Charmed, I’m sure

London’s Wellcome Collection has a fascinating collection of charms and amulets on display. The amulets were collected by amateur folklorist Edward Lovett (1852–1943) who had a particular interest in superstitions. Over the years he accumulated 1,400 beautiful, odd, creepy pieces which he first displayed in an exhibition at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1916. Most of the collection belongs to Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum now but has been loaned to the Wellcome again almost a hundred years later.

Lovett was a cashier at a London bank who lived in Croydon. His real passion, though, was collecting objects people carried for good luck. He would roam the East End slums and docks of London at night looking for interesting specimens to buy off of sailors and hawkers. Because people came from all over the world to London’s docks, he ended up amassing an enormous quantity and variety of charms, so many that his wife walked out on him in 1925.

He wrote a book that year, Magic in Modern London, about his research and collection. He wasn’t an assiduous labeler, I’m afraid, so many of the 1,400 objects have no information about their context — where he got them, from whom, what their magical properties were — which makes the descriptions in the book invaluable.

There’s a selection of some of the most intriguing pieces in the Wellcome’s online gallery, along with some quotes from Magic in Modern London. I was surprised at how few of the charms I recognized as superstitions I’ve personally encountered (or engaged in). Red coral, the number 13, horseshoes, rice at weddings and wishbones are the only ones in the gallery I’m familiar with, and they’re not even the most interesting ones.

How would you like to carry two mole’s feet to keep you safe from the agony of cramps?

“The front feet of a mole are permanently curved for digging, and this curved appearance is so suggestive of cramp that these feet are carried as a cure for cramp.” Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, p. 78

Perhaps the lower jaw of an indeterminate small critter with a silver-mounted chain instead?

My favorite, though, looks fresh from the set of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” video (NSFW):

“A cow keeper, who was one of the old school and originally came from Devonshire, had the misfortune to incur the intense wrath of a man of vindictive temper. He threatened to bewitch the poor man’s cows, and two of then died. The cow keeper there upon, took the heart of one of the dead animals, stuck it all over with pins and nails and hung it up in the Chimney of his house… such action is supposed to be of such a serious nature that it brought about an arrangement of a more or less satisfactory character.” Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, p. 67

I’m impressed by how individual these practices were. Lovett said in his book that many times the owners of the talismans would assure him they weren’t superstitious at all; it’s just that x object genuinely saved their lives this one time. Lovett wasn’t the best at cataloging and documentation, but he was able to collect arresting physical representations of the immense variety of beliefs. His contemporaries recognized that he was doing something special, even new, by studying contemporary folklore.

Bela Lugosi’s original Dracula cape for sale

The cape Bela Lugosi wore in the 1931 horror movie classic Dracula will go under the hammer at the Icons of Hollywood Auction in mid-December. The pre-sale estimate is a substantial $1,500,000 – $2,000,000, but given what a cultural icon that cape is, it could easily sell for more.

Bela gave the cape to his ex-wife, Lillian Lugosi, in 1956. They had divorced three years earlier and he had actually married someone else the year before, but he wanted Lillian to have the original cape from the film that made him a star so she could give it to their son, Bela G. Lugosi (aka Bela Lugosi, Jr.). Bela Lugosi died in August of 1956 and was buried in his Dracula costume. Rumor had it that he had requested that personally, but in fact it was Lillian who made the decision because she believed it was what he would have wanted. Since Bela wanted his son to have the original cape, the family buried him in a light-weight cape he used for personal appearances.

Lillian kept the cape her whole life, bequeathing it to Bela, Jr. after her death in 1981. Several other important pieces of Dracula memorabilia that went from Bela to Lillian to Bela, Jr. will be sold at the auction, including Bela’s Dracula jumbo lobby card, title cards from The Return of the Vampire and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and a number of pictures from the Lugosi family album.

Also for sale at the three-day auction will be a nude portrait of Marilyn Monroe, her wedding ring to Joe DiMaggio, and the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future III. The most expensive lot will probably be the last remaining pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers worn in The Wizard of Oz still on the market. (There are three other known screen-used pairs, one in the Smithsonian, one that was stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, one held by memorabilia company Elkouby and Co.)

This pair is known as the “Witch’s slippers” because they are the only ones of the four without orange felt soles so they could be shot on the dead feet of the Wicked Witch of the East. They’re also the pair that Judy Garland wore for their greatest close-up: when she clicked her heels together three times saying “there’s no place like home.” They were purchased by Philip Samuels, a businessman from St. Louis, Missouri, for $165,000 in 1988. Over the years Samuels had used the shoes to raise money for children’s charities and has loaned them to the Smithsonian when their slippers are being cleaned or on tour. The pre-sale estimate is $2 million – $3 million.

EU pledges $145 million to save Pompeii

The European Union announced Wednesday that it will give Italy 105 million euros ($145 million) to safeguard Pompeii. The money is part of a larger one billion euro program to support major heritage sites in dire need of conservation and will fund a four-year project to preserve the ancient Roman town.

The news comes in the wake of yet another wall collapse last Friday caused by the heavy rains and mudslides that have devastated Italy over the past week. Last when year torrential rains caused an epidemic of wall collapses, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi narrowly dodged a no confidence vote and promised moneys and personnel devoted to regular maintenance to stem the tide of destruction. Those promises went unkept.

Bondi resigned in March and now there’s a new Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan. He has stated that Pompeii is a priority for his ministry, but his response to last week’s wall collapse was to say that the damage wasn’t bad and to point to the EU’s coming €105 million as the windfall that will keep things from getting worse. Archaeologists and heritage organizations are concerned that the additional funds may get bogged down in legislative battles, corruption, pork barrel trades and diversions. Pompeii isn’t broke; the archaeological park makes 70 million tourist dollars a year, even in an economic downturn. The problem is in the pipeline.

“Money and people were promised, but despite frequent announcements, neither arrived,” said Maria Pia Guermandi, a council member at Italian heritage organisation Italia Nostra.

“The hiring of new archaeologists to help protect the site was included in a new bill recently but was then omitted from the final text. In the meantime, funds have actually been diverted to support museums in nearby Naples.”

Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro, superintendent of the site, said she was awaiting the arrival of 25 archaeologists.

Guermandi said the partial collapse of the wall had been caused by water infiltrating the stonework. “All it would have taken to prevent this was some waterproofing on top of the wall – simple, regular maintenance,” she said.

“Instead of waiting for €100m, the government could have freed up €10m to get started immediately.”

At the conference announcing the pledge, EC Regional Affairs Commissioner Johannes Hahn made a point of saying that his office would “constantly monitor” the allocation of the funds. Galan said that now that the money has been allocated, “it’s a matter of spending it in the best way possible, to make a good impression on the EU and to accomplish something important.” This plan, he argues, “will allow Pompeii for the first time to count on a project of great scope.”

The day after that press conference a chunk fell off the House of Diomedes, prompting Italy’s main labor union UIL to urge an immediately archaeological assessment of the entire site so that we have a clear idea of what condition all of the ruins are in. The culture ministry said the Diomedes collapse was a gradual detachment of the wall due to vegetation growth. Opposition political party Italy of Values pointed out that that’s not exactly reassuring since it proves that there’s long-term structural damage in Pompeii the ministry knows nothing about.

New Velázquez discovered in auction consignment

In August of last year, Bonhams’ Oxford office received a consignment of paintings by 19th century Buckingham Palace artist Matthew Shepperson. The seller is a descendant of Shepperson’s who had recently inherited the art and was hoping to sell the pieces for a few hundred dollars each. One of the paintings, a bust-length portrait of a gentleman wearing a black tunic and a white golilla collar (ie, a ruff), caught the experts’ eyes as significantly superior in quality to the rest of the consignment.

When Andrew McKenzie, director of Bonhams’ Old Master Paintings department in London examined it, he told Oxford to withdraw it from sale pending further investigation. “There’s a very specific modelling to the cheek,” McKenzie explains, “and it has a very cool pigment to it. As soon as I saw that, it was obvious to me that it was by the same hand as others I had seen.”

The Old Master department brought in consultant Brian Koetser to help research the portrait. They contacted Dr. Peter Cherry, Professor of Art History at Trinity College in Dublin and a leading expert on Velázquez. He immediately thought it was a previously unknown work by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez.

Bonhams next consulted Carmen Garrido, Head of Technical Services at the Prado Museum in Madrid, also a leading Velázquez expert and author of the definitive work on his painting technique, Velázquez: Technica y Evolución. She too identified it as a work by the master himself. Technical analysis of the paint and X-rays supported the attribution. When Dr. Cherry saw the X-rays, he confirmed his earlier tentative assessment. Velázquez’s portraits have a characteristic ghostly look in X-rays because of his painting technique.

Researchers think Velázquez painted it between 1632 and 1635, after his first trip to Italy. The sitter is unknown, but experts think it could be Juan Mateos, master of the hunt for Philip IV of Spain. It remains a mystery how Matthew Shepperson, a jobbing artist who made minor ducats copying famous paintings at Buckingham Palace, got his hands on a Velázquez. He made a hobby of collecting portraits, and the painting is in excellent condition so he probably had no idea it was even as old as it is. An invoice of seven shillings was found in his papers that could refer to his purchase of the unknown Velázquez portrait.

And so the painting Shepperson bought for shillings and that his descendant expected to sell for between $320 and $480 will now go on the block at Bonhams’ Old Master Paintings auction on December 7th as Portrait of a Gentleman by Diego Velázquez with an estimated sale price of $3.2 million to $4.8 million, 10,000 times the original estimate. There are only 98 other known Velázquez paintings in the world, four of them in private hands. They don’t come up for sale at public auction very often, needless to say, so no doubt that estimate will be blown away.

Linguists crack Copiale Cipher

Copiale Cipher, brocade coverA team of linguists from Uppsala University in Sweden and a computer scientist from the University of Southern California have cracked the Copiale Cipher, an 18th century coded manuscript, using statistics-based translation techniques seen in programs like Google Translate.

The Copiale Cipher is a 105-page manuscript written in a code of 90 different characters. The characters include Roman and Greek letters, symbols and diacritical marks and there are approximately 75,000 of them in the book. The paper is high quality and the manuscript is gloriously bound in green and gold brocade. There are two notes that are not in code: “Philipp 1866” on the first page, thought to be an owner’s mark, and “Copiales 3” at the end of the last page. We don’t know what Copiales means but they named the book after it anyway.

Dating back to between 1760 and 1780, the Copiale Cipher was discovered in the archive of the East Berlin Academy in the former East Germany after the Cold War. It’s owned by a private collector now, but the team were given full access to it this year. USC computer scientist Kevin Knight, and Uppsala University linguists Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer decided to collaborate as a weekend project to see if they could decipher the code.

They began assuming the Roman and Greek letters were the real text. They didn’t know the original language the code would translate to, however, and after trying 80 languages with no luck, they realized that the Roman and Greek letters were NULLS, intended to trick prying eyes and serve as spaces between the real words which were all composed of symbols.

[T]hey figured that the code was what cryptographers call a homophonic cipher — a substitution code that does not have a straightforward correspondence between the original and encoded information. And they decided the original language was probably German. […] Another crucial discovery was that a colon indicated the doubling of the previous consonant.

The researchers used language-translation techniques like expected word frequency to guess what a symbol might equal in German.

“It turned out that we can apply a lot those techniques to code breaking,” Dr. Knight said.

As the symbols revealed themselves as German letter combinations, the researchers found the text peppered with the kind of phrases you hope to find in a coded 18th century manuscript, like “ceremonies of initiation” and “secret section.” The team finished translation the first 16 pages of the manuscript and the Copiale Cipher turns out to be the top secret ritual book of a secret society fixated on ophthalmology and eye surgery.

There are eight characters larger in size than all the others which appear to refer to illustrious personages in the secret society and have no translation. They are double secret, if you will. The team assigned them a transcription scheme (key to the right) which is used in the translation (pdf file).

The conducting *nee* speaks thereupon to the ceremony *nee*: ” Hereby I pass to the brother the candidate in body and soul, so that he sees if “one cannot help his weak face with an operation. He carries him thereafter to a secondary table where, next to a lot of candles, several instruments and eye glasses, microscopic perspective, a cloth and a glass of water must be present. He has to lower himself on to a tabouret and to look upon an unwritten piece of paper for a while. If, after a while, he answers that he cannot see anything written on there, than the master of ceremonies puts him a pair of eye glasses and asks him again if he is not able to read the writing. Answer no. During this time the master of ceremonies comforts him as good as he can, raises his hopes
for improvement washes his eyes with a cloth and if nothing helps, he will announce that they have to proceed with the operation

then all those present members reach for the candles place themselves around the candidate and the master of ceremonies *nee* plucks a hair from the eyebrow with a pair of small tweezers under constant urging, comfort and encouragement and concludes herewith the operation

So it’s sort of social. Demented and sad, but social.

I know it may seem a tad on the lame side as far as secret rituals of secret societies go, but Knight showed the text to Andreas Onnerfors, a Swedish historian who is an expert on secret societies, and he found a reference to the natural rights of man, a recurring theme in the 18th century where secret societies played a significant role in the fraught politics of Revolutionary France and America.

To read about the decryption adventure in detail, see Kevin Knight, Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer’s paper The Copiale Cipher (also a pdf).