Charlotte Brontë’s lost short story published

The Brontë sisters (left to right, Anne, Emily and Charlotte), ca. 1834, by their brother Branwell who painted himself out of the middle of the paintingIn February of 1842, Charlotte and Emily Brontë moved to Brussels to enroll in a pensionnat (boarding school) for young ladies run by Belgian teacher Claire Zoé Parent Héger with the help of her husband Constantin who also taught at the nearby Athénée Royale school. The sisters’ ultimate goal was to open a school of their own back home in Haworth, Yorkshire, and quality foreign language instruction, particularly of French, would be key to their school’s success. The Brontës couldn’t afford board and tuition at the pensionnat, so Charlotte, then 25 years old, taught English and Emily, then 23, taught music at the school to pay their way.

The pensionnat on the Rue d'IsabelleConstantin Héger was their French teacher. Charlotte described him thus when she first arrived:

He is professor of rhetoric, a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperament; a little black being, with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane tom-cat, sometimes those of a delirious hyena; occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air nor above 100 degrees removed from mild and gentlemanlike….

"L'Ingratitude" by Charlotte BrontëThey already spoke and wrote basic French, so Constantin gave the sisters writing assignments based on French literature. He encouraged them to choose their own subjects inspired by the French authors they had read in class. On March 16, 1842, Charlotte handed in the first of these assignments: a short story called L’Ingratitude, inspired in part by Jean de la Fontaine’s fable The Rat Retired From The World. It tells the story of a spoiled young rat who leaves his father’s humble but loving home for greener pastures only to find they’re not so green after all.

The Héger family in 1846 by Ange FrançoisIn November of 1842, Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth when their aunt Elizabeth Branwell passed away. Charlotte returned alone to the pensionnat in January of 1843 to teach English, and, as she admitted a few years later in a letter to a friend, to be near Constantin Héger with whom she had fallen in love. Her feelings were unrequited. Constantin was devoutly religious, a happily married man with children; his wife ran the school. This was not a comfortable situation.

Address of one of Charlotte's letters to HégerA year later, Charlotte returned to Haworth. She wrote to Constantin for the next two years, a series of reserved and somber love letters in French, four of which have survived. Two of them were reputedly torn up and taped back together; some say Madame Héger tore them in disgust, some that Constantin tore them up and his wife rescued them from the bin for unknown reasons. Charlotte hadn’t been published back then (Jane Eyre was published in 1847), so it’s not likely that Madame saw them as having literary value.

Here’s a passage from one of those letters. The contrast with her initial impression of him is notable.

Day or night I find neither rest nor peace – if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me … I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it – but you showed a little interest in me when I was your pupil in Brussels – and I cling to the preservation of this little interest – I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

Her unrequited love for her teacher inspired Charlotte’s 1853 novel Villette. Spoiler alert! In the book, the fictional teacher character, M. Paul Emanuel, dies in the end.

In real life it was Charlotte who would die before her time. She passed away in 1855, a celebrated author just 38 years old. Her friend and fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell published a biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, in 1857. Gaskell interviewed Constantin Héger for the book but decided not to write about Charlotte’s inappropriate feelings for a married man.

It would take over half a century for the truth to out. In 1913, Constantin and Claire’s son Paul Héger donated Charlotte’s letters to the British Museum and allowed them to be published in the Times. Belgian coal magnate and art collector Raoul Warocqué read the letters in the paper and coveted them. He wrote to Paul asking if there were any more extant Brontë letters that he could buy. There were not, but Paul had another Brontë memento he was willing to part with: Charlotte’s handwritten manuscript of L’Ingratitude.

Warocqué’s collections are now in the Musée Royal de Mariemont. Brontë scholar Brian Bracken was looking through the Musée Royal’s catalog looking for information on Vital Héger, Constantin’s brother, when he found a reference to a manuscript by Charlotte Brontë. It was L’Ingratitude, forgotten since 1914.

On Wednesday the London Review of Books published L’Ingratitude for the first time. It’s posted in the original French and in an English translation, and there’s an audio version read by Gillian Anderson.

Otzi had Lyme disease

Otzi with his accessoriesResearchers have analyzed Otzi the Iceman’s full nuclear genome sequence and discovered that he had Lyme disease. Otzi died 5300 years ago which makes his the earliest known human case of Lyme disease.

This study confirmed the results of an earlier study which sequenced his mitochondrial genome and found that he has no contemporary descendants. His ancestors in the K haplogroup migrated to Europe from the Middle East at some point during the Neolithic. Their descendants are few in number (only 8% of Europeans belong to the K haplogroup) and concentrated in isolated areas like Sardinia and Corsica. None of them are in Otzi’s branch of the K haplogroup.

Reconstruction of Otzi the IcemanHe also had brown hair, brown eyes (which matches the most recent reconstruction of his face; the first reconstruction gave him blue eyes), type O blood and lactose intolerance. Humans had been husbanding cattle for 5000 years by the time Otzi trekked the Alps, but it took us a few thousand more years of bovine domestication before the ability to digest milk became more common among adults. (Children produce lactase, the enzyme that metabolizes lactose, so they can nurse, but once they’re weaned lactase production decreases or stops altogether. That’s the default setting for all mammals. By domesticating cattle, some human populations, primarily in the northern hemisphere, gradually began to develop lactase persistence into adulthood.)

A more surprising discovery is that he was genetically predisposed to an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Ötzi was genetically predisposed to cardiovascular diseases, according to recent studies carried out by the team of scientists working with Albert Zink and Angela Graefen from Bolzano’s EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, Carsten Pusch and Nikolaus Blin from the Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Tübingen, along with Andreas Keller and Eckart Meese from the Institute of Human Genetics at Saarland University. Not only was this genetic predisposition demonstrable in the 5,000-year-old ice mummy, there was also already a symptom in the form of arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. And yet, in his lifetime, Ötzi was not exposed to the risk factors which we consider today to be the significant triggers of cardiovascular disease. He was not overweight and no stranger to exercise. “The evidence that such a genetic predisposition already existed in Ötzi’s lifetime is of huge interest to us. It indicates that cardiovascular disease is by no means an illness chiefly associated with modern lifestyles. We are now eager to use these data to help us explore further how these diseases developed” says anthropologist Albert Zink with bioinformatics expert Andreas Keller.

Art from Hitler’s collection found at Czech convent

Hitler's paintings in the convent in Doksany, Czech RepublicFor five years Czech writer and historian Jiri Kuchar has been trying to track down 16 paintings from Hitler’s personal art collection that went missing after the war. As of last July, he’s almost halfway there, because he found seven of them in the convent of the Premonstratensian Sisters in Doksany, a small town 30 miles north of Prague.

Hitler bought or stole about 45 paintings and 30 statues for his private collection which he stashed in the Bohemian monastery of Vyssi Brod along with two other complete collections, one formerly owned by German banker Fritz Mannheimer and the other by the Rothschilds in Vienna. After the war, the Mannheimer and Rothschild collections were removed from the monastery and brought to Munich — a central collection point for art looted by the Nazis — by American troops, but they left the paintings from Hitler’s personal collection behind.

The monks weren’t interested in keeping them so they passed on the hot potatoes. The artworks were split up and went through several hands, including museums and parks, before the group of seven wound up at Doksany. It’s not clear when exactly they showed up there or why.

The Doksany convent was first founded in 1144 but closed by order of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in 1782 as part of his campaign to modernize and reform the Church. After that, it was used as a hospital and then rebuilt into a castle for the Aehrenthal family. Under Communist rule the building was neglected and badly decayed, but it was still standing when Communism fell in 1989. In 1997 the monastery in the neighboring town of Strahov bought the castle from the state and restored it so it could be used as a convent again for the first time since Joseph II’s suppression of the monasteries.

The sisters had no idea the paintings Kuchar found belonged to Hitler, of course, but despite that unsavory association they intend to keep the art. Since Hitler had lame taste the collection is not of huge artistic importance, but the historical significance could bring millions of dollars if the paintings were sold.

"Memories of Stalingrad" by Franz Eichhorst, 1943One piece in particular stands out both in quality and in the subject matter: “Memory of Stalingrad” made in 1943 by Franz Eichhorst, Hitler’s favorite painter. It depicts wounded German soldiers in a trench during the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest and longest battles in history (from August 23, 1942 to February 2, 1943) which ended in catastrophic defeat for Germany.

Kuchar intends to keep searching for the nine remaining paintings.

“I sent DVDs with the pictures to institutions I thought might have the works,” he said.

He managed to track down several statues and paintings, including a group of statues in the park of the southern chateau of Hluboka, which the administrator has since removed to prevent neo-Nazi tourism.

Kuchar also bemoaned the loss of some works in recent years: “To put it delicately, let’s say they disappeared.”

“I’m afraid there’s a channel leading to the west. I’ve found two of the statues on offer at auction houses, one in Frankfurt, the other in London,” he said, adding one was sold for 150,000 pounds (177,000 euros, $237,000) two years ago.

The Ghent Altarpiece online in extreme detail

Ghent Altarpiece, openThe Ghent Altarpiece, a dramatic and complex painting on multiple hinged oak panels started by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his brother Jan in 1432, is displayed within a bulletproof glass enclosure in Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Painted in the Ars Nova style that rejected the allegorical and idealized forms of the Middle Ages in favor of depicting nature as observed, the polyptych is a watershed in art history and a masterpiece of Early Netherlandish art.

Its historical and artistic significance is matched only by the complexity of keeping a work of such vastness and variety in reasonably good condition. Fully opened, the 18-panel polyptych is 11 feet by 14.5 feet. Over the centuries, the panels were separated from each other and held in all kinds of questionable environments receiving questionable treatments. An elaborate outer frame that encased the entire altarpiece is thought to have been destroyed during the Reformation, and the panels were taken down and hidden twice to keep them safe from marauding iconoclasts and Calvinists. The three middle upper panels depicting Mary, God and John the Baptist had their original frames removed and the top cropped off sometime in the 18th century.

In 1815 the Diocese of Ghent pawned six of the eight original wing panels for a few hundred bucks then failed to redeem them. The King of Prussia ended up buying them, and during their stay in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie gallery, the panels were split in two lengthwise and then cradled at the back. German troops helped themselves to more panels from the Ghent cathedral during World War I, but returned not just the looted panels but also the legitimately purchased ones to Belgium to defray some of the reparations debt stipulated in the Versailles Treaty.

Ghent Altarpiece, closedIn 1940, Belgium decided to ship the altarpiece to the Vatican for safekeeping. It was en route in France when Italy declared war as a German ally, so it stopped in its tracks. Military representatives from Germany, France and Belgium actually signed an agreement to leave the altarpiece alone in Pau for the duration of hostilities, but Hitler had other ideas. In 1942 he had the altarpiece seized and sent to Germany. It ended up being stored in a salt mine until the Americans recovered it after the war and returned it to Belgium.

Then there are the fires, vandalism, thefts (at least six separate thefts over six centuries, including the 1934 theft of the Just Judges panel which has never been solved; a copy made shortly after the theft is in its place now) and even its current rig complicating the altarpiece’s conservation needs. The glass enclosure and steel support structure was erected for security reasons. There are extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity within, great enemies of old paint and wood.

In 2007, heritage organizations in Belgium raised the alarm about the altarpiece’s condition issues. In 2008, the cathedral formed an advisory committee of government representatives and panel painting conservation specialists to study the situation and devise a conservation plan. They concluded that fluctuating climate conditions inside the glass enclosure needed to be immediately stabilized using short-term solutions like raising the heat in the cathedral, replacing the hot spotlights with cooler daylight lamps and deploying portable humidifiers.

Dismantling the central panelThe committee also concluded that the altarpiece should be completely dismantled so that all urgent conservation issues could be addressed. That would give experts a chance to do a thorough, in-depth study of the polyptych to provide individual conservation plans tailored to the specific needs of each panel. That in-depth study was performed in the actual cathedral. They just raised a glass barrier around the altarpiece space so experts could work on site moving the delicate paintings as little as possible while providing a fascinating show for visitors.

The advisory committee submitted a grant proposal to the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative to fund the assessment of the structural condition of panel supports and its supporting technical documentation. One of the Panel Painting Initiative’s main objectives is aiding in the transfer of knowledge from senior panel conservators to juniors, and since one doesn’t often get a chance to learn from master conservators working on one of the greatest wood panel paintings of all time, the Getty accepted with alacrity.

Cleaning test in the Adoration of the Magi panelThey added a codicil requiring that the results of the study, including X-rays, extreme high resolution photographs in both visible spectrum and infrared light, and detailed documentation be uploaded to the web. And so they have been: Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. The pictures are so huge you can view details from every panel with microscopic magnification. You can split the screen to compare panels, or compare the photo version to the infrared versions. There are extreme closeups of important details, and pictures of the cleaning tests on each panel which show little clean patches after conservators experimented with dry cleaning using microfiber cloths. The website also offers freely downloadable pdf versions of all the conservation and dendrochronology reports.

It’s amazing, really. I’ve been lost in it all day.

“Guernica” gets new robot primary care physician

Pablito scans GuernicaPablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica is enormous — 11 feet tall, 25.6 feet wide — and it has lived a peripatetic life since it was first displayed to enormous acclaim in the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. It was on tour for 20 years straight, and every time it left for a new destination, it was taken down from its supports and rolled up for ease of transport. All that movement has left the mural-sized oil painting on canvas in a delicate condition, so delicate that curators at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, Guernica‘s permanent home, are reluctant to move it at all, not even to their own conservation lab.

Conservators and experts from the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica worked together to create a technological solution to the problem. The result: a robot that moves along an enormous rig, taking infrared and ultraviolet photographs that will reveal condition details at the microscopic level. He has been affectionately dubbed “Pablito” in a nod to the painting’s creator and in an ironic reference to its hugeness, like when people call a 300-pound bodyguard/mob enforcer “Tiny.” When the museum closes at night and on Tuesdays, the staff drag out Pablito and position him a meter away from the painting.

Throughout the night the 9-meter (30-ft.) long, 5-meter (16-ft.) tall structure weighing 1.5 tons painstakingly scans the masterpiece, slowly compiling photographic DNA.

It can be programmed to take the camera lenses closer or farther away from the painting depending on the shot needed and has a precision of movement of 25 microns, or 25 thousandths of a millimeter, allowing analysts to see even air bubbles and scratches undetectable by the human eye.

“It will give us untold information about the painting,” said Humberto Durán, the restoration computer technician who presided over the project’s design. Durán said the process will give a complete view of the painting’s underlying preparatory drawings and all the later touchups it was subjected to.

So far it seems Guernica is stable and in no need of intervention. Pablito’s regular scans going forward will ensure that any deterioration or conservation problems that arise can be addressed when they are still small issues.

Commissioned by Spain’s Republican government to create a mural-sized painting for the Paris World Fair, Picasso discarded his original design after reading George Steer’s report in The Times about the brutal bombing raid by Nazi warplanes that destroyed the village of Guernica on April 26, 1937. Guernica was the cultural capital of the Basque region, an area considered a hotbed of Republicanism by Franco’s Nationalist forces, but the only legitimate military target was an ammunition factory outside town and it wasn’t bombed at all. The aim was political: demoralize the Republican forces by slaughtering civilians and flattening the village.

Appalled by the destruction and loss of life, Picasso made Guernica a statement on the agony of war. The black-and-white painting depicts animals, people and buildings torn apart and on fire.

Picasso told a great anecdote about Guernica after World War II. Odds are he made it up to make himself look like more of an anti-Nazi badass, but I hope it’s true because it’s so awesome. During WWII, Picasso lived in occupied Paris. He was regularly harassed by the Gestapo because they suspected he was involved in the resistance and just generally because he was a “degenerate artist” by Nazi standards and thus worthy of harassment. One time when they were searching his apartment one of the officers pointed to a sketch, a preparatory drawing Picasso had made for Guernica, and said “Did you do that?” Picasso replied “No, you did.” Bad. Ass.

For a fascinating exploration of the cubist depths of this great masterpiece, see this 3D rendering: