Archive for the ‘Social policy’ Category

Sixteen stolen paintings returned for Christmas

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The Carabinieri art squad recovered 16 paintings stolen over a period of decades in the house of a Roman designer. The designer has been charged with receiving stolen goods. His collection is enormous. Police found 180 paintings from a variety of periods reportedly purchased in markets and fairs over the past 30 years.

Authorities were tipped off to the collection by a would-be buyer. Unlike the accused, this collector, who was hoping to buy a 15th c. painting of the Sienese school, checked with the Carabinieri art squad to ensure the piece was legitimately owned by the seller. The squad looked into the collection and found one piece listed in their stolen art database: Suicide of Cleopatra, a painting by German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, best known for his woodcuts. The Dürer had been stolen from the Palazzo Piccolomini museum in Pienza, outside of Siena, on May 28, 1972.

That discovery set off an in-depth investigation of the rest of the collection. They found another 15 paintings that had been stolen in 10 thefts from churches, museums, and private homes in Rome and central Italy. The estimated total value of the 16 recovered pieces is approximately €1 million ($1.3 million).

Police discovered the thefts in September but only announced their recovery last Friday. The paintings will be returned to their rightful owners in time for Christmas.

Art expert Vittorio Sgarbi examines 'Suicide of Cleopatra' by Albrecht Durer

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Fountain of the 99 Spouts flows again

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Fountain of the 99 Spouts reopening ceremonyThe Fountain of the 99 Spouts, a landmark 13th century fountain in the historic center of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy, was reopened to the public on Thursday, the first historic monument to be fully restored after the earthquake that devastated the city on April 6, 2009. Under the leadership of the Italian Environmental Fund (FAI), various organizations public and private contributed funds to the €750,000 ($1 million) restoration.

Although at first the fountain’s unique trapezoidal design and 93 stone faces spouting water seemed not to have been severely damaged in the earthquake, upon closer inspection it was found to have severe structural problems from leaking water conduits, a weakened floor and cracked walls. Once those immediate issues were seen to, restorers focused on the decorative elements, repairing the masks, the floral-motif separator stones, and cleaning the lichens and stains from the tanks and marble cladding.

Meanwhile, rubble still peppers the historic center, and the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio which overlooks the fountain and shares its red and white marble color scheme is still roofless and held together by steel beams and giant braces. So sure, it’s a small first step towards recovery, but a significant one nonetheless because the fountain is inextricably linked to the founding of the city.

L’Aquila was founded by Frederick II, “Stupor Mundi,” Holy Roman Emperor, King of Jerusalem, King of Germany, of Italy, of Burgundy and Sicily, as a city-on-a-hill counterpart to the corrupt decay of Rome and geopolitical bulwark against the power of the papacy, Frederick’s greatest enemy in Italy. According to legend, the people from 99 castles (meaning not just the buildings but the mini-towns inside and around them) in the Aquilan Valley closed up shop and moved to L’Aquila. Each castle built its own piazza with a church and houses in the city to accommodate the new citizens.

Fountain of the 99 Spouts, spout detailFrederick’s son Conrad IV finished building the city in 1254 after his father’s death, only to have it destroyed by his half-brother Manfred just 5 years later. King of Sicily Charles I of Anjou rebuilt it shortly thereafter, and the Fountain of the 99 Spouts was completed in 1272. It wasn’t called the Fountain of the 99 Spouts then, probably because there weren’t 99 spouts. It was called the Fountain of the Rivera after the central neighborhood adjacent to the river Aterno in which it was built. The 93 spouts sprang from stone faces, each one different, representing figures from mythology, animals, monks, knights, and more. There are another 6 spouts perched against a flat wall on the side of the piazza, but those were probably added later to make the fountain match the foundational legend.

The striking red and white checkerboard walls made from marble quarried at Genzano di Sassi like the facade of Santa Maria di Collemaggio were added probably in the 15th century. The wide basins underneath the spouts were added in 1578 so that townspeople could do their laundry and then spread it out on the wide, shallow staircases to dry in the whitening power of the sun. In 1657, gripped by a plague that killed 40% of the population, the city put four huge boilers in the middle of the square so all laundry could be sterilized.

There are also mysteries surrounding this fountain. For instance, the source of it is unknown. The Rivera neighborhood was said to have a spring that was a perpetual source of clean water, but over the centuries of construction, the spring has been lost. Now legend has it that the architect of the fountain, Tancredi di Pentima, is buried in the middle of the piazza under the largest stone after having been executed for refusing to divulge the location of the spring or for offering to divulge the location of the spring, nobody knows which.

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Germany donates $80 million to Auschwitz fund

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Auschwitz main gate, AP file photoAlmost 2 years after the International Auschwitz Council started the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to raise the $120 million needed to fund a major renovation of the crumbling structures at Auschwitz, Germany has pledged to donate $80 million to the foundation over the next year. That’s fully half the $160 million dollar goal, an endowment that would support not only the emergency restoration work but would also generate enough yearly interest to provide steady maintenance funds.

The United States has donated $15 million, Austria $8 million, and smaller sums have been pledged from a variety of European countries. Germany’s donation puts the goal, still distant, in sight. Up until now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has been financed almost entirely by its own revenues — proceeds from Holocaust survivor memoirs, documentaries and visitor’s fees — and by the Polish government. Donations from foreign governments and organizations provided only 5% of the museum’s budget in 2008.

The $10 million or so in yearly revenue from those combined sources hasn’t been sufficient to maintain a death camp that wasn’t exactly built to last in the first place. Add the stresses from constant tourism and from thieving bastards, and you have invaluable history on the brink.

Most urgently in need of repair are the 45 brick barracks of the women’s camp in the Birkenau section of the camp, Mensfelt said.

“They are in tragic condition due to the method of their construction and due to the ground water that is washing away the ground where they were built,” he said.

“They are crumbling away and could collapse at any time,” he added.

The barracks were built during the winter of 1941-42 by Soviet inmates, captured Red Army prisoners who were cruelly treated by the Germans and then executed, Mensfelt said.

Wooden barracks and the ruins of the gas chambers at Birkenau also need urgent repair, as they are crumbling because of harsh weather and sinking due to unstable ground.

Germany wants to ensure that this symbol of the Holocaust remain ever present, and that is why they’ve stepped up to the plate in such a large way. In the statement announcing the donation, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said “Germany acknowledges its historic responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to pass it on to future generations. Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with the crimes of the Nazis. Today’s memorial recalls these crimes.”

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Viking silver thieves arrested, loot recovered

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Stolen Viking silver coins recovered on GotlandFive men have been arrested on the Swedish island of Gotland for having stolen 1,000 Viking-era silver coins. The entire hoard from which the looters helped themselves to 1,000 coins was over twice that size: 2,000 German, English and Danish coins from the 1060s.

Gotland, a large island in the middle of the Baltic off the southeast coast of Sweden, is replete with Viking hoards. Sadly, it is also replete with looters who illegally dig up whatever treasures they can find, then sell them online or through shady dealers. Since there is so much ground to cover and the weather rarely cooperates to keep looted sites in CSI condition, not only do thieves often get away with it, but the thefts themselves are not discovered.

It was a fortuitous chain of circumstance that brought these scofflaws to justice.

Part of a crucifix from the 11th century was found in the ground where the looters dug. Several days later, an email was discovered by chance with a photo of a part of a crucifix.

A comparison of the find and the image showed that the parts belonged together and that the crucifix came from the hiding place in the field in Gandarve.

“The person who had sent the email was suspected of having attempted to sell the crucifix and he led us on to another person with ties to Gotland,” said prosecutor Mats Wihlborg.

During a raid on a property on Gotland, investigators came across three people with metal detectors, shovels and backpacks. After examining computers and GPS equipment, they also found links between the defendants and two other places where the looters had struck on Gotland.

The looters will be charged with preparation of aggravated crime against relics and aggravated crime against relics. The charges carry a potential sentence of four years in prison. Three of the defendants are thought to be the ringleaders responsible for multiple thefts. The prosecutor is delighted. He noted that it’s extremely rare for cases to actually reach the point of prosecution, and especially not of a full-on looting ring.

Looters are not just hobbyists who stumbled on a treasure and decided to keep it or even sell it on the down low. They are organized, experienced and well-versed in the geography of the island. They often operate at night to avoid detection, and they’re damn good at it. That’s why these arrests are so important to the Gotland authorities.

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Three more walls collapse at Pompeii

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Collapsed stretch of garden wall ringing Pompeii's House of the MoralistFirst the Schola Armaturarum turned to rubble 3 weeks ago. Then on Tuesday a garden wall near the House of the Moralist came down. Today 2 more walls have crumbled, one along the Via Stabiana and another in the House of the Small Lupanar, one of the smaller brothels in town.

This most recent damage to these walls didn’t result in major structural collapse like what happened to the Schola. The garden wall near the House of the Moralist was a rebuild done after US bombers knocked down the ancient structure in World War II. The wall along the Stabiana was an unconnected stretch about 6.5 by 10 feet long; the House of the Small Lupanar lost a chunk of wall in a side room that was not open to the public. None of them were decorated.

The immediate culprit appears to have been continuing torrential rains. The pressure from the water buildup in the embankment behind the Schola overwhelmed its already shaky structure. Now it seems the rain has an agenda to test every wall in town, and since all of these walls have been a) volcanoed all over, b) shoddily excavated from the 16th century onwards, and c) copiously bombed, there’s not a huge amount of environmental pressure they can take.

Then there’s the politics of it all.

There has been an international outcry over the state of the UNESCO World Heritage site and opposition parties have tabled a no-confidence motion in Culture Minister Sandro Bondi.

The minister has pledged to set up a new foundation to better channel funds and manage conservation at the ruins, one of Italy’s most-visited tourist sites.

After the collapse at the House of the Moralist – so-called because of the strict rules of etiquette inscribed on its walls – Bondi also rejected “useless alarmism”.

The wall was not the original one, he noted, but put up after the war to replace the Roman structure wrecked by US Air Force bombing in September 1943.

But Italy’s Cultural Heritage Observatory said “this further collapse shows there is not a moment to lose to implement initiatives to conserve the extremely fragile site”.

Superintendent Papadopoulos said Pompeii is at constant risk from bad weather and all its uncovered walls could crumble if the recent spate of torrential rain continues.

A UNESCO team is due to arrive in Pompeii tomorrow to assess the conservation needs of the site, with a particular eye to identifying the most urgent threats and determining what measures should be taken to prevent any further incidents.

Bondi has announced the creation of a new organization where culture ministry officials and archaeological experts will work together to sort out how to better manage the funds Pompeii generates. The ancient city sees a million tourists a year and takes in $70 million. That should be enough to maintain the site properly so masonry doesn’t collapse 4 times a month, even when the month is an exceptionally rainy one.

His political opponents are not impressed.

The centre-left opposition was not impressed by the minister’s report and the two main groups, the Democratic Party and Italy of Values (IdV), announced their no-confidence motion aimed at bringing him down.

“Bondi has done more damage than Vesuvius,” the IdV claimed.

ICEBURN

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Yale to return Inca artifacts for real this time. Maybe.

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Inca gold pendant retrieved by Hiram Bingham at Machu PicchuYale University and Peru signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday stipulating that Yale will return the artifacts removed from Machu Picchu by Yale professor Hiram Bingham III’s expedition between 1911 and 1915. All of the artifacts will go back by December 31, 2012, with the items in good enough condition for museum display to be returned in time for the centennial of Bingham’s finds in July 2011. The objects are to be housed at the University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco and will be available to Yale scholars to study in collaboration with local experts.

The memorandum states that the center will be built with financial support from the Peruvian government. [University President Richard] Levin said Yale will work with the university in Cusco to establish a museum and research center dedicated to the artifacts, adding that details of the deal to found the center are still under negotiation.

Still, Levin said that the artifacts may return to Yale for short exhibitions of up to two years, as allowed under Peruvian law.

“We will be able to ensure that the objects will be well taken care of and will be accessible to scholars,” Levin said, adding that these are “conditions that were very important to us.”

The memorandum has yet to be formalized, however, and it’s not the first time Yale and Peru have gotten this far only to have it go up in smoke. The last time was in 2007, when after months of negotiations an agreement was reached that acknowledged Peru’s title to the artifacts but granted Yale rights to study and display some of the pieces in New Haven for up to 99 years. That deal fell through in 2008, followed by Peru filing suit against the university in a Connecticut federal court. Peru turned up the heat even further recently, taking to the streets in mass protests, threatening to press criminal charges and formally requesting that the White House intervene in the dispute.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even came down on Peru’s side this June, an interesting illustration of the changing attitude towards repatriation issues given that Hiram Bingham III was himself a Senator from Connecticut from 1924 to 1933.

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu in 1911Bingham is often described as having rediscovered Machu Picchu in his 1911 expedition, although really the locals had never lost it and even foreigners like missionaries and adventurers/looters knew about it decades before Bingham made his way there. He returned in 1912 and spent the next 3 years collecting thousands of artifacts like jewelry, ceramics and even human remains, all of which he brought back to Yale.

Peru claims the artifacts number over 40,000, but Yale says they only have 5,500, 330 of them museum quality. Peru says they were only loaned; Yale says all the loaned objects were returned in the 20s and the artifacts they still have they own legally. This was the crux of the dispute. If the memorandum of understanding gets the official stamp of approval, Peru’s ownership will be uncontested. We’ll see if new issues crop up over the number of artifacts.

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Hungary to sell communist art for red sludge relief

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Bronze of LeninThe Hungarian government will be putting some of its communist history on the auction block in aid of the victims of the red sludge flood that killed 10 people, all the fish in the Marcal river and contaminated and destroyed vast swaths of western Hungary. The incoming government found the 230 sculptures, photographs and paintings squirreled away in various state offices and warehouses where they had been stashed after the fall of the communist regime in 1990. The collection includes busts and portraits of Lenin, Hungarian Party functionaries, socialist-realist paintings.

Lenin portraits up for auctionThe items were found when Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s new conservative government took office in May. Orban was a founding member of the Fidesz (“Alliance of Young Democrats”) party and famously delivered a barn-burning speech on Budapest’s Heroes Square in 1989 demanding free elections and the removal of Soviet troops from the country.

Not surprisingly, his government is not big on preserving communist-era iconography. The Facebook page about the auction is called “Never Again!” and features an avatar of Lenin getting hit on the head with own symbolic hammer (but, alas, not getting decapitated with the sickle).

State Secretary Bence Retvari made that point explicit: “The state does not want to look after these communist relics anymore. We hope this will be the last time we see artifacts from the Communist system in public buildings.” That’s not quite accurate, unless they intend to cover up the monumental painting “The Workers’ State” by German Expressionist painter Aurel Bernath which was hidden from public view between 1990 and 2004 but is now on display again in a government building in Budapest.

"Shipyard" by Rozs JánosNot everyone is so disparaging of communist-era art, though. There’s an outdoor museum in Budapest’s Memento Park which exhibits many of the large format statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin et al. Before the sludge avalanche, the government was discussing transferring the works to that museum.

Gallery owner Peter Pinter said he hoped the most valuable objects would go to a single bidder so “they could then be donated to a museum or public collection for exhibit.”

The auction pieces include a large, framed photo of Matyas Rakosi, the ruler who led a Stalinist-type regime between 1945 and 1956.

All revenues from the auction will go to Catholic charity Caritas to help people in the flood-affected area rebuild their lives.

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Met to return 19 artifacts from Tut’s tomb to Egypt

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Lapis lazuli sphinx bracelet inlayThe Metropolitan Museum of Art will be returning 19 small artifacts to Egypt that have been in its collection for decades. Researchers in the museum’s Department of Egyptian Art determined that the pieces originally came from King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

There had been questions about their provenance when the artifacts were acquired by the Met at various times from the 1920s through 1940s because even so close to Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery, the thousands of artifacts found in the tomb weren’t thoroughly documented. At that time the practice of partage — where the excavator was allowed to keep a portion of the artifacts found — was common, but as the decade it took Carter’s team to recover the enormous treasure wore on, the Egyptian government passed specific legislation to ensure that everything found in Tut’s tomb would remain property of Egypt. They even made Carter sign a waiver to that effect.

By an extraordinary coincidence, high quality artifacts from around King Tutankhamun’s time seemed to be turning up a lot in various collections in the ’20s and ’30s. Then when Carter died in 1939, his estate was found to be replete with just those sorts of objects. Lord Carnarvon’s was too.

Bronze figurine of dog with gold collarThe 19 objects now identified as indeed originating from the tomb of King Tutankhamun can be divided into two groups. Fifteen of the 19 pieces have the status of bits or samples. The remaining four are of more significant art-historical interest and include a small bronze dog less than three-quarters of an inch in height and a small sphinx bracelet-element, acquired from Howard Carter’s niece, after they had been probated with his estate; they were later recognized to have been noted in the tomb records although they do not appear in any excavation photographs. Two other pieces—part of a handle and a broad collar accompanied by additional beads—entered the collection because they were found in 1939 among the contents of Carter’s house at Luxor; all of the contents of that house were bequeathed by Carter to the Metropolitan Museum. Although there was discussion between Harry Burton (a Museum photographer based in Egypt, the Museum’s last representative in Egypt before World War II broke out, and one of Carter’s two executors) and Herbert Winlock about the origins of these works and about making arrangements for Burton to discuss with a representative of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo whether these works should be handed over to Egypt, that discussion was not resolved before Burton’s death in 1940. When the Metropolitan Museum’s expedition house in Egypt was closed in 1948, the pieces were sent to New York.

Now that the Met’s researchers have finally been able to pin down the Tut provenance, the museum is officially relinquishing title to Egypt. The artifacts won’t immediately go home. First they’ll spend a couple of months with their long-lost brothers and sisters at the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. Then in January they’ll go back to the Met for 6 months to go on display in the permanent Egyptian collection.

In June 2011 they will finally return to Egypt where they will be featured in the Tutankhamun galleries at the Cairo Museum. At long last they will find a permanent home once the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza opens (scheduled for 2012).

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Pompeii Gladiator school collapses

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Schola Armaturarum Juventis Pompeian beforeAt around 6:00 AM today, the Schola Armaturarum Iuventutis Pompeianae on north end of the Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii’s main road, collapsed into rubble. Not just one wall or a part of the structure, but the entire thing. It was found when the custodians came to open the site for visitors at 7:30.
The house was an armory where the weapons gladiators used in the nearby amphitheater were kept in wooden cabinets. It was also used a club and training area for gladiators and youths learning the combat arts.

Rubble of what was once the Schola Armaturarum Juventis PompeianaeThankfully nobody was injured — the building wasn’t open to tourists anyway — but the walls decorated with military-themed frescoes sure are. Two pillars on each side of the entrance were decorated with frescoes dedicated to the Julii. Inside, the frescoes depict weapons at the foot of a tree trunk, a tunic embroidered with newts and griffins, helmets, spears, a cart covered in polar bear fur surrounded by shields and spears.

The building was damaged by aerial bombing during World War II. The roof and the top of some of the walls were rebuilt in the late 1940s. Residual scructural weaknesses may be partially responsible for the collapse. Heavy rains over the past few months may have been the immediate cause, as they soaked the partially excavated embankment behind the building, putting pressure on its walls.

There’s a chance some of the paintings could be patched back together. Culture Ministry undersecretary Roberto Cecchi thinks that perhaps the frescoes on the lower walls might be salvageable, since apparently the epicenter of the collapse were the new walls and roof constructed after the war. (Yet again, 2000 year old Italian construction proves itself stronger than 60 year old Italian construction.)

Police have cordoned off the Via dell’Abbondanza and tarped the rubble to keep souvenir hunters and lookie loos away from the area. For now tourists can only walk up to the House of the Chaste Lovers which is about half way down the road, and which itself saw a wall collapse earlier this year due to pressure from a mudslide. Cecchi said in a statement that this is just more evidence that what Pompeii needs is a regular, dedicated maintenance plan, not state of emergency declarations and other such “special effects”.

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Woman busted trying to mail a mummy to France

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Police in La Paz, Bolivia, arrested a woman who tried to mail what appears to be a pre-Columbian mummy to France through the regular post office. She would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling routine postal inspections.

The Bolivian national told police that she gotten the package in Desaguadero, a town about 40 miles west of La Paz near the border with Peru, from a man she calls Don Gustavo. She claimed not to know what was inside the box. Don Gustavo just instructed her to mail it from the post office in La Paz to one Annette Huc in Compiegne, France, and that’s what she did.

The Police said that a preliminary inspection of the mummy indicated that it probably corresponds to a child and seems to be in good state of conservation.

Ronald Terán, Head of Bolivia’s Cultural Heritage Study Society, said the case is being reviewed and investigated and that a report will be issued soon. The antiquity of the mummy has not yet been determined, but it may date about 750 years and pertain to the Inca culture.

You can see footage of the mummy, the alleged mummy mule and the wee tiny post office where it all went down in this ITV report:

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