Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Gutenberg Bible gets new digs at Library of Congress

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

The Gutenberg Bible is prized as the earliest full-size book printed in Europe with moveable type. Johann Gutenberg and his colleagues Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer printed the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible written by Saint Jerome in the 5th century, in Mainz in 1455. Of that first run of the first printed book, 48 copies have survived, only twenty of them complete. It is so important and so rare that collectors spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual pages of a Gutenberg Bible.

The Library of Congress’ copy is especially rare. It was printed on vellum (animal skin parchment), not paper. Of the 48 surviving Gutenberg Bibles, 12 were printed on vellum and only three of those perfect, complete, intact copies of the Bible on vellum are known to survive. The LoC’s is one of the three complete ones and it is the only one of them to have been printed in three volumes. It is a spectacular example, the type deeply and cleanly impressed even though it was one of the first works produced on the brand-new moveable type printing press. The other vellum Bibles are at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and the British Library in London.

For more than 350 years after its publication, the Bible belonged to the Benedictine abbey of St. Blasius in the Black Forest, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. In 1809, it was transferred to Abbey of St. Paul in Carinthia, southern Austria. It was bought by inventor, chemist and avid collector Otto Vollbehr for $250,000 in 1926. Vollbehr never actually held the book in his extensive collection. He planned to sell it in the United States — part of the sales pitch he made to St. Paul’s, in fact, was that he would sell it to an “American church prince” — but since he was hardly going to schlepp the precious and delicate three volume set all over the States, he made a sort of preview pamphlet and schlepped that around the country instead along with a collection of thousands of incunabula he was trying to sell.

In 1928 the incunabula went on display at the Library of Congress. Vollbehr offered to sell the collection and the Bible to the Library. It took some doing in the wake of the Great Depression, but on July 6th, 1930, President Herbert Hoover signed the act of Congress authorizing the purchase of 3,255 volumes and the St. Blasius-St. Paul Gutenberg Bible for a total of $1.5 million.

It has been on display in the corridor off of the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, originally out in the open on a handsome wooden display, then in a closed case. The case is no longer up to snuff so it is being replaced with a new one custom designed to exhibit and protect one of the most precious books in history.

An 11-foot-tall vertical case has been designed for the Gutenberg Bible to meet exact specifications for its long-term conservation. It will be kept at a consistent, cool temperature of 50 degrees and a consistent humidity to help preserve the 563-year-old book, according to Elmer Eusman, chief of the Library’s Conservation Division. The case also includes a new early warning system for fire prevention that will constantly monitor the air.

Frosted mirrors and illumination within the display will create a special effect, emphasizing the Bible in a new way. Resting on a small cradle, the Bible will appear as if it’s floating. The design is meant to celebrate the historic book. Exhibition text will be presented on one side of the case for visitors.

On Friday, the Bible was taken off public view for the first time in more than 70 years to make the necessary arrangements for the installation of the new case. The case was built off site and will have to be broken down into component parts, moved to the Library of Congress and rebuilt The new case has been built by a vendor off site. It will be deconstructed, moved into the Library and rebuilt on site in the Thomas Jefferson Building. That will take place on October 29th. The Bible will move in to its new digs a month or so later after thorough environmental testing has been performed.

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To the victor belong the miniature spoils?

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

The Launching Of English Fire Ships On The Spanish Fleet Off Calais depicts Queen Elizabeth I watching from the shore as her navy attacks the Spanish Armada on the night of August 7th, 1588. A horseback gentleman next to her is believed to represent Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The broad panorama, Spanish on the left, English on the right, English fireships in the center, belies its small dimensions. The gouache on vellum laid down on panel is just 5½ x 13¾ inches, but it is of such significant stature that it was on display at the Rijksmuseum for twenty years (1975-1995).

Painted around 1600, it is one of only two known examples of gouache miniatures depicting this momentous event close to when it occurred. The other has been in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich since 1938, and while they share the same theme, they are not the copies of each other. The NMM’s piece has no Queen Elizabeth, most notably, nor any shore in view whatsoever.

Both of the works were made by unknown artists in the Flemish style. Later prints and an oil painting also created by Dutch artists underscore the significance of the defeat of the Spanish Armada to England’s Protestant allies.

The miniature was recently sold at auction to an overseas buyer who applied for an export licence. Michael Ellis, Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, has placed a temporary export bar on the painting because of its immense value as a contemporary rendition of one Britain’s most important events. British institutions now have until December 13th to show that they can raise the price of £210,000 (plus VAT) to acquire the painting. If they’ve gotten a reasonable way to the goal, the Minister can extend the bar another three months.

Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest member Peter Barber said:

“This vibrant miniature is one of the earliest and most vivid depictions of an episode of crucial importance for the history of England. That it is the work of a Flemish artist and shows the role played by Dutch ships, additionally underline the Armada’s European-wide significance. Yet, familiar though the overall story may be, the miniature includes many intriguing details that need further investigation, such as the prominence given to the ship and arms of the commander of the English forces, Lord Howard of Effingham.

There can be few items more justly called a ‘national treasure’ and it needs to be retained in this country so that it can be further studied and enjoyed.”

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Roof of Mamertine prison church collapses

Friday, August 31st, 2018

The roof of the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (Saint Joseph of the Carpenters) collapsed on Thursday afternoon, reducing to rubble one of the most beautiful original parts of the church: the wooden coffered ceiling built in the 1600s. It was the central vault which weakened and took the roof down.

San Giuseppe was built by the guild of carpenters starting in 1597. It was completed in 1663. The facade and apse were redone in an extensive 1886 renovation. Today the church suffers from structural issues (to state the obvious) and is mostly closed to the public during regular hours.

The church was built over another church, San Pietro in Carcere, which in turn was built over (and named after) the Mamertine Prison. Known in antiquity as the Tullianum, it is one of Rome’s most ancient prisons. Legend has it that it was built by the fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marcius, in the 7th century B.C.; its factual history can be traced back to the later Republican era when a variety of rebels, pretenders, usurpers and individuals deemed enemies of the Senate and the People of Rome were imprisoned there. Gallic leader Vercingetorix withered away to nothing in the Tullianum before being executed at Julius Caesar’s triumph. Jugurtha, King of Numidia, starved to death in that dank hole. Both Saint Peter and Saint Paul did bids there before their martyrdoms.

Located steps from the Capitoline overlooking some of Rome’s most iconic ancient marvels, the church makes an evocative setting for photographs and is an extremely popular wedding venue today, structural problems notwithstanding. Two were scheduled for this weekend, in fact. The timing of the roof collapse is therefore as fortunate as a tragedy can be. Only the priest was on site at the time, and he was taking siesta in his quarters so wasn’t in the church itself.

First responders arrived immediately after the collapse, alerted by the enormous boom and the column of smoke. Staff and visitors to the Mamertine were briskly removed and there were no injuries. The firefighters’ preliminary estimates are that three quarters of the roof came down in the collapse and they have a crane up right now taking down the remnants that are in imminent danger of falling. Basically, by the time the situation is stabilized, there isn’t going to be a roof to speak of.

The damage to the interior of the church is impossible to assess right now. It’s engulfed in massive broken beams and debris. No damage to San Pietro in Carcere or to the ancient Mamertine underground is known, but there has been a report of damage to a chapel adjacent to the prison.

Here’s an aerial view of the giant hole in the church roof:

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17th c. Copenhagen poop reveals its secrets

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

It’s archaeological poop time! This blog has been deprived of essential fiber for too long and I’m sure you’ve missed having a solid, well-formed poop story as much as I have. Today’s satisfying movement is brought to you by Denmark, bless its organic material-preserving waterlogged soil. Two latrines were discovered during an excavation of Kultorvet square in Copenhagen in 2011-12. The square in the city center was built over the ruins of an old Renaissance neighborhood that had burned down in 1728, and thanks to a road that had been built 40 years earlier, the latrines could be conclusively dated to the 1680s.

Like the barrels full of 14th century excrement found in Odense that were originally used to transport herring, these too were trade containers repurposed into latrines. They held Rhineland wine before finding their true vocation of converting human feces into archaeological gold. They were three feet wide and had been dug into the ground a foot apart from each other. Both were about two-thirds full of excrementitious organic material. Wood remains found around the barrels attest to there having been a shed built over them.

Archaeologists could see right away that the contents were very well-preserved. Seeds and pits were clearly visible in situ. The barrels were cut in half vertically while still in the ground to determine if they had internal stratigraphy to sample. The western barrel was all one mass, while the eastern barrel had two defined deposit layers – an upper layer of feces and straw and a lower rubble layer with very little organic material — so it was selected for analysis of its contents.

The study is more far-reaching than others performed on similar deposits. In addition to analyzing grains, fruits and seeds found in the cess, researchers also tested for pollen, parasites and animal bones. The parasite eggs were DNA-tested to determine conclusively whether they were human parasites found in feces, or had hitched a ride with animal remains discarded in the latrines.

Large samples were taken from each of the two layers and then divided into sub-samples for analyses of four different categories: grains/fruits/seeds, pollen and spores, parasite eggs and animal bones. The samples from both layers were rich in plant remains. In the upper layer, 66% of the contents were food plants while 34% were wild taxa, primarily field weeds. In the bottom layer, the proportion of culinary to wild taxa was 60%-40%.

Out of the cereal bran soup, only barley, oats and rye could be securely identified. Within the soup were a plethora of fruit seeds, first and foremost figs. There were so many fig seeds in the barrel, in fact, that archaeologists identified them during the excavation. Other fruits found in the sample included grapes, apples, pears, raspberries, blackberries, black currants, elderberries, citrus (likely either lemon or bitter orange) wild cherries, wild plums and wild strawberries. There were herbs – ground elder, dill, coriander – and seeds – mustard, flax – and in the bottom layer, a small amount of hazelnut.

Pollen species were 49% crops, 45% of that barley, with dryland species, mostly grasses, taking second place at 43% of the pollen counts.

The parasite analysis identified eggs from roundworm, whipworm and tapeworm, far more of them on the top of the latrine than the bottom. This is the first evidence of human tapeworm found in an archaeological context in Denmark.

There were an impressive variety of animal bones: 162 bone fragments in the two samples. Most of them came from the bottom layer and included the bones of herring, eel and cat. The top layer had fragments of herring, eel, cod, bird and pig bones.

The results attest to the varied diet the residents of this area of late 17th century Copenhagen had. While cereals, likely in the form of bread, porridge and beer, form the basis of their diet, they clearly had access to a wide selection of fruits either from their own gardens or from the market. Figs, grapes and citrus are Mediterranean fruits and while they can all grow in Denmark in warm, sheltered places or in greenhouses, this deposit is the first time citrus has been found in an archaeological context in Denmark. They were probably expensive imports, dried fruits or jams rather than fresh.

“The people whose latrines we have investigated were well-fed on bread, fish and meat, alongside a variety of fruit, herbs and spices,” said lead study researcher Mette Marie Hald, a senior researcher of environmental archaeology at The National Museum of Denmark.

“Most of the food items were locally grown,” she added, “but some of the food plants were exotics, showing us that it was possible to buy, for instance, cloves, which would have come all the way from Indonesia.”

The mere presence of these cloves indicates that Copenhageners had access to goods from long-distance trade, probably through the Dutch trading companies, as Indonesia was a Dutch colony at the time, Hald said.

“We know that Dutch traders lived in Copenhagen in the 1680s,” she noted. “It’s fun to think of the fact that 300 years ago, we were already part of a global trading network.”

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Buon Compleanno, Artemisia!

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi would have been 425 years old today. The first woman granted membership to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno, she was famous in her time and counted the crowned heads of Europe among her clientele. Her striking works, often featuring illustrious women from history and the Bible, have become icons of female representation during a time when women were largely excluded from the painterly ranks.

Her private life has been inextricably woven into her oeuvre. She used herself as a model frequently — a number of self-portraits of her as saints, artists and allegories, particularly from her Florentine period, have survived — and her powerful female protagonists have been adopted as symbols of empowerment in the wake of her rape and the subsequent trial of the perpetrator, her art teacher Agostino Tassi. We know from the incredible survival of the transcripts that she stood up for herself at the 1611 trial even under torture. (Rape accusers in the Papal States were subjected to the thumbscrews, among other torture techniques, to ensure their veracity.) For many years she was treated by art historians something of a curiosity, a successful woman artist with a tragic personal history that seemed to be reflected in works like Judith Slaying Holofernes.

The worm has turned for Artemisia, and the understanding of her art on its own terms rather than as mere Caravaggista works or as fodder for five-cent psychological interpretations has led to a massive uptake in interest and demand from museums and collectors. In 2014, a rediscovered Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy broke the sale record for an Artemisia Gentileschi painting when it sold for €865,500 (ca. $1,175,000). In December of 2017, another rediscovered work, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 1615-1617), went up for auction in Paris. It broke the new record even more dramatically than the 2014 sale had broken the 1998 record, selling for €2,360,600 ($2,775,000).

Well, we can kiss that record goodbye too, because less than a year later, the dealer who acquired Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria has sold it to London’s National Gallery for £3.6 million ($4,784,000). Paying this eye-watering price was made possible by donations from the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust, Art Fund, Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, Hannah Rothschild CBE, and others who prefer to remain anonymous.

It is the first work by a female artist bought by the National Gallery in almost 30 years, and is only the 21st painting by a woman to join the 2,300 works in the NG’s permanent collection. It’s also just the third easel painting by Artemisia Gentileschi in England.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria depicts the saint turned toward the viewer. The figure is identifiable as the saint because of the spiked wheel on which she rests her left hand, the means by which Saint Catherine was supposed to be martyred in the 4th century by order of the Emperor Maxentius only for it to break the moment she touched it. He ordered her beheaded instead and that one did the trick. Unique for her time, Artemisia crops the scene very tightly around the upper body of the saint. This is something you see repeatedly in her portraits of herself as other people.

Letizia Treves, The James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century paintings at the National Gallery say:

“Artemisia is without question one of the most celebrated painters of her time, and we have long wished to acquire a painting by her for the national collection. The fact that this is a self-portrait adds enormously to the painting’s appeal and art historical significance. We are fortunate to have one of the strongest collections of Italian Baroque paintings but, with the exception of Caravaggio, no Italian artist of the 17th century surpasses Artemisia in terms of fame and popular appeal. Following conservation treatment and reframing Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will find a natural home alongside other works by Italian Baroque painters, including Caravaggio and Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi.”

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UofT acquires oldest English-language book in Canada

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library celebrated World Book Day today by announcing the acquisition of the Caxton Cicero. Printed in 1481, only four decades after the invention of the printing press in the West, the volume is believed to be the oldest English-language book in Canada, and it’s certainly the oldest in the library’s collection, eclipsing the previous record-holder (a copy of The Golden Legend printed by Caxton in 1507) by a quarter century.

William Caxton, the man who introduced movable type to England, included three translated Latin treatises in the untitled book: De Amicitia (“On Friendship”) and De Senectute (“On Old Age”) by Marcus Tullius Cicero, and De Nobilitate (“On Nobility”) by early 15th century humanist Giovane Buonaccorso da Montemagno the Younger. This was the first book by a classical ancient author to be translated into English, as well as the first Renaissance humanist author translated into English.

Unlike The Golden Legend, of which thousands of manuscripts and printed editions survive, there are only 13 known extant copies of the Caxton Cicero.

At the end of the first text, Caxton includes a colophon […], which is an imprint by the printer that includes information about the book’s publication.

The printed text states that the book is “imprinted by me simple person William Caxton into English at the pleasure, solace and reverence of men growing into old age.” The writing in ink below the statement is likely a person practising their handwriting, trying to emulate the type – likely from the end of the 15th century, says [interim head of rare books and manuscripts at Fisher Library, Pearce] Carefoote.

Through clues buried inside the book, one can trace the history of the Caxton Cicero back to one of its first owners, Thomas Shupton – thought to be a monk during the time of Henry VIII. It was then given to 16th-century politician Sir Robert Coke, who passed it on to his nephew. After his nephew’s death, the book was given to Sion College in London, which kept it until 1977 when it was bought by Mexican author Roberto Salinas Price through a rare book dealer.

U of T acquired the text from Price’s estate, which was made possible by many donors, led by the B.H. Breslauer Foundation and with the support from the University of Toronto through a matching grant.

In a random but satisfying numerological coincidence, it is the 15th millionth book in the Fisher Library collection. It will be of inestimable scholarly value to students of the classics, Renaissance, the history of the English language (Caxton’s publications were instrumental in establishing the primacy of the London dialect, standardizing English and spreading literacy), the physical object of the book and more. Library staff also plan to digitize the book so that it can be accessed by interested parties all over the world.

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Painting by Dutch master found in Iowa gallery closet

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Robert Warren, Executive Director of the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, was looking for some Civil War flags in a flower closet. He didn’t find any. Instead, wedged between a table and the wall, he found a late 16th century panel painting by Dutch master Otto van Veen. It had suffered significant water damage after spending who knows how long in a small, uninsultated room full of jumbled stuff, and before then experienced unfortunate attempts at restoration. It was also unsigned.

The scene depicts the figures of Apollo and Venus accompanied by her son Cupid. Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Fertility, is portrayed as an artist painting a landscape that includes a small image of Pegasus on the horizon. Apollo, holding a lyre, is the Roman God of Music, Poetry, and more. Cupid is the Roman God of Desire, Affection, and Erotic Love. The painting also contains four still-lifes referencing Venus’ beauty and fertility: a collection of jewelry, a basket of fruit and flowers, a sprig of roses, and a bowl of oysters. A fifth still-life of her painting supplies occupies the lower right corner.

The painting was coated with layers of discolored varnish and former restoration work that flattened the three-dimensional quality of the scene and falsified the artist’s intended palette. Areas of former loss were present along splits in the wood and throughout scattered areas especially pronounced in the left third of the painting. The surface was heavily overpainted after a succession of former restoration attempts.

Chicago conservator Barry Bauman conserved the piece, cleaning it, repairing flaking paint and faulty restorations. The artist was identified as Otto van Veen who painted it in Antwerp in the last years of the 16th century. It was brought to Des Moines by the Collins family who had owned it since at least the 1880s when they lived in New York and loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting moved to Des Moines with them and the family donated it to the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in the 1923. It is Des Moines’ earliest Old Master painting.

Born in Leiden to a prominent Catholic family, van Veen studied in Rome and built a successful studio in Antwerp where he received numerous commissions for altar pieces and other religious themed works from churches and aristocratic patrons. He also took in students, most famously Peter Paul Rubens who studied under van Veen from 1594 to 1600, just the time when he painted Apollo and Daphne. A humanist and scholar, van Veen would go on to publish three emblem books (illustrated compendia of symbols and allegories used in art accompanied by a motto from a famous author, usually from antiquity). His most popular by far was Amorum emblemata (published in 1608), which is replete with Cupids.

So even though Apollo and Venus might seem to lean towards the profane for someone with a thriving business painting Christian iconography, in fact it fits his education, understanding and pedagogical approach to perfection. There are so many symbols of love layered in the panel it would have made a very useful addition to the Amorum emblemata.

All those layers may be the reason the masterpiece was hidden away in the storage closet. When it was donated to the gallery, the Hoyt Sherman Place was run by the upstanding ladies of the Des Moines Women’s Club. They founded the Club in 1885 with the express purpose of creating an art museum open to the public free of charge. After more than two decades of hosting temporary exhibitions at various sites, in 1907 the DMWC finally found a permanent home when the city rented them the historic Hoyt Sherman Place for the token sum of $1 a year. The Club built an addition to house its art collection and the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery opened as the first public art gallery in Des Moines.

In 1921 construction began on another addition that would expand the gallery and create an elegant auditorium for performances and exhibitions. The closet where Warren discovered the Van Veen’s masterpiece is located on the balcony of the auditorium. He speculates that all the nudity, sex and fertility symbols were a little too spicy for the Des Moines Women’s Club when it was donated in the 1920s. At that time, there wasn’t a single nude in the 54-work collection.

Apollo and Venus debuted at the gallery in a preview last month. It will be displayed as part of the permanent collection this summer.

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Mary Rose cannonballs meet synchrotron X-rays

Sunday, March 11th, 2018

When Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose sank off the Portsmouth coast on July 19th, 1545, it was carrying 1248 cast iron cannonballs, all lined up next to each other, ready to be deployed. They slumbered under 14 meters (46 feet) of sediment, a virtually oxygen free environment, along with about 19,000 other artifacts and remains until excavations began in 1979. In 1982, the whole ship was raised.

That was when its real struggle for survival began. The ship and its contents had been protected for 450 years under the sea. As soon as they were exposed to air, they began to deteriorate. After decades of constant spraying in salt water and PEG, the Mary Rose is now dry, stable and in a new display at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, but stabilizing archaeological iron is a whole other kind of challenge. Exposure to air and moisture causes iron to break down into a number of iron compounds, and that deterioration is accelerated when there’s chlorine in the mix. Sea water is rich in chlorine, and after nearly five centuries spent absorbing it, the iron cannon shot is highly susceptible to corrosion now that it’s out of the water.

Conservators have attempted to prevent this ugly fate with a variety of approaches. The bulk of the iron balls were stored in a passive environment — a high pH solution — that kept them as stable as possible to their home under the sediment. This makes them unable to be exhibited and does not remove the corrosive salts and chlorine. Some of the balls were therefore subjected to active conservation techniques, either reduction-based desalination treatments which aim to remove chlorine from iron artifacts by chemically altering the molecules of Iron(III) chloride, or washing methods which remove the chlorine by diffusion it into water solutions.

The problem is that there isn’t much solid scientific evidence to go on that points to which solution works best, whether there are any unintended consequences in the short or long term, etc. There are no real comparable treatments of archaeological iron to go by, and it’s hard to say if the condition of a given artifact is caused by a conservation technique or one of a myriad other variables.

A new study is hoping to answer some of those questions using a few of the cannon balls of the Mary Rose as the canaries in the coal mine. The shot was produced in bulk at the single iron blast furnace that existed in Tudor England; it was new when it sank and it was all buried together. Their uniformity of design, manufacturer and history, and the careful application of diverse treatment protocols after their recovery eliminates a lot of those pesky variables and gives researchers the opportunity to study in detail at the molecular level how effective the different treatments have been.

The UK National Synchroton Facility at Diamond Light Source in Didcot in Oxfordshire has deployed the ultra-bright X-ray power of the particle accelerator to analyze the iron in exceptional detail. Researchers used synchrotron X-ray powder diffraction (SXPD), absorption spectroscopy (XAS), and fluorescence (XRF) mapping to identify the precise location of the chlorine inside the balls and determine what corrosion products have formed in the conservation process.

The study did require a sacrifice, however. In order to do the initial examination, and to move forward on a long-term study that puts samples embedded in lucite on a beamline and maps the chlorine and corrosion over time, six of the shots had to be destructively sampled. It was a difficult decision, but the Mary Rose has an enormous collection that makes it possible to sacrifice a few for the good of the many, so in 2016 conservators decided to cut segments out of the cannon balls that were already showing significant signs of deterioration.

Dr Eleanor Schofield continues: “We knew that we needed to really delve into the material and find out what was going on, and that this would require destructive sampling. This decision was not taken lightly, and was justified by sacrificing a small percentage of our collection for the benefit of the rest and other collections around the world which suffer the same problem.”

Hayley Simon, who is now part way through her PhD adds: “These results represent a first step towards the development of new protective techniques. We are launching next a long duration experiment, which will observe changes in the corrosion product during long-term immersion in various conservation treatments to monitor their effects.”

The first paper charting the results of the synchroton mapping of the elements has now been published (only available free to subscribers, available for rent or purchase for the rest of us).

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Portrait of Henry VIII is truly Tudor

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

An oil on panel portrait of King Henry VIII in the Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery long believed to be a 19th century reproduction has been found to be a genuine Tudor-era artwork. It was donated to the Bath & North East Somerset Council in the 1800s and was thought to be a copy of a copy. This particular portrait of Henry was originally a mural in his apartment at Whitehall Palace by the king’s favorite court painter Hans Holbein, but the original is long gone. It was destroyed in the fire that burned down the palace in 1698.

The Whitehall mural was copied by many artists, and once the mural was lost, the copies were copied. The Victoria Art Gallery’s version is of higher quality than most of the other later copies, however, so when the painting had to be sent to specialists for conservation, the council had the wood panels dated using dendrochronology. Counting tree rings and matching their patterns doesn’t always work for thin panels (as opposed to logs or thick timbers), but researchers got lucky this time. The portrait was painted between 1537 and 1557, which makes it one the earliest surviving portraits of Henry VIII, who died exactly halfway through the estimated date range.

The dating of the painting was paid for by the Friends of the Victoria Art Gallery. The Chairman, Michael Rowe, said: “The Friends of the Gallery are committed to supporting original research into the gallery collections and were delighted to fund the dendrochronology. We look forward to further research into the origins of this important picture.”

Councillor Paul Myers, cabinet member for Economic and Community Regeneration, said: “This is one of the oldest and best pictures of Henry VIII in the world, and we are very fortunate to have it in the council’s public art collection. The painting will soon be back on display at the Victoria Art Gallery, where visitors will be able to see it for free in the Upper Gallery.”

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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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