Archive for August, 2012

Lady Anne Clifford vs. the Patriarchy

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Lady Anne Clifford was born in 1590 to George Clifford, Baron de Clifford, and Lady Margaret Russell. Her brother Francis died when her mother was pregnant with her. He was just five years old. Her only other brother Robert died at six when she was just 14 months old. There were no other siblings; only Anne would survive to adulthood. After Robert’s death, Lady Margaret took her baby daughter and moved in with her sister, leaving her husband to his mistresses and war games.

George Clifford was a dashing figure, captain of the Bonadventure during the battle against the Spanish Armada, buccaneer, Governor of the East India Company and an accomplished jouster who served as Queen Elizabeth I’s champion in many a tilting tourney. You can tell from his jousting armor, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, how glamorous he was on the field, and how willing he was to spend his family fortune. He even had to sell some of his land to pay debt incurred gambling on jousts and horse racing.

George Clifford died in 1605. Upon his death, his daughter Anne assumed the title Baroness de Clifford which was hers by right because the barony had been created by Edward II under absolute cognatic primogeniture, meaning inheritance by descent through the first-born line male or female. That should have meant she got the estates and moneys that went with the title, but in a will signed just 11 days before his death, her father instead bequeathed his estates (and after her death, his wife’s estates too) to his brother Francis Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, and his male heirs.

Perhaps keenly aware that he was leaving behind an inheritance considerably more meager than he had found it, perhaps thinking that his wealthy adult brother was more capable of keeping it from degenerating any further than his 15-year-old daughter, perhaps manipulated by his brother on his deathbed, doubtless knowing that she would be married before too long, George Clifford left Anne only the sum of £15,000. Good money back then, to be sure, but nothing even remotely close to the value of the vast landed estates to which she was entitled.

He sorely misjudged both his wife and his daughter. Lady Margaret immediately filed suit to ensure Anne received her rightful inheritance. Francis wasn’t happy about it. When Margaret and Anne showed up at Skipton Castle, the Clifford family seat, in 1607, Francis refused to let them in. Undeterred, Margaret kept the lawsuit going, researching the Clifford estate in depth to present a mountain of evidence of her daughter’s claim in court.

In 1609, Lady Anne Clifford married Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset. It was not a happy match. Much like her father, Dorset was a womanizer and a gambler and he had no interest in supporting Anne’s legal claim. He was enraged when she and her mother toured the Clifford lands in the north in 1614. He told her not to bother coming back home and threatened to take her baby daughter from her.

Lady Margaret died in 1616. Dorset, always in debt from his love of gambling and luxury he could not afford, wanted to get his hands on her property which George Clifford had willed to his brother along with his daughter’s inheritance. Richard was a favorite of King James I and was popular at court. He was able to pull strings and secure the lands held jointly by Margaret and George for him as his wife’s representative. He then persuaded Anne to sign a deed leaving him the land should she die without male heirs. She refused, however, to deed him the Clifford estates that were still in legal dispute. Dorset wasted no time and took Margaret’s lands for his purposes while Anne was still very much alive.

After Margaret’s funeral, a fight broke out between Anne and her cousin, Francis Clifford’s son Henry. The dispute threatened to get physical when Dorset brought his entourage up north. King James intervened to stop a duel between Henry and Dorset and tried to get Anne to compromise on her rights. Again she refused.

In March of 1617, the King devised a “settlement” which screwed Anne entirely but left Dorset with some cash to pay off his creditors. The deal was Lady Anne would sign away her claim to the estates and since his wife’s losses were also his, Dorset would be compensated £20,000. It seemed that after 12 years of battle, the patriarchy had beaten the Baroness.

Dorset died in 1624 leaving Anne a widow. She married again six years later to the Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. This marriage was a dud too. They lived apart for most of it. Her uncle Francis died in 1641. In December of 1643 her cousin Henry died too. With Henry’s death, finally the Clifford estates returned to Anne. Unfortunately the First English Civil War had broken out in 1642. A staunch royalist, Anne remained in London for the duration of the war and was unable to claim her lands in person until the fighting ended in 1649.

In 1649, she headed back north to her hard-won estate. Her estranged husband was sick and died in January of 1650, leaving her a widow again. That was fine with her. She was 60 by then but vigorous and motivated to repair the damage done to the Clifford properties by the Civil War. Skipton Castle had been the only royalist stronghold in the north to put up an extensive fight. It was besieged by Parliamentary forces for three years. Cromwell, who had ordered the roofs removed after the castle’s surrender in 1645 and its near-demolition in 1648, objected to her restoration plan. Lady Anne went through with it anyway. Legend has it that Cromwell didn’t stop her because of he had much respect for her as the only woman who ever stood up to him. That seems unlikely to me. I imagine political considerations formed the larger part of his thinking.

The rebuild took her ten years, but in 1659 she planted a yew tree in the castle’s central courtyard to mark the end of the restoration and Skipton’s post-Civil War renaissance. She repaired other Clifford castles, churches and founded charitable institutions.

She also set about compiling a complete record of the Clifford family’s history, from the first baron in 1310 to her own four-decade struggle with the law and various titled bullies to claim her rightful inheritance. The records her mother had put together in the early days were included, as was other genealogical material, biographies of all Clifford lords and ladies, Anne’s diaries and day-to-day records of the operation of the estates. She had them bound into three 1,000-page, 600,000-word, three-volume Great Books of Record. Each set was kept in a different place so they could be referred to as needed.

Three hundred years later, all three sets found their way to the Cumbria Archive Service in 2004. Lady Anne’s Great Books of Record give us a unique window into the life of a 17th century English noblewoman, but the originals have only been available to scholars. In 2010, Renaissance scholar Dr. Jessica Malay was granted a Leverhulme Trust award of £158,000 (about $250,000) for a three-year project of transcribing the Great Books of Record for publication.

She’s almost done.

Malay’s research into the Great Books of Record, which contain material from the early 12th century to the early 18th century, reveals the importance of family alliances in forming influential political networks.

It shows that women were integral to the construction of these networks, both regionally and nationally.

Malay said: “The Great Books explain the legal avenues open to women. Married women could call on male friends to act on their behalf. As part of marriage settlements many women had trusts set up to allow them access to their own money which they could in turn use in a variety of business enterprises or to help develop a wide network of social contacts.

“Men would often rely on their wives to access wider familial networks, leading to wives gaining higher prestige in the family.”

Inspired by Malay’s research, the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal has put the Great Books on display for the first time in their long history.

Alongside them is another masterpiece from the unique vision of Lady Anne Clifford: The Great Picture, a triptych that depicts the three stages of Lady Anne’s struggle for her inheritance. The left panel is a portrait of Lady Anne when she was 15 and her father died, willing her birthright to her uncle. The middle panel, a piece so big Abbot Hall had to remove a window to get it into the gallery, depicts Lady Anne’s parents and her two brothers. Anne isn’t visible in the picture but she calculated the precise date of her conception and had the painter, probably Jan van Belcamp, paint her family with her as an unseen zygote. The right panel is Lady Anne at 53, the year her cousin died and she finally came into her inheritance.

Lady Anne Clifford died in 1676. She was 86 years old. She left her estates to her daughter Margaret Sackville, Lady Thanet. Nobody contested it.

Let’s stir up the antheap and build a Tesla museum

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Wardenclyffe lab and towerNikola Tesla’s laboratory in Shoreham, New York is for sale. Known as Wardenclyffe or Wardenclyffe Tower, it is the last workshop standing to have been used by the electrical engineer, inventor, all-around genius and visionary for research. Unless the non-profit Tesla Science Center can raise at least $850,000 within the next 40 days, the property will be bought by real estate developers who will make condos and a shopping center out of it. The price of the land and the structures on it is $1.6 million. The State of New York has offered matching funds if the Tesla Science Center can raise the $850,000, so if they reach that fundraising goal, the Center will have $1.7 million to keep the property out of developer hands.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE!Creator of The Oatmeal and huge Tesla fan Matthew Inman has rallied his massive readership to see justice done. Last week he started a Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum fundraising campaign on Indiegogo which in five days has raised a dizzying $771,642. All the money donated will go directly into the bank account of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe.

Any moneys raised beyond the $850,000 mark are still very much needed. Buying the property is just the first step. The structures and grounds have seen a lot of hard living over the past century. They need a great deal of restoration and repair. After that, there’s the not inconsiderable matter of actually building a museum. As expensive and daunting a task as it may be, it’s so worthwhile. It’s a damn crime that there isn’t a single Tesla museum in this country. There’s an awesome one in Belgrade and he never even lived there.

Wardenclyffe Tower demolition, 1917Tesla began building Wardenclyffe in 1900 with $150,000 invested by J.P. Morgan. The laboratory building was designed by Gilded Age architect to the rich-and-famous Stanford White, which in and of itself is more than sufficient grounds for historic landmark status. He also built a 187-foot power tower, but it was never fully realized and in 1917 was dynamited by the government, afraid it was being used by German spies. Still, the foundation and labyrinth of tunnels underneath the tower are still there and that’s almost as cool. Even cooler, according to the March 27, 1904 issue of the New York Times:

While the tower itself is very stagy and picturesque, it is the wonders that are supposed to be hidden in the earth underneath it that excite the curiosity of the population in the little settlement. In the centre of the wide concrete platform, which serves as a base for the structure there is a wooden affair very much like the companionway on an ocean steamer. […]

Mr. Scherff, the private secretary of the inventor, told an inquirer that the companionway led to a small drainage passage built for the purpose of keeping the ground about the tower dry. But such of the villagers as saw the tower constructed, tell a different story. They declare that it leads to a well-like excavation as deep as the tower is high with walls of mason work and a circular stairway leading to the bottom. From there, they say, tunnels have been built in all directions, until the entire ground below the little plain on which the tower is raised has been honeycombed with subterranean passages. They tell with awe how Mr. Tesla, on his weekly visits to Wardenclyffe, spends as much time in the underground passages as he does on the tower or in the handsome laboratory and workshop erected beside it, and where the power plant for the world telegraph has been installed.

Tesla at workTesla’s ultimate plan was for the tower to wirelessly transmit telegraphy, telephony and electrical power all over the world. The tower would harness the electrical energy of the ionosphere and then relay power to other strategically located towers, thereby electrifying even the remotest areas of the globe for free. This article in the New York Daily Tribune of August 7, 1901 (pdf) describes the initial stages of the project. Tesla talks about the tower solely as a communication device. Once the tower was built, Tesla’s far more ambitious plans for it came to the forefront. In this article in Electrical World and Engineer from March 5, 1904, Tesla describes them thus:

When the great truth accidentally revealed and experimentally confirmed is fully recognized, that this planet, with all its appalling immensity, is to electric currents virtually no more than a small metal ball and that by this fact many possibilities, each baffling imagination and of incalculable consequence, are rendered absolutely sure of accomplishment; when the first plant is inaugurated and it is shown that a telegraphic message, almost as secret and non-interferable as a thought, can be transmitted to any terrestrial distance, the sound of the human voice, with all its intonations and inflections, faithfully and instantly reproduced at any other point of the globe, the energy of a waterfall made available for supplying light, heat or motive power, anywhere-on sea, or land, or high in the air-humanity will be like an ant heap stirred up with a stick: See the excitement coming!

A smartphone in every pot.

John Pierpont Morgan is not amusedMorgan only knew about the wireless communications plan when he financed the project. Insulted by Tesla’s less than tactful approach almost from the beginning and having lost interest in the communications aspect once Marconi transmitted the first radio signal on December 12, 1901, Morgan refused to give him any additional funding. Two years later, Tesla, hoping to pry more money out of the financier to complete the project, told Morgan about his global wireless power station idea. Morgan, not pleased at the prospect of a limitless supply of free electricity killing his ability to profit from industrial power, had his secretary write him a Dear John letter and that was the end of that.

Wardenclyffe todayUnable to keep the facility going or find new backers, Tesla was forced to abandon Wardenclyffe permanently in 1911. In 1915 he transferred ownership of the property to George C. Boldt, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria, to satisfy his $20,000 hotel bill (judicious money management was not Tesla’s strong suit, obviously). Boldt sold the property in 1925. In 1939 it was purchased by Peerless Photo Products who made a toxic dump of cadmium and silver out of it. AGFA bought it from them in 1969 and used the Stanford White building until 1992. In the 2000s New York State made AGFA clean up the toxic materials so as of 2009 it could be sold without all those bald children arousing suspicion.

Which brings us to today and the potential commercial buyers versus the potential for a kickass Tesla science museum. Click here to help make the dream a reality.

Siena Duomo’s mosaic floor visible for 2 months

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

Duomo of Siena, central naveThe Duomo of Siena’s floor is now open to visitors and will be until October 24th. Most of the year just a few of the 56 panels are visible. The rest are covered by pressboard planks and carpets to protect the unbelievably beautiful inlaid marble mosaics from the pitter patter of a million pairs of tourist feet a year, but for the next two months people will be dazzled by a floor unlike anything else in Italy or, I daresay, the world.

The 56 mosaic panels cover the entire floor of the cathedral. Although there are decorative geometric and floral elements, what makes this floor so startling are the figures: scenes from the Bible, Hebrew and Christian (mainly the former); allegories about fortune and ancient philosophers; the ten Sibyls of antiquity representing the revelation of Christ to virtuous ancient peoples; and symbols of Siena and its Ghibelline allegiance, Emperor Sigismund and his Advisers by Domenico di Bartololike a portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (my favorite HRE) conferring with his advisers. The panels are rectangles, rounds, hexagons, squares and rhombuses.

Libyan Sybil by Guidoccio CozzarelliThe cartoons would be made on paper first by prominent local artists (or in one special case, by Umbrian master Pinturicchio), then they would be translated to marble mosaic format by stone cutting, carving and marquetry masters. The earliest panels were made using the graffito technique where lines were scratched into the surface of white marble and then filled with pitch or bitumen to make them black. Later panels used different colors of marble to create intricate inlays complete with delicate shading and strong chiaroscuro contrasts.

The Wheel of FortuneAccording to 16th century artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna first designed the floor mosaics in the early 1300s. He did design the Duomo’s stained glass round window in 1288 and its altarpiece in 1308 (both are now in the cathedral museum), but there’s no evidence that he had any involvement or that it started that early at all. The first records of payments made to artists for the floor date to 1369. The Sienese She-Wolf and Emblems of Allied CitiesThe earliest panels are the Wheel of Fortune (1372), the Sienese She-Wolf Surrounded by the Emblems of Allied Cities (1373) and the Imperial Eagle (1374). They were restored in the 1860s with many of their marble inlays replaced, worn nearly featureless by centuries of tramping pilgrims and tourists.

Work continued throughout the 15th century, with panels depicting the Four Virtues, the feats of King David, Joshua and Samson, my man Emperor Sigismund and a gorgeous Death of Absalom. In the 1480s, the 10 Sibyls were created and two large transept panels with shockingly vivid images of The Slaughter of the Innocents and The Expulsion of Herod.

Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom, PinturicchioPinturicchio’s piece opened the 16th century phase with style. His gorgeously pagan design for The Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom (aka The Allegory of Fortune) was made in 1504.

Starting in 1517, Mannerist painter Domenico Beccafumi, considered the greatest Sienese artist of his time, took the lead in designing the floor. The Sacrifice of Elijah by Domenico BeccafumiHe worked assiduously for the next 30 years, creating the central hexagon panels in the transept depicting various episodes in the life of the prophet Elijah, plus the rectangular frieze 26 feet long showing Moses Striking Water from the Rock on Mount Horeb, Moses on Mount Sinai and The Sacrifice of Isaac.

Beccafumi was also an innovator on the mosaic inlay side of things. Here’s how Vasari describes his work in his Lives of the Artists:

Moses on Mt. Sinai by Domenico BeccafumiThe figures and scenes were already in great part designed on the marble, the outlines being hollowed out with the chisel and filled with a black mixture, with ornaments of coloured marble all around, and likewise the grounds for the figures. But Domenico, with fine judgment, saw that this work could be much improved, and he therefore took grey marbles, to the end that these, profiled with the chisel and placed beside the brilliancy of the white marble, might give the middle shades; and he found that in this way, with white and grey marble, pictures of stone could be made with great perfection after the manner of chiaroscuro. The central hexagon under the cupola of the DuomoHaving then made a trial, the work succeeded so well in invention, in solidity of design, and in abundance of figures, that he made a beginning after this fashion with the grandest, the most beautiful, and the most magnificent pavement that had ever been made; and in the course of his life, little by little, he executed a great part of it.

By the end of Beccafumi’s contribution, the floor was basically complete. After him, some minor elements were added, some damaged pieces restored with exact copies, and in 1878, artist Alessandro Franchi created new Elijah panels to replace irretrievably damaged 15th century pieces which didn’t match Beccafumi’s Elijah theme. Franchi’s panels don’t mimic Beccafumi’s style, but they’re very much in keeping with it.

If you just can’t make it to Siena over the next couple of months, you can at least peruse the extensive collection of pictures of the floor on Wikimedia. They need to get Villanova University’s computer squad on the case so they can make one of those high resolution 3D composites like they did with the Sistine Chapel.

Wreck of Scott’s polar ship found off Greenland

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

SS Terra Nova stuck in ice, 1910-1911The SS Terra Nova began life in 1884 as a whaler and seal hunting vessel on the Labrador Sea between Canada and Greenland. After a starring role carrying Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team to the other end of the earth, it returned to duty in its home waters. There, damaged by ice, it went down on September 13th, 1943, off the southwestern coast of Greenland.

Computer rendering of sonar data showing the Terra NovaOn July 11 of this year, the Schmidt Ocean Institute was testing new echosounders, devices that use sound pulses to map the depth of water, in preparation for their use on a 2013 research mission when they found not just how deep the coastal waters on the southern tip of Greenland are, but the wreck of the Terra Nova. It wasn’t a freakish coincidence. One of the reasons they chose the location was that it had been reported as the site of the sinking, so if they did find the wreck it would be a useful calibration tool.

On the first line of the calibration survey, on-board survey expert Jonathan Beaudoin from the University of New Hampshire had noted a feature on the seabed which remained initially unidentified. Upon completion of the main calibration exercise, SOI technician Leighton Rolley and Jonathan reviewed each of the many potential targets identified during the 12 hours of surveying, and the target was noted as a strong candidate for further investigation. Multibeam data expert Jean Marie from Ifremer analyzed the feature in more detail, finding its length (57m) to match the reported length of the Terra Nova.

Encouraged by the similarity in length, the acoustic survey team post-processed the collected multi-beam data to verify the observed feature. A shorter survey from several angles reaffirmed the possibility that the team had found a wreck.

SS Terra Nova mastThe research team then sent down a weighted high resolution camera package that they built to film plankton net tows. The camera recorded a wooden shipwreck with its funnel lying next to it. They compared the footage of the funnel to historical pictures of the Terra Nova and it was a match.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute reported the find to the U.S. State Department, which notified the British and Danish governments. All parties agreed to allow the information to be released as long as the specific location or identifying details were kept quiet to keep the site from interference by souvenir hunters wanting a piece of such a legendary vessel.

Terra Nova in Antarctic iceThe Terra Nova’s legendary status began when it departed Bute Docks, Cardiff on June 15th, 1910 to explore Antarctica and reach the South Pole. Although there was a general exploratory purpose, Captain Scott’s main aim was to plant the Union Jack on the South Pole. He was already a popular hero since his return from the Discovery Expedition of Antarctica in 1904. With the added boost of pre-World War I jingoism and a year spent traveling the country giving lectures and raising funds for the new expedition, by the time the Terra Nova took off, national excitement was at a peak.

Herbert Ponting recording penguinsScott had had the ship’s hull reinforced with seven feet of oak, but it still got stuck in pack ice between New Zealand and the Antarctic for 20 days. That delay, bad weather and other problems kept the team from making camp where they had first planned. They laid their main supply depot (where the butter was recently found) a full 35 miles north of the intended location, a fatal error, as it turned out.

South Pole expedition team, Scott in the middleAfter collecting an exceptional amount of data about the flora and fauna, all documented in photographs and on film by Herbert Ponting, on November 1st, 1911, Scott took a caravan of people and supplies south towards the Pole. Most of them turned back. Only five men including Scott reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912, only to find the Norwegian flag planted by Roald Amundsen who had reached the Pole on December 14th, 1911.

Scott's team at South Pole, Scott standing in the middle next to the flagBeaten by barely more than a month, a dejected Scott and his team set out on the return voyage of 800 miles. By the time they reached the halfway mark, they had already lost one man. Another would die on March 16th, leaving just three men to make camp on March 19th just 11 miles from the main supply camp, 24 miles past the original location they had intended for it. There they were hit with a blizzard that kept them from moving. Frostbitten, out of supplies, the men died one after the other, with Scott being the last to die. His last journal entry was on the 29th of March.

Their bodies would not be discovered until the next summer, in November 1912. The Terra Nova left for home in January 1913. Purchased by its former owners, it went right back to work in the seal hunting grounds of Newfoundland. Meanwhile Scott’s death, so heartbreakingly captured in his journals, made him a national hero.

In 1924, Herbert Ponting made a documentary of the doomed voyage using the footage he’d taken and some recreations of events he hadn’t captured on film. The Great White Silence has been remastered and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Here’s the Terra Nova in happier times, departing from Cardiff with crowds to see the valiant explorers off:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RR8aNabrWL8&w=430]

Here’s the Terra Nova today:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bar1jMJv_Rw&w=430]

Zapotec noble found buried in tomb’s 3rd chamber

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Archaeologists excavating the Zapotec vertical tomb complex discovered in the Oaxacan archeological site of Atzompa three months ago have discovered the remains of a high-ranking noble in the third chamber. In the previous two chambers researchers found thematically significant, well-preserved murals and small offerings including ceramic vessels and an engraved turtle shell, but no burials. Those chambers appear to have been emptied and filled with rubble in antiquity, possibly in a cancellation ritual when Atzompa was abandoned between 850 and 900 A.D. Although experts knew that the stacked chambers, the first such architecture ever discovered, were tombs, without human remains they couldn’t be certain the complex had ever been used for burials.

The third chamber was the charm. It too was filled in antiquity with alternating layers of earth and stone, but it wasn’t cleared first. Instead the fill kept the skeletal remains and offerings safe from the ravages of looters and time. Archaeologists found the bones of a Zapotec noble, probably male. The skeleton wasn’t whole. Only the short, flat bones like vertebrae, ribs and sternum were discovered, plus large, important bones like the pelvis and skull. Along with the remains of this individual a second, fragmented skull was found, probably a sacrificial offering.

Forensic anthropologists will analyze the skeletal remains to determine, if possible, the age at death, health, nutrition and whether there were any deliberate deformations of the bones for cultural purposes.

Along with the human remains, the chamber contained a small black vessel and parts of a bowl. Under a stone slab archaeologists discovered an exceptional anthropomorphic clay urn shaped like a human face wearing earrings. A headdress was found detached on the other side of the chamber. The piece is 12 inches in diameter and 20 inches high without the headdress, about 28 inches with the headdress attached. The urn is painted a strikingly bright red, its rich hue perfectly preserved despite over 1100 years or so of existence by the fill in the chamber.

Researchers believe this third chamber was actually the first one built. Its location next to the House of the Altars made it prime real estate, so when they needed more prestige tombs, they carefully sealed the first one and built two more on top and added the stairway. They also reduced the size of the original tomb. It seems the third chamber was about 11.5 feet long originally, but some of that length was trimmed to make room for the staircase.

This would have happened in fairly quick succession. The date range for all three tombs is the same, 650 – 850 A.D. Archaeologists believe they were built within three generations.

Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) has a nice photo gallery with some additional pictures of the find.

Cranach Madonna stolen by priest returned to Poland

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

"Madonna under the Fir Tree" by Lucas Cranach, ca. 1510Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Madonna under the Fir Tree is one of the master’s most elaborate and highly prized Madonnas, completed around 1510 for the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Breslau, Bohemia (now Wroclaw, Poland). It hung in the Chapel of St. John in the cathedral’s north aisle, a staple of travel guides and art histories, for more than 400 years.

Breslau was part of Germany during both World Wars, and its overwhelming majority-German population supported the Nazi party from the early 30s. To keep it safe from Allied bombing raids, Cranach’s Madonna was taken down and hidden in 1943. First it was moved to a Cistercian monastery, and then to the city of Klodzko 55 miles southwest of Breslau.

The first air attack on Breslau didn’t take place until the Soviet air force struck in July of 1944, and the damage was not extensive. The city basically managed to avoid the war beyond some Polish resistance sabotage until the approaching Red Army laid siege to the city in February of 1945. The church officials who removed the Madonna may have had other concerns as well, namely keeping their Cranach instead of seeing it spirited away to Hitler’s pet art collection project, the Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.

The Siege of Breslau lasted three months, ending on May 6th, 1945, just two days before armistice and the end of the war in Europe. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist after the siege, 1945Cathedral of St. John the Baptist aisle after the siegeThe city which had survived virtually unscathed during five years of war was reduced to rubble in the last three months of it courtesy of Red Army artillery and Soviet Air Army bombing. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was one of the hardest hit buildings with 70% of its construction destroyed. Its aisles, including the north aisle where the Madonna had once hung, were in ruins.

Under the terms of the Potsdam Conference held in July of 1945, Breslau was transferred to Poland and renamed Wroclaw. A mass exodus of its German population followed. Between 1945 and 1949, ethnic Germans either fled the city or were forced out while ethnic Poles were forced in by population transfers from newly annexed Soviet territories.

With this massive dislocation and ethnic conflict as the backdrop, the Madonna was taken out of hiding and brought to the Diocesan Museum in Wroclaw, since returning it to the cathedral was not possible. During its war-time vicissitudes, the painting had been broken horizontally in two pieces, so diocesan officials commissioned Siegfried Zimmer, a priest, art collector and painter, to restore it. Siegfried Zimmer was also German. Between 1946 and 1947, while he restored the Cranach, he had a forgery made. He gave the fake to the diocese and then moved to Berlin with the authentic Madonna under the Fir Tree.

The fraud wasn’t discovered until a Polish conservator examined the painting in 1961 and found a nasty surprise. For decades the Madonna was missing. Rumors of it being sold in the private art collection market popped up on occasion, but the authorities were never able to track it down. Finally the painting found its way into the clutches of, you guessed it, an anonymous Swiss collector who kept it on the down low until his recent death. He bequeathed it to the Diocese of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Minister Radosław Sikorski hands Cranach "Madonna" to Bishop Andrzej SiemieniewskiIn March of this year, Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office for the Restitution of Cultural Goods found out the Cranach was in St. Gallen and began negotiations to get it back. On Friday, July 27, in an official return ceremony, Minister Radoslaw Sikorski handed the Madonna under the Fir Tree over to Bishop Andrzej Siemieniewski of the Wroclaw Diocese.

“We pass on to the church authorities the most treasured recovered artifact in the history of free Poland since 1990,” Minister Sikorski said.

The cathedral was mostly rebuilt by 1951 with the final tower restoration being completed in 1991, so the canvas can now return to its home of four centuries.

Happy 40th anniversary, Riace Bronzes!

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Riace ARiace BOn August 16, 1972, Stefano Mariottini, a Roman chemist on vacation in Calabria, was dive fishing in waters just 26 feet deep off the Ionian Sea coast of Riace, Italy (the toe of the boot) when he saw what appeared to be a human arm in the sand. It was so realistic he thought it belonged to a dead person at first. On closer inspection he saw it was attached to a statue on its side and that there was another statue on its back lying next to it. He alerted authorities and police divers returned with oxygen-filled balloons to carefully lift the statues out of the seabed.

Crowds flock to the bronze as it's recovered from the sea, 1972The find caused a sensation. Very few ancient bronzes have survived because they were frequently melted down in later eras for their metal. Most of the Greek bronzes we know of no longer exist in their original form and are only known from Roman copies in marble. Two intact, larger-than-life Greek bronzes are not often found in shallow coastal waters or anywhere else, for that matter.

Eye of Riace B before and after the final removal of eye concretionsThey were sent to the National Museum in Reggio Calabria for cleaning and restoration. Experts confirmed at that point that they were original Greek bronzes from the 5th century B.C. Early Classical period. Preliminary conservation continued in Reggio Calabria until 1975, after which the statues were sent to Florence for further work in its better equipped restoration labs. Once the concretions, particularly dense around their heads and faces, were fully removed, restorers found exquisite details like individual silver eyelashes, copper lips and nipples, silver teeth and eyes inlaid with ivory and glass.

Riace A head detailWe don’t know who they represent. Many theories have been bruited covering pretty much every named hero in the Greek literary corpus. Both of the bronzes used to hold shields and spears, so they were probably warriors. The one with parted lips, silver teeth and long, flowing curls is known as Riace A; the one with the helmet and wide eyes is known as Riace B. Based solely on A’s open mouth and featured teeth — unique in surviving Greek statuary — and B’s wide-open eyes, one theory posits that they are Tydeus and Amphiaraus, two warriors enlisted by Polynices to attack Thebes in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. Riace B head detailStatue A would be Tydeus, who ate the brains of the defender who had mortally wounded him, hence the prominent silver teeth. Statue B would be Amphiaraus who was a seer, a role often represented by wide eyes.

Restoration was complete in 1980 whereupon the Bronzes of Riace went on display in Florence and Rome on their way back to Reggio Calabria. I had the good fortune to see them in Rome when I was a whiny kid whose complaints my parents expertly ignored (thanks again, Mom and Dad!). The crowds were insane. My parents still have the posters of each warrior we got at the gift shop framed on the wall. Good thing we took advantage of that opportunity, because they haven’t been allowed to travel since due to their fragility.

By the early 1990s, the statues were showing signs of further degradation. The Florentine restorers had conservatively left remnants of the organic cores used to cast the statues in antiquity inside the statues. Their continuing decay was causing trouble for the bronze shell, so another restoration in 1995 cleaned out the casting cores in their entirety. (The organic materials — charred wood, vegetable matter, animal hair — were preserved for dating purposes but provided no conclusive results.)

The Riace Bronzes arrive at Palazzo Campanella in 2009In 2009, Reggio Calabria’s National Museum started a major overhaul of their facilities. In order to keep the bronzes safe and to take advantage of the break, they were moved to Palazzo Campanella where they underwent extensive diagnostic analyses and further conservation in a large climate-controlled room behind glass but still on public display.

The project was supposed to be over by March 2011 so they could return to their National Museum home in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Italian unification, but the restoration of the statues wasn’t complete until the end of 2011, and the renovations at the museum still aren’t complete.

So for now they remain in their climate-controlled quarters in the Palazzo Campanella. The museum renovations have been held up by budget cutbacks, but the last six million euros have just been transferred so the museum hopes to be ready for the boys to come home by December of this year.

This video is in Italian, but watch even if you can’t understand the language just to see how they moved the Bronzes of Riace out of the National Museum to the Palazzo Campanella in 2009. A few salient points from the interviews: Simonetta Bonomi, Archaeology Superintendent of Calabria, notes that the restoration campaign is tied to the 2011 celebrations of Italian unification and that even though the planning for the move had to be careful and deliberate, when the time came the execution had to be swift to minimize the stress on the statues.

Pasquale Dapoto, Directing Archaeologist of the Restoration Laboratory, rather poetically juxtaposes the statues as symbols of vigorous strength with their actual fragility as a result of the shipwreck that put them at the bottom of the sea and the 2500 or so years spent in corrosive salt water. He also describes the challenge of detaching the statues from their anti-seismic bases to which they were anchored by stakes running from the mechanism in the base up through the feet and legs into the body.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCNgwyrlS4s&w=430]

Return to mass grave of sacrificed Iron Age warriors

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Excavation pit at the Alken Enge wetlandsIn 2009, students from the University of Aarhus found the remains of more than 200 Iron Age warriors scattered in the Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland, Denmark. Human remains had been found before in the bog by ditch diggers in 1944-45, and extensive excavations led by archaeologist Harald Andersen between 1957 and 1962 unearthed a number of human bones, mainly large bones like pelvises and skulls, all from young adult males and many of them showing signs of damage from weapons. Andersen concluded that the bones belonged to enemy warriors sacrificed after a military defeat. Radiocarbon dating indicated the warriors had died sometime around 1 A.D.

The Aarhus excavation used Andersen’s excellent documentation when they returned to the site in 2009, so they were expecting to find more of what he had found. They were not disappointed. The large number of remains, however, was unexpected and unique in the Danish archaeological record.

The Alken Enge wetlands form where the Illerup River flows into Lake Mossø. The river valley is also known as the “Holy Valley” because of the large number of sacrificial sites that have been found in the area. The people living there during the Iron Age regularly performed ritual sacrifices in various places in the valley, mostly offering pottery and wooden artifacts. The Alken Enge sacrifice, however, is an entirely different mold. The sheer numbers of bones indicate a massive event took place approximately 2000 years ago. (Incidentally, I mentioned in the 2009 entry that weapons had been found sacrificed at a nearby site. They’ve been dated to around 200 A.D., so they definitely did not belong to these warriors.)

After securing a grant of 1.5 million Kroner (about $250,000) from the Carlsberg Foundation, a team of experts from the Skanderborg Museum, the Moesgård Museum and Aarhus University returned to the wetlands this summer. They reopened the 2009 pit and dug some new ones, finding more skeletal remains with wounds of war. One skull has a large hole in the back from a spear or projectile. One thighbone was found hacked in half. They also found weapons, like spears, clubs, shields and a wonderfully preserved axe about 2.5 feet in length with the entire wooden shaft still intact, courtesy of the miracle of peat. (Weapons have been discovered before, but only a handful of lance heads and a wooden shield, so researchers don’t think they were systematically sacrificed.)

Hoping to get an idea of just how large the sacrificial ground zero might be, archaeologists have dug test pits at numerous points over the 40 hectare range of the Alken Enge wetlands. All returned human remains, which means the potential total number of warriors sacrificed could easily reach into the thousands.

“It’s clear that this must have been a quite far-reaching and dramatic event that must have had profound effect on the society of the time,” explains Project Manager Mads Kähler Holst, professor of archaeology at Aarhus University.

Some of the bones and teeth are in such excellent condition that DNA has been extracted from them. In preliminary tests, there was insufficient recoverable DNA in the femurs, but scientists were able to extract a testable sample from the teeth. That dental DNA might be able to tell us where these warriors came from. If they were local, their DNA should basically match that of today’s Scandinavians. If there are notable differences, that might indicate the sacrificial victims came from the south.

It’s unlikely to be Romans. Although Roman armies were very much on the move around 2000 years ago, they never did get as far north as Jutland. They did put a great deal of pressure on the Germanic peoples north of the Alps, however, which could in turn have caused conflict between the Iron Age Danes and the Germans. Continued study of the bones could potentially fill in all kinds of blanks in our knowledge of this period’s military and social history.

Zoom in on the evolution of the Royal Coat of Arms

Monday, August 13th, 2012

The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a national charity dedicated to the conservation of England’s historic churches, has created a fascinating interactive online history of the Royal Coat of Arms. The CCT is particularly well-placed to illustrate this history because ever since Henry VIII created the Church of England to secure a divorce, the Royal Arms have been displayed in churches as a pointed symbol of the sovereign’s role as head of the church.

The first Royal Arms at St. James' Church, CameleyOne hundred of the 340 churches under the CCT’s purview have painted, stone, wooden, plaster, stained glass, tapestry, etc. versions of the Royal Arms inside. The earliest, St. James’ Church in Cameley, dates to the 12th century reign of Richard I (1189-1199), the first monarch to add his heraldry to the Great Seal. Appropriately for a man known by the sobriquet “Lionheart,” his Arms featured three white lions on a red background. They were the first style of the Royal Arms to be used by themselves as Royal Arms, and the three lions of England have been on every Royal Coat of Arms ever since. Click on the picture of the painted lions here to zoom in on it.

Sir William Gascoigne's tomb at All Saints' Church Harewood, Royal Arms from 1340–1405From Richard I until Henry VIII, the Royal Arms were reserved for the tombs of kings in Westminster Abbey, or for the tombs of noblemen who claimed a family connection to the monarchs in more modest parish churches. For example, the tomb of Sir William Gascoigne, Chief Justice of England under Henry IV, is a carved alabaster monument in All Saints Church, Harewood. The Royal Arms are carved on the foot of the tomb because his first wife, Elizabeth de Mowbray, was descended from the House of Plantagenet.

James I Royal Arms at St. Mary's Church, West Bergholt, 1603-1649The lion and unicorn on either side of the shield (called supporters) were added by King James I, who was also King James VI of Scotland, when he ascended to the throne after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603. The Stuart shield had two silver unicorns supporting it, so as a compromise he added England’s lion to support the left side of England’s shield and the unicorn of Scotland to support the right. As with Richard III’s wild boars, the new supporters were noticeably well-endowed.

State Shield from the Commonwealth, 1649Surprise, surprise, Oliver Cromwell was not a fan. Under the Commonwealth, the Royal Arms were changed to State Arms. No genitals were in evidence. King Charles II brought them back to the Royal Arms with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 where they remained jutting proudly until the first half of the 19th century. Queen Victoria opted for the Ken doll look.

Charles II's Royal Arms at St Mary's Church Sandwich, 1660Click through the Evolution of Royal Arms timeline for zoomable images and fascinating details about how the Royal Arms developed over the years in different churches. Each entry has a link to the website of the specific church, so if you want to make an itinerary of Royal Arms visits all the information is at your fingertips.

Queen Victoria's Royal Arms at Holy Trinity Church, Blackburn, 1837For a quick visual overview of the different Royal Arms from the first official one in 1198 until today’s, see this timeline. The symbols are easier to pick out in the digital renderings than they are in some of the historical shields.

I love this rollover explanation of the modern Royal Arms. You hover over a given part, click on the symbol you’re interested in and a little window pops out with details about that specific element. I had no idea about the mantling. It’s the floral looking scarf attached to the helmet (called the helm) on top of the shield.

The mantling is based on the small cloth or cloak that would hang from a knight’s helmet, over his shoulders, to protect him from the elements. It was often depicted as torn or jagged – perhaps alluding to the cuts and slashes it would have received in battle, which would have greatly enhanced a knight’s reputation on his return home.

There’s also a handy introduction to the many and vast complexities of heraldry, such as the rules governing colors, symbols, division, and how heraldry relays familial histories.

For archaeology nerds, the section on conservation is a must-read. Conservator Sally Woodcock explains how and why many of the Royal Arms in churches have suffered damage over the years, the methods they use to stabilize the pieces and in some cases reverse the damage, and best of all, uses before and after pictures to illustrate the process.

All the information is concise and readable but still detailed and intelligent. It’s an excellent educational resource for young and old alike, because the subject of heraldry can be incredibly daunting to tackle with its arcane nomenclature and dense symbolism. The Churches Conservation Trust has created a practical introduction to the entire field by way of sharing the exceptional examples of Royal Arms in its churches.

New York puts its history on display at State Capitol

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

The New York State Capitol in Albany has always been a working building, housing offices of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government. Its dazzling Neo-Renaissance, Romanesque Revival and Gothic architecture also make it a bona fide tourist destination, but despite its rich history of important political figures and significant events, in its 130 years of existence the space has kept to its workmanlike purpose. Governor Andrew Cuomo has changed that, drawing on the state archives, library and museum, plus loans from private collections, professional organizations, local historical societies to pepper the statehouse with artifacts that tell the story of New York and the United States.

Now visitors to the Capitol will find a wealth of exhibits arranged in its galleries according to theme. In the Hall of Governors, where governors of New York from the first one, George Clinton (the signer of the Declaration of the Independence, not the King of Interplanetary Funk) to the current one have worked, the official portraits of almost all of them line the walls. Several of those governors became Presidents of the United States, which makes the artifacts and documents from their gubernatorial terms take on national import. One of the documents on display is the resignation letter Grover Cleveland wrote on January 6, 1885, before he took up his duties as President. It is a masterpiece of concision.

To The Legislators:
I hereby resign the office of Governor of the State of New York, to take effect immediately.
Grover Cleveland

On the other side of the scale is a 1762 bill of sale for slaves, a mother and her two children. It makes a point of stating that the sale is done under the laws of British America, because slavery had already been outlawed in England itself.

In the Governor’s Reception Room, the exhibit features documents and objects that illustrate the founding and growth of New York. The oldest document is a report written by Pieter Schaghen to the Dutch West India Company on November 5, 1626. In it Schaghen announces that they have purchased the island of Manhattan for the equivalent of 60 guilders. It’s the first documentary reference to the purchase of Manhattan.

The Flag Room has, not surprisingly, an impressive collection of flags from the New York State Military Museum, but as much as I like historic flags, I like historic hats even more, and they have a couple of splendid examples. One is a Chapeau-bras, meaning an arm-hat because it folds to carry easily under the arm. It belonged to New York State Militia officer Jacob DeForest before the Civil War. My other favorite is a Shako — a rather rococo cylindrical hat with a visor — from the 1840s that was once worn by a member of the 27th New York State Militia Artillery. It looks like something out of a Stendhal novel.

There’s also an exhibit dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant. He wasn’t a governor of New York, but he did die upstate in 1885. His body was transported to Albany for a public funeral complete with procession to the black-draped Capitol where his coffin was put on a bier and almost 100,000 people lined up to pay their respects. There’s a picture of the procession on display which is remarkable not only for the massive crowds and the views of the 19th century city, but for the extraordinary number of cables crisscrossing between the buildings. I knew Albany was one of the first cities to electrify, but 1885 seems awfully early to have such a mass of wires.

Because I am a sucker for period vehicles, I simply must point out the exhibit in the concourse of the Empire State Plaza, the modern administrative complex that was built in the 60s and 70s and integrated with the Capitol. There’s a restored Adirondack guideboat from the early 19th century, a peddler’s wagon that sold tin in the Hudson Valley during the 1890s, and some exquisite high-end conveyances to transport governors: a seven-passenger Pierce-Arrow Type 43 from 1931, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 Packard Phaeton which is still in the state fleet and was used to drive Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus of the Netherlands in style when they visited Albany in 1982. Also dreamy is the 1967 Lincoln Executive Limousine first used by Nelson Rockefeller and then by successive governors until 1988.

There’s piles more neat stuff to go through on the website — don’t miss the 1911 Capitol Fire online exhibit — but if you have a chance to go to Albany in person, make sure you put a visit to the Capitol on the itinerary. There are walk-in tours run four times a day, and you can get a self-guided audio tour to take you through the exhibits on your own time and schedule.

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