Secret sealed room found in India’s National Library

Restorers working on the 18th century Belvedere House in Kolkata, home to the National Library of India, have found a large hidden room they had no idea was there. By found I mean they discovered that it existed, not that they’ve actually gone inside because there is no visible means of entrance or egress.

The house has suffered from neglect over the decades. Last year, all 2.2 million books were moved out of the old building into a new structure on the 30-acre estate so that the Belvedere House could be thoroughly restored.

The ministry of culture that owns the National Library decided to get the magnificent building restored by the Archaeological Survey of India since it is heavily damaged. Work has already started. It was while taking stock of the interior and exterior of the building that ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] conservation engineers stumbled upon a blind enclosure’ on the ground floor, about 1000 square feet in size.

A lot of effort has been made to locate an opening so that experts can find out exactly what it was built for or what it contains. But there is not a single crack to show.

“We’ve searched every inch of the first floor area that forms the ceiling of this enclosure for a possible trap door. But found nothing. Restoration of the building will remain incomplete if we are not able to assess what lies inside this enclosure,” said deputy superintending archaeologist of ASI, Tapan Bhattacharya. “We’ve come across an arch on one side of the enclosure that had been walled up. Naturally speculations are rife,” said another archaeologist.

Among the speculations are the classics: skeletons and hoarded treasure. Apparently prisoners were known to have been walled up and left to die in death chambers during the Raj, and secret treasure rooms aren’t unheard of either. Since the ASI can’t just go knocking down walls in 250-year-old historic buildings, they have to find a way to peek inside without damaging the structure. They’ve applied to the ministry of culture for permission to drill a small hole in the walled up arch through which they can shine a searchlight.

Belvedere House was built by Mir Jafar, the eighth Nawab of Bengal, in the 1760s and shortly thereafter he gave it to Lord Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India. It passed through various hands, private and public. Then in 1953, 3 years after Independence, the Imperial Library was renamed the National Library and the collection moved to Belvedere House.

It has long been rumored to be haunted, with lights mysteriously turning on in the ballroom and ghostly carriages seen driving up to the entrance. Certainly it has seen its fair share of intrigue. Hastings had a duel on the grounds with supreme council of Bengal member Sir Philip Francis in 1780. (Hastings had called him “void of truth and honor” in his private dealings, most likely referring to a number of affairs with ladies possibly including one Baroness Inhoff, a guest of Hastings’ at Belvedere House.)

Photo by Avrajyoti Mitra
Photo by Avrajyoti Mitra

Michelangelo’s David on the Duomo roof

Michelangelo's DavidMichelangelo’s iconic sculpture of David now stands in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, but that’s not where it was originally supposed to go. Before it was moved to the Accademia in 1873, it stood guard outside the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence’s city hall, for 370 years, but even that wasn’t where it was first meant to be.

David’s history actually begins a hundred years before Michelangelo picked up the chisel. It was commissioned by the Overseers of the Office of Works (the Operai) of the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral church, as one of a dozen Old Testament-themed sculptures which would adorn the buttresses of the cathedral. Donatello made a Joshua out of terracotta for this project in 1410 (Joshua disappeared in the 18th century and has been lost ever since).

It wasn’t until 1464 that the organization commissioned a David sculpture from Agostino di Duccio, a student of Donatello’s. They gave him a massive block of Carrara marble, but he made little progress and 10 years later another student of Donatello’s, Antonio Rossellino, was given the commission. He couldn’t hack it either (no pun intended), so the huge block of marble just sat on its side in the yard of the cathedral workshop, exposed to the elements, until finally in August of 1501, the Operai gave the job to the 26-year-old Michelangelo.

It only took him just over 2 years to finish the 17-foot-tall statue. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, but now there was a whole new set of issues to wrestle over: how were they supposed to hoist 17 feet and 6.4 tons of marble up to the cathedral roof? Also, given that the dozen Biblical figures thing never really panned out, was the roof of the Duomo really the best place for this symbol of the Florentine Republic and its scrappy struggle against the tyrants who had sought to conquer it?

The Operai called a meeting in January 1504 of illustrious Florentine artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea della Robbia and Perugino, among other luminaries, to determine where the David should be placed. Botticelli thought it should go somewhere on or around the cathedral, but most everyone else thought it should go somewhere in the Piazza della Signoria. The debate continued to rage for months, until finally the Operai decided on the spot in front of the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria. After a 4 day procession, the David, carried through the city inside a wooden cage running on greased beams, was placed in its spot, powerful glare facing Rome.

There is no more wooden cage or greased beams, but last week a fiberglass cast of the David was piled onto the back of a pickup, driven to the Duomo, and hoisted up to the buttress the original was meant to adorn. Look how teeny he seems:


Fiberglass David on the roof of Florence's Duomo Fiberglass David on the Duomo Fiberglass David on the Duomo


The installation is inaugural event of the Florens 2010 forum. Over the course of the week, fiberglass David was moved to the other locations proposed during the 1504 debate, like the Duomo’s sagrato (the consecrated area in front of the cathedral) and the piazza next to the Duomo’s workshop where Michelangelo worked on the sculpture.

You can see great footage of fiberglass David’s Duomo adventure this news story (in Italian):

New sphinx-lined road found in Luxor

One of the 12 newly-discovered sphinxesArchaeologists excavating near the Temple of Karnak in Luxor have unearthed a road lined with 12 sphinxes dating to the reign of the King Nectanebo I, (380-363 B.C.), the last pharaoh of the last pharaonic dynasty.

The 65-foot section is the last part of a 1.7-mile ceremonial route known as the Avenue of the Sphinxes because of the huge numbers of sphinxes lining each side. (So far the remains of 850 or so have been found, but archaeologists think there were about 1350 of them originally.)

The Avenue of the Sphinxes joins the two main temples of the city (then called Thebes), Karnak and Luxor, and was first built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III about 3,400 years ago, for religious processions.

Council Secretary-General Zahi Hawass said the statues were found at the end of the King Nectanebo I road that starts at the Temple of Luxor, crosses the road leading to the Temple of the Goddess Mut, and ends at the Temple of Karnak.

“It is the road of the sacred procession of the God Amun on his annual visit to his wife, Goddess Mut, in the Temple of Luxor,” explained Hawass. “This road was referred to in the ancient manuscripts.”

This is the first time concrete evidence of its existence has ever been found. It’s also the first ancient east-west road, running towards the Nile, ever found. The newly-discovered section suggest that the sacred route was more complex that we knew.

The road was kept well-hidden by development starting from the Roman period. In fact, the Supreme Council of Antiquities had to work for 18 months before they even broke ground. There was a modern apartment complex on the spot. The Council had to rehome everyone who lived there before they could knock down the building and excavate the area.

Given all that, it’s not surprising that the sphinxes are in poor condition, most of them missing their heads. Still, they will be restored as much as possible and displayed in an open-air museum come February of next year. By March, the entire Avenue of Sphinxes will be restored.

This is part of a push by the government to revive ancient Thebes and make it a tourist draw beyond just the temples.

Oldest drinkable champagne gets drunk

Two bottles of 200-year-old champagne recovered from a Baltic shipwreck this summer were opened and offered to 100 journalists and experts for a wine tasting. It wasn’t until they opened and recorked them yesterday that experts were able to confirm that there are 2 different labels of champagne: Veuve Clicquot and Juglar, a house that went out of business in the early 1800s.

It has lost most of its fizz, sadly, but retains its sweetness (champagnes at that time used a brain-freeze inducing 100 grams of sugar in each bottle; a bottle of Veuve today has 9 grams of sugar) and the flavor imparted by the oak casks it was kept in before bottling.

Richard Juhlin pours the shipwrecked champagne into glassesAs the contents were poured into rows of waiting glasses, the aroma was more pungent than any modern wine or champagne: a thick, nose-wrinkling bouquet that could be smelled several metres away.

“Bottles kept at the bottom of the sea are better kept than in the finest wine cellars,” one of the world’s foremost champagne experts, Richard Juhlin, told reporters.

Juhlin described the Juglar as “more intense and powerful, mushroomy,” and the Veuve-Clicquot as more like Chardonnay, with notes of “linden blossoms and lime peels”.

“Madame Clicquot herself must have tasted this same batch,” Francois Hautekeur, a Veuve-Clicquot representative, told AFP, referring to Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who reigned over the famous house.

Madame Clicquot with her granddaughter, by Léon Cogniet, ca. 1860The Widow (“Veuve”, in French) Clicquot actively sought to expand the market for her champagne in royal courts all over Europe, particularly the Russian Imperial court. The bottles may have been on their way to Russia, or they could have just been on their way to nearby Finland.

When the shipwreck was first discovered, there was speculation that the champagne was a gift from Louis XVI to Catherine the Great, but that no longer seems likely. There are plates on board made by the Rorstrand porcelain factory between 1780 and 1830, and the twin-masted schooner that was carrying them when it met a grim fate at the hands of the remorseless Baltic was probably made toward the end of that date range.

So the precious cargo remains in the running for the title of world’s oldest champagne, but the race has tightened considerably since the current record-holder is an 1825 Perrier-Jouet. Only 3 or 4 of the 168 bottled recovered from the wreck are Veuve, but they are probably the oldest from that label since currently the oldest bottle the house knows of dates to 1893.

The government of Aaland, the autonomous Finnish archipelago in whose waters the wreck was found, plans to auction off two bottles, one from each label. They’re also planning on mixing some of the shiprecked champagne that is not in mint condition with younger vintages and sell them which sounds a little gross to me, frankly, but blending not-so-great vintage and modern is apparently a common practice.

Aaland will keep five bottles unopened, unblended and unsold as archaeological artifacts, which the Finnish government isn’t too thrilled about — they would prefer that the entire cargo be treated as archaeological patrimony to be preserved — but Aaland is keen on its autonomy and this discovery has caused a lot of excitement and discussion in the community.

As for the beer, another possible oldest drinkable record-holder found in the wreck, its being analyzed right now with an eye to allowing local microbreweries to recreate it, perhaps using the shipwrecked beer as a root.

As it happens, Christian Ekstroem, the diver who discovered the shipwreck, is also the manager of the pub of Stallhagen, a local microbrewery. He’s gunning for the brewing rights to remain local rather than sold to US brewers, who are also vying for them.

Relics from tomb of Richard II found at NPG

Cigarette box with relics from Richard II's tombAn archivist working on a six-month cataloguing program at the National Portrait Gallery uncovered pieces of wood, leather and fabric from the tomb of King Richard II in a cigarette box marked “August 31, 1871, Westminster Abbey, GS.” The GS stands for Sir George Scharf, the National Portrait Gallery’s first director, who was at Westminster Abbey on August 31, 1871, when Richard II’s tomb was opened for cleaning.

Scharf's sketch of Richard II's skullScharf didn’t just keep souvenirs from Richard’s coffin. He also made thorough sketches of the king’s skull and bones, including detailed measurements. The drawings are so accurate archivists believe it may be possible to reconstruct Richard’s appearance. Chroniclers at the time described him as handsome. He was just 33 when he died on Valentine’s Day, 1400, probably of starvation, while being held in captivity at Pontefract Castle by his usurper cousin, Henry IV.

Richard II coronation portrait, ca. 1390The contents of the box were only listed as relics from a royal tomb when catalogued, no specifics about which royal tomb it was. Scharf witnessed the opening of several royal tombs, including those of Edward VI, Henry VII and James I, so archivists had to cross-check the date with diary entries to figure out whose relics they were.

Krzysztof Adamiec, National Portrait Gallery Assistant Archivist (Scharf Project), says: “It was a very exciting discovery and one that reveals the hidden potential of Scharf’s papers. By matching diary entries, with sketches, notes and other material in the collection a unique record is revealed. Scharf meticulously recorded almost everything he saw and experienced. In reading his papers, one is able to reconstruct in minute detail ‘a day in the life’ of this remarkable Victorian gentleman.”

The Scharf papers held in the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive & Library comprise business, personal and family records which reflect not only the history of the Gallery, but also the wider social history of Victorian England.

Scharf was a careful observer of life in his own times and his diaries, notebooks and sketches provide a detailed record of a changing London, everyday Victorian life, and important historic events of the era. They are also an exceptional resource for the study of portraits and portraiture. Alongside his responsibility, as Director, for building-up the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, Scharf also worked in a private capacity on various external projects. He was directly involved in some of the most significant exhibitions of the Victorian period, including Crystal Palace (after its relocation to Sydenham) in 1854 and the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1857.

There are 230 notebooks among Scharf’s papers in which he recorded everything from a sketch of Sir Winston Churchill as a baby to detailed views of Coventry, whose remarkably well-preserved medieval city was completely destroyed by German bombing during World War II.

The Scharf papers are being catalogued as part of the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives, an ongoing project to digitize masses of historical archives from the National Portrait Gallery. You can search the online archives here. It’s surprisingly fascinating stuff, even when it’s not sketches of medieval royal skulls.