Archive for October, 2010

Swiss archaeologists find door

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

5000-year-old Neolithic door in situ at Opera Dig, ZurichI love that headline. It seems such a bland, stolid find, so appropriately Swiss. It’s a pretty awesome door, though, seriously.

It was found in Zurich during preparatory excavations for a parking lot near the Opera House. Dendrochronological (ie, tree ring) analysis, dates the wood to 3,063 B.C. That makes it one of the earliest doors ever uncovered in Europe. An older one dating to 3,700 B.C. was found in a nearby town in the 19th century, but it was made from solid wood. This most recent door is a more complex, ingenious design.

The door measures approximately 5′ by 3′ and has been extremely well-preserved in the anaerobic environment of Lake Zurich sediment. You can still see how the planks were joined using a system of plugs, and the two simple wooden hinges that allowed the door to swing in its frame.

Neolithic settlement Lake ZurichThe dig has uncovered a great many other artifacts from multiple Neolithic settlements on the shore of Lake Zurich.

Archaeologists have found traces of at least five Neolithic villages believed to have existed at the site between 3,700 and 2,500 years B.C., including objects such as a flint dagger from what is now Italy and an elaborate hunting bow.

Helmut Schlichtherle, an archaeologist for the conservation department in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, said finding an intact door was very rare, as usually only the foundations of stilt houses are preserved because they are submerged in water for millennia. Without air, the bacteria and fungi that usually destroy wood in a matter of years can’t grow, meaning many lakes and moorlands in Europe are considered archaeological treasure troves.

“Some might say it’s only a door, but this is really a great find because it helps us better understand how people built their houses, and what technology they had,” he said.

Also, there have been hundreds of stilt house remains found in Germany, but no doors. Tiny Switzerland, on the other hand, has produced the 3 oldest ones known in Europe.

Neolithic (3000 B.C.) knife with hole for carrying it on a string, and today's versionThe other seemingly-pedestrian finds will illuminate Neolithic life as well. The dagger from Italy, for instance, can provide information about Stone Age trade across the alps. The elaborate hunting bow has a bark design on it which has been attached by an unknown adhesive. There were also tinderboxes with fire-making tools still inside them, including F. fomentarius (aka, Tinder Fungus) mushrooms which Otzi the Iceman was also carrying when he met his end in the Tirolean Alps, not so far from Lake Zurich. Otzi lived 5300 years ago, so he and the door are almost contemporaries.

The dig will continue until January, so who knows what else will turn up. There are more pictures of the Opera House dig and its Neolithic finds on the Zurich Structural Engineering Department website.

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American gold coin hoard found in London

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Usually when we hear of coin hoards being dug up in England, they’re Roman or Saxon or medieval. It seems like people in the UK stumble on ancient buried treasure every other day. Dozens of gold coins minted in the US in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, however, are not so regularly found. In fact, until a couple of fellas decided to do some gardening in their east London back yard, such a find was unprecendented.

Hoard of 80 gold Double Eagles found in HackneyThe details of the discovery are being kept quiet for now, both to prevent lookie loos and to ensure there are no false ownership claims. What we do know is that two people found a hoard of 80 gold Double Eagle $20 pieces, dating from between 1854 and 1913, in a Hackney garden. Double Eagles are made from 90% gold — 0.9675 troy ounces if it — and 10% copper alloy. The coins come from all over the country, minted in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver and Carson City, among other cities.

They were worth $20 because that was the fixed value of an ounce of gold in 1849 (yes, the year of the California Gold Rush) when they were first minted. That would be a value of $521.28 in modern buying power, all in one heavy gold coin, and that’s not counting the fluctuating value of the gold itself. Some designs, years and mints are more valuable than others, but there’s little doubt the value of the entire collection will probably reach the six figures.

The Hackney coins start just 5 years after the first Double Eagle was struck, although the bulk of the hoard comes from the later years. According to Dr Barrie Cook of the British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medal:

“The catalogue shows that the coins gradually increase in number across the decades from 1870 to 1909 (13 coins from 1870-9; 14 from 1880-89; 18 from 1890-99; and 25 from 1900-9).

“Over a quarter of the total were issued in the last 6 six years represented. Together these factors suggest that the material began to be put aside during this later period, rather than being built up systematically across a range of time represented.

“The main element among this latest material are the 17 coins dating to 1908, which suggests that a single batch of coins from that year might have formed the core for the group.”

That means the burier might actually be alive. It’s unlikely, but certainly possible, and his heirs could very well be around to file an ownership claim. The details of the location which have not been released will be used to screen out potential Double Eagle Anastasias.

The finders have reported the coin hoard to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and an inquest has been opened. Any claimants have until February 8 to come forward. If nobody does claim ownership and the coroner determines that it’s officially treasure (which he will because buried gold is pretty much the Platonic form of official treasure), then the Crown becomes the official owner, fair market value will be assessed, and the finders paid in that amount by whichever institution wants the hoard.

Hackney Museum has already raised its hand. Meanwhile, the coins will go on display at the British Museum starting tomorrow.

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4300-year-old priestly tomb found in Giza

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Archaeologists excavating near the Giza pyramids uncovered the Fifth Dynasty tomb of a pharaonic priest. It dates to between 2465 and 2323 B.C., and although looters long ago cleared it of its portable treasures, there are wall paintings still in bright condition despite the tomb’s having been opened.

The tomb was found a month ago but Hawass announced the discovery today.

Standing inside the 4,300-year-old structure, Zahi Hawass said hieroglyphics on the tomb’s walls indicate it belonged to Rudj-ka, a priest inspector in the mortuary cult of the pharaoh Khafre, who built the second largest of Giza’s pyramids.

The tomb — about the size of a train car — was adorned with paintings, some of them still vivid. Images on one wall depict a man standing on a boat, spearing fish. Nearby are lotus flowers and different types of birds standing or in flight.

A series of false doors line the opposite wall. A painting above one shows two figures seated opposite each other at an offering table.

The pharaoh Khafre lived from 2558 to 2532 B.C., but his cult continued after death. In the Old Kingdom, after the pharaoh died, priests dedicated to the cult of the king lived and practiced their rituals in a pyramid city specifically dedicated to the task of ensuring proper spiritual care of the departed godking.

Judging from the wall paintings, Rudj-Ka was responsible for overseeing purification rituals performed in honor of the dead pharaoh, which would have made him an important person even though priests of this period did not have to be of noble birth. The tomb’s complexity also suggests a person of prestige. Beyond the entrance, there’s an inner burial complex that carved out of the living rock of a cliff that was built to house all of Rudj-Ka’s family.

His tomb was the first one found west of Khafre’s pyramid, and the only one in the area with a cartouche of Khafre. Hawass hopes there are more tombs, possibly from the priestly cult of Khafre, to be found in this relatively unexplored area.

Hawass at tomb of Rudj-Ka, 2374-2513 B.C. Painting of a hunt scene in the tomb of Rudj-Ka

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Rarest movie poster in the world for sale

Monday, October 18th, 2010

'The Bride of Frankenstein' teaser poster, 1935It’s a teaser poster for John Whale’s 1935 horror masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein. Three one-sheet designs were created to promote the movie in theaters. This poster is the most dramatic of the three, with its blood red wash and Boris Karloff’s iconic monster shackled in a chair demanding a mate. It’s also the only one that was released as an advance teaser to get theater audiences excited — I daresay titillated — before the movie premiered.

Considered by many the greatest horror film of all time, The Bride of Frankenstein proved director James Whale’s crowning achievement. Aside from cast members Clive and Karloff reprising their roles, the addition of Ernest Thesiger as the demented Dr. Pretorius and Elsa Lanchester in the dual roles of Mary Shelley (seen in the prologue) and obviously, as ‘The Monster’s Mate’ proved a brilliant stroke of casting. Also contributing with excellent work was makeup genius Jack Pierce, luminous camerawork by John J. Mescall, stunning art direction by Charles D. Hall aided immeasurably by Kenneth Strickfadden’s electrical lab equipment and design and of course, the extraordinary musical score composed by Franz Waxman. Such talent in front and behind the camera all helped to create a timeless classic selected in 1998 to be part of the National Film Registry, Library of Congress.

Of the three one sheet designs originally produced for in-theatre promotion for The Bride of Frankenstein, this only known Teaser (Advance) poster boasts the most powerful image of the lot. With it’s brilliant cherry red printing combined with the shocking image of The Monster in torn, burned clothing, shackled and chained to a heavy chair with rays of energy and light bursting behind, it simply does not get any better. The compelling tagline “I DEMAND A MATE” arguably provocative given the time, is further enhanced by challenging the reader with “WHO will be THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN” and “WHO will dare?”

The estimated sale price of this one poster is $700,000. The current record-holder for most costly movie poster is the 1926 international three-sheet of Metropolis by German artist Heinz Schulz-Neudamm which sold for $690,000 in 2005. In second place and the current record-holder for horror movies is a poster of The Mummy which sold in March 1997 for $453,500. So it’s Karloff versus Karloff, and it looks like neckbolts Karloff is set to give natronwrapped Karloff a sound spanking.

'Gilda' poster, 1946The second and fourth most expensive movie posters (the latter a one-sheet of The Black Cat which sold for $334,600 last year) both belonged to collector Todd Feiertag, who is also the owner of the “I DEMAND A MATE” poster. He has spent 50 years amassing what is widely considered the greatest collection of vintage horror movie posters in the world. He’s owned The Bride of Frankenstein poster for 30 years.

Heritage Auctions will be putting it up for sale in their November 11th Signature Movie Poster auction along with a passel of other beautiful and rare illustrations from cinematic classics. I have to give a shout out to the Gilda poster, which features Rita Hayworth reeling in the after-slap from Glenn Ford’s strong pimp hand.

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Japanese diary with pics of Jews saved from Nazis

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Despite Japan’s alliance with Germany, Japanese officials collaborated to save thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe. The best known instance of a Japanese government employee defying Japanese immigration strictures to save Jews is Chiune Sugihara, an diplomat at the Japanese embassy in Lithuania who handed out travel visas to thousands of Jews in the early days of the war, even throwing blank visas out the window of his train as he left in August 1940 when the Russians annexed Lithuania.

Sugihara has been referred to as the “Japanese Schindler” because his transit visas allowed an estimated 6000 Jews to flee the country via the Trans-Siberian railway to Japanese-occupied Manchuria. He was honored in 1985 by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Tatsuo Osako during WWII on a ship with unknown womanOnce Jewish refugees got to Japanese territory, however, there was a whole other bureaucratic mountain to climb. They were stateless, often penniless and dumped in Manchuria. The Japan Tourist Bureau, apparently with the permission of Foreign Ministry, agreed to help distribute aid money sent by Jews in the US to Jewish refugees in Japan. This infusion of funds covered the immigration requirements that Sugihara had so consistently not given a crap about, and gave the refugees the means to get by and make plans.

Tatsuo Osako was a Tourist Bureau employee assigned to act as an escort on ships carrying refugees across the Sea of Japan to port cities like Kobe and Yokohama where they could arrange for further transport. Osako kept pictures of some of the people he helped in a diary which was found in a drawer after his death in 2003. He didn’t write in the diary much, sadly, so all we know about who these people were is from their faces and the kind comments they wrote to Osako on the pictures.

I. Segaloff picture“My best regards to my friend Tatsuo Osako,” is scrawled in French on the back of the picture, which is signed “I. Segaloff” and dated March 4, 1941. His fate is unknown.

An effort is under way to find the people in these portraits or their descendants, all of whom are assumed to be Jewish. Personal photos of such refugees, who often fled with few possessions, are rare. […]

Akira Kitade, who worked under Osako and is researching a book about him, has contacted Israeli officials for help and visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The museum said he gave it about 30 photographs that he is trying to identify, and received a list of over 2,000 Jews who received travel papers that enabled them to reach Japan.

The Israeli ambassador to Japan, Nissim Ben Shitrit, is optimistic that they will be able to locate some of the people in the pictures and/or their descendants.

The comments on the pictures are written in languages (German, Polish, French) that mirror Germany’s conquest of Europe. Osako himself was so circumspect about his war experience that not even his daughters knew about the people he helped save. All we have in his words are a few lines he wrote in 1995 for a college alumni publication.

Comment in Polish: 'A souvenir to a very nice Japanese man' signed Rozla“The Jews that I saw at that time had no passports and were stateless, they were refugees that had fled Europe and were generally downcast, some with vacant eyes that projected the loneliness of people in exile,” Osako wrote.

But he also had time to make friends along the way — he notes that some were very helpful in his duties, and he recalls seeing Jewish women “of a rarely seen beauty.”

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Iconic “Charlotte’s Web” cover art sells for $155K

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

'Charlotte's Web' original cover drawing by Garth Williams, 1952The original graphite-and-ink drawing of Charlotte holding Wilbur while they look up at Charlotte’s web made by Garth Williams in 1952 sold at auction yesterday for $155,350. Heritage Auctions’ pre-sale estimate was $20,000 to $30,000. The final sale price is a record for any of Williams’ art. Included in the lot was an ink drawing of a web and 2 watercolors of the cover design.

'Charlotte's Web' watercolor of cover design, Garth Williams, 1952E.B. White’s book Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952 with Garth Williams’ soon to be iconic cover image. The book has been translated into 35 languages and was listed by Publishers Weekly in 2000 as the best-selling children’s paperback of all time. Williams’ drawing has remained the cover art throughout the entire 58 years of its publication run. Its endurance makes it the most-printed cover illustration of any book by an American author.

The tenderly rendered cover art is a sublime thing. The fine-lined 11×14 image features farmgirl Fern Arable clutching Wilbur the saved-from-slaughter pig, as the literate arachnid Charlotte spins her magic above the livestock. On the original can also be seen handwritten production marks.

Fiona, the eldest of Williams’s five daughters, was said to be his model for Fern Arable.

This was the first time the Williams’s family had put the art up for sale; Williams died in 1996

When Williams first starting doing illustrations in the 1940s, he would send the original drawings to the publisher, they would get used and then sent back. He kept his returned art during his lifetime. After his death, the family carefully preserved his oeuvre, securing it in a bank vault.

Yesterday they put 42 original Garth Williams illustrations for Charlotte’s Web on the auction block. The illustration of Wilbur looking triumphant under the web where Charlotte has written “TERRIFIC” sold for $95,600. My personal favorite since I was a girl because of how irresistibly adorably sweet Wilbur looks, the one where Fern is bottle-feeding Wilbur as a piglet, sold for $19,120. The final combined total for all of Williams’ 42 pieces was $780,245.

Fern feeding Wilbur by Garth Williams "Terrific' illustration from 'Charlotte's Web' by Garth Williams

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Big reward for Scottish gold torc finder

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Four gold torcs found in Stirling, Scotland, 300-100 B.C.David Booth, the amateur metal detector enthusiast who found a hoard of 4 gold torcs near Stirling, Scotland, last fall, will receive £462,000 ($740,000) as a reward. Not bad for his first time out with the wand.

Unlike the treasure laws in England which have been so sadly exposed in the matter of the Crosby Garret Roman cavalry helmet, Scottish law establishes all archaeological objects found in Scotland are the property of the government. Finders have no ownership rights and must report all finds to the Treasure Trove Unit. The Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel then studies the object and the circumstances of its discovery and determine where the find should go and how much the recipients should pay as an ex gratia reward to the discoverer.

In this case, the panel has determined that the torcs will go to the National Museums Scotland and £462,000 of their pounds will go to David Booth. The landowner of the property where the torcs were found will also receive a reward, probably in the same amount. If it works how it works in England, the panel assesses fair value then splits the amount between finder and landowner.

The decision was announced by the the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer Catherine Dyer, who as the Crown’s representative in Scotland can claim buried archaeological or historic items.

Ms Dyer said: “This is a very significant find, the most important hoard of Iron Age gold ever found in Scotland.

“That these stunning artefacts have been unearthed in such excellent condition after being buried for 2,000 years is simply amazing.”

The four torcs were just six inches beneath the surface when Mr Booth discovered them with his metal detector.

Professor Ian Ralston, chairman of Safap, said: “The panel is grateful to the finder for reporting these highly important finds in good time and for the further assistance from the finder during fieldwork by the National Museum at the site of the discovery.

“This has allowed much greater understanding of the archaeological context of these four exceptional items.”

Because of Booth’s quick reporting of his find, archaeologists were able to examine the site just a few hours after he disturbed it. They found evidence that the torcs had originally been buried inside a roundhouse. Since hoards are usually religious offerings or treasure buried under duress, it’s possible that the roundhouse was a religious building and the gold torcs sacrifices.

The torcs themselves are packed with historical significance. They date to between 300 and 100 B.C. Two of them are of a simple twisted designed likely to have been made locally. The third one is an annular torc broken into 2 pieces, which would have had a hinge and catch as a clasp but those parts are missing. Its elaborate design mark as it from Toulouse, and it’s the first of its kind ever found in the British Isles.

Fourth Stirling torcThe fourth torc is made from eight gold wires twisted together with decorated ends and a safety chain. These features are a combination of Mediterranean craftsmanship and traditional Iron Age themes, which suggests that Iron Age Scotland had more links to the Mediterranean than previously realized.

Dr Gordon Rintoul, Director of the National Museums of Scotland, says they’re delighted to have the opportunity to secure these unique artifacts for the national collection. They have to raise the money first and are looking into various funding options, she said obliquely. I’m not sure what happens if they can’t raise the full amount, but although Rintoul uses careful conditionals, I doubt they’re in any danger of not raising the reward money.

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Five-year restoration of Giotto crucifix complete

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Restored Giotto crucifix, Ognissanti Church, ca. 1320The massive 15-by-12-foot (and that’s just what’s left; 3 feet at the bottom are missing) crucifix that used to hang in the small and dim sacristy of the Ognissanti (All Saints) Church in Florence is finally at the end of its long 5 year restoration. It will be returned to a new place of honor in an LED-lit transept chapel on November 6th, because for the first time in centuries it will be on display as a work by late Medieval master Giotto.

The richly painted crucifix dates to the second decade of the 1300s, but before the restoration began, the painting was attributed to a student or family member of Giotto’s, not to the master himself. Last year, when the restorers from Florence’s famous conservation institute Opificio delle Pietre Dure were finally able to examine it under layers of grime, candle wax and smoke, they encountered familiar brush strokes and materials. Using infrared reflectography analysis, researchers found a preparatory sketch underneath the painting. The pictorial techniques used confirmed the work was done by Giotto.

The large (467×360 cm) cross took so long to be renovated because it was in a “very poor state of repair,” lead restorers Marco Ciatti and Cecilia Frosinini said, and the supporting structure had to be “thoroughly bolstered”.

They pointed out that cutting-edge solvents were used to remove centuries of grime while “extremely delicate attention” was taken with the coloured glass in Christ’s halo, which was “in very bad shape”.

As well as enabling the attribution, the restoration work also “revealed a lot of new information about how the artist worked,” they said.

The Church of Ognissanti had another Giotto made a decade before the crucifix. It’s a type of Madonna and Child known as a “Maestà,” Mary and the Christ child surrounded by angels. It was documented as a Giotto in the 15th century and is now in Florence’s Ufizzi Gallery as the “Ognissanti Madonna,” so it’s not shocking that the church had another one.

The only mystery at this point is how they forgot about it and ended up relegating the unattributed crucifix to such an obscure area.

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Egypt jails 11 for negligence in Van Gogh theft

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

An Egyptian court has sentenced 11 Culture Ministry officials to three-year jail terms for negligence in the theft of Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers from Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum in August. Deputy Minister Mohsan Shalan and the Khalil Museum’s former director were among the eleven.

The officials were charged with negligence and shortcomings in performing their duties that led to the loss of the painting from Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum.

An early investigation showed “flagrant shortcomings” in security at the museum, home to one of the Middle East’s finest collections of 19th- and 20th-century art.

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris offered a 1-million pound reward for information leading to the recovery of the painting, but it is still missing.

"Poppy Flowers"The Van Gogh painting, valued at $50 million, was stolen from the museum in broad daylight. Only 7 of the 43 security cameras were working, none of the alarms were, and the museum had recently drastically reduced its staff. There was only 1 security guard on shift, and when he went to pray the thieves slipped in, cut the painting out its frame and slipped out, sight unseen.

Mohsan Shalan and the other officials defended themselves by saying they had asked the ministry for $7 million to upgrade security systems at a number of Cairo museums, including the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, but they were granted a measly $88,000. So basically the “you see what I have to work with here” defense the Joker’s plastic surgeon tried on him.

Much like Jack Napier, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni didn’t find the argument persuasive. He testified against the defendants and denied criminally underfunding the museums. According to him, he delegated full responsibility for oversight of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum to Shalan who was given plenty of money by presidential decree. Documents Hosni introduced at trial included the decree approving over $10 million to renovate the museum.

It’s nice to have a buck handy that just happens to stop right below you, I suppose. We’ll see where this ends up. The former officials won’t be imprisoned right away. A bond of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,800) will keep them out of prison until the appeal is decided.

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Gondolas apply for UNESCO World Heritage status

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Venice is launching a campaign to have gondolas, the traditional flat-bottomed boats rowed down the canals of Venice, added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Venice itself is already a UNESCO World Heritage site, as are most Italian art cities, but the Intangible Cultural Heritage list seeks to bring attention to endangered cultural elements, like languages, arts, social practices, festivals and traditional crafts.

The gondola qualifies as that last one. The first documented reference to gondolas is in a letter from a Venetian Republic official written in 1094 and although elements of their design changed over the next thousand years — they varied in size, had little cabins on top for privacy, were sumptuously decorated — gondolas have been a carefully regulated hand-made craft ever since. The black paint convention has been in place since 1562, when the elaborate baroque decorations that were the fashion at the time inspired a sumptuary law compelling all gondole to don a dignified black and limit all embellishments to stern ornament, a pair of seahorses and the multi-pronged ferro at the prow.

The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute, Canaletto (1697-1768) The first architectural drawing of a gondola was created by a naval artist in 1768. The gondolas made today are almost the same, expect for one interesting change that took place in the late 19th century: the left side is is 10 inches longer than the other. This compensates for the weight of the gondolier and helps tighten turns in the snug and crowded canals. Traditionally made gondolas have 280 components and are made out of eight types of wood (lime, larch, oak, fir, cherry, walnut, elm and mahogany), plus a beech oar.

The problem is the craft is in danger. One basic gondola costs $30,000 and in this day of speedboats, gondolas are no longer the quotidian transportation vessel in Venice, but are instead almost entirely peopled by tourists. When gondolas ruled the canals, peaking in the late 18th century, there were 10,000 of them working the water. Now there are 800. Even worse, cheap plastic imitations are coming down the pike.

The city’s gondoliers’ association says it takes months of painstaking work to make an authentic gondola and that plans by a shipyard in Brindisi in southern Italy to start producing weather-resistant plastic and fibreglass replicas are “outrageous”.

There are fears that plastic gondolas on the canals and backwaters would push the city further down the path of becoming a pastiche, theme park version of itself. Last year, the provincial government opposed the idea of introducing plastic poles to replace the wooden stakes guiding the gondolas for this reason.

“Safeguarding the tradition of the gondola, of the materials used to build it, is fundamental, given that we recently heard that a shipyard is thinking of making them out of plastic,” said Aldo Reato, the president of the gondoliers’ association. “Whatever can be done to safeguard the tradition is positive.”

Along with the gondola, Venice plans to submit its famous Carnival, lace-making on the island of Burano and glass-blowing on the island of Murano to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

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