Tycho Brahe’s remains exhumed

Archaeologist opening Tycho Brahe's tombA team of Czech and Danish scientists opened the tomb of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in Our Lady Before Tyn Church in Prague today. They hope to determine the cause of his death by analyzing his remains with a variety of scientific techniques that were not available when his remains were exhumed once before in 1901.

Samples of his mustache and hair retrieved during that exhumation were analyzed in 1996 and found to contain elevated levels of mercury, suggesting that perhaps his death was not from a kidney stone or, as urban legend has it, from his bladder exploding because he was too much of a gentleman to go to the can during a reception at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Perhaps he was poisoned, or perhaps his alchemical efforts exposed him to toxic levels of mercury.

Brahe went to a dinner party in Prague on the 13th of October, 1601. He died 11 days later. The official cause of death given was a urinary infection, but rumors of a more nefarious cause began to swirl immediately and have continued to swirl ever since. One theory was that his assistant German astronomer Johannes Kepler killed him to misappropriate his brilliant astronomical observations, which he would later publish as The Rudolphine Tables. Another that he was poisoned by his own cousin, Eric Brahe, by order of King Christian IV of Denmark who was angered by rumors that Tycho had had an affair with the king’s mother.

Tycho BraheScientists are hoping CAT scans, X-rays, neutron activation analysis of not just his hair but for the time of his bones as well, will help pin down how much mercury Brahe absorbed and over what period of time.

Scientists said longer-term exposure to poison would indicate Brahe may have died from self-administered “medicine” or too much exposure from his experiments.

However, high concentrations of a toxic substance near the hair root could indicate a big one-time dose of poison.

“Generally the finding of high concentrations of a toxic element, such as arsenic, in sequential hair samples of a potential murder victim is considered an indicator of a murder and can be used as evidence,” said Jan Kucera from the Nuclear Physics Institute in Rez near Prague.

They’re also hoping to find residue on his skull that will fill in some blanks about the plate in Brahe’s nose. Tycho famous lost a piece of his nose during a duel when he was a student in Germany in 1566. The missing part was replaced with a plate, but the plate wasn’t found with his remains in the 1901 exhumation. At the very least tests on residue should be able to determine what metal the plate was made out of. According to one of the many tall tales about him, the plate was gold and silver.

The team will have 4 days to examine the remains before they are re-interred on November 19th in his Our Lady Before Tyn tomb. They’ve already found a whole new mystery. Tycho Brahe’s wife was supposedly buried with him when she died 3 years after he did. There were 2 other sets of human remains found in the crypt, one belonging to a young woman no older than 20, the other a child. Mrs. Brahe was nowhere to be found.

Rare pistol found in 18th c. St. Augustine shipwreck

Archaeologists from the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) in St. Augustine, Florida, brought a couple dozen artifacts recovered from an unidentified shipwreck to the Flagler Hospital Imaging Center for CAT scans. The objects are heavily concreted — surrounded by a hard mass that grows around metallic objects rusting for long periods underwater — so archaeologists needed the scans to find out what was inside before beginning the long process of removing the concretions.

Concretion with pistol insideOne of them showed itself to be a rare gentleman’s pocket pistol also known as a Queen Anne’s pistol. That style of weapon was popular from the late 17th century through the beginning of the 19th. It was a personal sidearm, not something that would have been military issue or part of the ship’s defenses. Archaeologists at this stage believe the barrel is brass, the handle wood with some silver inlay. The weapon does not appear to be loaded, but we won’t know for sure until LAMP restores the pistol which could take as long as a year and a half.

CAT scan of concretion with pistol insideArchaeologists think there’s a good chance they’ll also find the maker’s name engraved on the side of the gun, which will not only flush out the history of the weapon itself, but also help date the wreck and pinpoint its origin.

“In so many ways this is exciting,” Lighthouse Archaeological Director Chuck Meide said, noting it’s only the second colonial period shipwreck found in this area. The other, Industry, was found by LAMP in 1997.

The shipwreck may be the oldest found in the waters off the First Coast, dating back to some time in the second half of the 1700s. Four cauldrons found onboard date to the 1740-1780 period.

Once the artifacts are cleaned, more details will be apparent.

“That could narrow it down. We’re just seeing it in a very ghostlike way now,” Meide said.

Archaeologists will be checking a data base of shipwrecks off the First Coast, trying to match the ship they found with one of the 30 or so listed wrecks from the 1700s. They may get lucky and discover something with the ship’s name on it.

Other artifacts found clumped together under concretions were large amounts of bird shot, an iron spike and a metal disk that archaeologists hope is a coin because it would be of great help in narrowing down the wreck.

Richly illuminated collection of Arthur tales for sale

Illumination of Arthur fighting Saxons, from the Rochefoucauld Grail The Rochefoucauld Grail is a beautifully illuminated three-volume compendium of English and French Arthurian legends that was commissioned in the 14th century by the Baron de Rouchefoucauld, just a few decades after the first collections of those Camelot stories were compiled. Unlike its earlier brethren, however, this magnificent manuscript was not read until it fell apart. It’s in nearly untouched condition, and may well be the earliest surviving collection of Anglo-French Knights of the Round Table adventures.

It’s also of superb quality, royal quality even, although Guy VII, Baron de Rochefoucauld (ancestor of that Rochefoucauld who would write the maxims 300 years later) was not himself royalty. He was a representative of the Philip V of France in Flanders, however, and he came from a long line of feudal lords who were closely linked to the French monarchs. One of them even fought against the Richard the Lionhearted under King Philip II Augustus, and was taken prisoner at the battle of Gisors in 1198, the battle where Richard first used the phrase “Dieu et mon droit,” since Henry V the official motto of the British monarch, as a password to distinguish ally from enemy.

There are 107 vividly colored illustrations set against backgrounds of pure gold leaf. It was made in either Flanders or Artois around 1315-23, and is widely considered one of the greatest medieval manuscripts still in private hands. It remained with the Rochefoucauld family for 500 years until it was bought in the 19th century by collector Sir Thomas Phillips. It’s been on the market just twice since then. The current owner, Dutch businessman J.R. Ritman will be selling it at Sotheby’s London on December 7th. The estimated sale price is £2 million ($3.2 million).

“It is the most extraordinary thing, a manuscript of royal quality, on a stupendous scale – I put my back out twice carrying the three volumes,” Dr Timothy Bolton, a manuscript specialist at Sotheby’s, said.

Gawain in battle, from the Rochefoucauld Grail “It would have taken 200 cows to get the vellum, and the illuminations are in rare and costly minerals, against a background of thick gold made from coins beaten flat. Are we selling it cheap compared to its 14th-century cost? Of course we are.

“The scenes have a riotous energy, and often stretch beyond the boundaries of the picture frames, with lofty towers poking through the borders at the top, and figures tumbling out of the miniatures onto the blank page as they fall or scramble to escape their enemies.”

There is a fourth volume from this collection, currently split between the Bodleian in Oxford and the John Rylands university library in Manchester. I doubt either of them will have the wherewithal to bid for the bulk of the Grail. I’m rooting for the Morgan Library & Museum because they have a beautiful collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts, a sizeable purchase fund, are very generous with scholars and visitors, craft magnificent online exhibits, plus they just restored the landmark 1906 McKim building which hosts Mr. Morgan’s library and it looks drop dead gorgeous.

J.R. Ritman plans to use the proceeds from the sale to benefit his Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam, a private library he created in 1984 to make his personal collection of manuscripts and books from the Christian-Hermetic and Gnostic traditions in Western culture accessible to the public.

Chinese fish vase sells for world record $85 million

Chinese Qianlong fish vase, ca 1740An 18th century Qianlong porcelain vase sold at a Bainbridges Auction House for a world record $85 million. It’s the highest price ever paid at auction for a Chinese work of art.

Nobody saw it coming, certainly not the sellers — a brother and sister who found the vase when cleaning out their parents’ house after they passed away — and not even the experts at the auction house. Sotheby’s and Christie’s may be used to this kind of huge ticket item, but a small West London auction company like Bainbridges is not. The pre-sale estimate was £800,000-1.2 million ($1.3-1.9 million), which was already 8 times more expensive than the previous top seller for Bainbridges (a Ming enamel bowl that sold for £100,000 a few years ago).

It only took 30 minutes for the bidding to go insane. There were 6 bidders in the room and 3 on the phone. The buyer was one of the people in the room, a Chinese man who declined to comment on his purchase but is thought to have been an agent for a buyer in Beijing. The sellers were also in the room and saw the madness go down. They had to step outside to get some fresh air at one point because of how surreal the bidding got.

So why this piece?

Standing 16 inches tall and decorated with fish, the vase is thought to date from the time of Qianlong, the fourth emperor in the Qing dynasty, around 1740.

Experts said it probably once belonged to Chinese royalty but was most likely taken out of the country at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860 when the palaces were ransacked. […]

The vase has a yellow painted trumpet neck and a double-walled construction, meaning an inner vase can be seen through the perforations of the main body.

Helen Porter, of Bainbridges, said: “In the 18th century it would have resided no doubt in the Chinese Royal Palace and was most certainly fired in the Imperial kilns.

“It is a piece of exquisite beauty and a supreme example of the skill of the ceramicist and decorator.”

The sellers believe it has been in their family since the 1930s. Obviously they had no idea whatsoever that it wasn’t a pretty vase so much as a winning multi-state lottery ticket. Peter Bainbridge, the auctioneer, hit the lotto too with this one. The buyer’s premium and VAT together comes out to $16 million, so since VAT is 17.5% of the sale price (£43 million), that means $12 million goes to Her Majesty’s government and $4 million to the auction house. That’s retirement money, right there.

This is a testament to the astonishing explosion of the market in Chinese art and artifacts.

Sansovino terracotta taken apart and put back together

Sansovino's 'Madonna and Child' after restorationA life-sized terracotta Madonna and Child by Renaissance sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino has been pieced back together by the experts at Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure after centuries of damage and atrocious restorations.

The restoration took 3 years. It started with X-rays and CAT scans taken in Bologna to provided a detailed roadmap of the damage. Following that roadmap, restorers dismantled the statue into 20 pieces the put humpty back together again.

Sansovino 'Madonna and Child' in piecesFlorence art critics said they did not know exactly when the 1570 work had been broken and who was responsible for a series of botched-up restorations, including inserting nails, screws and stucco to hold it in place. “When we were given the statue, the Madonna weighed 120 kilos [265 pounds] but now that we’ve done away with its wooden support, the nails and screws, it only weighs 50 kilos [110 pounds],” said the head of the Opificio, Isabella Lapi Ballerini.

Critics said previous restorers had also altered the shape and colour of the piece as well as arbitrarily deciding to fix atop a wooden stand, which has now been replaced with a light-weight carbon-fibre support. The work was presented to the media in Florence before its return to the Civic Museum of Vicenza.

Restorers working on 'Madonna and Child'That 1570 dating is inaccurate, by the way. Sansovino died in 1570. He made the sculpture as a bas relief for the Villa Garzoni in Ponte Casale, near Padua, a lovely classically-inspired villa Sansovino designed some time after 1527 but before 1550. The sculpture remained there until the early 1900s when it was chiseled off the wall and taken to Florence to be sold at auction. It was around that time, the 20s and 30s, when one of the awful “restorations” took place, probably to keep it stable enough for transportation.

The buyer, Gaetano Marzotto, donated the sculpture to the Civic Museum of Vicenza, the current owners. The Madonna and Child will be on display at the Pietre Dure workshop for 5 days and then it will return to Vicenza.

Jacopo Sansovino is best known as the architect of some of Venice’s most beautiful buildings, foremost among them the Library of Saint Mark’s, the Biblioteca Marciana, the first library to require by law in 1603 that a copy of all books printed in the Republic of Venice be deposited therein.