Archive for February, 2013

Olympia and Venus of Urbino together at last

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) is leaving France for the first time since 1890 to go on display alongside her mentor, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), in an exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Manet: Return to Venice will run from April 24th to August 11th. It celebrates the influence of Italian Renaissance art on Manet and will feature more than 80 paintings and drawings that showcase how Manet’s visits to Italy inspired his work throughout his life.

Manet’s pieces will be placed next to the Italian works associated with them, most notably Olympia and Venus of Urbino. Art historians often speak of the two works in the same breath since Manet deliberately and recognizably used the Renaissance masterpiece as the model for his own boundary-busting exploration of the female nude. They have never met in the proverbial and copious flesh, though, because Olympia belongs to the France since Claude Monet, who the raised funds to buy it after Manet’s death, donated it to the state in 1890. It’s such an important watershed in modern painting that none of the museums that have hosted it (the Musée du Luxembourg from 1890 to 1907, the Louvre from 1907 to 1986, and the Musée d’Orsay from 1986 until the present) have ever allowed it to travel. Venus of Urbino is in the permanent collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and Italian regulations prohibit it from leaving the country.

This one-of-a-kind pairing was only made possible through the D’Orsay’s special collaboration with the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia. The French museum is loaning 42 of Manet’s works to the exhibit, an unprecedented number that will make up more than half the total pieces on display. Part of the motivation is fundraising as the D’Orsay will be making millions in loan fees, but museum president Guy Cogeval said, “It’s every art historian’s obsession to bring together these two great works of art, of which one served as a model for the other.”

Indeed they have more than a reclining nude subject in common. They both scandalized viewers, Manet’s from its first exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1865, Titian’s for several hundred years. Venus of Urbino was the first female nude of the era to be depicted reclining and with her eyes on the viewer. It was commissioned by Guidobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, in 1534, possibly as an instructional for his 16-year-old wife. Its eroticism was intended for private display and remained in the family until 1637 when Vittoria della Rovere brought it to Florence after her marriage to Ferdinand II of Tuscany, father of Cosimo III and grandfather of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici. The Venus was first placed in a public gallery in 1736, when Anna Maria had it placed in the Uffizi, but it was covered by an image of Sacred Love to keep it out of prurient view.

By the time Mark Twain visited the Uffizi in 1880, the Venus was no longer hidden, but it was still scandalous. Here’s how Twain described the painting in Chapter 50 of A Tramp Abroad:

You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world — the Tribune — and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed — no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand.

He wasn’t being a prude so much as making a point about how explicit visual art was allowed to be even considering Victorian views towards public sexuality while anyone who described the Venus in words would be pilloried for obscenity, but he’s still shocked by the naked lady touching herself.

If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl — but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to — and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her — just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world—just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one’s own eyes — yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be.

If Twain spluttered at Titian’s Venus of Urbino, by then 350 years old and a widely acknowledged masterpiece, critics went into full-on paroxysms over Manet’s Olympia when it debuted 15 years before Twain’s trip to Florence (a sound refutation of his contention that the visual arts got a pass when it comes to erotic content). Olympia was called every name in the book. Jules Claretie fulminated in Le Figaro: “What’s this yellow-bellied Odalisque, this vile model picked up who knows where, and who represents Olympia? Olympia? What Olympia? A courtesan, no doubt.” Viewers in the gallery flocked to express their hatred for it. Antonin Proust (no relation to Marcel), a journalist, politician and friend of Manet’s, wrote in his memoirs: “If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration,” namely hanging it far out of reach of canes. As Claretie put it, it was hung “at a height where even lousy paintings are never hung, above a gigantic door of the last room where it was hard to tell whether one was looking at a pile of naked flesh or a pile of linen.”

As it happens, Manet’s model was no courtesan but Victorine Meurent, who in addition to modeling for artists was a musician and painter in her own right. Titian’s, on the other hand, was. The model for Venus was Angela del Moro, a frequent dinner companion of Titian’s and the second-highest paid courtesan in Venice who was known for her refusal to fake orgasms. In the sensual environment of 16th century Venice, this was hardly a deficit.

Manet was depicting Victorine as a courtesan, however, while Titian, despite the sexual suggestiveness of the recumbent nude with her hand between her legs, was not. Venus is an idealized nude, her gaze direct but dreamy and her head turned down, resting demurely against her shoulder. She holds a nosegay of red roses, symbol of love, in one hand and the other hand is delicately poised against her inner thigh, covering her vulva even as it draws attention to it. Her little sleeping dog is a symbol of marital fidelity, and the maid hovering protectively over the young girl who digs through through the bridal hope chest in the background is a symbol of motherhood.

Olympia shares none of Venus idealized features and she is depicted as a demimondaine or courtesan. She reclines on a disheveled bed on top of a silk shawl, an orientalist image of luxurious decadence, wearing an orchid, a symbol of sexuality, in her hair while at her feet the loyal dog is replaced by a black cat with her tail in the air, a symbol of prostitution. Her gaze is direct and unflinching. Her hand doesn’t brush against her vulva like Venus‘ but rather blocks our view of it. She shows no interest in the massive flower arrangement, probably from a wealthy client, her servant brings her.

Manet’s style, the flat perspective, the broad, quick brushstrokes, the strong color contrasts and lack of smooth shading, was probably a large part of the fury directed at this painting. He was doing something new, something the classicists of the age weren’t ready to cope with, but that today has garnered Manet the title of the first modern painter, precursor to the Impressionists who would follow him.

Lead shot that missed Tsar Nicholas II for sale

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

St. Petersburg, Epiphany Day, January 6th (January 19th on the Gregorian calendar), 1905: Tsar Nicholas II, members of the royal family and diplomatic corps attend the ceremonial blessing of the waters of the Neva River in front of the Winter Palace. This is a longstanding tradition celebrating the baptism of Christ in River Jordan transposed to a frigid Russian winter setting. A hole called the Jordan is cut in the ice of the river and the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Saint Petersburg immerses his cross in it, blessing and purifying the water. People flock to collect the holy water which is believed to have protective and curative powers.

The Tsar and some of the dignitaries observe the blessing from an elegant pavilion built overlooking the river, while the Tsarina, Grand Duchesses and members of the diplomatic corps watch from the windows of the Winter Palace. The blessing is marked with a military gun salute.

This year, however, the ceremonial gun salute has an unexpected bite. The 17th Battery of the First Horse Artillery of the Guard, one of the most aristocratic of corps in the Russian army, firing from Vasilyevsky Island in response to shots from the Peter and Paul Fortress, has among all the blank saluting cartridges at least one weapon loaded with live ammunition. That gun happens to be aimed right at the Imperial pavilion. A charge of grapeshot peppers the Jordan, injuring one police officer and snapping the flagpole of the Marine standard. The shot also breaks four windows in the Window Palace, where the Tsarina and company stand. Nobody is harmed, but the Tsar’s mother is sprinkled in broken glass.

The official story is that this was negligence, an accident caused when the artillery was not properly cleaned after target practice two days earlier. It’s not a satisfying explanation. The guns can only take a single charge at a time, so how come nobody noticed there was already something in there when they attempted to charge the saluting cartridges on the day of the ceremony? Also, ceremonial salutes aren’t generally aimed right at the Emperor.

On the other hand, any artillery expert would know that grapeshot is not an effective tool of assassination when it has to cross a river to reach its intended target. If one of the soldiers of the battery had been attempting the life of the Tsar, surely he would have loaded the gun with something that had a chance of working. One the lead pellets lands not three feet away from the Tsar, but it’s unlikely it would have harmed him beyond a contusion had it made contact.

Nicholas seems sanguine about the event in his diary, but an investigation is launched into the disturbing event. Several officers are court martialed two months later and convicted of negligence, but no evidence of conspiracy or intent to harm is presented at trial.

Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievitch, grandson of Nicholas I and first cousin once removed to Nicholas II, is standing next to the Tsar when the shot reaches the pavilion. He picks up one of the lead pellets and gives it to Carl Fabergé, the imperial family’s favorite goldsmith, to have a memento made of the near miss. Fabergé mounts the lead shot, a pristine lead ball 1.5 inches in diameter, on a gold seal 2.5 inches high. In the base he sets a white chalcedony sealing stone engraved with the personal crest of the Tsar. The Grand Duke gives it to Nicholas as a present.

When revolution breaks out, a courtier takes the seal with him as he flees the country. It remains privately held for close to a century. Now, for the first time, the shot that missed the Tsar is being offered for sale by jewelers and Fabergé specialists Wartski of London. The suggested retail price is £500,000 ($760,000). It will go on display at the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht from March 15th to 24th.

Bronze Age sewn-plank boat replica ready to launch

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

A project that began in April 2012 to recreate a Bronze Age sewn-plank boat using Bronze Age tools is about to face its final trial: when the boat is launched from Falmouth Harbour in Cornwall at noon on Wednesday, March 6th, will it actually float? It’s almost 50 feet long and weighs approximately five tons, and it is literally stitched together with yew twigs. Nails hadn’t been invented yet in Britain 4,000 years ago, so there are none to be found on this boat.

The construction process alone has been a voyage of discovery. A team of 30 volunteers — historians, hobbyists, students — from the University of Exeter, Cornwall and further afield (Norway, Turkey, France) came together under the supervision of professional shipwright Brian Cumby to build the prehistoric boat in a workshop open to public view at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Starting with the tools used to make the boat, wooden adzes and hammers made by hand by an expert in Bronze Age woodworking, the aim of this project has been to build a boat the way Bronze Age inhabitants of the British Isles built them. The only concession to modernity and speed were some clamps and the occasional lifting device.

The boat is modeled after the third of the three Bronze Age Boats unearthed at North Ferriby in East Yorkshire. It was discovered in 1963 on the shore of the Humber and was the most complete and oldest of the three. About 50 feet long and shaped like a slice of melon, it was made out of oak planks sewn together with yew withies caulked with moss. There was space for 18 paddlers to sit in pairs on nine thwarts with plenty room left for passengers and as much as 4.5 tons of cargo. Ferriby 3 dates to between 2030 and 1780 B.C. making it one of Europe’s first known sea-going vessels.

These sewn-plank boats are particular to the British isles. They traveled the rivers of and perilous seas between Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe, trading, probably in precious metals to make the risk worthwhile.

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall used two massive green oak logs to create their version of this ancient craft. They adzed it into planks and formed the keel by placing the widest bases of the logs end to end. Once the keel was laid and stitched together using the yew sticks stitches caulked with moss and tallow, they attached ribs to the keel using incredibly complex joints. Side strakes were then installed between the ribs. All seams and holes were caulked with the moss-tallow mixture and then sealed with beeswax.

There is no archaeological evidence that tallow and beeswax were used in the making of these boats, but they were in general use in Bronze Age Britain. Since entire boats with every element surviving intact for 4,000 years have yet to be discovered, the team has had to work with known materials to solve problems as they arise. They didn’t know how the yew twigs were processed, for instanced. They had to experiment with soaking, stripping the bark, split branches to figure out how best to sew the planks together.

The completed boat will be launched next Wednesday from the slipway at the watersports centre in Falmouth. There are tons of gorgeous pictures on the project’s Facebook page and there’s a poll where you can vote for the boat’s name. They will also be announcing on Facebook how the rest of us poor shlubs not lucky enough to be in Cornwall next week can watch the launch over webcam, so keep your eye on the page.

Here’s a stunning time-lapse video of the construction that you must watch because when was the last time you saw people hewing 25-foot oak logs with a wooden adzes? If you answered never, you are correct.


Medieval coins found buried in a shoe in Rotterdam

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Archaeologists surveying the construction site of the former City Hall in Rotterdam have unearthed a collection of 477 coins stuffed inside a 16th century shoe. The oldest coin in the hoard dates to 1472 and the most recent to 1592. The shoe, its leather still in quite good condition, is a 16th century style. Experts believe it was buried in 1592 or shortly thereafter, under the floorboards of a house by the owner, either as a standard savings practice (like the proverbial keeping your money in your mattress) or out of fear that they might be lost or stolen during turbulent times.

Most of the coins are Netherlands nickels, half pennies and double nickels. There are also English and Spanish pieces. At that time, foreign currency was just as usable as local coin. It was the quality and weight of the silver that counted. Some of the coins show signs of having been tested for value; they’ve been pierced to see if they’re real silver through and through. The total worth of the hoard in 1592 would have been around 50 guilders. To give you an idea of the buying power, a skilled craftsman earned a little less than one guilder a day, so this collection amounted to about two month’s pay.

The place where they were discovered was the location of a City Hall built after the destruction of the old one during World War II. It hasn’t been a private home in centuries, which makes the survival of the coin-filled shoe even more remarkable.

The late 16th century was a particularly rocky time for Rotterdam and the rest of the Netherlands. In 1568, the Seventeen Provinces (comprising all of today’s Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, plus bits of France and Germany) rebelled against the rule of the Spanish King Philip II. Religious conflict was the immediate catalyst. Philip was keen to enforce anti-heresy edicts in his heavily Protestant territories. Those territories were used to Charles V’s lax attitude; they didn’t appreciate having the Inquisition breathing down their necks. A burst of Iconoclastic fury by Dutch Calvinists in 1566 resulted in a brutal crackdown by the Duke of Alba, the Spanish military commander. A thousand people, among them nobles of the highest rank, were executed for treason.

William of Orange was supposed to be one of them, but he escaped and launched a revolt from Germany. Rotterdam sided with the rebellion in 1572 and became part of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands when the Dutch Low Countries seceded from the Spanish crown in 1581. Philip wasn’t going to let them go without a fight and a fight they got. Philip’s nephew, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, successfully led the Spanish army to reclaim Belgium and the southern Netherlands in 1585 and put constant military pressure on Holland, at this point garrisoned by ineffectual British troops under Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth’s favorite.

The Dutch Republic’s fortunes improved with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and with Philip’s involvement in the French Civil War in 1589. Parma’s troops were spread too thin while the Dutch Army instituted revolutionary reforms which transformed it into an effective fighting force. In the early 1590s, the Dutch took the offensive, besieging Spanish-held cities with much success.

There was no official truce between the Republic and Spain until 1609. Fortunes shifted and anybody living in Holland during this period would have had good reason to hoard coin. Yet, such hoards are rare finds, and this is the first one that has ever been found in a shoe. Next up, Rotterdam’s Archaeological Research Center will clean the coins and study the find in more detail.

Here’s a nifty YouTube of the excavation. It’s all in Dutch and there are no subtitles, so if there’s any information in there I should add to this entry, please do let me know in the comments.

And now, a composition of my own, inspired by the nursery rhyme that immediately leaped to mind when I read this story. Throat clearing. One arm up in declamation position.


There was an old coin hoard that lived in a shoe.
Nearly 500 pieces made a shimmering debut
Under the late City Hall, now a great gaping hole,
After five troubled centuries spent safe in their sole.


Thank you. Thank you very much.

Lod Mosaic at Penn Museum in last US stop

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Three panels of the huge and breathtakingly beautiful 4th century A.D. Roman mosaic unearthed in Lod, Israel, in 1996, is now on display at Penn Museum in Philadelphia, the last chance for US audiences to see the masterpiece before it leaves the country. The mosaic began its tour of the US in New York City in 2010. Since then it’s been to San Francisco, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio. After the Penn exhibit closes on May 12th, the mosaic panels will travel to the Louvre in Paris until August 19th, and then they go home to be reunited with the rest of the work.

The panels on display fit together to form the largest, best-preserved and most intricate part of the 600-square-foot floor. The top panel features prey or food animals like birds, fish and game, some of them on their own, others shown in a deadly embrace with the lion, tiger, leopard and snake about to claim their lives. The middle panel has more of those animals in polyhedral frames with one large central tableau of exotic species in confrontational postures. An elephant takes on a giraffe and a rhinoceros while a tiger pulls on the tail of a … wildebeest? An aurochs? Some kind of horned animal. Behind them a lion and lioness stand proudly on mountains overlooking water and a sea monster. The bottom panel is a single scene populated with dolphins, shells, fish of many species and two merchant ships, one with spread sails full of wind, the other with lowered mast and sails. Elaborately braided geometric borders wind their way through and around each panel.

It’s one of the most complete and largest Roman mosaics ever discovered. Archaeologists estimate that it took three years to make the entire floor, a painstaking process requiring exact planning of the positions of every one of the two million tesserae. The north panels, the ones that are on display, were made by one great master, the south panel by another. A third panel between the two was made by a third master, not quite as skilled as the first two, and was probably installed last.

In all its vast complexity, there are no human figures or deities depicted, which is highly unusual for a work of this scope. Also unusual is the juxtaposition of hunting scenes and maritime activity. All we know about the context from the archaeological investigation is that the mosaics decorated several large rooms, probably a series of receptions or audience halls, in a private house. Pottery fragments and coins found above the floor date to the late 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., which places the likely date the mosaic was laid to around 300 A.D.

Nothing but the floor of the structure has survived, as far as we know. The collapse of the mud brick walls, which had once sported glorious frescoes in their own right, had the fortunate side-effect of preserving the floors. When the mosaic was first revealed during highway construction in 1996, emergency excavation unearthed a series of mosaic floors that measured a total of 50 by 27 feet. Funding was not available at that time to keep digging, so after a weekend of public display during which 30,000 people came to see the mosaic, the work was reburied until 2009 when a donation from the Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation allowed the Israel Antiquities Authority to re-excavate and conserve the mosaic. The mosaic was peeled off the floor, revealing a fascinating collection of ancient footprints left in the mortar underneath the tesserae, but excavations continue and the complete floorplan of the villa has yet to be determined.

Originally known as Lydda, Lod was destroyed during the First Jewish War by Cestius Gallus, the Roman proconsul of Syria, on his way to Jerusalem in 66 A.D. Lydda was hit again during the Second Jewish War (115-117 A.D.) by Lusius Quietus. He besieged the town and when it fell, he executed much of its Jewish population. Shortly thereafter Hadrian renamed it Diospolis, city of gods, and the town’s population became increasingly Christianized. The town was elevated to official city status by Septimius Severus in 200 A.D., garnering it the unwieldy title of Colonia Lucia Septimia Severa Diospolis. Saint George of dragon fame was born there of Greek parents (there had been a strong Greek presence in Lydda since Alexander’s conquest in 333 B.C.) in the second half of the 3rd century. Whoever owned the home graced by the Lod mosaic in 300 A.D., he doubtless held high rank in the city, perhaps a Roman official, perhaps a prosperous merchant.

The entire floor mosaic, including the less elaborate, less pristine parts that remain in Israel, will go on display at the brand spanking new Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center which is scheduled to open in late 2014. The museum is being built around the archaeological site and the mosaic will be reinstalled exactly where it used to be for an in situ display with ongoing archaeological excavations visible to the public.

These videos are from a Metropolitan Museum of Art lecture series about the Lod Mosaic, exploring its archaeological context, the excavation, lifting (they cut it into 30 pieces and peeled them off the floor; it’s crazy), conservation and iconography. They’re 30 and 37 minutes long, but totally worth it. Watch them full screen because there are some excellent pictures of the excavation, the lifting, the fish painted on the floor to guide the placement of the tiles. It’s amazing, really.



Hear Nightingale, Tennyson & Light Brigade bugler

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a famous debacle. It was a cavalry charge at the Battle of Balaklava (October 25th, 1854) in the Crimean War and it was a slaughter. The British cavalry, armed solely with sabres, was ordered — either through poor communication or officer arrogance or incompetence or a little bit of everything — to charge down a valley and attack Russian artillery batteries. The Russians had 20 infantry battalions, fifty large artillery pieces and they held the heights on both sides of the valley, so these poor Light Brigade guys had to race through a hail of cannon fire towards a hail of cannon fire wielding nothing but their swords. Out of the 673 cavalrymen, 118 died, 122 were wounded and 335 horses killed. Around 60 men were taken prisoner by the Russians. Only 195 complete one man-one horse pairs were left, which obviously completely disabled their function as a cavalry brigade.

Although it was a stupid waste of life and a military failure, it gave the British cavalry a huge boost of respect and popularity. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a poem a few weeks after the battle which sealed their reputation for courage in the face of certain death. The Charge of the Light Brigade would become vernacular for the futile bravery.

Decades passed. In May of 1890, Secretary of State for War Edward Stanhope announced that the government would not grant any financial relief to the destitute survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade because it wouldn’t be fair to single out one set of survivors, no matter how glorious their action, for benefits that no other veterans of their rank would receive. The cavalry charge down the valley of death, as Tennyson so memorably put it, was by then immortalized in the public imagination as the pinnacle of courage and valour, so the neglect of these heroes, now old, infirm and poor, caused a scandal.

In response, the St. James Gazette set up the Light Brigade Relief Fund so that the public could help support the veterans with their contributions and redeem “a national disgrace of the most odious description.” The campaign was supported by contemporary luminaries like Rudyard Kipling, who wrote The Last of the Light Brigade, a sort of sequel to the Charge in which survivors reproach Tennyson for not writing a follow-up that would reveal how the country they fought so valiantly for has abandoned them.

Also enlisted in the cause were three people closely associated with the Battle of Balaclava: Florence Nightingale, pioneering nurse who made her bones, so to speak, tending to the wounded during the Crimean War, Lord Tennyson himself, author of the poem that would ensure the immortality of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Martin Leonard Lanfried, trumpeter of the 17th Lancers who sounded the actual charge. They would contribute with cutting edge technology: sound recordings of their voices that would be played at public events to raise money for the relief fund. This was the first Do They Know It’s Christmas ever made.

It was Colonel George Edward Gouraud, Civil War hero on the Union side, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for rallying the men under heavy enemy fire and Edison’s representative in England, who recorded the three on wax cylinders. He had personally contributed £1,500 (about £90,000 or $137,000 in today’s spending power) to the Light Brigade Relief Fund and then contributed his skills and Edison’s invention, which he had only introduced to England two years before, to the cause.

On May 15th, 1890, he recorded Alfred, Lord Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade. On July 30th, he recorded Florence Nightingale’s message to her “dear old comrades of Balaclava” at her home on 10 South Street, Park Lane, London. On August 2nd, he recorded Martin Lanfried sounding the charge on the very trumpet used at the battle. As if that wasn’t enough, the same bugle was also used at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and remained in use until the 17th Lancers were merged with other regiments to form the Queens Royal Lancers in 1993.

And now for the sounds of history. First is Alfred Tennyson reciting the first three stanzas of The Charge of the Light Brigade in stentorian declamation.

[audioplayer file=”″ titles=”Tennyson recites The Charge of the Light Brigade”]

Next is Florence Nightingale, introduced by Mary Helen Ferguson who has one of those unfortunate talking doll voices I can’t quite understand but appears to be announcing the location and date of the recording. Florence speaks after her in far more pleasing tones saying: “When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.”

[audioplayer file=”″ titles=”Florence Nightingale speaks for posterity”]

Finally here is Martin Lanfried, veteran of the Battle of Balaclava, who was wounded in the action and his horse killed underneath him, introducing himself and playing the charge.

[audioplayer file=”″ titles=”Trumpeter Martin Lanfried plays the charge”]

Colonel Gouraud’s Edison Phonograph Company went through various iterations and wound up Edison Bell Ltd., J.E. Hough owner. The market for cylinders was dying, replaced by phonograph records, and by the early 1930s it went bankrupt. Its assets, including the historic 1890 Light Brigade cylinders, were purchased by Howard Flynn. Flynn actually tried to sell a record of the Florence Nightingale recording with all royalties going to the Red Cross and other hospital charities, but it was a flop. In 1935, he donated the Nightingale cylinder to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. It was transferred to the Wellcome Trust Library where it remained unnoticed until 2004 when Dr. Michael Clark dug it up and brought it to the British Library for restoration.

The Relief Fund successfully raised enough money to give grants to the neediest of the soldiers with £3,000 left over. The money was invested so it could help the greatest number of veterans, but in 1892 Parliament granted pensions to soldiers who had served 10 years or more so the rest of the fund money was distributed on a sliding scale.

I’ve got a Victorian toll bridge in Wales to sell you

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

A Grade II listed wooden toll bridge built in 1879 over the Mawddach River estuary in Penmaenpool, North Wales, can be yours for the bargain price of £350,000 ($533,000). It really is a bargain, too. Included in the price are the keeper’s cottage, the toll booth, office, a store and the strip of road off the north side of the bridge. You don’t have to worry about making the mortgage payments either, because that toll is a license to print money. An average of 150-200 cars each day pay 60p to cross while pedestrians pay 20p. The bridge sees enough pedestrian and vehicular traffic in a year to rake in up to £60,000 (plus a £20 ferry rights fee).

The bridge was built by the Pernmaenpool Bridge Company to replace the ferry that used to take passengers across the river. Construction was commissioned by John Leigh Taylor, the son of a prosperous mill owner who had purchased the nearby country estate of Penmaenuchaf Hall in the 1870s. The timber structure has a 1.5 ton weight limit and a neat herringbone boardwalk-looking surface.

The cottage was added in 1910. The two story building has two bedrooms, one bathroom, an open plan kitchen and living area with a sweet cast iron woodburning stove. It has been extensively renovated — the bathroom looks like something you’d see on HGTV — but still retains its original uninsulated clapboard feel. The total surface area is a cozy 462 square feet. There are some pictures of the interior on the real estate listing page.

If the historical property and filthy lucre angles aren’t sufficiently tempting to get you in this bridge and cabin, the location is sure to suck you in. It may seem a little on the secluded side, but it’s just a hop, skip and jump from the town of Dolgellau and people flock to the area, particularly in the summer, to enjoy the the great natural beauty of the Mawddach valley and mountains of Snowdonia. The bridge is in fact inside the borders of Snowdonia National Park. There are steam trains within walking distance, the seaside and several lakes are nearby, and there are piles of activities available from golf to prime hiking and biking.

Just across the street from the cottage on the south end of the bridge is the George III Hotel. Now a boutique hotel, restaurant and pub, it was began as two buildings in the 17th century. One was a pub, the other a ship chandler’s (a shop specializing in ship supplies) which serviced the the ship building industry that once thrived on the estuary. The two buildings were connected in 1890, long after the decline of ship building, to make the hotel. An adjacent building known as The Lodge used to be a train station for the Cambrian Railways. The railway was closed in 1964 and the old tracks are now a public footpath and bicycle trail. The hotel bought the station in 1977 and converted it into bedrooms with en suit bathrooms.

County councillor Eryl Jones-Williams hopes the bridge will be purchased by the Snowdonia National Park Authority.

He said: “They own the footpath and cycle track along the former railway which runs alongside the bridge – the Mawddach Trail – which is highly popular, there is a public footpath on the other side and there are plans to create an osprey nesting site. It would be an ideal purchase for the authority.”

It really would, and I’m not just saying that because I’m fresh out of half million dollars. I’m sure they could use the toll money, and it just makes sense that that the bridge and associated buildings would belong to the park that it is already a part of geographically.

Peter the Wild Boy’s grave given Grade II listing

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

A modest headstone in the cemetery St. Mary’s Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire, simply inscribed “Peter the Wild Boy – 1785” has been granted Grade II listing, marking it as a monument of special historic interest. The gravestone is in good condition, but it’s the man who is buried under it who makes it historically significant. Peter’s life and thus his final resting place are important witnesses to the history of disability in England, a subject English Heritage has been exploring through its listed buildings and landscapes.

Peter the Wild Boy was found as a youth living a feral existence in the woods at Helpensen, about 25 miles southwest of Hanover, Germany, in May of 1724. When local farmer Jurgen Meyer found him, Peter was naked, filthy, with matted hair and long fingernails, walking on all fours and unable to speak. He had apparently been subsisting on a diet of acorns and whatever else he could forage for an unknown length of time. Small in stature, he was thought to be about 12 years old.

Meyer turned him over to the town mayor who turned him over to the St. Spiritus Poor House. Peter lived there nine months before being moved to the hospice adjacent to the prison of Celle, reportedly because he ate so much the poor house could no longer support him. There he was named Peter as he seemed to respond to the name, and it was there that Peter met the most elevated of patrons: King George I of England, who was visiting in his capacity as Elector of Hanover.

The King and the Wild Boy had dinner, which must have been an interesting study in contrasts. George left him in the care of the gardener in Hanover, but the story of the feral child returned to London with him and curiosity spread. In February 1726, Caroline, then Princess of Wales, had Peter brought to court. He became something of a pet to King George, an unwitting jester, amusing the aristocracy and nobility of England with his uncivilized antics. He liked picking the pockets of courtiers and royalty, tried to kiss fine ladies, snatched the Lord Chamberlain’s staff, wore his hat in the king’s presence, fought tooth and nail every morning when servants attempted to dress him in his elegant green suit.

It wasn’t all fun and games. Peter was baptized and given a tutor, Scottish doctor John Arbuthnot, who tried to teach him to speak. He learned how to say his name and a garbled version of “King George,” but that was as far as he got. There’s a painting of him of the east wall of the King’s Staircase in Kensington Palace. He’s standing next to Dr. Arbuthnot on a trompe l’oeil mural that depicts King George I’s courtiers and favorites as if they were clustered on a balcony overlooking the stairs. Peter is wearing his green coat and holding oak leaves and acorns, still his favorite food, in his right hands.

London society went wild over the Wild Boy. He was the subject on everyone’s lips in 1726, as a novelty and as a scientific and philosophical exhibit. To Enlightenment thinkers, Peter was a prism through which to address the question of nature vs. nurture, the “noble savage” and man’s origins in a “state of nature” before civilization permanently alters his mind and soul. Daniel Defoe called out those attitudes in a pamphlet published July 23rd, 1726, entitled Mere Nature Delineated Or a Body without a Soul.

“[Peter] seems to be the very which the learned World has for many Years past to wish for viz one that being kept entirely from Society so as never to have heard any one speak must therefore either not speak at all or if he did form any Speech himself then they should know what language Nature first form for Mankind.”

The social and intellectual reactions to an abandoned boy were prime fodder for the great satirists of the era. Jonathan Swift satirized the Peter craze in his 1726 piece It Cannot Rain But It Pours, Or, London Strewed With Rarities. Later that year, he and Dr. Arbuthnot collaborated on another satirical broadside about the lionizing of Peter, The Most Wonderful Wonder that ever appeared to the Wonder of the British Nation.

He wasn’t a boy raised by bears (seriously, in the discussion about which animal raised him, Mama Bear was one of the most popular theories) or evidence of the theoretical state of nature. From an examination of his portrait on King’s Staircase, geneticists now believe Peter suffered from Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a chromosomal disorder characterized by drooping eyelids, prominent “Cupid’s bow” lips, coarse hair and a severe intellectual disability.

Of course, when a person is a trend, he’s going to fall out of favor soon enough. After Queen Caroline’s death in 1737, Peter was sent to live with a Mrs. Tichbourne, one of the late Queen’s bedchamber ladies, in her farm in Hertfordshire. She was paid generously to take care of him and by all accounts she was kind to him. He traveled with her on several trips to visit farmer James Fenn at Axters End in Berkhamsted, finally moving from Mrs. Tichbourne’s home to Mr. Fenn’s.

He was happy there. The government granted Peter a lifetime pension of £35 a year (paid to his caretakers) and the farmers treated him well. He liked being out in the open, helping the farmers with their work. Sometimes he wasn’t all that helpful. He liked loading manure on carts, for instance, but he liked it so much that he’d assiduously unload a full cart just to load it again. He would spend nights out of doors, looking at the stars, and would sometimes wander off impressive distances.

After James Fenn died, Peter moved in with James’ brother Thomas Fenn at Broadway Farm. His drive to go walkabout got dangerous once when he disappeared in the summer of 1751 and could not be found. Ads in the paper with offers of rewards bore no results. Months later, in October 1751, inmates were released from a Norwich jail when the building caught fire. One of the inmates was hairy and spoke in grunts and was soon identified as the missing Wild Boy. Norwich is 130 miles away from Berkhamsted. How Peter got that far, nobody knows.

He was returned to Thomas Fenn’s farm where, to avoid any future such incidents, Mr. Fenn fitted him with a leather and iron collar inscribed “Peter the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted shall be paid for their trouble.” It’s creepy because it was padlocked in the back and looks like a dog collar or the kind of collars slaves were made to wear in Georgian England. On the other hand, it would keep him from being thrown in the slammer a hundred miles away should be wander too far afield again. That collar still exists today, in the library of Berkhamsted School

Peter would live at Broadway Farm, which passed through several hands after Thomas Fenn’s, for the rest of his life. He died on February 22nd, 1785, around the age of 72 and was buried at St. Mary’s. The grave is well-tended to and there are often flowers left on it, a symbol of the affection in which Peter’s memory is still held. A plaque inside the church reads:

To the memory of Peter, known as the Wild Boy, having been found wild in the forest of Hertswold near Hanover in the year 1725. He then appeared to be about 12 years old. In the following year he was brought to England by the order of the late Queen Caroline, and the ablest masters were provided for him. But proving himself incapable of speaking, or of receiving any instruction, a comfortable provision was made for him at a farm in this parish, where he continued to the end of his inoffensive life. He died on the 22nd of February, 1785, supposed to be aged 72.

2,200-year-old warrior’s grave found in Russia

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

In the summer of 2004, the Krasnodar regional museum near the village of Mezmay in the Central Caucasus was notified of a site that had been looted on a large scale. Staffers reconnoitered the area and found an ancient necropolis disfigured by 100 pits dug by looters. Upon inspection of the spoil heaps (material discarded by looters), experts found artifacts of archaeological significance like iron spear-heads, two complete bronze helmets in pieces, an iron mace in the shape of a Tree of Life and a fragment from a gold torque.

The discoveries spurred systematic excavation of the one-acre necropolis. Archaeologists found six burials, three of them recently looted. The necropolis appears to have been in use from the 3rd century B.C. to the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. One of the three graves which had not been plundered has now been fully excavated and turns out to be the elaborate three-level grave of a high status warrior, probably a chieftain. It dates to the earlier period of the necropolis, the late 3rd century or early 2nd century B.C. The culture cannot be conclusively determined — the site is 2,600 feet above sea level in the Caucasus mountains, hard enough to reach that little archaeological exploration has been done — but it was certainly influenced by Hellenism even as it maintained its own particular traditions and practices.

The grave pit is 12.5 feet wide, 14 feet long and 8.5 feet deep today, although the ground has shifted and subsided over time. The first level has a large dolomite slab along the eastern edge. Remains of animal bones and pottery fragments found on the slab and around it suggest it was used as a table for a sacrificial funeral feast. The second level contains the bones of three horses and a cow. Iron bits, cheek pieces and one large bead were found on the remains of the horses, part of the tack they were buried with.

On the third level archaeologists found a layer of charcoal 2 inches thick. There’s no evidence of fire in the pit itself, so this charcoal must have been deliberately added to the cist. The remains of a wooden coffin, decayed into a few pieces of wood and some compacted decomposed timber, covered the skeleton of an adult male. Buried with him was a prodigious number of grave goods, concentrated at his head, chest and feet. Because it’s such an impressive collection of artifacts, here’s a full list of what was found in this warrior’s grave:

  • two forged bronze helmets, one of which was initially on the head of the deceased
  • a gold temple ring
  • a black-glazed kantharos, or drinking cup
  • an oval gold fibula brooch with a rock crystal bead mounted in the center, a tunnel was drilled through the middle of the bead from both sides
  • a matched pair of round gold plaques with a hole in the middle
  • an iron sword along the northeast wall
  • a fragmented iron sword inside the left humerus
  • a hollow gold bead near the left wrist
  • three gold plaques of a type sewn to clothing found north of the elbow bone
  • a short iron sword along the right elbow
  • along the blade was a rectangular gold plaque mounted with a beautiful black patterned agate
  • a gold bracelet found near the handle of the sword
  • a bi-metallic fibula was in the shape of a Hercules’ Knot (a figure eight) found near the right radius
  • a bronze cast mirror with a figured handle found in the pelvic area
  • a pendant made from a chalcedony bead
  • a gold button found on the chest near the spine
  • a second gold button similar to the first found near the left humerus
  • two gold buttons near the right shoulder
  • a pendant made from a gold coin from Sinope depicting Athena on one side and Nike on the other
  • a cast glass semi-spherical bowl
  • a cast glass skyphos or two-handled wine cup
  • an iron axe
  • a gold umbo-shaped plaque near the handle of the axe
  • a long iron sword placed between the legs of the deceased with the sharp end pointed towards the pelvis
  • a round gold plaque with multi-colored inlay
  • the vertical rod of an iron tripod decorated with figures of deer found under the blade of the sword
  • two bowls found between the warrior’s legs
  • a rolled-up piece of iron chainmail near the right shinbone
  • underneath the chainmail were the ends of four long and three short spears
  • against the opposite wall, the iron ends of another two long spears and three short spears found fused together
  • a large forged bronze basin turned upside down with fragments of iron tongs underneath
  • a red clay kantharos with three handles
  • a black-burnished lamp
  • fragments of a bronze jug
  • an unidentified object made from a piece of horn
  • a bone knife found under the left shin
  • the complete skull of an adult wild boar
  • a large wheel-turned jug
  • one wheel-turned jug made of grey clay
  • one wheel-turned kantharos with three handles also made of grey clay
  • a penannular bronze bracelet
  • an iron arrowhead

That’s more than a dozen gold artifacts, and the gold and agate plaque is unique. This is the first gold sword decoration ever discovered in this part of the world. Suck it looters!

Replica to be made of oldest shipwreck in Canada

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

A team of Spanish maritime historians will build a full-size, seaworthy replica of the San Juan, a Basque whaling galleon that sank near the shore of Red Bay, Labrador, in the autumn of 1565. The wreck of the 52-foot, three-masted, 250-ton ship was discovered in 1978 by Parks Canada divers working on clues unearthed in documents found in Valladolid and Oñate by federal archivist Selma Huxley Barkham. It’s the oldest shipwreck ever discovered in Canadian waters and an invaluable source of information about Basque shipping in general and the Basque presence in Canada in particular.

Canadian archaeologists will meet with Spanish experts this week to share all the information on the ship’s construction they’ve accumulated over the decades.

“Right from the start, we thought this was a really, really great idea,” said Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada’s chief of underwater archeology. “For archeologists, this is basically the ultimate final product. You’re taking all of the research from a site that’s been excavated, then you take it to the maximum in experimental archeology,” physically recreating “what is lost.”

The replica will take several years to build. It’s scheduled to be up and running by 2016 in time to be a part of the celebrations in the Basque city of San Sebastian which has been designated by the Europe Council of the European Union as a European Capital of Culture for 2016. San Sebastian is on the southern coast of the Bay of Biscay and was an important capital of shipping during the Middle Ages and Age of Discovery. Many of the whaling expeditions to Labrador (known as the Carrera de Terranova or Newfoundland Run) in the 16th century departed from San Sebastian and were funded by its financiers.

The Terranovan whaling voyages were as profitable as the Carrera de Indias (Indies Run) which transported massive quantities of gold and silver to Spain. The earliest Spanish records on Labrador whaling date to the 1540s and they document extensive trade in “lumera” (whale oil used for lamps which burned brighter than vegetable oils), and blubber that was used in the construction of ships, the manufacture of soap, pharmaceutical products and in the textile industry. The Basque shipping industry had extensive experience in whaling closer to home, so when the new market opened in the New World, their expertise ensured big profits from day one. Even during war between France and Spain and outbreaks of piracy in the 1550s, Basque ships carried whale products to England, Flanders and Spain.

An average of 15 Basque ships a year did the Labrador-Europe run, each of them carrying at least 1,000 400-pound barrels of whale oil and blubber. That’s a conservative estimate. Many years production exceeded 15,000 barrels per year. The number of whales killed in the Strait of Belle Isle averaged 20 per ship. The San Juan was carrying almost 1,000 barrels of whale oil when she went down. Most of that was salvaged from the wreck and sent to its destination.

Although Basque whalers were a major presence in the Labrador straits from the 1530s to the early 17th century, they haven’t gotten much attention because they didn’t put down roots. Their interest in Canada was purely commercial; there was no attempt to colonize it. They summered on the coast, building camps and red-tiled huts over cauldron furnaces which boiled for days, rendering the whale blubber. Those curved red tiles are highly distinctive, a characteristic element of Basque architecture and one of the few pieces of physical evidence the Basque crews left behind. They were also used to roof the cooperage cabins in which all those thousands of barrels needed to transport the whale oil were made.

One of the most exceptional Basque artifacts ever recovered in Labrador’s Red Bay was a nearly complete whaling rowboat known as a chalupa. Sounds delicious, I know, but it’s actually a small vessel used to chase, harpoon and tow whales. It was found pinned beneath the collapsed side of a 200-ton whaling ship and was excavated and re-assembled board by board. It’s now on display at the Red Bay National Historic Site visitor’s center, along with reconstructions of the red-tiled rendering cauldron huts, models of the San Juan and a replica of a section of a whaling hull that shows how the barrels were packed.




February 2013


Add to Technorati Favorites