Archive for February, 2012

Watch Giordano Bruno burn on your smartphone

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Giordano Bruno, 18th century engravingIn honor of the 412th anniversary of the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, Dominican friar, philosopher, astronomer and master of mnemonic devices so complex he was thought to have magical powers, the Vatican Secret Archives announced Friday that they are releasing a contemporary summary of his trial and a companion smartphone app.

The detailed Holy Office transcripts of Giordano Bruno’s trial were destroyed between 1810, when Napoleon demanded files from the Vatican Archives be sent to Paris, and 1815-1817 when the files were returned to Rome. We don’t know what got destroyed when, exactly, but records do note that one Marino Marini, the man tasked by Pius VII with bringing the Vatican Archives back to Rome from Paris, considered the trial transcripts of the Holy Office useless at best, at worst harmful since they might taint the reputation of the defendants’ descendants. He and Cardinal Consalvi decided to shred entire volumes of them, then soaked the pieces in water and sold the mash to a Parisian cardboard factory for 4,300 francs. Over 2,600 trial transcripts were lost during this period.

All we have left of the Bruno trial is a summary written in 1598, two years before his execution, and preserved in a volume labeled “Miscelleanea Armadi.” It was rediscovered on November 15, 1940 by Cardinal Angelo Mercati, Prefect of the Vatican Archives, who published it in 1942. It’s that volume that will be on public display at the Lux in Arcana exhibit starting February 29th. The app will be made available the same day.

Thanks to the technological partnership with Accenture, the global management, consulting, technology and outsourcing company, as of February 29th, when the exhibition opens, a sophisticated app that was developed specifically for the Vatican Secret Archives on this occasion will make it possible, for example, to focus your tablet or smartphone on the statue of Giordano Bruno at Campo de’ Fiori and see his pyre burst into flame on your device’s display, to open the documents related to the trial of the Dominican friar and philosopher, and to call up videos with further information on his life and his ideas. The app that Accenture developed also makes it possible to explore all the documents in the exhibition with multimedia in-depth contents, thereby heightening the cultural and emotional experience of the event.

It looks like this:

Take a picture of the Giordano Bruno statue in Campo de' Fiori... ... then watch him burn at the pyre for his many heresies.

It’s rather hardcore, especially considering the Church’s statement of sorrow at the “sad episode” and Bruno’s “atrocious death” released on February 17, 2000, the 400th anniversary of the execution. From Cardinal Angelo Sodano’s excruciatingly carefully worded statement:

“It is not our place to express judgments about the conscience of those who were involved in this matter. Objectively, nonetheless, certain aspects of these procedures and in particular their violent result at the hand of civil authority, in this and analogous cases, cannot but constitute a cause for profound regret on the part of the Church.”

I won’t lie, though, it sounds like a pretty kickass app, not so much for the heretic-on-fire screen cap but rather for the easy access to the documents and videos.

The press release says that the Bruno documents are available on the Lux in Arcana website, but all I could find was a short overview of the trial and execution, not the full text. There was a more detailed overview with quotes from the summary available on the Vatican Secret Archives website as recently as last May, but it’s offline now. You can still see it using the Wayback Machine, thankfully.

Giordano Bruno was imprisoned in Rome for seven years, from 1593 when he was transferred from his heresy trial in Venice into the hands of the Roman Inquisition until his auto-da-fé in 1600. His trial took place between 1593 and the censoring of his books in 1597. That’s where the summary ends. In 1598 the Curia left Rome, following Clement VIII to the Duchy of Ferrara which he claimed for the Papal States after the death of the childless Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. They left Bruno idling in jail. By the time the trial resumed with interrogatory number 20 in February 1599, Bruno was willing to offer a partial abjuration of the beliefs deemed heretical in return for his neck. He reiterated that willingness during the 21st interrogation in early September 1599.

Then, on September 16, 1599, he changed his mind. He sent the Pope a memo reasserting all of his beliefs and refusing abjuration. The Pope was not pleased. When Bruno stood his ground, refusing to abjure within the 40 day window the Holy Office had allotted him, the deal was sealed. At dawn on February 17, 1600 he was led to Campo de’ Fiori with manacles around his wrists and a bit in his mouth to keep that forked tongue of his from poisoning any listeners with his heresies. There he was stripped naked, tied to a stake and burned alive.

His execution was controversial at the time, and has remained so. That long-forgotten trial summary that was rediscovered in 1940 had actually been rediscovered first in 1886 by Benedictine friar Gregorio Palmieri, keeper of the Vatican Archives. The conflict between the Holy See, sole remnant of the Papal States since Italy’s final unification in 1870, and the secular Kingdom of Italy was in full force. The summary was seen as a major hot potato that Italy’s humanists (and Freemasons) would use to rally opposition to the Holy See; thus it was hidden in the Pope’s private archive — i.e., the Vatican Secret Archive — and its existence was kept secret both within the Vatican and from the outside world.

Giordano Bruno memorial statue by Ettore FerrariFreemasons had, in fact, during that same period hit the Catholic Church hard with Giordano Bruno. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII released the encyclical Humanum Genus, in which he explained how Freemasons were advancing the cause of Satan and evil in the world, in opposition to the Church which had only ever advanced the cause of God, Jesus and good. In 1885, an international committee of students, intellectual luminaries including Victor Hugo and Henrik Ibsen, and yes, Freemasons, convened to discuss raising a monument to Giordano Bruno on the site of his execution in Campo de’ Fiori.

The Church did not agree with this plan, but the secular authorities of Rome, keen to put distance between the new municipality and the Church’s ancient fiefdom, went ahead with it anyway. Freemason Ettore Ferrari (no relation to the car) was commissioned to build the statue. His Bruno wears a Dominican habit, his head bowed, his hood shadowing his face, his chained hands holding a book of his writings. It was inaugurated in 1889.

Relief of the Trial of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari, on the base of the Campo de' Fiori statue


Atomic Health Physics and civil defense

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

If you, like me, find artifacts from the early Atomic Era fascinating, there’s an incredible wealth of material for you to peruse online at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum Collection. The ORAU foundation has preserved a vast range of artifacts relating to the history of radiation, from the first issue of Le Radium (1904), the first scientific journal dedicated to radiation edited by Pierre Curie’s assistant Jacques Danne, to a Hot Wheels toy of Homer Simpson’s nuclear waste truck (early 1990s).

Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic InvadersThat entire collection is held at the Professional Training Programs (PTP) training facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Browsing the rich content they’ve digitized is a lot easier than touring that facility, I’m sure. My favorite sections are the posters, specifically the Atomic Movie Posters and the Health Physics Posters. The former are luridly awesome, and the latter are bizarrely childish considering that “Health Physics” was the vague term coined for proper radiation protection procedures.

The phrase was only four years old in 1947 when the posters were made. It seems to be still in use today even though I’ve never encountered it outside the confines of old posters. As always with these early Atomic artifacts, the remedies suggested seem … understated, much like putting troops in foxholes a few miles away from ground zero in an atomic bomb test at the Nevada Proving Grounds then marching them towards the mushroom cloud after the flash.


Footage of the Desert Rock exercises was used in civil defense videos throughout the 50s. Those videos make a point of emphasizing security protocols — mainly Geiger counters assessing when an area’s radiation levels were deemed “safe” — to protect the people involved in these tests, but at the same time they want to convey the survivability of an atomic blast. This video from the Federal Civil Defense Administration is called “Let’s Face It” and judging from the guy facing a faceful of shockwave in the face at 10:15, I fear they might mean it literally.

You can see the setup for a Desert Rock atomic test starting at the 6:30 point. It’s interesting to see the raw video and how that kind of footage was then used for public consumption.



Prehistoric Sardinian stone army pieced together

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Restored stone warriors; backdrop is the discovery siteHere is a thing that is a big deal: the Terracotta Army, clay statues made in the 3rd century B.C. for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Here is another thing that is a big deal: the Kouros statues, free-standing sculptures in the round that first appear in the archaic period of Greece in the 7th century B.C. Here is something that should be a big deal but that I have literally never heard of until today: a group of approximately 33 life-size warriors carved free-standing in the round from solid stone by the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia sometime between 1000 and 800 B.C.

Fragments of the stone warriorsThis is the only group of life-sized warriors ever found in Europe, and in a freakish coincidence, the first pieces of them were discovered in March 1974, the same month and year as the first Terracotta Army figures were discovered. They were found in an ancient necropolis near Cabras, western Sardegna, broken into thousands of pieces. A handful of ceramic fragments in the group were radiocarbon-dated to around the 9th century B.C.

Re-assembled warriorArchaeological excavations in the area over the next few years recovered even more fragments. The eventual total was 5172 pieces of stone warriors, among them 15 heads and 21 torsos. Ten fragments from two statues were put back together and displayed, but the rest of the pieces languished uncleaned and unexamined for the next 30 years or so, until 2004 when archaeologists and conservators began a program of restoration at the Sassari Center for Conservation and Restoration. Researchers carefully cleaned the pieces and re-assembled the warriors using supports rather than trying to glue the bits together with modern plaster and stone to make them look like they did when new.

Re-assembled boxer type warriorTwenty-five of the warriors are now intact once again and will go on display starting this summer at the Cagliari Museum in southern Sardinia. There are three different types of fighters represented: 16 “boxers,” bearing shields over their heads, six archers and six other warriors, accessorized with bows, shields, swords, chest armour and horned helmets.

Re-assembled nuraghe modelAlso re-assembled from the fragments are 13 models of nuraghe, massive conical stone castles built by the Nuragic culture starting in 1500 B.C. These are the oldest castles in Europe. Tens of thousands of them used to dot the island, but time, stone reuse and many invasions by successive waves of Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors, Spaniards and finally Italians have reduced their numbers to a mere 7000 today. That’s pretty damn sturdy construction considering that no mortar was involved.

Central tower of the Nuraghe at Saint Antine of TorralbaIt was the Carthaginians who probably destroyed the stone army during their conquest of the island in the 6th century B.C. The piles of fragments indicate intentional destruction, and since the stone warriors and model castles guarded the tombs of two generations of a single extended family, their destruction would have been a powerful symbol that there was a new boss in town.

I’m waiting to hear the ancient aliens theory, because I’ll be damned if those warriors’ faces don’t look exactly like C-3PO.

Warrior head C-3PO


Victoria and Albert’s love in stop-motion animation

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

It has the name of a Prince song but the content comes straight from Queen Victoria’s and Prince Albert’s journals and letters. Victoria 4 Albert is an animated series in five parts that tells the story of Victoria’s and Albert’s relationship in glorious stop-motion puppetry, cut-out/collage animation, traditional drawn animation and shadow puppets. The script was written using excerpts from Victoria’s journals and Albert’s correspondence which gives the production a genuinely intimate feel.

The four-minute episodes depict their lives from birth to their wedding. The first episode was released on Valentine’s Day and a new episode will be released every day until February 18th. I include the first three below. Visit the Victoria 4 Albert website for the next two days to see the remaining two episodes.




The private non-profit Historic Royal Palaces — stewards of the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace — commissioned animator Chiara Ambrosio to create the series as a teaser for their upcoming new permanent exhibit on Queen Victoria’s life that is being installed at Kensington Palace even as I type. Like the Victoria 4 Albert series, Victoria Revealed uses extracts from Victoria’s journals and letters to give visitors an inside view of her life as a girl and young woman living in Kensington Palace, her marriage to Albert, her life as Queen, mother and grieving widow.

Important paintings, sculpture, jewellery, clothing and many other historic objects will be combined with audiovisual displays and low-tech interactives to evoke key moments and themes in Queen Victoria’s life.

The fascinating history of Britain’s longest reigning monarch will be illuminated through these carefully selected exhibits – ranging from her tiny black silk baby shoes, a collection of her toys, her wedding dress (displayed for the first time in a decade), mourning clothing worn following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, and archive footage of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Exhibits will also include music Albert wrote for her, jewelry he designed for her, and drawings they made of each other as newlyweds. For a glimpse into their family life, their children’s baby clothes, toys and accessories like a carved cradle and a teething ring will be on display.

The new exhibition opens March 26th, in time for The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. The Palace has been closed since January to set up the exhibit and for other refurbishments that will spruce up the State Apartments, improve the visitor facilities and provide wheelchair access to all the floors.


Unique William the Conqueror silver penny found

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

A metal detector enthusiast has discovered a unique silver penny issued by William the Conqueror in a field north of Gloucester. Maureen Jones and two other women from the Taynton Metal Detecting Club were exploring the open field last November when Ms. Jones’ detector went off. She recognized that it was a hammered silver coin, but didn’t realize that was the face of the Norman bastard himself staring back at her from the obverse.

She reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme where Dr. John Naylor, PAS’ National Finds Advisor for Medieval and Post-Medieval Coinage, identified it as a William I silver penny minted between 1077 and 1080 in Gloucester. It’s that minting that makes it unique. There are no other coins extant that date to that period from William’s Gloucester mint. This single silver penny plugs the gap and proves that the mint was in operation through the entire reign of William I.

William I silver penny, 1077-1080

On the obverse is a crowned bust of William holding a sword bearing the inscription PILLELM REX, i.e., William the King. That initial P isn’t actually a P, but rather the Old English letter wynn which is pronounced “w” but represented by a P in Latin script after the original P-shaped rune.

On the reverse is a cross pattée (that’s a cross where the arms are narrow in the center then broaden out at the edges) with fleurs-de-lis at angles between the arms. It’s inscribed around the edges with [S]ILIACPINC ON GLI, meaning Silacwine of Gloucester, the name of William’s Gloucester moneyer. This is the first evidence of Silacwine minting coins during this period. His previous output stopped at 1077, so this coin extends his years of operation through about 1080.

The penny is in excellent condition. The PAS experts categorize it as hardly worn/extremely fine, and you can tell from the weight that it hasn’t been worn down much at all. The legally required weight of a silver penny at this time was 1.3 to 1.6 grams. This one weighs 1.31 grams. Silacwine wouldn’t have lasted long, at least intact of body, if he had been discovered minting underweight coins. Shorting coins was a crime punished by mutilation or death, which is why every coin had the name of the moneyer clearly posted on the reverse side.

William I’s reign was a heyday of coin production. He had 70 mints going at the peak. By the time his third son William II took the throne in 1087, there were just over 50 mints active, and by the time his fourth son Henry I took over after William II’s death in 1100, only 34 mints were still active.


83 animal mummies found at Abydos

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Remains of dog mummies found in chamber at AbydosArchaeologists with the North Abydos Votive Zone Project have had a remarkably fruitful digging season. They found 83 animal mummies, most of them dogs, packed tightly in a single chamber of a monumental structure that bears inscriptions referring to Pharaoh Seti I (reigned ca. 1290 B.C. – 1279 B.C.). The mummies are of more recent extraction, dating to around 2,000 years ago. Most of them have lost their linen wrapping. Experts believe the dogs, cats, sheep and goats were sacrificed and interred in a nearby tomb that has yet to be discovered, and removed haphazardly when robbers broke into that tomb later in antiquity.

Monumental walls of building with Seti inscriptionAbydos was an important holy site going back to the earliest kings of Egypt. According to Egyptian religion, Osiris was buried at Abydos after his brother Set killed him. A temple to Osiris was built on the site and yearly processions in his honor carried a statue of Osiris from the temple to his tomb where rituals were performed overnight. The next day another procession would bring the effigy back to the temple.

Over the centuries, additional chapels were built along the procession route. One of the important discoveries made by the archaeological team this past summer was an early chapel (about 3,600 years old) built very close to the processional route. This discovery disproves a theory some historians have proffered that the chapels along the processional route got increasingly closer until they began to encroach on the road itself. This chapel is both old and close.

Wooden statue of pharaoh, possibly HatshepsutAnother significant find is a wooden statue of a pharaoh discovered in a chamber next to the animal mummies. Wooden statues of Egyptian royalty are rare. This one was discovered covered in mud and termite droppings and only identified as a pharaoh once the conservator restored it. Which pharaoh is still unanswered, but there is one particularly intriguing possibility.

The statue’s proportions matched up with those of statues dating from the 18th dynasty of Egypt’s history, from about 3,550 to 3,300 years ago. That is, with one big exception — the waist is significantly thinner.

Another view of the wooden statue; notice the slender waistThis brought up an intriguing question — could this statue be a representation of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled Egypt about 3,500 years ago? No wooden statues of her are known to exist, so [excavation director Mary-Ann] Pouls Wegner examined large stone statues of her.

“Even though she was portrayed as a man in her [statues], oftentimes they did give a nod to her female physique by making her waist narrower,” she said. In addition the contours of her cheeks and chin are sometimes depicted as being a little more delicate. Could it be her? “I think it’s possible,” Pouls Wegner said.

Faience shabtis found in Abydos tombIn that same monumental building — which has walls six feet wide, typical of storage buildings, only the layout of this structure is closer to that of a temple — archaeologists found the richly appointed tomb of a priest. The tomb contains two groups of shabtis, figurines of servants who would work for the deceased in the afterlife. One group is made of Egyptian faience, a non-clay ceramic with a vitrified glaze in shades of blue and green. There are 58 faience workers and six faience overseers.

The second group is less elegant, perhaps, but contains rare social historical clues to ancient Egyptian life.

These figures held clear fingerprints of children, suggesting children in Egypt crafted together shabtis to do the work of the deceased in the afterlife. “One could do fingerprint analysis with them, they’re very crisp and very clear,” Pouls Wegner said.


Lombard necropolis found in ancient capital

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Archaeologists excavating in the town of Cividale del Friuli in northeast Italy right across from the Slovenian border have unearthed a necropolis of more than 30 Lombard graves of men, women and children. It’s one of the largest Lombard burial grounds ever found.

The discovery is new so the remains haven’t been dated yet. Authorities have hired guards to protect the site, rich in artifacts, from looters. The goods interred along with the deceased are what mark the graves as Lombard.

Spears, swords, knives and bags containing coins and other iron objects were found in the men’s tombs while combs and clips were found in the women’s.

In most cases, ceramic vases had been placed at the foot of the graves. At the center of the necropolis was the tomb of a veiled woman with a bronze clasp pinning the cover to her head and a gold-embossed cross placed on her chest.

Some of the graves show signs of having been looted in the past.

Altar commissioned by Lombard King Ratchis in Cividale, 8th century A.D.Cividale was the first major city conquered and occupied by the invading forces of Lombard King Alboin in 568. Italy had been severely depopulated by the Gothic Wars between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogothic Kingdom that ravaged the peninsula between 535 and 554 A.D. When Alboin crossed the Julian Alps from Pannonia into Italy, he encountered virtually no resistance. Byzantine troops were scarce at the border and the locals were in no condition to put up a fight. There is little evidence of battle violence in the archaeological record, and documentary sources confirm that Alboin basically just walked in and took it.

From Paul the Deacon’s 8th century Historia Langobardorum (History of the Lombards):

When Alboin without any hindrance had thence entered the territories of Venetia, which is the first province of Italy – that is, the limits of the city or rather of the fortress of Forum Julii (Cividale) – he began to consider to whom he should especially commit the first of the provinces that he had taken.

He chose his nephew Gisulf and made him duke of the new Duchy of Friuli with Cividale as its capital. This was as significant socially as it was politically, because before their migration to Italy the Lombards had avoided urban centers. From here on in, Lombard nobility would settle primarily in walled cities.

The Lombards would rule for the next hundred years until Charlemagne’s Franks defeated them in 773-774 A.D.


Mary Todd fraud

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

A purported portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln by Francis Bicknell Carpenter that hung in the governor’s mansion in Springfield, Illinois for three decades turns out to be neither Mary Todd Lincoln nor by Francis Bicknell Carpenter. It’s a painting of an anonymous 19th century woman by an anonymous painter that was intentionally altered by a con man in 1929 to defraud the Lincoln family.

The purported painting of Mary Todd Lincoln as it looked in 1965 Anonymous lady by anonymous painter underneath the Mary Todd Lincoln alterations

The con man in question was one Lew Bloom, né Ludwig Pflum, a sometime circus performer, vaudevillian and later art collector who was described in his obituary as having “dabbled in oil paintings.” He dabbled on that oil painting of an anonymous lady, darkening her hair and eyes, changing her facial features, painting over a cross pendant and adding a brooch with a miniature of Abraham Lincoln to make her look like an idealized portrait of Mary Todd.

Poster of "A Day and a Night in New York," 1898 musical in which Lew Bloom played 'The Clean Man,' aka the stage doorkeeperMr. Bloom concocted a story to accompany his handiwork, saying that Mrs. Lincoln surreptitiously approached Mr. Carpenter while he was at the White House working on his 15-by-9-foot painting, “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation,” which hangs in the Capitol. She had planned a party, he said, where she would give the portrait as a surprise to her husband.

But, as the story went, after John Wilkes Booth shot the president at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, the distraught and impoverished first lady asked Mr. Carpenter to dispose of it. Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Bloom claimed, sold it to a wealthy Philadelphia family, the Neafies, who in turn gave it to Mr. Bloom’s sister Susan, in thanks for her nursing a relative through a long illness.

He had this melodrama notarized to make it look official and everyone fell for it, most prominently Robert Todd Lincoln’s daughter Jessie. Her father had died in 1926. She was keen to rehabilitate his reputation which had long been sullied by the ugly aftermath of his attempt to have his mother committed to an insane asylum against her will in May of 1875. Illinois law at the time required a public insanity trial before anybody could be forcibly committed and the trial of the woman who had been First Lady to a martyred President just 10 years before was major news. A jury declared her insane after three hours of testimony and she was sent to Bellevue Place, by all accounts a nice rest home kind of place rather than the scary Victorian asylum one imagines.

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1860-65Still, Mary was a highly sympathetic figure to the public and Robert, who now controlled her finances, was seen as a heartless, greedy, unnatural son. That reputation was solidified three months later when Mary engineered her release by recruiting important politicians to come to her defense and planting stories in the press about her sanity and Robert’s cupidity. Mary died in 1882, still estranged from her son.

This wasn’t ancient history even in 1929. In late 1927, Robert’s widow Mary Harlan Lincoln was approached by the granddaughter of James and Myra Bradwell, a couple who had helped Mary Todd Lincoln bust out of the asylum, who planned to publish a book about Mary Todd based on her correspondence with the Bradwells. Mary Harlan Lincoln was so alarmed she paid $22,500, a huge sum at the time, to buy the manuscript and the original letters which she of course never published. (They survived, though, and were discovered by a historian in 2005.)

This is the context in which Mr. Bloom managed to scam Jessie Harlan Lincoln into spending thousands of dollars for a sentimental portrait of some random lady who even when repainted still didn’t look all that much like Mary Todd Lincoln. The family kept the painting until 1976 when Jessie Harlan Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith donated it to the Illinois State Historical Library, now the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Lincoln disappears into flowers as Bauman restores the paintingThe library had it examined by professionals at the Art Institute of Chicago who of course saw that it had been overpainted and that the lady underneath the retouchings didn’t look at all like Mary Todd, but they thought the overpainting was the work of sloppy restorers rather than deliberate fraud at the time of its sale. They wrote off the original portrait’s lack of resemblance to Mary Todd as an idealized view of the sitter. They restored the painting, revealing the cross but leaving the miniature of Abraham Lincoln, and then hung it in the governor’s mansion.

Last year the library sent the painting to conservator Barry Bauman for cleaning. He delved further into the alterations and researched the history of the painting. He discovered Bloom’s dabbling hand and that whoever the sitter was, she wasn’t painted by Francis Bicknell Carpenter. He restored the painting to its original condition. She’s blue-eyed now and the Lincoln brooch is a little scroll of flowers. She won’t be returning to the governor’s mansion, but the library might put her up just because of the interesting backstory.


Should old nitrate film be destroyed after copying?

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

A debate is raging in Germany over whether highly combustible nitrocellulose film, the film all early motion pictures from the 1890s to the 1930s were shot on, should be preserved after a copy has been made or whether it should be destroyed like unexploded ordnance. The Federal Archives in Hoppegarten, outside of Berlin, keeps canisters of important film from the dawn of the movie era in 40 concrete rooms with steel doors. The temperature is a crispy 43 degrees Fahrenheit because nitrate film doesn’t even need oxygen to ignite; heat or pressure will do the trick. Once it’s set off, nitrocellulose film explodes with more force than gunpowder.

These preservation conditions are required under the German Explosives Act. As far as German law is concerned, nitrate film and land mines are in the same category, and understandably so. The Federal Archives take it a step further, however.

Since the old nitrate films are also potential explosives, the archive feels obligated to copy them onto newer acetate film and then destroy many of the originals. In particular, bulk film material such as weekly newsreels from the 1930s and 40s is handed over for disposal by companies that also specialize in clearing land mines. Only the most valuable works are returned to the storage facility after a copy is made.

Experts at another film preservation organization, the German Film Archive, disagree with this practice. Curator Martin Koerber points out that other countries preserve the original nitrate film without question. The originals are in fact the most valuable and important versions of any film, just as they are with any cultural work.

Although the Federal Archives employees work as carefully as possible, any copy will inevitably vary slightly from the original in coloring, exposure and range of contrast. The Federal Archives are “methodically and systematically destroying their nitrate inventory,” three professors complained in a 2007 appeal. Irreplaceable nitrate films had already been destroyed, they added, including a 1911 film featuring Danish star Asta Nielsen.

Winfried Bullinger, a Berlin lawyer, is working to change the law so instead of being governed by the Explosives Act, the handling of nitrate film will be governed by historic preservation laws. He points out that technology is ever-evolving so a few decades from now there will far more accurate ways of copying nitrate originals.

That was underscored painfully during the most recent restoration of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis. Twenty-five minutes of precious footage long thought lost was discovered in a Buenos Aires museum allowing an almost complete version of the film (it had been chopped to bits by artless distributors/butchers immediately after it premiered) to be patched back together so we could see the film as Lang intended it to be seen for the first time since 1927.

Scene from new footage of 'Metropolis'The newly-discovered footage was in horrible condition because all that was left was a conversion from the original nitrate to 16mm acetate done in the 1970s. They didn’t clean or restore the nitrate at all before making the copy so all the scratches and dirt transferred to the new medium. Once the copy was made, they destroyed the original. If restorers today had that original nitrate, they could do even more amazing things than they were able to do with the copy.

This has nothing to do with the debate, but since I’m talking about early film, I shall now take the opportunity to inflict upon you something that has haunted me since I first came across it a few days ago: the 1910 film version of The Wizard of Oz, wherein Dorothy’s BFF is Imogen the Cow instead of Toto, the Wicked Witch of the West is called Momba the Witch, and several donkeys play oddly prominent roles. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1902 stage musical of his popular novel, Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the earliest surviving film adaptation of the book.



Collector pleads guilty to stealing thousands of historical documents

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Barry Landau leaving court after copping a plea, February 7, 2012Media relations professional, self-educated presidential historian, collector of inauguration memorabilia, pathological liar and thief Barry Landau pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to stealing thousands of historical documents from museums including (but not limited to) the Maryland Historical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Connecticut Historical Society, the University of Vermont, the New York Historical Society, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Jason SavedoffAccording to the plea agreement (pdf), Landau and his Canadian accomplice Jason Savedoff researched their targets online and off, compiling lists of the most valuable documents in the collections. From December 2010 until July 2011, the two of them cut a swath through museum collections, distracting staff with cupcakes then stuffing documents into hidden coat pockets and folders. They also removed any “finding aids,” like card catalogue entries, to make it hard for the museum to realize a document was missing.

Prosecutors said the value of the stolen documents easily exceeded $1 million. One of 60 documents stolen from the Maryland Historical Society was an 1861 land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln to a former member of the Maryland militia who served in the War of 1812. It’s worth $100,000, prosecutors said.

The oldest pilfered document was penned 533 years ago by Lorenzo de Medici during the Italian Renaissance. Among the most revered were three inaugural addresses delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the president’s handwritten notes and corrections. […]

Among the items taken from the Pennsylvania archives, prosecutors said, was a 1788 handwritten proclamation by John Hancock regarding the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. […]

Federal prosecutors have described the scope of the thefts as “truly breathtaking,” with stolen documents that include an endorsement for a judge signed by George Washington, a letter written in French from Marie Antoinette, and an 1874 note from Karl Marx inquiring about the price of a book bearing his signature. […]

Among the most valuable documents stolen was a letter written in 1780 from Benjamin Franklin to naval hero John Paul Jones about gunpowder deliveries from the French. It is worth several hundred thousand dollars, according to prosecutors.

The court documents filed Tuesday list stolen papers signed by luminaries from a broad swath of history: Susan B. Anthony, John Hancock, John Adams, Robert E. Lee, Sir Isaac Newton, Napoleon and Florence Nightingale. Another item was a letter from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allen Poe.

Back at the lair, they would remove any inventory markings or other institutional references on the document by scrubbing them off using sandpaper or other abrasives. They called this “performing surgery.” The surgeried documents were then either sold or kept in Landau’s apartment.

Landau and Savedoff were caught by a sharp-eyed part-time staffer at the Maryland Historical Society in Mount Vernon on July 9, 2011. David Angerhofer thought the pair were “too schmoozy for regular people,” so he spied on them from a balcony and saw them stuff historical documents under their own papers and called the cops. Savedoff was in the bathroom when the police arrived. They banged on the stall door until he came out. The historical society staffer saw pieces of old-looking paper floating in the toilet but wasn’t able to fish them out right away. When he returned, the toilet had been used and flushed by another visitor.

Invitation to inauguration of McKinley in 1901, stolen from Maryland Historical SocietyLandau and Savedoff were arrested and police found 70 documents hidden in a computer bag. Sixty of them belonged to the Maryland Historical Society, including that land grant signed by President Lincoln and presidential inaugural ball invitations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the FBI searched Landau’s New York City apartment, they found 10,000 historical documents and ephemera. Experts from the National Archives and Records Administration have been able to trace 4,000 of them to the libraries and museums from whence they were stolen thus far.

Authorities think Landau has been stealing documents for years (President Bill Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie was sure he stole a signed book of the President’s speeches from her home in 2009) but the plea agreement only covers the thefts from December to July. Savedoff pleaded guilty last October to Conspiracy to Commit Theft of Major Artwork and Theft of Major Artwork. Now Landau has pleaded guilty to the same charges. He will be sentenced in May of this year.

Landau with his inaugural memorabilia collectionThis guy is such a despicable skeeze I can’t even. He spent years collecting presidential inauguration memorabilia, promoting himself as this huge expert with a collection that eclipsed even that of the Smithsonian. He was treated as the main expert on inaugurations by major media outlets, actors and film producers, plus a number of Presidents, First Ladies and Congress. Read this article from 2005, but keep a flight sickness bag handy because in hindsight it’s truly nauseating.

Four years ago, when the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies needed plates for the inaugural luncheon, it turned to Landau, who had a collection of china used at Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801. Presidents come and go, but traditions remain, and Landau is the keeper of traditions, the go-to guy.

“I have a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy,” Landau said, “and she wrote: ‘They should make you the Minister of Inaugurations.’ “





February 2012


Add to Technorati Favorites