Archive for May, 2011

Captain Kidd’s gibbet hangs again on Thames shore

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Admiralty Marshall's Silver OarJust in time for the 310th anniversary of William Kidd’s hanging at Execution Dock in Wapping, along the Thames, the Museum of London Docklands has opened a new exhibit dedicated to the infamous pirate. Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story displays over 170 objects related to Captain Kidd and piracy in general, including an original Jolly Roger pirate flag captured by Midshipman Richard Curry in 1789, a gibbet used to display corpses as a cautionary tale for other would-be criminals, and the silver Admiralty Oar that was carried by the Admiralty Deputy Marshall when leading execution processions. The oar hasn’t been seen in public since the last execution for piracy in 1864.

The most famous of all the pirate booty on display in the exhibit is Captain Kidd’s last letter wherein he claims to have hidden £100,000 (about 5,000 times a sailor’s annual wage) of treasure in a secret Caribbean location. That letter launched many a treasure hunt and inspired literature from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold-Bug to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Kidd’s letter is the origin of what is now the most well-worn trope of all pirate movies and adventure novels.

The exhibit doesn’t leave the Captain swinging alone. It makes the argument that high-ranking politicians and businessmen from the American colonies and England were at the very least complicit in the crimes he swung for. His privateering operations attacking French ships in the Caribbean were commissioned by Whig MPs, the English East India Company, the governor of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, and even King William III himself, among many others. It was while pursuing these commissions that he committed the act that would ultimately get him hanged from the neck until dead.

Original Jolly Roger flag, captured ca. 1789On October 30, 1697, gunner William Moore encouraged Kidd to attack a Dutch ship. Kidd refused because that would constitute piracy rather than privateering (it’s all about picking the proper enemy, in this case the French) and because William III was from Orange and thus would not be likely to look upon the attack with favor. Kidd called Moore a lousy dog. Moore said if he was, it was because Kidd made him one. Kidd hit him on the head with an ironclad bucket and Moore died the next day.

Kidd also began to gain a reputation for piratical acts like torturing prisoners and theft, even though it seems that many of these instances were perpetrated by his mutinous crew against his will. It was his capture of the Quedagh Merchant, an Armenian ship sailing under French passes, on January 30, 1698 that sealed his fate. The French passes marked it as fair game for British privateers, but the captain of the ship was English. When news reached home of the capture, the Royal Navy was ordered to capture Kidd and his crew for acts of piracy.

They didn’t catch him, though. It was his investor Bellomont who betrayed him, luring him to Boston with a false offer of clemency then arresting him on July 6, 1699. He remained in jail in Boston for a year before being sent to England for trial on charges of piracy and the murder of Moore. The political tides had shifted and his powerful backers were no longer so powerful. He kept his silence, never naming names, thinking that his loyalty would garner him their help when in fact they ran the other way. Evidence that was material to his defense disappeared, including the French passes proving that the Quedagh Merchant was fair game. They would be found in a London building in 1911, misfiled along with some other government papers.

Captain Kidd executed 1701 gibbetHe was executed by hanging at Execution Dock in Wapping, London on May 23, 1701. They had to hang him twice because the rope broke the first time. Once he was dead, his body was coated in pitch and stuffed into the gibbet — an iron cage that had been made to order to fit him — to serve as warning to all who would follow in his footsteps.

Thanks to modern technology and the Museum of London, the Captain lives again. You can now follow William Kidd’s adventures on Twitter.

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1,247 Roman coins found buried in Colchester

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating the site of the former Hyderabad and Meeanee barracks (turn of the century barracks that housed the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment until new quarters were built in 2008, now slated for redevelopment) have uncovered a hoard of 1,247 Roman coins from the 3rd century A.D. The coins were packed in a large pot. Another pot was found alongside of it, but it was empty; most likely the owner had cashed in its contents but kept the empty pot in place in case he needed it for future hoarding.

We can tell from the way the coins are layered — not in date order — that the pot was filled and buried at one time, not by adding coins over time piggy bank style. The coins are still in little stacks, suggesting that the owner counted them and carefully added the piles to the pot.

The coins are of a type known as antoniniani. The hoard is made up of issues of at least nine Roman emperors ranging from Gallus (251-3) to Victorinus (269-271). The latest coins in the hoard point to a date for its deposition in the early part of AD 271.

The antoninianus started life off as a silver coin issued in the early 3rd century but, by the time of the Hyderabad hoard, it had become very debased and ended up as a copper-alloy coin with a very thin silver coating. Severe inflation reduced its monetary value which is why later antoniniani are common finds on archaeological sites of the third quarter of the 3rd century. The Hyderabad hoard belongs to this period.

This was a turbulent time for the Roman Empire known as the Crisis of the Third Century. Twenty-five emperors reigned between 235 and 284, and in 260, under pressure from barbarian invasions, the empire split into three warring sections. The province of Britannia joined Gaul, Hispania and Germania to form the Gallic Empire under the control of the Batavian usurper Postumus. Postumus was himself usurped and was killed by his own troops in 268. The Gallic Empire fell apart and a chain of would-be emperors followed for a few years until the Emperor Aurelian reclaimed the provinces after his victory in the Battle of Châlons in 274.

The unrest would have been keenly felt in Colchester (aka Camulodunum), which was the first Roman city in Britain and was garrisoned with Roman troops since the Legio XX Valeria Victrix set up shop in 43 A.D. Garrison towns stop being protected and start being dangerous when the military is infighting and throwing up usurpers every other month. Postumus’ troops killed him because he wouldn’t let them sack the city of Mainz, after all, so burying pots full of coins in a field was probably a wise strategy not just to avoid thieves prospering under the chaos, but also to avoid the military run amok.

The field in question was part of the system of defensive earthwork walls (known as dykes despite no water being involved). The hoard was buried in the ditch behind the Berechurch Dyke, part of 15 miles of earthwork defenses originally built a hundred years before the Claudian invasion of Britain and reinforced by the Romans.

This isn’t the first hoard of Roman coins found in the Colchester area, and the others have all been from the mid-to-late third century as well. Two hoards were found a hundred years ago, and a huge group of 6,000 antoniniani was discovered in 1983.

The hoard has been reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme as potential treasure. When, as seems inevitable, it is declared treasure, the property owners, developing firm Taylor Wimpey, plan to donate the find to the Colchester Museum as they have done with everything else that has been found on the barracks site thus far.

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Library gets portrait of French surgeon, huge tumor

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

London’s Wellcome Library, one of the world’s foremost collections of medical history, has acquired a portrait of French surgeon Ange-Bernard Imbert Delonnes and the famous 28-pound tumor he removed from the testicles of Charles-François Delacroix, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a risky operation on September 13th, 1797.

The black chalk and white gouache drawing by Pierre Chasselat is dated Year 8 of the French Revolutionary calendar (1799-1800 in our calendar) and it depicts Imbert Delonnes seated in neoclassical dignity penning a manuscript of his book “Progress of the art of healing.” Behind him to the right is the gigantic tumor itself proudly displayed in an oversized bell jar on a marble plinth. In the library behind him there’s a statue of Aesculapius, Greek god of medicine and healing, perched on a plinth that looks identical but smaller, which just goes to show just how proud of that tumor Imbert Delonnes was.

He had good reason to be. Delacroix had eight doctors consulting on what to do about this 30-pound groin situation. Seven of them agreed that it should not be touched, that the tumor could not be removed surgically and that the attempt would pose far greater risk to the patient than just leaving the benign tumor alone to keep on growing. Imbert Delonnes was the only one who disagreed. After Delacroix read his treatise on the treatment of hydrocele (an accumulation of fluid in body cavities or around a testicle), he decided to let Imbert Delonnes remove the tumor surgically.

The operation took two and a half hours and was a success, not just for the patient but for the surgeon and even for surgery itself, still at this point considered a craft of barbers, distinct from and distinctly inferior to pure medicine. The statue of Aesculapius and the rich library he presides over in the drawing represent Imbert Delonnes’ elevated status: surgeon, yes, but in the classically educated tradition, not from the barbershop.

(Related historical fun fact: the tumor rendered Delacroix impotent, so when his wife gave birth to a son eight months after the operation, rumors abounded that little Eugène was actually the son of Charles-François’ successor as foreign minister, Maurice de Talleyrand, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. Eugène Delacroix would grow up to become the great French Romantic painter of Liberty Leading the People fame.)

Delacroix’s tumor was not the only one Imbert Delonnes removed. Another one of his famous surgeries is also referenced in the portrait. In the left foreground there is a painting of Périer de Gurat, mayor of Angoulême, who had a large disfiguring facial tumor. Imbert Delonnes successfully removed that one too and reconstructed his nose afterwards. He commissioned artist Joseph Boze to make a painting of de Gurat’s tumorous face on the night before the operation, and it’s that painting you see in Chasselat’s drawing.

This remarkable drawing is a recent discovery. It was found by Marc Fecker of Didier Aaron Ltd. who then researched assiduously to find out who its noble subject was. He was able to identify the sitter as Ange-Bernard Imbert Delonnes when he found an engraving in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France of just the doctor’s head and shoulders copied from the drawing and labelled as a portrait of Imbert Delonnes.

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Robespierre auction results update

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

The state preempted the sale. Director of the French national archives Hervé Lemoine announced it to the room after the hammer fell, to the applause of the crowd. “Bravo, sir!” cried the auctioneer in response, because hey, Sotheby’s is getting paid no matter what, and no small amount either. The papers sold for far above the estimate. Sotheby’s valued them at €200,000-300,000 ($287,000-$431,000) and the final hammer price was €750,000 ($1 million). The state also preempted the sale of another group of documents, letters written by Augustin Robespierre and Phillipe Le Bas to Maximilien. That lot sold for €40,000 ($57,000), so altogether, including buyer’s premium, the final price tag is €979,400, or approximately $1.4 million.

The Society for Robespierre Studies had already raised $100,000. Now they and the government have to raise ten times that amount to keep the papers in country. No small feat, especially since Robespierre remains a conflicted figure in French history, what with the mass murders and the Terror and all. Hervé Lemoine declared himself optimistic that the money would be raised, then coupled that optimism with an appeal to the French people to chip in vigorously.

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French rain terror on Robespierre manuscripts sale

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Robespierre by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1786Sotheby’s Paris is offering a previously unknown collection of Maximilien Robespierre’s personal papers for sale tomorrow, and French historical societies and political parties (particularly leftist ones) are not happy about it.

The 116 pages, all handwritten by Robespierre between January 1792 and his death in July 1794, include drafts and notes for five articles and four speeches, plus one letter written to an unknown correspondent on the difficult relationship between Happiness and Liberty, a central question in Robespierre’s political philosophy. Not only do these spontaneous writings illustrate Robespierre’s dynamic thought processes, but they also cover some of the most important moments in French history.

Robespierre papersOne of the papers details his opposition to allowing King Louis XVI to live and describes how Convention members who supported clemency for the king grouped to the right of the hall, while those who wanted to separate his neck from his head stood to the left. That division in the chamber would be the foundation of the political terminology of right (reactionary, conservative, royalist) and left (revolutionary, liberal, socialist).

Another document, perhaps the most historically significant of the lot, is a draft of Robespierre’s 8 Thermidor (July 26th) speech to the Convention wherein he defends himself against charges of dictatorship and warns darkly of conspirators acting against the Revolution in the Convention itself but refuses to name names. The next day the Convention declared Robespierre an outlaw according to the Law of Suspects that Robespierre et al. had passed just two months earlier so they could arrest and execute people without trial or even evidence. He was arrested at the Hôtel de Ville along with this brother Augustin and BFF Saint-Just, among others. The day after that he was guillotined, without questioning, trial or appeal, along with Saint-Just and a dozen of their coterie.

Robespierre death mask, taken by Madame Tussaud from his freshly guillotined headWith Robespierre at the Hôtel de Ville on 9 Thermidor was Phillipe Le Bas, a close friend and comrade who shot himself to death rather than be taken alive, as Robespierre had tried to do but only succeeded in shooting off his own jaw. Le Bas was married to Élisabeth Duplay, a younger daughter of Maurice Duplay, Robespierre’s landlord. Her eldest sister Éléonore Duplay was reputed to be Robespierre’s mistress (after his death, she wore black the rest of her life and was known as “La Veuve Robespierre,” i.e., the widow Robespierre) and she hid many of his papers before being herself arrested. The documents coming up for auction now have been kept in the Le Bas family for over 200 years.

Given the momentous history covered in these documents and the new insights on Robespierre’s thoughts they can provide historians, it comes as little surprise that the French are not at all keen to see them sold to God-knows-who and end up God-knows-where. The Society for Robespierre Studies has been raising money to try to buy the documents while also petitioning the French national archives and the culture ministry to buy them for the nation. The Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Left party have asked the the Ministry of Culture to “make every effort to ensure that such records of inestimable value to the history of the French Revolution and Robespierre’s political action can be preserved in our national institutions.”

On Thursday Patrick Ollier, the Minister of Relations with Parliament, responded to the parties that the Ministry is on the case and will take care of its responsibilities. That’s vague enough to mean nothing at all, but France does have a handy legal mechanism to stop these sorts of sales from happening. It’s called the right of preemption and the way it works is, once the hammer falls on the sale, a government representative announces to the room that what was just sold is “subject to the right of preemption of state.” The government then has 15 days to decide whether it wants to purchase the property for hammer price plus buyer’s premium or let it go.

Should make for an interesting day at the auction hall.

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New world record price for Roman gold coin

Monday, May 16th, 2011

An 8 aurei gold medallion minted in 308 A.D. during the reign of the Emperor Maxentius sold at auction for $1,407,550 (1.3 million Swiss francs). That’s a new world record public auction price for a Roman gold coin. (We can’t say for sure that it’s the highest price ever paid because of private sales, which of course don’t announce what kind of money changed hands.)

The coin is extremely rare, one of only two known to be in existence, and it’s in extraordinarily great condition. It’s so deeply struck and so pristine it looks like one of those goofy commemoratives they sell on infomercials, only, you know, not goofy. Or commemorative.

Maxentius 8 aurei gold medallion

That handsome profile with the unbelievably detailed hair on the obverse side of the coin is the Emperor Maxentius. On the reverse is the deified spirit of Roma sitting on a shield and handing Maxentius, who stands before her wearing a toga and holding a scepter, a globe. This medallion would not have been a coin in regular circulation, but rather a special minting of presentation pieces.

The gold medallion offered here is among the largest to survive, weighing eight aurei, and was part of cache no doubt intended for distribution to Maxentius’ military officers. High-profile items like this were a perfect medium for reinforcing his ideals among the men who were in the best position to support or to betray him.

The patriotic reverse represents Maxentius as the one charged by Roma herself to deliver the capital from the degradations threatened by Galerius. The inscription “to Eternal Rome, guardian of our emperor” speaks volumes of how Maxentius presented his case for sustaining the rebellion. On the obverse, Maxentius portrays himself bareheaded at a time when all of his contemporaries are crowned, and on the reverse he wears the robes of a senator. Every aspect of this must have been carefully considered in the hope that the recipient of this medallion would be assured that Maxentius did not rule as a despot, but humbly, and at the behest of Roma herself.

The golden propaganda didn’t work. Maxentius only ruled from 306 to 312 A.D., and since Constantine controlled most of his father’s (the Emperor Constantius) army and the Caesar Severus was firmly ensconced in northern Italy, Maxentius never ruled more than central and southern Italy. In 312 Constantine took that small part forcibly by defeating him in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

This battle has gone down in history because it’s where Constantine first took the field under the banner of Christ, either the Christian symbol of the Chi-Rho (☧) on the Labarum banner, or with crosses inscribed on the soldiers’ shields. As Eusebius tells it, Constantine had a vision of the cross when he looked up at the sun one day. Above the cross was written in Greek, “In this sign, conquer.” The next night Christ came to him in a dream and explained that if he carried a Christian standard, he would defeat his enemies and win the empire.

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Gaudí’s only complete building reopens after 7 years

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Facade of Gaudí's Palau GüellThe Güell Palace in Barcelona is one of Gaudí’s earliest buildings (built between 1886 and 1890), and it’s the only one he ever fully completed. It has been closed to visitors since 2004 when a thorough renovation program was undertaken to repair cracked stonework that was causing structural problems. After seven years and 9 million euros, the restoration is finally complete. The Güell Palace reopens to the public on May 26th.

The renovation also updated all the emergency facilities and climate control systems, but particularly focused on the lighting. The interior is dark, thanks in part to Gaudí’s use of grey stone from the homeowner’s quarries, so restorers wanted to include additional light sources to illuminate the beauty of the materials used to build and decorate the palace. It’s also hot, even stifling during the peak tourist season in the summer, hence the installation of air conditioning.

It was the Güell family home for 20 years, but when the Spanish Civil War came it became a Police Station, and later when belonging to the Diputación de Barcelona provincial government, was home to the Theatre Institute.

Restoration started in 1982, but it was in 2004 when the doors were closed to the public for the final stages, under the direction of the architect, Antoni González. He’s now commented that the building is the best conserved Gaudi work and describes it as “the most genuine, the most authentic,” and with no additions. It broke all the postulates of 19th century romantic architecture, with its famous triple interior façade.

Chimneys on Palau Güell roofCommissioned in 1885 by Catalan industrialist and patron of the arts Eusebi Güell, the palace showcases embryonic versions of Gaudí’s characteristic style, like Eastern and Gothic-influenced architectural features, parabolic arches, elaborate ironwork, and sculptural chimneys covered with trencadís (broken ceramic tiles). Unlike most of the Catalan Modernist buildings which were built in the fashionable Eixample area of Barcelona, the Güell Palace was built next to the existing Güell family home — they were connected at one point — in the old neighborhood of the city.

Palau Güell stablesDespite its untrendy (at the time) location, the palace was both a family home and a society party showpiece, with double iron gates in parabolic arch shape for coaches to drive right into the house and drop off the people to go upstairs to the receiving room while the horses were led down a ramp to the stables. The walls and ceilings of the receiving room are decorated with intricate woodwork that obscures small viewing windows the family would use to peek at their waiting guests from the floor above.

Palau Güell's main room, graduated perforations in the domeThe main entertaining room is topped by a soaring high ceiling with a dome that is perforated with graduated circles of holes up top. At night, lanterns were hung above the dome to shine through the holes and give the impression of a starry sky. The different sizes can give it a rotating effect. There is an organ on the second floor, and the acoustics of the domed room are apparently spectacular.

Palau Güell interiorMost of the palace is unfurnished, in part because it puts the focus on Gaudí’s brilliant architecture rather than the way the Güells lived their daily life, but also because the Güells simply took their furniture with them when they moved out during the Spanish Civil War. Once the doors open to tourists, only 160 people will be allowed in at one time (or 185; different articles give different figures) to keep the palace in good condition and to ensure visitors can all get out in case of emergency.

There’s a nice slideshow of the restored interior here. You can see footage of the restored interior in this video (in Spanish):

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Newton’s apple tree gets fenced

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

The famous apple tree whose momentous 1666 fruit-dropping inspired Isaac Newton to develop his theory of gravity is a popular stop for visitors to Woolsthorpe Manor, the house Newton was born in in 1642. It’s getting increasingly popular, in fact, with visitors doubling this year to 33,000 from last year’s 15,000.

The tree blew down in a storm in 1820. The roots re-established themselves, to everyone’s relief, and the tree kept right on growing, but the trunk now dips and rises and the new growth has remained very close to the ground. To get a picture underneath it, you have to really squeezle yourself in there. Since everyone wants to get a picture looking pensive under the 400-year-old apple tree, the constant tramping is compacting the ground and could damage the roots.

To protect the root system and keep the tree alive another 400 years, the National Trust has fenced it in. It’s not an obnoxiously tall eyesore, though. It’s a two-foot-tall, elliptical (like the motion of planets!) willow fence custom-made by Richard and Suzanne Kerwood of Windrush Willow in Exeter. They built it on site in full view of the public.

The National Trust isn’t quite sure why the apple tree has generated this sudden explosion of interest. It may be a result of the media attention it received last year when a piece of the tree belonging to the Royal Society went into space on the Atlantis shuttle so this ultimate symbol of gravity could experience the absence of it.

The legend that has arisen around Newton’s eureka moment has an apple falling out of the tree onto Isaac’s head while he mused beneath it. According to the Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life, written by biographer and archaeologist William Stukeley to whom Newton relayed the episode as they shared a cuppa under some apple trees, it wasn’t quite so cartoonish, but I think the real story has a beautiful unfolding drama all of its own.

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.”

That there is a power like that we here call gravity which extends its self thro’ the universe & thus by degrees, he began to apply this property of gravitation to the motion of the earth, & of the heavenly bodys: to consider thir distances, their magnitudes, thir periodical revolutions: to find out, that this property, conjointly with a progressive motion impressed on them in the beginning, perfectly solv’d thir circular courses; kept the planets from falling upon one another, or dropping all together into one center. & thus he unfolded the Universe. this was the birth of those amazing discoverys, whereby he built philosophy on a solid foundation, to the astonishment of all Europe.

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Early NASA space suits not as tough as you’d think

Friday, May 13th, 2011

The space suit Neil Armstrong wore to take the first steps on the moon, July 20, 1969Just because they kept the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights safe from the intense radiation, heat and pressure of space travel doesn’t mean the early NASA space suits can survive the rigors of life on Earth. There are 270 of these iconic suits remaining, and curators at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum are struggling to conserve them before they fall apart.

As soon as they returned to terra firma the suits began to degrade. The astronauts’ copious sweat corroded the aluminium parts and two dozen damp internal layers of nylon made a cozy home for fungus. The rubber parts turned brown and brittle like the gasket in a Moka pot you don’t use often enough (personal experience, seriously; I had to break that gasket off in pieces with a screwdriver like I was chiseling stone).

After the end of the Apollo program in the mid-1970s, NASA transferred ownership of the suits to the National Air & Space Museum, but the museum didn’t actually take possession of some of them for as long as two decades after that because NASA had loaned them to museums and exhibits around the world where they were often kept in very poor conditions. People figured if they could survive space, they’d be fine in direct sunlight, and hot, humid environments. They figured wrong, of course. Some of the newly invented polymers and materials used in the design of these suits are in fact particularly susceptible to heat, light and moisture.

X-ray of space suitOne of the newly launched polymers incorporated into space suits was polyvinyl chloride. Used in the tubes that provided life support to the astronauts, PVC’s di­octyl phthalate plasticizer tends to leach to the surface of the tubing in much the same way that polycarbonate baby bottles leach their bisphenol A plasticizer into the contact liquid.


In the case of the space suits, the sticky, leaching phthalates crystallized on the surface of the PVC tubing and then began degrading into a brownish-orange compound that stained the white space suit exteriors. To avoid the discoloration, space suit conservators physically removed the PVC tubing from all the space suits and quarantined the tubing in storage.


Another problematic material in all the space suits is the rubber used in the so-called pressure bladders that sequestered the astronauts from the vacuum of space and kept their bodies at a livable air pressure, [Smithsonian conservation scientist Lisa] Young notes. Lasagne-noodle-shaped pieces of rubber combined with nylon were also placed in all the joints of a space suit to give astronauts better flexibility and motion. Unfortunately the rubber in all these components has lost its flexibility and become so brittle that the components can easily crack and deform.


The problem, Young says, is that the recipe used in the NASA space suits was a mix of natural latex rubber and synthetic neoprene rubber. Both kinds of rubber are sensitive to oxygen degradation, as well as to light, temperature, and mechanical weakening. “There were signs of degradation six months off the shelf,” she says. “But the rubber did work well enough to get the astronauts to the moon and back.” Nowadays space suit conservators monitor the rubber with CT scans. They also try to thwart damage by limiting handling and controlling environmental conditions around the garments.


The best immediate solution to the many conservation problems turns out to be just keeping the humidity level down. If the environmental moisture is below 35%, all the degradation, from the leaching plasticizers to aluminium and copper corrosion, stops in its tracks. NASM is now insisting that all museums that want to borrow the suits must adhere to strict conservation guidelines, but come June, the entire collection will be moved to new facilities at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. There the suits will be studied and conserved using the latest and greatest technologies so that they can hope to survive well into our Star Trek future.

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Builders find fresco from ca. 1300 in Capri church

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Newly discovered fresco in the Church of Sant'Anna, Capri, ca. 1300Builders working on the medieval church of Sant’Anna in Capri found a happy surprise behind a wall: a beautifully colored fresco dating to around 1300. The scene depicts the crucifixion of Christ with Mary and St. John on either side of the cross and a throng of heavenly host above. The image of Jesus himself is missing — not just deteriorated but a large section of the plaster appears to have broken off or been worn away — however, what remains is in very good condition.

The builders found the fresco last July when they were buttressing the wall that covered it. A piece of the wall broke off and when they looked into the hole they saw a splash of color. The Sant’Anna restoration team decided to keep the discovery secret so they could work on conserving the piece without interference.

Under the supervision of Capri heritage expert and restorer Tina Dal Conzo and architect Rosalia d’Apice from the Culture Superintendency, builders first removed the entire wall that had been covering the fresco so that the painting could be properly conserved. The parish priest, Father Carmine Del Gaudio, has given the Superintendency permission to fully restore the painting and put it on public display.

Sant’Anna was built in the 12th century, and in its role as the primary parish church of the island it was where baptisms were done. It was named after Saint Anne, patron saint of pregnant women. It’s no longer consecrated today, so this find will doubtless be a welcome tourism draw.

Sant’Anna, which was until 1595 Capri’s main parish church, occupies a small building in the island’s medieval borgo. [...]

The wall bearing the fresco also features late-Gothic decorations and geometrical designs from the same period, [Father Del Gaudio] added.

“The discovery of this work enriches Capri with another precious jewel, as testimony to its heritage dating back thousands of years”.

There’s some talk in the articles about the possibility of this fresco having been painted by the great innovator and master of the form, Giotto, but it’s based on, well, nothing. The colors used were in his palette, certainly, but in other artists’ as well. Other than that, the only reason people give for this glorious attribution is that Giotto did paint some frescoes in nearby Naples towards the end of his life. He lived there for 5 years, between 1328 and 1333, and Robert of Anjou, King of Naples and dedicated patron of the arts, named Giotto his “first court painter” in 1332, but the title and the pension weren’t enough to keep him down south. He soon left for Bologna and then returned to Florence where he died in 1337. (OMG Giotto died leet!)

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