Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

The Making of a Roman Silver Cup

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

In 2014, the Getty Museum was fortunate enough to be allowed access to one of the world’s greatest Roman treasures: the silver hoard discovered by a farmer ploughing his field in Berthouville, Normandy, France, in 1830. An unprecendented assemblage of silver-gilt objects that epitomize the best Roman silversmithing had to offer, the plates, bowls, cups, pitchers, statuettes are crafted with high relief details, scenes from mythology and elaborate designs that were probably the dining set of an incredibly wealthy Roman. Inscriptions by the donor, one Quintus Domitius Tutus, dedicating them to the Gallo-Roman version of the god Mercury indicate they were later used for ritual purposes and deliberately buried, but first they were likely used to set a fabulously splendid banquet table.

Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D.. gold det. Photo courtesy the JP Getty Museum.

The Getty Villa in Malibu played host to Berthouville’s most famous citizens starting in December 2010 as part of a collaboration with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to employ its own greatest assets — the deep bench of conservation experience and know-how — to conserve and restore the objects. They had been roughly handled in the initial cleaning back in the olden days of the 19th century, so they needed cleaning, restoration and punctilious research to revive their shine. The work Getty conservators did uncovered a great deal of new information about how Roman silversmiths worked and how 19th century restorers worked.

Because of their aid in restoring these precious objects, the Getty was given the sole opportunity to exhibit the treasure and other fine silver pieces from the collection of the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville ran from November 2014 through August 2015. It was the first time the Berthouville treasure has ever been allowed to leave France and very possibly the last.

I wrote about the exhibition at the time, but I missed the very cool YouTube video showing how Roman silversmiths would have created one of the exquisite cups in the treasure. There’s also a cool 3D rotating view of the Mercury statuette that is one the stars of the Berthouville show.

The video quality on this one leaves something to be desired, but the content sure doesn’t. It’s a lecture by Getty antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin on the background of the Berthouville Treasure.

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Largest early world map stitched together virtually

Friday, January 5th, 2018

The largest known early map of the world has been digitally stitched together into one single glorious panorama of exotic far-flung lands and mythical creatures. This virtual parturition births into the world the cartographic baby of Urbano Monte, a 16th century geographer who created the planisphere in 1587. The 60-page manuscript covered depicted all the known world from the North Pole to the much conjecture but still unknown Terra Australis way down south. The 60 manuscript pages when put together to create the complete top-down view of the earth Monte envisioned are 10 feet by 10 feet, the largest early non-mural map known.

That’s not its only intriguing attribute. It’s a North Polar projection, aka an azimuthal equidistant projection which accurately positions landmasses along global meridians. While there are a few examples of the form before Monte’s planisphere, his use of the North Polar projection in this map was a major step forward and later cartographers borrowed from it liberally. He drew every part of the map by hand on those 60 sheets, labelling every land mass, every hill, every dale, every river, country, ship and coastline, practically every tree. There are charts that record the length of days and nights during the year, the strength of the sun’s rays at different times, a lunar eclipse, a wind chart and many tidy explanations of geographic nomenclature and concepts. It is unreal, and I’m not just saying that because of the mutant fish monsters and mermen living it up in the Terra Austraulis Ignonita, which appears to have basically been Vegas before Bugsy Siegal.

It was this information dense by design. Monte included information on weather, topographic data, the amount of daylight, and tons more because he wanted it to be the complete resource for the learned statesman, a scientific planisphere that was to be secured in a wood panel and revolve above the heads of viewers via a pin through the North Pole, a slowly turning planet, if you will. The revolving map was another innovation of Monte’s.

Unfortunately he never did put the manuscript sheets together and create his great masterpiece. The masterpiece has remained bound in Italian sheep leather for 430 years. (There are two other manuscripts known, one with missing areas, the other a later one of 64 pages.) Making Urbano Monte’s dream come true is now possible without destruction, as long as you have the expertise, resources and dedication to put in the many hours of work takes. The David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University recently acquired the manuscript and has been digitizing its pages. They’ve done a spectacular job and the end result is an online resource that allows visitors to zoom in to enormously high resolution images of each page as well as to see a digital composite of the pages in their proper order, assembled just the way Monte instructed on one of the pages of the planisphere. There’s a top-down view of the 10×10 square map, several reprojections that map the virtual map on to the globe, as a Mercator projection, etc. Every label is easily readable thanks to the zoom, resolution and Monte’s elegant, clear-as-a-bell handwriting. It’s a digital masterpiece of an analog masterpiece.

When we georeference Monte’s map and then re-project it into Mercator projection we immediately understand why he used the north polar projection instead of Mercator’s: Monte wanted to show the entire earth as close as possible to a three-dimensional sphere using a two-dimensional surface. His projection does just that, notwithstanding the distortions around the south pole. Those same distortions exist in the Mercator’s world map, and by their outsized prominence on Monte’s map they gave him a vast area to indulge in all the speculations about Antarctica that proliferated in geographical descriptions in the 16th century. While Mercator’s projection became standard in years to come due to its ability to accurately measure distance and bearing, Monte’s polar projection gave a better view of the relationships of the continents and oceans. In the 20th century air age, the polar projection returned as a favored way to show the earth. Monte would have been pleased to see a modern version of his map used in the official emblem of the United Nations.

That is totally cromulent map. Imaging making something even remotely that accurate with colored pencils and 60 sheets of paper (well, sheepskin). You must browse through every page of this map and zoom way in to the spot all the animals, monarchs on thrones, irate mermen, even the aritst himself in not one, but two self-portraits. It’s too good not to be enjoyed in all its glory. Then you can pay homage to the master by seeing it look incredible connected as he had intended it to be 430 years ago. It’s been a long time in coming.

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Happy New Year’s Eve!

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

May Janus make his two (or four) faces to shine down upon your endeavours. May Bacchus’ leopard-drawn chariot safely convey you in whatever condition you happen to find yourself to and from your destinations. May you ring in the New Year with people you love, or at least people you don’t actively hate, and when the clock strikes midnight, raise a glass to we many, we happy many history nerds. Long may we drone on about our favorite subjects to our friends and family until they beg us to shut up for just one second or stuff their ears with dinner table napkins. Hey, it’s a gift.

We’ll meet back here tomorrow for a new post, the yearly retrospective that has become such a firmly established tradition for me now that it wouldn’t feel like the year has turned without it. Have a wonderful night!

P.S. – Aw, I can’t leave you with nothing at all to while away the time between breakfast and party. Janus, donchaknow. One looks back even as one looks forward.

This is a nifty 3D digitial reconstruction of St. Salvator’s Quad and Chapel at the University of St Andrews. The great spire of St. Salvator’s is original to the 15th century structure, but the rest of the quad today bears little resemblance to what it looked like when it opened in 1450. It was altered irrevocably starting with the great upheavals of the Reformation in Scotland, and indeed, a pivotal event in that history took place in the quad: the burning at the state of Patrick Hamilton, a 24-year-old scholar and advocate of the ideas of Martin Luther. He who was the first person condemned to die and executed for espousing Protestantism in Scotland. That was 1528.

With the 500the anniversary of the Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg castle, University of St Andrews researchers collaborated with Smart History to set the scene virtually so we could get an idea of what St. Salvator’s looked like in its medieval heyday.

St Salvators – St Andrews 1559 from Smart History on Vimeo.

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3D animation of Sculptor’s Cave

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Sculptor’s Cave in Moray, Scotland, is an archaeological gem among archaeological gems. It is the main cave of several set in the craggy ocean-facing cliff that was used by local peoples for millennia. In the Bronze Age deposits of jewelry and ceramics were made there, and the abundance of human skeletal remains, many of children, from that era also found in the cave suggests it held some ritual funerary significance. The skull of one the children appears to have been defleshed post-mortem. Less sensational that the defleshed child but just as meaningful historically are the Pictish symbols carved on the walls of the entrances.

This unique location has been kept hidden from public view (from most people’s view, for that matter) for its own protection and for everyone else’s because it is only accessible at low tide. That’s going to change now, at least virtually.

A new project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland and carried out by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster at the University of Bradford, has created a high-resolution animated model of the cave. Through laser scanning and structured light scanning, the details of the cave have been digitally preserved to allow for more in-depth exploration of the cave – and the Pictish symbols – no matter whether the tide is high.

“The Sculptor’s Cave is a fascinating location, known for decades for the richness of its archaeology and for the unusual Pictish carvings around its entrance,” said Professor Armit of Bradford’s School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences. “This walk-through animation allows us to study the carvings in detail, and to present this inaccessible site to the public through online and museum displays. It also ensures that we can preserve the cave and the carvings digitally for future generations to study.”

Here is an animated flythrough of Sculptor’s Cave in the 3D model created using the scan data. This is just a glimpse of what’s to come. Next year the results of the study will be published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The animated model will be deployed at the Elgin Museum so that visitors will be able to see the cave and its carvings in detail.

In keeping with the mini-theme I seem to have accidentally developed over the past couple of days, Historic Environment Scotland has launched an even more ambitious digitization project that will see 50,000 items from its archives scanned, uploaded to the web and made freely available to all. The records include photographs taken by HES’ predecessor organizations, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Historic Scotland. For more than a century (1908 to 2015) RCAHMS’ brief was documenting everything it could about Scotland’s history as seen in physical structures and the environment. There are a thousands of aerial photos shot from airplanes, pictures of buildings (and therefore street life) throughout the decades, among many other things. RCAHMS merged with Historic Scotland, steward of many of Scotland’s listed buildings, in 2015. As a result HES today has an enormous collection of photographs stored in their headquarters Edinburgh, but they’re only accessible to people who can get to John Sinclair House in person.

The digitization initiative will take those 50,000 photos out of their green archive boxes and into pixel space. Once the scanning is complete, the images will be uploaded to Canmore, HES’ online catalogue of its enormous collection of records (including a fine array of historic photographs like Misses Reid and Bonshaw looking fierce in their garden on July 10th, 1890) and catalogue entries of archaeological sites, survey data, architecture and tons more.

Jacobite Risings model by Brick to the Past on display.Not related to the theme but too awesome not to genuflect before is a new exhibition at Stirling Castle called The Jacobite Risings: The Fight for Britain’s Throne. It recreates key events and locations in the Jacobite rebellions in LEGO. That’s right, one million bricks and 2000 tiny soldiers were used to bring history to life for all LEGO-loving peoples, child and child-at-heart alike. Two of the scenes include miniature buildings whose real life versions are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. One is the starkly white medieval tower house Corgarff Castle. The other Ruthven Barracks, a military fortification on a high promontory built after the 1715 Jacobite uprising by George II to keep the ever-restless Jacobites from re-rising. It didn’t work in the long-term and the barracks were taken by a frontal assault in 1746.

The Jacobite conflict writ in LEGO is currently opened to the public on Monday and runs through February 2nd, 2018. You can even make a day of it and visit Ruthven Barracks after you see mini-Ruthven at Stirling. Unfortunately the hat trick is not an option because Corgarff Castle is closed until the spring. (It is in the middle of nowhere anyway, so probably would have made it a multi-day LEGO inspired pilgrimage.)

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Google, British Museum digitize Maya collection

Monday, December 4th, 2017

The British Museum and the Google Arts & Culture have been collaborating on creating a complex, in depth digital virtual museum experience for years now. It’s been an exceptionally fruitful partnership from the outset, when the the new Google subsite dedicated to the British Museum’s physical structure, contents, permanent collection and exhibitions opened two years ago. Google Street View’s cameras crawled the entire space and put one of the world’s greatest encyclopedic museums online for everyone in the world with an Internet connection to explore in mind-blowing detail. The collection was rephotographed, this time in the massive resolution of gigapixel cameras, so objects could be viewed on computer screens in far greater dimensions than in person.

Their latest endeavour is dedicated to the preservation of endangered Mayan cultural knowledge and artifacts. It’s a fully functional guided tour, not just of the British Museum’s Maya collection, but of Mayan history and culture. If you go through the virtual exhibition in order, you’ll first encounter an introduction by writer Kanishk Tharoor who gives a summary of who the Maya were and are, a timeline of key events, what we know about their cities, architecture, engineering, language, art and science. That’s followed by a piece by historian Robert Bevan on what the collapse of Mayan cities can tell us about our own present. It’s highly relevant to the British Museum’s collection because since the Spanish burned almost all of the written manuscripts, in order to read Mayan history we have to rely on inscriptions carved in stone.

Atmospheric erosion has caused many in situ written carvings to become illegible, but a new collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and the British Museum is working to combat this gradual destruction. Using 19th century photographs and casts, combined with 21st century digital techniques, means fresh texts to decipher, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Maya.

The project’s source material is the work of the much-overlooked Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay who traveled through Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras in the 1880s. He used the up-to-date photographic technique of dry plate photography and hauled tons of plaster of Paris with him to create moulds of some of the monuments he encountered, and paper to make impressions (‘squeezes’) of others. 400 of the resulting casts and 800 glass plate negatives are now in the British Museum, among the 100,000 American items held in its collection.

Now, all of these casts and squeezes are being 3D-scanned, allowing researchers to manipulate the images in a way that will assist in translating the Maya inscriptions. Alongside this, an immersive VR journey is being created that takes children, via objects in the museum, to see the ruins in the forests of the Maya region, complete with howler monkeys and soaring ceiba trees that, amongst the Maya, are thought to connect the underworld with the sky. The project is giving us a clearer picture of what happened to the ancient Maya.

Bevan’s article includes embeds of some of the newly digitized Mauslay photographs and 3D models of the moulds he took. You cannot download them, sad to say, but click on the embeds to see them in their fully zoomable fulgor. The next section is a multi-media slide show that explain Mayan writing, the conservation of Mauslay’s casts, the history of Guatemalan masks and the many challenges of preserving Mayan monuments using pictures and animated street view captures. It culminates in a YouTube video of curator Dr. Jago Cooper speaking about Maudslay’s work and how the British Museum can help Google to preserve Mayan history.

The next section is another slideshow, this one about the history of the museum’s Mayan collection which is of comparatively recent extraction. They didn’t really start collecting Maya artifacts until the mid-19th century. Maudslay’s casts didn’t join the party until the 1920s and the best known original artifacts only arrived in the 1930s when coffee planter Charles Fenton donated his important private collection to the museum. The two slideshows after this one focus on the explorer and his casts, followed by a huge photos and 3D models of the casts.

Because it’s Google we’re talking about, there are opportunities to take a virtual stroll through ancient Maya archaeological sites, explore their cities in 360-degree flexibility, even tools for teachers to design virtual trips through space and time for their classes. It’s an ambitious assemblage with a deep bench of content and media to devour. So what are you waiting for?

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LoC acquires, digitizes rare Mesoamerican map

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

The Library of Congress has acquired an extremely rare manuscript map created by the Nahuatl people of Mexico in 1593. The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, is one of very few manuscripts by indigenous Mesoamericans survive unburned, largely because it wasn’t part of the immense literary patrimony of pre-Hispanic cultures that was considered “demonic” because of its hieroglyphics, but rather the product of the Relaciones Geográficas, an extensive mapping project of colonial Spanish America ordered by King Philip II the late 16th century. Surveys sent to colonial authorities in every territory had to be filled in with a range of demographic, geographic, topographic and cartographic information, complete with an accurate and to-scale map of the area. The maps and much of the information on them were made by indigenous people based on local knowledge.

The codex maps southern Puebla from Ecatepec, today a suburb of Mexico City to the church of Santa Cruz Huitziltepec and across the provincial border into northern Oaxaca. It’s drawn in iron gall ink and painted in watercolors on paper. It is rich with hieroglyphics, colorful and compelling drawings and text labelling people and locations in Spanish and in romanized Nahuatl. While we don’t know the name of the artist/s and writers who made the Codex Quetzalecatzin, it does include unique geneaological information about an important local family — several generations of the Nahuatl “de Leon” family from 1480 through 1593 — and the interweaving of indigenous and Spanish cultures in the century after Christopher Columbus.

[T]he Librarian stated: “The acquisition of the map, because of its relevance to the early history of the European contact with the indigenous people of America, makes an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex. It’s a rare document of world history and American history in general.” […]

As with many Nahua, indigenous group, manuscript maps of the period, the Codex Quetzalecatzin depicts the local community at an important point in its history and the iconography that makes up the map reflects some Spanish influence.

“The codex shows graphically the kinds of cultural interactions taking place at an important moment in American history,” said John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection for the archaeology of the early Americas of the Library of Congress. “In a sense, we see the birth of what would be the start of what we would come to know as the Americas.”

Hessler added: “The codex relates to the extent of land ownership and properties of the family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are portrayed on the manuscript. With Aztec stylized graphics, the map illustrates the family’s genealogy and its descent from Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480 was the major political leader of the region. It also shows churches, some Spanish place names and images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish law and rule.”

In the codex, certain features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic stylistics, such as symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and hieroglyphic writing. The marginal notations with alphabetic writing utilizing the Latin alphabet and the names of some of the indigenous elites, such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo,” are clues to its colonial era composition. This is evidence that some indigenous people enjoyed the Spanish title “don” and had been baptized with Christian names.

The LoC has digitized the map and uploaded it to its website, which in case you haven’t seen it yet is one of the greatest photographic archives on the Internet and has been for years, long before other institutions got on the bandwagon of making high-resolution images available online to the general public. It’s so great, in fact, that I couldn’t even upload the full image to this article because it’s so gloriously gigantic my server can’t handle it. I mean, of course I uploaded a gigantic version, but it’s less than half the size of the original behemoth. Behold it in all its grandeur here.

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Any trouser-clad women in your old family photo albums?

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

For those of you in who celebrate it, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving full of good times, good food and only slightly deranged arguments that stopped well short of fisticuffs. I have family history on my mind today, thanks in large part to my father taking a moment before we gorged on a wide selection of fine viands to note that the house had been in our family for 106 years and Thanksgiving had been celebrated in it that whole time. His mother grew up there and even when she got married and had kids of her own, they always went to her parents’ house for TG. My father remembers fondly going every year as a child and youth when his grandmother hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Now that my parents live there, they have carried on the century-old tradition with great verve. Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday and they make a real production out of it every year.

Family lore always make me happy, so before the tryptophan knocks me unconscious more thoroughly than any fisticuffs ever could, I feel compelled to encourage you to check out Women in Trousers: A Visual Archive, a Cardiff University project that is collecting and digitizing images of daring, hard-working, all-around badass women who wore a variety of transgressive bifurcated garments from bloomers to Edwardian trouser skirts where you barely tell there are trousers under there to wide-legged jeans from the 40s. The archive is populated with all kinds of images — drawings, illustrations from periodicals, photographs of women on the job, advocating dress reform or simple in costume — from the mid-19th century to the 1960s. While the imagery focuses on the wearing of trousers, the project’s brief is a wider one: women’s social and political history and the evolution of dress reform in Britain, Europe and America.

The archive is already a fantastic browse but it is still far from finished, and the authors have appealed to the public to submit any photographs and stories they might have of women in their families wearing pants. The ones that have been uploaded so far are universally grand. The Land Girls from WWII are probably my favorites because of how cheerful and tough they were, but I love the ones on ski trips, on the boardwalk and in plays just living their lives and having a blast.

I’m going to go through my grandmother’s old black paper albums and look for a picture I remember seeing as a child of my great-grandmother — a Connecticut Yankee in the most authentic sense of the word who could shoot a rattlesnake through the eye from 100 yards, canned everything that wasn’t nailed down and used an outhouse until the very end of her long life. She was tough as nails but smiled constantly, always had a twinkle in her eye and a funny story for her great-grandkids. She also had a cast iron hand-pump that was the sole source of water inside the house. I was fascinated by it because it seemed like something in a play or on Little House on the Prairie, totally outside my experience and oh man the water was so, so cold. And rusty. She washed in it every day, bless her bulletproof hide.

I hope I can find that pic of her wearing pants because I would love to add her distinctiveness to the archive. With the holidays coming up, now’s a great opportunity to rifle through dusty closets and drawers for photographic evidence of the kickass trouser-clad women in your family. It would be worth it just for the conversations that the pursuit might stimulate, especially with the senior members of your clan.

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Guernica as large as life in gigapixels

Sunday, November 19th, 2017

Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s monumental greyscale painting on the horrors of the Germano-Italian bombing of the eponymous Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, is a hard picture to get. For one thing, it’s so huge (26 feet wide, 11 feet tall) that fitting it in a single shot without skewing the perspective is a challenge. For another, there are serious condition issues because it was moved around so much over the decades before its final repatriation to Spain where it is now part of the permanent collection of Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum. A lot of flash photography and multiple shoots from all angles is contraindicated for its conservation.

I’ve encountered very few photos that can even begin to do this massive masterpiece justice. The best ones are all period taken by the surrealist Dora Maar in 1937 while Picasso painted Guernica in a frenzy of activity over less than a month. Eighty years later, her pictures were still the only ones worth looking at if you wanted to learn anything at all about the painting and the artist’s process.

That’s all changed, seemingly overnight to we civilians, but in truth it’s the culmination of years of work on the part of the conservators and researchers at the Reina Sofia. The museum has launched a new interactive website dedicated to the great canvas called Rethinking Guernica which features at its core a gigapixel image of the whole painting. Finally its giganticness is matched in pixels and viewers can get microscopically close to the tiniest speck of paint. Close enough to see brush hairs stuck in the impasto.

Hundreds died in an aerial attack on civilians that shocked the world and set a precedent repeated often by German and allied forces in World War II.

Picasso, then living in France, was commissioned by the struggling Spanish Republican government to produce a work depicting the bombing for the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

That commission and hundreds of other documents concerning “Guernica” are now available online for the first time.

They tell the story of a hugely well-traveled work, with stops in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States, where it spent decades on loan at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

There are papers relating to its trip to Venezuela in 1948 that was cut short due to a coup d’etat, and a frantic telegram sent by MoMA collections director Alfred H. Barr Jr. informing the artist that his works were safe after a fire tore through the museum in 1958.

The gigapixel Guernica can be viewed in more ways than the glorious extreme closeup the high resolution makes possible. By clicking on thumbnails at the bottom of the main screen, you can switch from the visible spectrum view to ultraviolet, infrared and X-ray imaging. You can thank Pablito the robot for that, by the way. He kicked off the Guernica Project in 2011 by scanning every centimeter of the canvas with every imaging technique in the book. It took him a year to complete so detailed a job, working only at night so as not to disturb museum visitors.

The guided tour that the site directs you to when you first load it doesn’t explain a great deal that you couldn’t figure out on your own if you’re even remotely Internet-literate. The icons going down the right side of the screen, for example, are fairly self-explanatory. The square at the top means click for full screen; the + and – underneath mean zoom in and out; the ? opens up the guided tour again if you regret closing it. There are two site-specific icons on the list, however, and they are awesome. The horizontal arrow icon allows you to view the painting in two different imaging technologies side by side, which is extremely cool, while the zig-zag constellation icon pulls up an enormous density of information about the changes to the painting over time, both deliberate ones like Picasso’s deviations from his original prepatory drawings and circumstantial ones like holes, fissures and craquelure in the paint.

Lastly, whenever you click on the image it pulls up tons of content about the history, context, conservation record, damage, repairs, etc. The Reina Sofia conservators have done an exceptional job sharing the results of their years of study of the painting, from cutting-edge technological analysis to archival research. There are all kinds of side-avenues to pursue — biographies of people involved in the history of Guernica, primary documents like letters to and from Picasso about the painting, essays on the meaning of the work, on the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair where it was first exhibited, just to name a few.

“Guernica is a source of never-ending artistic material and it’s a privilege to be with as an art historian,” says Rosario Peiro, head of collections at Madrid’s Reina Sofia modern art museum. […]

“Putting all of this together allows you to rethink the history of the painting,” Peiro told AFP.

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Ghent Altarpiece restoration website is a stunner

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

As part of their 2010 agreement to fund the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative stipulated that the entire process be documented and photographed in dizzyingly high resolution and every detail from dendrochronology reports to pictures of a few inches worth of newly cleaned paint be uploaded to a dedicated website. Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece is a masterpiece of online information sharing, a worthy helpmeet, technologically speaking, to the massive oak panel polyptych painted in the first half of the 15th century by Hubert Van Eyck and his brother Jan that is an icon of Belgium, Early Netherlandish art and an art historical watershed.

The altarpiece, formally known as The Mystic Lamb of 1432, is in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium, and has remained on public view during years of restoration, study, research and documentation. Not a great view, mind you, what with all the people and stuff going on, but they built a protective transparent enclosure to give visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the greatest people in their fields, from carpenters to retouchers, work on one of the world’s greatest pieces of art. The creation of the Closer to Van Eyck site with its dense database of information and unparalleled pictorial documentation made it possible for the whole world to see with their naked eyes things that were not only the purview of a select group of professionals, but that even said professionals could not see with their naked eyes.

When I first discovered the website in 2012, I spent a whole weekend immersed in its Chutes and Ladders-like maze of fascinating content. I checked it regularly for years afterwards, but my interest eventually petered off when I found it wasn’t getting fresh updates. I saw yesterday when writing about the Caravaggio exhibition that the Getty Foundation and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels had big news regarding Closer to Van Eyck. The site has had a major update and now has brand new photographs in nosebleed high res of the polyptych at various stages in the conservation process. There are more technical images available — it started out with just X-rays, now that’s just scratching the surface of their offerings — and a freaking cool feature that allows you to compare several views of the panels at the same time.

The altarpiece was painstakingly recorded at every step of the conservation process through state-of-the-art photographic and scientific documentation. Thanks to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage’s imaging team, digital processing and design led by Frederik Temmermans of Universum Digitalis and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and imec’s Department of Electronics and Informatics, the altarpiece can now be viewed online in visible light, infrared, infrared reflectograph, and X-radiograph, with sharper and higher resolution images than ever before. Visitors to the site can now also adjust a timeline to view key moments in the conservation process, and have access to simultaneous viewing of images before, during, and after conservation. Users can zoom in even closer on details of the painting, exploring microscopic views of the work in 100 billion pixels. […]

“We are proud and pleased to now also offer unparalleled access to the results of the first stage of the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece,” says Dr. Ron Spronk, professor of Art History at the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who initiated and coordinated Closer to Van Eyck. “Our site provides images and research materials of unprecedented quality and scope, both on and below the paint surface that will serve both specialists and general audiences for many years to come. We truly have come much, much closer to Van Eyck.”

Not least because they discovered that the vast majority of Van Eyck’s original brushwork had been overpainted, more than 70% of it, so most of what people have been seen of the Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t Van Eyck’s paint at all. Much of the conservation work done thus far was dedicated to removing as much as the overpaint as possible to reveal the artist’s true hand without damaging the delicate original paint layers beneath.

This website is unbelievable. It’s captures all my favorite things: technology in aid of cultural patrimony, specialized skills being taught to a new generation, rich content clearly displayed for all to enjoy without firewalls or payment, and good Ghent almighty praise be to the massive photographs. The weekend is over, but you might need to take a personal day off work so you can have all the time you need to get microscope-close to Jan Van Eyck.

I would suggest you start here with a tour of the site to get a feel for the layout and organization from their very brief and clear video summaries, then bounce around the menu climbing ladders and falling down chutes. Stock up on water and snacks because you won’t be budging from your seat for hours.

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Vivid color and a prosciutto clock from Pompeii

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

By a series of link-hops that began with archaic Greece and what I hope will soon be a post of its own (it all depends on whether I can get my grubby mits on good pictures), today I wound up in Pompeii. With a prosciutto. A prosciutto-shaped sundial, to be exact. It was portable, as far as we know the earliest portable sundial surviving, which is even more notable a title when you consider that it’s made out of bonze and managed to make it through the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. intact.

It dates the 1st century A.D. and was first unearthed on June 11th, 1755, in the early Bourbon-era excavations of the site of Herculaneum. The sundial was found in the House of the Papyri, a handsome private villa where a library of charred scrolls were discovered. The scrolls got the lion’s share of the attention, but the silver-gilt bronze portable sundial so recognizably shaped like a prosciutto hanging from the bone while it cures did get some love from the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, the ambitious knowledge compendium edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.

Drawing of both sides of the sundial in Antiquita di Ercolano, 1762.The only problem is the description was not particularly accurate. (Many of the entries in the Encyclopédie left something to be desired in that arena.) The sundial was “in the form of a sleeve,” according to them. In 1762, the first scholarly work to recognize the prosciutto clock for its awesomeness was published. It was the third volume of a much less general encyclopedia — Antiqities of Herculaneum — and the authors corrected the factual errors, barely disguising their contempt that the French encyclopedists couldn’t even recognize a prosciutto when they saw one. Horologists have been discussing the ham with undiminished fervor ever since.

The sundial is now part of the permanent collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. It was briefly in New York City this spring as part of the Time and Cosmos exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. That’s where it found a new fan who introduced new technology to the investigation of the sundial.

Now the “pork clock” ticks once more. Recently re-created through 3-D printing, a high-fidelity model of the sundial is helping researchers address questions about how it was used and the information it conveyed.

The model confirms, for instance, that using the whimsical timepiece required a certain amount of finesse, says Wesleyan University’s Christopher Parslow, a professor of classical studies and Roman archaeology who made the 3-D reconstruction. All the same, “it does represent a knowledge of how the sun works, and it can be used to tell time.” […]

After Parslow was asked about the pork clock, he was inspired to build a 3-D model. He took dozens of photos of the timepiece at its home institution, Italy’s National Archaeological Museum of Naples. A 3-D printer at his university churned out the model—in plastic rather than the original silver-coated bronze—in a matter of hours.

Like the original, Parslow’s model bears a dial, in the form of a slightly distorted grid, on one side. The vertical lines are marked for the months of the year. The horizontal lines indicate the number of hours past sunrise or before sunset.

The original clock is missing its gnomon, the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, but an 18th-century museum curator described it having one in the shape of a pig’s tail, so Parslow re-created that, too.

Parslow then experimented with the sundial outdoors. The clock is hung from a string so that the sun falls on its left side, allowing the attached pig’s tail to cast a shadow across the grid.

The user aligns the clock so that the tip of the tail’s shadow falls on the vertical line for the current month. Finally, the user counts the number of horizontal lines from the top horizontal line to the horizontal line closest to the tip of the shadow. That indicates the number of hours after sunrise or before sunset.

It’s conceivable that he might even be able to tell time to the half-hour, but without the original gnomon he’s having to tinker with curly tail to get the most detailed readings, and it’s not at all clear that the device was meant to be all that precise. A portable sundial was a prestige item more than a practical one and nobody was counting billable hours in 15 minute increments.

The Prosciutto Clock led me to another extraordinary image, this one tweeted by the Pompeii Sites account. This is the collection of pigment cups left behind by painters fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., most of them with the pigments or raw materials thereof still in brilliant color.

Following the trail of Internet breadcrumbs, I found Dr. Sophie Hay’s reply to the Pompeii Sites’ tweet of the rainbow of pigment jars. She was on the team that excavated those pots, which is insanely cool. The containers and their dazzling contents came from a painter’s workshop near the House of the Chaste Lovers where an unfinished fresco, a red frame around a white square, was found. On the same insula — a large multi-use block of more than 1500 square meters with homes, retail like a bakery and wine shop, and artisan workshops — a room was found in classic Pompeiian “frozen in time” mode. Apparently before the eruption a crew was working on the hydraulic network while painters had started redecorating the frescoes in the main hall. They had just finished the preparatory drawings when something suddenly came up, almost certainly Vesuvius’ roasting hot insides. The artists must have been in a rush because they left all of the pigments, which were certainly expensive not to mention necessary to their livelihood, behind. This great find gave the structure its modern name: the House of the Painters at Work.

The House of the Chaste Lovers, named after a completed fresco depicting a modest kiss at a dinner, belonged to wealthy baker (the bakery storefront next door was apparently his) and is an exceptional survival in a lot of ways. It’s one of very few two-story buildings in Pompeii with the second story still attached to it. The bakery’s oven and millstones are intact, as are two of its stables, complete with skeletal remains of seven animals. It has been excavated off and on since 1982, and the public have only been allowed in on very rare occasions. The week of Valentine’s Day this year was one those occasions, a tribute to the famous fresco with its sweet kiss on the reclining couch.

The pigment bowls were no longer in situ by then. In 2014, Professor Massimo Osanna, Director General of the Pompeii archaeological site, deposited the entire collection of pigments cups in the Laboratory of Applied Research which specializes in the study and conservation of Pompeii’s unique combination of archaeological materials, including organic, mineral and lithic remains. It has a state-of-the-art climate control system to keep the most delicate remains from degrading, and is therefore best equipped to preserve the vivid color of the ancient pigments.

Graphic artist Gareth Blayney made a series of drawings of how the shopfronts might have looked before the Vesuvian apocalypse for Dr. Hay and they are all beautiful, but the one of the paint shop truly does the riot of pigment jars justice.

Gareth Blayney: Pompeii Prints &emdash;

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