Archive for October, 2009

Spoooooky historical pictures

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Check out this great collection of period skull illusions and Halloween costumes. Some of those early century clowns will put the fear of God into you, I tell you whut.

Little girls and their dog skull Cafe De l'Enfer, Paris ca 1910 Scary old timey clown

In other fun Halloween history news, Archaeology magazine has collected all kinds of different Halloween-themed witches-and-vampires finds and articles here. You might have even seen me blog about one of two of them in the past.

I love this one about the urine and bellybutton lint in the witch bottle, and this article about evidence of spellcasting in Cornwall.

Lastly, enjoy the most adorable skeleton art from artist Olaf Breuning in the gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome.

Villa Medici belongs to the French government, and they have a program where artists apply to live there for a while and just make art. The Villa and its grounds make for a dramatic backdrop in all kinds of media.

Skeletons in the Villa Medici garden

I’ve never seen skeletons with so much joie de vivre.

:skull: Happy Halloween! :skull:

Everything at Lehmans must go!

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Lichtenstein Statue of Liberty lithographInvestment bank Lehman Brothers imploded into dramatic bankruptcy last year, and now they’re finally selling the art off the walls.

Surprisingly for such a notoriously spendthrift brand, especially one run by a CEO with a $15 million personal art collection, Lehman doen’t have a lot of bick ticket items on the block.

When the collection hits the auction block on Sunday in Philadelphia, proceeds will go to pay creditors, but they won’t be throwing any ticker tape parades about being made whole. Like so much about the Lehman legacy, the collection turns out not to be worth much. Freeman’s Auctioneers & Appraisers estimates that the 283 lots for sale are worth about $750,000 in total. […]

Compared with other investment banks, however, Lehman Brothers didn’t make its corporate art collection a major priority, people close to it say. Many of the works are by unknowns, meant primarily to decorate wall space. UBS, by contrast, owns 40,000 art objects, including works by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, which they loan to museums like the Tate in London. JP Morgan Chase is also known for having a significant collection, established 50 years ago by David Rockefeller.

The collection comprises mainly 20th century prints, photographs and paintings. Some of the standout pieces include a print by Alexander Calder ($800-$1,200 estimate), a Statue of Liberty lithograph by Roy Lichtenstein ($15,000-$25,000 estimate), and a set of 9 Walker Evans photogravures of the Brooklyn Bridge ($1,000-$1,500 estimated), but there are plenty of neat pieces for a few hundred dollars.

The auction is Sunday at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia. Browse the catalog to see if there’s anything you’d like to preserve from the collapse of the financial system.

There will be two more Lehman sales after this, paintings and sculpture on December 6th and 450 more prints on February 12.

Happy 50th birthday, Asterix!

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Cover of my edition of "Asterix the Gaul"Asterix, that indomitable little Gaul, is 50 today, as are his comrades-in-arms from the one village that resists being divided into three parts by Julius Caesar. Asterix got his big break in the magazine Pilote exactly fifty years ago today.

His creators, illustrator Albert Uderzo and writer Réne Goscinny, published the first book, Asterix the Gaul, two years after that, and basically never stopped. Even after Goscinny’s death in 1977, Uderzo continued to crank out the best-selling books. Asterix books have sold 325 million copies and been translated into 107 languages.

Uderzo, Goscinny, Obelix, Asterix and DogmatixNot to universal acclaim, I’m afraid. I’m not a purist, but there’s no question that the books lost some of their brilliant puncraft and wit when Goscinny passed away. The first 24 books are by far superior to the ones that came after.

Asterix and Cleopatra is my forever favorite, but I cherish all the precious English translations from my youth. They never lost their luster even after I learned enough French to get the originals. Anthea Bell is the translator. There’s a great interview with her here.

Ironically perhaps, Asterix in Britain was a particular challenge to translate because one of the joys of the original was the way in which Goscinny captured the British characters speaking French with a dreadful English accent. It is also a favourite of Uderzo.

“While I like all that we have made, I have a little preference for Asterix et Les Bretons, for the way that René made the British speak with the structure of the English language transformed into French. I found it an extraordinary idea,” he says. “For René, who knew English perfectly, it was like a child’s game”.

Bell, who always ran her scripts past Goscinny when he was alive, was relieved to find that her translation solution – to use very dated, stilted, ‘upper class twit’ language in the style of PG Wodehouse – met with the French writer’s approval. “I told him that we were intending to use phrases like ‘what ho, old bean!’ and ‘hullo, old fruit’ and his eyes lit up,” she said. “‘Vieux fruit! I wish I’d thought of that…’ he murmured.”

He may belong to the world now, thanks to great translators like Ms. Bell, but Asterix is an undeniable French icon, celebrated as an incarnation of the rebellious, stubborn, self-confident French national character. Paris has gone Asterix-mad this anniversary.

They’ve had all kinds of Asterix-themed events, including a sky drawing of the little Gaul done by an elite Air Force unit (video of the aerial stunt), a 50th anniversary book release which is a collection of Goscinny short stories rather than one full-length book. There’s even a musical called “Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix” by Parisian composer Frédéric Chalin staged at Champs Elysees Theatre.

Parisians are to be besieged by tributes to France’s most popular comic strip. Today, among the third-century Gallo-Roman baths upon which the Musée de Cluny is partially built, an exhibition of original plates and manuscripts opened to allow fans a glimpse of the creators’ inspirations. […]

Menhir with Asterix in front of the Palais BrongniartTo add to the Astérix fervour gripping the capital, various symbols of the books such as giant menhirs … and speech bubbles of famous exchanges will be erected at eight locations including the Place de la Concorde and in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Update: Oh yay, a slideshow! The menhir with faux hieroglyphics is just adorable.

The Musée de Cluny doesn’t have much of a website, so those of us not in Paris today will have to be content imagining the thirty original plates by Uderzo and the handwritten and typed scripts by Goscinny set in what was once a Roman frigidarium.

There are also new parodies by Uderzo of famous French artworks done Asterix style on display in the Cluny gardens. Here’s “Impedimenta Leading the Gauls” after Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”:

Impedimenta Leading the Gauls, Albert Uderzo, 2009 "Liberty Leading the People", Eugène Delacroix, 1830

Mysterious carvings near Templar church in Scotland

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Builders reinforcing an old wall near a ruined church in Temple, Midlothian, have uncovered a stone carved with strange symbols.

It’s a flat, rectangular stone, possibly a sarcophagus lid. The carvings look vaguely Viking, vaguely Celtic and are vaguely dated to the 10th, 12th, 13th or 14th century. Since it was found near the ruins of what was once a Templar preceptory, there’s a certain Da Vinci Code intrigue to it.

Historian and author John Ritchie said the stone raised many questions. “It is a crude carving, quite primitive, but I have never seen anything like it in my life,” he said. “It has a whole series of symbols on it and the symbols are very interesting.

“The symbols at the bottom look like Viking sun compasses, while the dials at the top look a little bit like a Celtic cross but with notches carved on them.”

Then on the left there’s the sword and shield with what looks eerily like Pac-Man engraved on it. (See where the arrow is pointing below.)


Nobody really knows what they mean, although there’s speculation that they might be sheep shears or hawking bells, perhaps carved on a knight’s headstone.

Expert David Connolly, of Connolly Heritage Consultancy, said he believed the stone was from the 13th or 14th century.

“It is a significant site because it was the Templar Preceptory for Scotland,” he said. “I think from the condition, it may once have been set inside the church – which was once much bigger,” he added.

“He could be a Templar, he could be a Hospitaller, he could just be a knight who wanted to be buried there – but the heraldry is like nothing anyone has seen before.”

Or it could all just be a big lark carved by wacky kids in the throes of 70’s videogame mania. We just don’t know, and we won’t know anything about it for sure until historians get to do some serious analysis.

The stone is still in place, and the landowner, Crispin Miller, says when he restores the churchyard he’ll put an arch over the stone so historians can study it further in situ.

Spikes in the head at Ur

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Warrior skull, flattened by pressure of earth and later burialsRoyal burials uncovered at Ur in the 20’s were replete with thousands of courtiers buried along with their royal masters. C. Leonard Woolley, the director of the excavations at the time, thought the careful burials indicated a solemn, peaceful death, like maybe they all got dressed up pretty, marched into the tomb and took poison.

For years that has been the convention wisdom. The remains were in many tiny pieces, crushed by the pressure of tons of earth and later burials that compressed the skeletons over the 4500 years since their deaths, so archeologists really haven’t had a chance to use any modern scientific tools on them.

Now the University of Pennsylvania is putting on an exhibit of artifacts from Ur, so researchers took the opportunity to take CT scans of skull pieces from a man and woman. The CT scan data was used to make a 3D image of where the skull fragments fit together.

Woman's skull, CT on left, decorated for burial on right

The researchers, led by Janet M. Monge, a physical anthropologist at Penn, applied forensic skills to arrive at the probable cause of death in both cases.

There were two round holes in the soldier’s cranium and one in the woman’s, each about an inch in diameter. But the most convincing evidence, Dr. Monge said in an interview, were cracks radiating from the holes. Only if the holes were made in a living person would they have produced such a pattern of fractures along stress lines. The more brittle bones of a person long dead would shatter like glass, she explained.

Dr. Monge surmised that the holes were made by a sharp instrument and that death “by blunt-force trauma was almost immediate.”

Rmarkhor goat eating the leaves of a treeThe research also turned up evidence that some of the sacrificed courtiers had been baked (as in heat, not as in weed) and treated with a mercury compound, which suggests a primitive mummification procedure, probably necessary to keep the bodies from decomposing during long funerary rituals as well to help pose them for banquet tableaux and the like.

The Penn exhibit includes the two highly decorated skulls, plus 220 other objects from the site. They have a wonderful companion online exhibit too, featuring lectures, zoomable pictures of gold jewelry, pre and post-conservation pictures, details about the original expedition, details about the current research, and oh so much more.

There’s at least a semester’s worth of college in that online exhibition, I swear.

Blackbeard’s anchor retrieved from wreckage

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Blackbeard, 1726 engravingBlackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground near the Beaufort Inlet in the Inner Banks of North Carolina in 1718. Rumor was that he intentionally wrecked his ships to kill off some of his crew and keep a larger cut of the treasure after accepting a pardon.

Wreckage of a ship from that time thought to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in the Beaufort Inlet in 1996 during dredging operations that removed the layers of sand that had kept it safe and snug for hundreds of years. Some artifacts came loose during the dredging, but researchers didn’t want to pull any of them up until strictly necessary.

Finally Thursday divers pulled up a small anchor that they feared would be washed away in storms next year. It’s a grapnel, a four pronged anchor likely used for smaller ships to transport people or cargo from ship to ship or ship to shore.

As more artifacts are recovered researchers are more and more confident that the wreckage is what remains of Blackbeard’s ship.

Queen Anne's Revenge grapnel “This is the oldest shipwreck we have worked on in North Carolina.” Mark Wilde-Ramsing, QAR project manager, said. “It is associated with Blackbeard and every artifact is important for understanding what was going on at the time.”

The 160-pound anchor is one of the largest pieces recovered from the ship so far, but researchers will eventually bring up very large pieces, including cannons weighing about one ton each, Wilde-Ramsing said.

The QAR Project is a state-funded research organization that plans to raise 700,000 individual artifacts from the wreck. They already recovered quite a few small pieces earlier this year, like navigational instruments and a thimblefull of teeny gold pieces. They estimate it will take as long as 7 years to recover them all.

The grapnel was on display just on Thursday for a lucky few who had the chance. Now begins the conservation process. The cleaning will take 6 months, then it will sit in a special treated bath for 2 years. Only then will it be ready to go on permanent display in a museum, probably the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

Slow Sunday

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

It’s the usual slow news Sunday, so I’m going to keep it short and sweet today.

First, I really, really, really want this comic about Etruscan life by 6 Italian comic book authors, but I don’t think they ship overseas. 🙁 (Google Translate English version)

Second, I’ve spent many hours today browsing this fantastic blog of iconic photographs. There are some great moments of history captured on this site, and the entries provide deeply satisfying explanations of the photographs and photographers, not just quick captions.

For an awesome overview of some of the icons covered in the blog, see “We Didn’t Start the Camera Fire” which links to any entries referred to in Billy Joel’s paean to the history of his lifetime, We Didn’t Start the Fire.

Lastly, OMG Playmobil Gladiator!!1


Scandal! Vasari archives sold to Russian firm

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Giorgio Vasari self portrait, 1566-68A major scandal is brewing in Italy over the recent revelation that the heirs of the late Count Giovanni Festari sold the archive of documents and sketches by Renaissance artist and architect Giorgio Vasari to Russian firm Ross Engineering for a jaw-dropping 150 million euros ($225 million).

Vasari was a fine Mannerist artist and architect in his own right, but today he is best known as the biographer of the most famous artists of Renaissance and Middle Ages. He wrote about them in what is widely acknowledged as the first art historical biography, his Lives of Artists.

This is a foundational work of art history, and his archives contain not only his own notes and sketches, but also correspondence with five popes, Michelangelo and Cosimo de’ Medici, his patron and the ruler of Florence.

Considerable mystery surrounds the sale of Vasari’s papers, which are kept in the house the artist bought for himself in his home town and which he decorated with his own frescoes. The mayor of Arezzo [Giuseppe Fanfani] said he had only learned of the transaction in a letter from a government official which said it had taken place on 23 September – days before the death of the owner of the archive, Giovanni Festari.

The letter informed him that, under the terms of a 1994 government order, he could block the sale by matching the price supposedly offered by a Russian company. “Madness,” said the mayor. “Where am I going to find €150m? That’s equivalent to five times the annual budget of the Arezzo council.”

And he has just six months to match the price or the sale becomes official. The cost is so exorbitant that there is some speculation that it’s not the actual selling price, but a deliberate deception to ensure that it can’t possibly be matched by the town of Arezzo, or the whole region of Tuscany for that matter.

By law, the archive can’t leave Arezzo, but that is little consolation to the mayor. Laws change, after all, and he can’t imagine that the Russians would be content with owning it long distance forever.

A lawyer representing Ross Engineering says they know they can’t move the archive and they have “no problem” leaving it in Arezzo. ”Who knows?” he says. “Maybe they want to have an exhibition and open them up to the public?”

I would say that perhaps their spokesperson might know, should he bother to ask. This kind of vague response is hardly reassuring.

Italy is planning a series of celebrations of Vasari’s 500th birthday next year. If this sale goes through, that would put a major damper on the festivities.

Roman prosecutors are looking into the sale right now. According to Tuscany culture chief Diana Toccafondi, the archive was recently thoroughly renovated using state funds, and the government has expended considerable resources before to keep it out of fureign hands.

Mayor Fanfani isn’t letting this go. He has appealed to the regional parliament, the Russian ambassador, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi and Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is actually in Russia this week meeting with Vladimir Putin.

I hope against hope this issue makes it at least as high on the agenda as Russian hookers and comparing tans.

The Castration of Uranus by Saturn, fresco by Vasari

Rome subway bumps into amphiteater

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Metro C excavation in Piazza Venezia, RomeAdd another ancient structure to the long list of wonders uncovered during the prepatory excavations for the third subway line in Rome. This time it’s an amphitheater, possibly one built by Hadrian in the second century A.D.

As they dug through down through layers of modern, Renaissance and Medieval remains to the level of ancient Rome, they found what looked like a grand stairway made with sheets of granite and antique yellow marble. Across the way, the remains of a matching stairway — the steps long, shallow and deep — led archaeologists to the conclusion that they were looking at the seats of a covered rectangular amphitheater, a place where plays, speeches and debates were held by the city’s poets, scholars and politicians.

Archaeologist Roberto Egidi, who directed the excavation, said research in texts by ancient sources suggests they have found the Emperor Hadrian’s “Athenaeum” — an auditorium ancient writers say he built at his own expense on his return from Palestine around A.D. 135.

The new line, Metro C, will run fully 80 feet underground. It has to because Rome is such a huge pancake stack of history that they’d never be able to get a full subway line built any higher than that. You still have to have stations and air ducts and escalators and whatnot, though, and it’s a major challenge raising periscope through two and a half thousand years of habitation.

Metro C dig viewed from on highThe amphitheater, in fact, was found in an area of Piazza Venezia that archaeologists thought (or hoped against hope, really) might be relatively “sterile” so a station could be built. Obviously that’s not on now and they’re going to have to build it a few yards away where there are just an ancient sewer system and some ancient shops.

Finds that in other cities would be hugely exciting, but in Rome, are the path of least of resistance. Ancient, medieval and Renaissance structures will be destroyed by this subway. There’s just no way around that. The historic center is so suffocated by traffic a third line is desperately needed.

Archaeologists are bummed, of course, but at the same time, this project has given them license to excavate areas they haven’t been able to sink their trowels into before. It has also given them funding, which is very hard to come by in this age of cutbacks.

This article has a great video of the Piazza Venezia dig.

Last surviving Trafalgar Union Jack sells huge

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Yesterday was Trafalgar Day, the 204th anniversary of the and patriotic fervor was in the air at Charles Miller Auctions when the last Union Jack flag to survive the Battle of Trafalgar sold for £384,000 ($638,000), 21 times its highest estimate.

I can see why.

Union Jack that flew at Trafalgar

Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s riddled with bullet holes and splinters from its final battle. It’s 7’4″ by 11’7″, and was actually sewn together from 31 panels by the crew of the HMS Spartiate.

The 540-man crew lowered the flag from the Spartiate jackstaff after the victory over Napoleon and presented it to Scottish Lieutenant James Clephan for his valorous performance. Being presented the flag was a rare honor, almost an unheard-of honor for a junior officer.

Lieutenant Clephan was highly respected by his men. He was one of only 16 of 300,000 press ganged sailors to rise through the ranks to ultimately become a captain, a remarkable ascent for a Scottish apprentice weaver forced to join the Royal Navy against his will.

The casualty numbers suggest the Spartiate was very well-commanded indeed. The HMS Spartiate suffered 3 men killed, 22 wounded (a 4% casualty rate), while Admiral Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory lost 57 killed (including Admiral Nelson himself), 102 wounded (a 19% casualty rate).

James Clephan’s descendants kept the flag in a dark drawer for the 150 years after his death, so not only are the colors preserved, but it still actually smells of gunpowder from the Battle of Trafalgar. The owner has moved to Australia now and doesn’t have the wherewithal to conserve it properly, so he decided to sell it. He was thrilled with the reserve price of £10,000 ($16,600) — chump change in hindsight — and even the top estimate was a mere £15,000 ($25,000).

The bidding was fierce. A hundred people packed the small room, and all 12 phones were used to take long-distance bids. The winning bid came from an anonymous US buyer over the phone.

He’s not likely to get his hands on it any time soon, though. According to the auctioneers, the buyer plans to contact the British government to arrange for the flag to be displayed in the UK. He’d better get on that, because the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport is likely to put a three month export ban on the flag if the buyer tries to take it out of the country, so he won’t have a ton of options.

British institutions will then be allowed to match the winning bid, possibly using lottery grants to supplement their relatively meager offerings. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, for instance, topped out at £40,000 ($66,000). It’s going to need a lot of help to match the final selling price.





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