all. It’s only in Italian but it’s worth browsing even if you have to use an online translator. The videos do not have English captions but I still think you should watch them if only to see how the museum came together. It’s quite spectacular.

This video covers the process of museum construction from early rejected concepts to final execution. Watch it to see the space go from display room with a solid floor covering ruins protected solely by burial in sand into a floorless archaeological site into a handsome, multi-layer, non-invasive one-room museum.

This one describes the construction of the floor, the three different kinds of panels, their uses, why the materials were chosen:

Doesn’t that combination floor look great? I think it’s brilliant.

The following video shows the restoration of the 750 fragments. My quick translation of the main points: three restorers worked on the fragments for two and a half years. In the early 1900s, the marbles were affixed to the church wall with iron hooks and mortar. They needed to be cleaned of oxidized iron, cementacious materials and concretions accumulated over the centuries underground. The cement was so much harder than the ancient marble that removing it with power microdrills without damaging the marble was a great challenge. They had to use the smallest of bits to do the work. Once cleaned, the fragments were reunited using a special glue. The biggest surprise was the discovery of traces of the original polychrome paint. The figures of people were outlined in red. The fruit is fuxia (I’d call it a raspberry or a purple more than a bright pink, but I’m not there and the restorer is so what she says goes.) There’s so little left because “restorers” in the past scrubbed the marble raw with wire brushes (like the British Museum did to the Elgin marbles in the 19th century). In fact, the one feature all these fragments have in common is that their surfaces are thoroughly scratched.

Finally, if you’d like to get a more detailed view of the Catacombs of Priscilla but can’t make your way to Rome right at this minute, you can tour them on Google Maps! The whole eight miles haven’t been scanned, but you can follow basically the same route you’d take if you were there in person and then some. According to the Giorgia Abeltino of Google Italy, the had to build specialized cameras and instruments to take the Street View process underground, and it pays off. I’ve been in my fair share of catacombs and they are dark, y’all. The virtual tour is illuminated and detailed beyond my wildest expectations.


Hear John Donne’s sermon of November 5th, 1622

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

John Donne, lawyer, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, died on March 31st, 1631. He had been Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for a decade at the time of his death, a prestigious leadership position in the Church of England to which he was appointed by King James I despite only having taking orders six years earlier. Donne was born and raised Catholic but had converted to the Church of England in the late 1590s. Indeed, he caught the eye of the king in 1610 by publishing the tract Pseudo-Martyr which argued that Catholics could in good conscience swear the Oath of Allegiance to King James, a law promulgated in 1606 in reaction to the Gunpowder Plot the year before requiring all Catholics in public service to affirm their loyalty to the King even if the Pope excommunicated him. (This was a significant stance on a personal level because Donne had refused to take the previous iteration, the Oath of Supremacy, a requirement for graduation from English universities, and thus never receive his degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Also, his mother was the great-niece of Sir Thomas More who was executed for treason after his refusal to take the first version of this oath under Henry VIII.)

Donne had been exiled from court in 1601 after his secret marriage to Anne More (no relation to Sir Thomas), daughter of Sir George More, Lieutenant of the Tower, and niece of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Donne’s employer and patron. His struggles to support his ever-growing family (Anne had 12 children in 16 years; she died birthing the last one) were significant. Even with a kindly relative putting a roof over their heads and legal skills earning them a few ducats, John was always on the hunt for a stable position and income.

He wanted a job at court, the kind of posting he would surely had received had he not pissed off Egerton and derailed his youthful promise, but that wasn’t going to happen. His friends told him to take orders, but he was reluctant to become an ordained minister. When Thomas Morton, then Dean of Gloucester and future Bishop of Durham, asked him to consider a career in the church in 1606, Donne explained his reluctance:

[M]y refusal is not for that I think myself too good for that calling, for which kings, if they think so, are not good enough; nor for that my education and learning, though not eminent, may not, being assisted with God’s grace and humility, render me in some measure fit for it; but I dare make so dear a friend as you are my confessor. Some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of his grace banished them my affections, yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to man as to free me from their censures, and it may be that sacred calling from a dishonour.

Translation: John was way too into the wine, women and song in his youth, so much so that his reputation could bring the holy office into disrepute. And this before his erotic poetry was published, although the elegies had circulated among friends in manuscript form when he first wrote them, probably in the 1590s. He wasn’t wrong, incidentally. Long after his ordination some people would still throw his youthful indiscretions in his face when they had a dispute with him.

Finally Donne gave in to the pressure of his friends, King and wallet and took orders in 1615. His first appointment was as Royal Chaplain. The next year he was appointed Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. This is where he began to deliver regular sermons and to be recognized as a skilled orator. He gave 50 sermons the first year, at a time when any self-respecting sermon would be at least one hour long and more often double that. Donne became very much in demand as a preacher, getting invitations to preach everyone from Queen Anne’s private residence to Whitehall to St. Paul’s Cross, the courtyard adjacent to the Cathedral where large audiences gathered to listen to sermons on the great controversies of the day.

When he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s in 1621, St. Paul’s Cross became the home base for his sermons. Although in theory sermons were not subject to censorship, in fact the King was deeply involved in who preached about what, and a sermon that didn’t sit right with His Majesty could easily result in its preacher spending a night or two in the Tower. Sermons increasingly failed to sit right with the King as the question of the proposed marriage between Prince Charles and the Catholic Princes Maria Anna of Spain raged across pulpits.

In 1622, King James I made it explicit by issuing Directions for Preachers which instructed all clergy to stick to the liturgy and refrain from comment on affairs of state. James directed Donne to make a sermon in favor of the new rules, which he did on the grounds that subjects should obey the monarch and trust in his wisdom.

Two months later, the King told Donne to go for another round in a sermon on November 5th, 1622, the 17th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Again the focus of this sermon was obedience to the monarch, comparing James to the “good king” Josiah and emphasizing his Anglican orthodoxy to deflect suspicions that his desire for a Spanish match for his son was the result of a secret tendency towards Papism.

We know what he said in this sermon because Donne wrote it down at the King’s request a couple of days after having delivered it. Now we can know what it sounded like, thanks to the brilliant multi-disciplinary efforts of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project.

This Project uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us access experientially to a particular event from the past – the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622.

These digital tools, customarily used by architects and designers to anticipate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that are not yet constructed, are here used to recreate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that have not existed for hundreds of years.

The St. Paul’s Cathedral of Donne’s time burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In order to create an accurate architectural model of the St. Paul’s Cross courtyard, the VPCP used contemporary artistic depictions of the site and measurements taken by archaeologists of all that survived the fire: the foundations of the buildings surrounding it. They calculated the acoustics of the space from the architectural data and from likely ambient noise like crowd buzz, church bells, seagulls and horse carts passing by. They also adjusted the acoustic model depending on where the listener is standing and how many people were in the courtyard.

To resurrect the preaching style of a man who died almost 400 years ago, researchers sought out descriptions of Donne’s sermons from contemporary witnesses and enlisted the expertise of historical linguists to pin down a proper period accent and pronunciation. The project took three years to complete and more than 50 experts in many fields from history to architecture to acoustical engineers.

The website is replete with information about every aspect of the project including of course the star of the show, John Donne’s November 5th, 1622, sermon, available from two listening spots.

Here’s a quick flyover of the visual model of St. Paul’s Cross:

Here’s the first eight minutes of the sermon as heard from the Sermon House box where the dignitaries sat (because you guys are totally my dignitaries):

How about that echo, huh? No wonder he had to speak so slowly. For summaries of the text and to hear the rest of the recreated sermon, click here. To listen from the cheap seats, click here. To follow along with the script, click here.