Archive for August, 2010

A car so awesome it barely looks real

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

The annual extravaganza of RM Auctions’ Sports & Classics of Monterey classic car auction always presents a droolworthy catalogue of beautiful and dramatic cars, but this year they’ve outdone themselves.

Meet my next Christmas present (the perfect companion to that Bugatti Royale you guys are getting me for my birthday), the 1949 Delahaye 175 S Saoutchik Roadster, custom built by industrial engineer Emile Delahaye and coachwork artist extraordinare Jacques Saoutchik for car show enthusiast Sir John Gaul.

1949 Delahaye 175 S Roadster by Saoutchik

Here are some details for those of you who might know what they mean:

After the war, Delahaye introduced a brand-new design, the 175, a four-and-a-half liter six-cylinder design based on a new block with a seven-bearing crank. Output ranged from 140 bhp to 185 bhp for the sport models. It was Delahayes first left-drive chassis and was planned to compete with the Lago Record. The chassis was also state-of-the-art, featuring a Dubonnet front suspension and a De Dion rear axle with drive-shafts passing through the side rails of the frames. The brakes were hydraulic, with twin master cylinders and finned alloy drums. The gearbox was an electromechanically actuated unit by Cotal.
A longer wheelbase 180 model was offered, and although the more popular of the two Delahayes offered, it found few buyers in Europe that could afford such extravagance at this time. Production ceased in 1951 after just 150 units – a mere 51 were of the 175 S version.

Jacques Saoutchik is the reason it looks so gorgeous with those dramatic swooping lines, the fully skirted fenders that apparently make it look like it’s floating when it’s in motion, and that gorgeous graphic interior with the Lucite steering wheel. There are no other Delayhayes like this one. Saoutchik’s work was too expensive to sustain in the lean postwar years, even with the revival of the wealthy car enthusiast concours circuit. The firm ended up closing up shop in 1955, just 6 years after they made the most beautiful Delahaye of all time.

Sir John Gaul showed it with much success for 5 years before selling it to British actress Diana Dors, aka ‘The British Marilyn’. Turquoise was apparently her signature color. She kept it for a couple of decades, then the car went through some tough times. Parts were replaced that shouldn’t have been replaced.

It wasn’t until 2007 that this precious humpty dumpty was put back together again with the original parts, and now it’s for sale. Estimated price: just $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. That’s a bargain compared to the Turner you all disappointed me deeply by not buying for me.

If you like looking at purty vehicles, the whole catalogue is a must-browse. It’s one gem after another. My second favorite is the 1903 Ford Model A Rear Entry Tonneau (estimate $600,000 – $800,000). This is the oldest model of Ford surviving, and this particular car has had, count ’em, FIVE owners since 1903.

1903 Ford Model A Rear Entry Tonneau


Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses in bad need of repair

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Scarlett's green velvet curtain dressThe Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin owns the collection of David O. Selznick, the legendary producer of “Gone With The Wind.” There are 5,000 boxes of movie memorabilia in the collection, including 5 costumes worn by Vivien Leigh in the 1939 classic, including the now-iconic green velvet curtain dress.

The Ransom Center would like to put the costumes on display in its 2014 75th anniversary “Gone With The Wind” exhibit, but they need to raise $30,000 to restore and conserve the tattered gowns before they can be put on display and loaned to other museums.

“There are areas where the fabric has been worn through, fragile seams and other problems,” Morena said. “These dresses have been under a lot of stress.”

The Ransom Center acquired the costumes — including O’Hara’s green curtain dress, green velvet gown, burgundy ball gown, blue velvet night gown and her wedding dress — in the mid-1980s as part of the collection of “Gone With the Wind” producer David O. Selznick. By then, they had already been through decades of travelling displays in theatres and had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“Film costumes weren’t meant to last,” Morena said. “They are only meant to last through the duration of filming. You won’t find them to be as finished as if you bought something off the rack.”

The green curtain dress in particular needs structural reinforcement for its loose seams. The green velvet dressing gown, burgundy ball gown, blue velvet peignoir and the wedding dress have all been abraded in areas and the fabric worn through.

To donate to the conservation of the Scarlett O’Hara dresses, go to the Harry Ransom Center website. The money will go towards restoring the gowns themselves and towards purchasing custom mannequins and protective housing so they can be displayed in controlled conditions, even on the road.


Looters lead Turkish police to undiscovered tomb of king

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Inadvertantly, of course. Authorities in Milas, near Bodrum, Turkey (once known as Halicarnassus of Caria), spent 7 months investigating a gang of looters, eventually following them to an illegal dig. The area was large so it wasn’t until after police arrested the looters that they found out the wretches had made an enormous find: the 4th century B.C. tomb of King Hekataios of Caria, father of King Mausolos of Caria.

It was for King Mausolos that a tomb was built which was so large and lavish that it would become known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In fact, it was so wondrous that they named that whole category of grandiose tombs after Mausolos.

His father King Hekataois, also known as Hekatomnus, was a satrap of the Persian empire, but his success on the battlefield carved out an autonomous kindgom in Caria, a kingdom ruled by his descendants for 50 years, until Alexander swept through on his way to conquering the world.

King Hekataios' tombstoneSo far what’s been found is a large tombstone that dates to 390 B.C., but who knows what else is on the site. There is some damage on the stone already, some caused by humans trying to dig it up in God knows what atrocious way, some by time.

“Even with its damaged parts the tomb stone is one of the most important archeological discoveries of all times. It has a very rare and precious workmanship.”

“The tomb stone could be as precious as Great Alexander’s, which is exhibited at the Istanbul Archeology Museum,” said [Undersecretariat of Culture and Tourism Ministry Özgür] Özarslan, adding that the relic first had to be saved. “The Ministry of Culture and Tourism will deal with that issue,” he said.

“The tomb stone has a length of 2.75 meters and a width of 1.85 meters,” said Culture and Tourism Ministry Properties and Museums Managing Director Murat Süslü.


Lincoln Castle dig uncovers destroyed Saxon homes

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

The Domesday Book, the great property survey of England done at behest of William the Conqueror in 1086, records that 166 homes, over 10% of the existing town, were destroyed in the construction of Lincoln Castle. Until now, however, no material remains of the mini-ethnic cleansing have been found.

Archaeologists excavating on the castle grounds in preparation for the construction of a new Heritage Skills Center have uncovered the first remains of Saxon homes, including a fireplace, pottery and the marks of now-decayed structural timbers.

Cecily Spall, from Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS), said the discoveries, made in the north lawn area, give a glimpse of a revolution in the country.

“The Saxons would not have been able to do anything about this. The Norman Conquest remodelled Anglo Saxon England.

“New landlords were appointed and they laid waste to houses and they reassigned the ownership of property and land rights.”

Lincoln was a walled town with 1164 homes surrounding an old Roman fortress. In the volatile period after William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he built several castles at strategic points in the country to consolidate his control. Lincoln was one of his first. It was at the crossroads of major traveling routes so in 1068 William knocked down the Roman keep, destroyed 166 homes in the southwest corner of the upper town, within the fortification walls, and built him a castle.

I’m not sure how they know the inhabitants were Saxon, though. Lincoln had a large Viking population, so when they say Saxon, I’m wondering if that’s just a convention (Normans v. Saxons forever) or if there’s something specific in the remains that indicate Saxon ethnicity.

Observation tower, Lincoln Castle


Literary last words

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Just a quick taste of historical fun today. The Guardian has a slideshow of famous authors and their last words. They must have picked the particularly awesome ones, because they’re all A material.

Emily Dickinson: “I must go in, the fog is rising.”

Robert Louis Stevenson: “What’s that? Do I look strange?”

Leo Tolstoy: “We all reveal … our manifestations … This manifestation is over … That’s all.”

Go through the slideshow, though, because it has details about their deathbed circumstances. I find many of them genuinely affecting.


Oldest frescoed Etruscan tomb found in Tarquinia

Friday, August 6th, 2010

7th c. B.C. Etruscan tomb found in TarquiniaArchaeologists from the University of Torino and the ministry for Archaeology of Southern Etruria excavating the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia have uncovered a large, possibly royal tomb from the 7th century B.C. Found in a central area of the city of tombs (an area known to have been frequented by Etruscan royalty), the tomb has fragments of paint on the wall.

Tests on the paint indicate it was made using an ancient Greek technique invented between the mid-8th and 7th centuries B.C. The tempera-like process is the oldest known paint making technique described in historical records. If the date on the tomb is confirmed, the band of red around the entranceway of the Tarquinia tomb will be the oldest Etruscan funerary painting ever found, beating the previous record-holder by several decades.

That’s not the only significant discovery. The tomb’s design and decoration use techniques from all over the Mediterranean.

The first stage of the excavation revealed a wide, imposing, open-air staircase leading down to the crypt’s entrance. After entering the tomb, archaeologists discovered the walls were covered in a form of gypsum plaster, using techniques common in the ancient civilisations of modern-day Cyprus, Egypt and Syria. This is the first example of this technique found in the central Italian region of Etruria and is believed to have been created by specialists from the eastern Mediterranean area. This theory is further backed up by the design of the crypt itself, which appears to be modelled on a style common in Cyprus, particularly in the ancient city-state of Salamis. The fact a royal tomb was created by a team of foreign architects and craftsmen is strong evidence of a solid network of ties and trade with other cultures, archaeologists said.

Etruscans are known to have traded extensively with the Greeks, but to see evidence of cultural influences from so many different places so early is a new puzzle piece in the little we know of the Etruscan civilization. Necropoli of tombs carved into the volcanic rock of central Italy are the source of most of what we have been able to learn about them, but even there we find a mystery at every turn.

There’s a black image outlined in red above the door and archaeologists have no idea what it means. It may be an animal representing the underworld, it may mean something else entirely.


3D film shows devastated 1945 Warsaw

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Filmmakers from the Platige Image studio in collaboration with historians from the Warsaw Uprising Museum have created a unique 3D documentary depicting the devastation of Warsaw in spring 1945, right after the end of the war in Europe.

Poland had been invaded by Nazi forces in 1939 and was occupied for 6 years. It was the German response to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising which inflicted much of the enormous damage on the city. The film was released on August 1 to mark the 66th anniversary of the beginning of the uprising.

It took 40 technicians 2 years to piece together just 5 minutes of aerial footage of the 1945 city. They first shot a contemporary view of the city from a helicopter, retracing the path that British Liberator bombers took over Warsaw when bringing supplies and weapons to the insurgents. Then they patched in images from 2,000 historical photographs and films to recreate 1945 Warsaw as accurately as possible.

Michal Gryn, from the Platige Image studio which made the film, said the team was not aware at first of the challenge before them in the form of the masses of documentary material they had to go through.

“It was a unique project to build a 3D model of authentic city ruins and make five minutes of film from it,” Gryn said. “I don’t think that anyone in the world has done this.” […]

The result is a computer simulation that shows collapsed bridges along the Vistula River, whole districts of roofless, burned-out houses and the Warsaw Ghetto as a flat sea of rubble.

You need the polarized glasses to see the 3D movie (also you need be in Warsaw), but you can get a glimpse of the amazing aerial views in this trailer:



Confirmed: Elizabethan theatergoers were drunken sots

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Mid-16th century beaker used for drinking wine or sack (Tudor sherry)Ongoing excavations of the site of The Theater, the 16th century London playhouse where Shakespeare first performed as an actor with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men company of players and later debuted some of his most famous plays, have revealed an intemperate number of drinking vessels. Authorities at the time described The Theater as a “school for all wickedness and vice” so it’s not surprisingly that audiences were well lubricated. There was even a riot on the premises that required the police investigation in 1580.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London also found the remains of the porcelain piggy banks (not actually shaped like piggies) which held the theater’s earnings until they were pooled together for division of the spoils among the company.

The broken, ceramic money boxes, which had to be smashed to give up their contents, have been traced to the playhouse’s accounts office. The earnings were the subject of dozens of lawsuits involving the actor and manager, James Burbage, and The Theatre’s other co-owner, John Brayne. […]

Other playhouses were regarded by London authorities as “an offence to the godly” and a “hindrance to the Gospel”. The playhouses were well known for “unchaste matters, lascivious devices and other lewd and ungodly practices”. Theatre-goers were seen as “the worst sort” of “evil and disordered people” who skipped work “to mis-spend their time”.

16th c. black glazed red ware pottery from The Theatre Excavations at New Inn Yard, Shoreditch, are building up that picture. Archaeologists have unearthed scores of fragments of mid- to late 16th century wine and ale flagons and mugs – found in what was probably the playhouse’s bar area. Disorderly behaviour, doubtless often partly fuelled by alcohol – was one of the reasons the authorities disliked the establishment.

The rabble liked the establishment just fine, obviously, and no wonder. Historians believe The Theatre was where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet premiered, and if not the first stage to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Love’s Labour’s Lost, it was among the first.

Interestingly, The Theater’s drunken audience may have in part been owing to the site’s previous use as a monastery. The remains of St John the Baptist Priory, a large and prosperous monastery founded in the 12th century then shut down during Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries in 1539, have been found along with the The Theater remains. Museum of London archaeologists suspect Burbage actually used the alehouse, re-purposing it as a tap house attached to the theater. Later imitators like The Globe and The Rose had in-house pubs, and we know the alehouse was still being used as such after the monastery was shut down, so it makes sense that The Theater might have taken advantage of the sweet location to start a trend.

The only remains of the theater’s structure that have been found thus far are an inner wall, a fragment of the outer wall, and the compacted gravel courtyard which is where the general audiences would have stood. The wooden superstructure never had a chance to survive intact. Burbage’s sons dismantled it in 1598 (without the property owner’s knowledge) and used the wood to the build The Globe theater where Shakespeare’s players moved. That ill-gotten timber burned down with the first Globe 14 years after its illicit recycling.


Ancient sculptures restored from 27,000 fragments

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

In November of 1943, the Berlin Tell Halaf Museum was hit with an incendiary bomb and went up in flames, all the artifacts made out of wood or gypsum were completely destroyed. Its monumental basalt statues and stele withstood the fire, but were shattered into thousands of pieces when firemen blasted the burning building with cold water.

Tell Halaf is a palace from the 3,000 year-old Aramaen civilization found in 1899 by German archaeologist and banking scion Max von Oppenheim in what is now northern Syria. Over the next 30 years (interrupted by a failed diplomatic career and a World War) and 2 excavation projects, Oppenheim scooped up all the artifacts he could ship to Berlin, eventually opening a museum dedicated to the finds.

After the firebombing, it was Oppenheim who persuaded Walter Andrae, the director of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Pergamon Museum, to salvage the 27,000 fragments that were all that remained of the basalt monuments. In August of 1944, they were able to recover 9 truckloads of basalt fragments and store them in the basement of the Pergamon Museum. Consider the wartime deprivations of 1944 Berlin and Oppenheim’s known Jewish heritage, it’s pretty amazing those fragments were preserved.

They remained collecting dust in the Pergamon basement until after the reunification of Germany. A 1993 survey of the rubble raised the first hopes that perhaps some of the larger fragments could be reassembled into a few of the sculptures. The restoration project, funded in part by several Oppenheim charities, didn’t start until 2001 but the near decade of hard work has paid off far more than anyone expected. A full 60 artifacts have been pieced together from 25,000 of the fragments. (The remaining 2000 couldn’t be fitted back in.)

Bas relief from Tell Halaf, before 1943“We didn’t know how far we’d get because we didn’t know how much of the original material was recovered from the destroyed museum,” added Stefan Geismeier, the project’s chief restorer.

The team considered using computers to sort out their giant puzzle, but costs were too great, results uncertain, and they needed to show sponsors quickly that they could actually put things back together again.

“At first we thought we’d just reconstruct the outer shells and fill out the inner parts with cement. But after a couple of years we’d developed such a feeling for the basalt structure that we could also refit the inner parts so that most of the artifacts are pretty much complete,” said Martin.

Bas relief now, recomposed from over 90 fragments“But unlike an ordinary puzzle where things get easier as you get towards the end, things just got more and more difficult as left over pieces became ever more shapeless and we had to imagine where they might fit,” he said.

“That was our biggest difficulty,” agreed Geismeier.

Some pieces were as small as a fingernail, others weighed one and a half tonnes. One of the statues, a goddess, was broken into 1,800 pieces.

“And every artifact had to be put back together in a single operation” to ensure all the pieces fitted properly, Geismeier added.

I can’t believe it only took 10 years. These are some seriously Zen people.

You can read more about Tel Hallaf, the excavations and the restoration on the project website. The restored statues will go on display starting in January at the Pergamon Museum.


Munch’s master prints at National Gallery

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., opened a new exhibit on Saturday of 60 of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s most important prints. Munch was known to change an image repeatedly over years, altering colors, lines, details and always experimenting with a variety of print media. He was a master at woodcut, lithography, and intaglio, and made constant adjustments to vary the design and impression of even his most famous pieces.

Edvard Munch, 'Madonna', 1895-1896, lithograph in black with hand coloring on green cardThe exhibit is divided into 5 sections, each section focusing on different aspects of Munch’s modifications, grouping thematically connected pieces together and allowing visitors to compare The Scream to The Scream and Madonna to Madonna.

The prints come from the National Gallery’s own collection and two privated collections: the Epstein Family Collection and the Collection of Catherine Woodard and Nelson Blitz Jr. These images have never all been collected and exhibited together before and won’t be seen anywhere else.

“Some are unique versions with coloring; they are extremely valuable, printed with different colors each time,” [Elizabeth Prelinger, an art history professor at Georgetown University] explained.

Among the master works, a series of eight Madonnas dated from 1895-1914.

The most famous is a Madonna depicted as a nude; in 1892 when it was sent to a show in Berlin it so shocked the public that the show was shut down.

“People were shocked, they felt it was virtually pornographic,” noted Prelinger, the co-curator.

Years later when he took part in a show in New York, in 1913, Munch sent off a sweeter, self-censored version of a similar Madonna.

The exhibit builds on new research on the exact dating of all the different impressions. It traces the original print made from a given woodblock, say, then pinpoints the future dates Munch printed from that woodblock making small alterations every time. Visitors will be able to see the evolution of Munch’s art and how he reinterpreted pieces in light of new ideas.

Edvard Munch: Master Prints will be open between July 31 and October 31, 2010.

Edvard Munch, 'Toward the Forest I', 1897-c 1913, color woodcut from two woodblocks, one sawn into three pieces, in blue, green, and yellow beige on wove paper






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