Archive for April, 2013

Metropolitan Museum of Art buys Le Brun Polyxena

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the 1647 painting by Charles Le Brun that was discovered in the Coco Chanel Suite in Paris’ Ritz Hotel during renovations last year, was bought at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1,885,194, three times the high estimate. It’s new world record for a Le Brun painting. There are very few museums that have the kind of acquisition budget that will keep them in the bidding when prices get to this level, so it’s extremely fortunate for the public that the Met was in it to win it.

The Sacrifice of Polyxena by Charles Le Brun is without doubt one of the most important paintings by the artist to appear on the art market in recent years. It is a major work by an artist who is not well represented overseas, and I am not surprised that it has been acquired by such a prestigious institution as The Metropolitan Museum of Art whose collection of French 17th century paintings will be greatly enhanced,” said Olivier Lefeuvre, Senior Specialist of Christie’s Old Master Paintings department.

The collection really will be great enhanced. Before Monday’s auction, the Met didn’t own a single painting by Charles Le Brun, which amazes me because I would have thought they’d have at least one of every named master by now. There are several pen and ink and chalk drawings by Le Brun in the Met collection, but none of them are on display. They have six by Nicolas Poussin , First Painter to King Louis XIII, including a spectacular The Abduction of the Sabine Women which is one of two paintings on the subject done by the master. (The other one is in The Louvre.)

Now they’ve filled that major lacuna with a very important early work by Le Brun fresh off his four-year trip to Rome with Poussin, the museum plans to waste no time putting the painting on display. The 17th century French paintings gallery is currently closed for construction, but the Le Brun will be hanging proudly next the Poussins when it reopens at the end of May.

The Ritz’s owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, will donate the proceeds from the sale to the Dodi Fayed International Charitable Foundation, the charity he established in memory of his son who was killed in the car accident that also claimed the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. The foundation is dedicated to supporting children with potentially fatal illnesses and those who live in extreme poverty.


Tapestry stolen by Belgian Lupin returned to Spain

Friday, April 19th, 2013

The Virgin and Saint Vincent, 16th century tapestry stolen from a church in Roda de Isábena, a tiny town in the high Pyrenees, in 1979 was officially returned to Spain on Wednesday, April 17th, in a ceremony at the Spanish’s ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton and Spanish Ambassador Ramón Gil-Casares spoke at the ceremony, describing the recovery operation as a fine example of what can be accomplished when law enforcement collaborates even across national boundaries.

This was certainly a joint effort, starting with the Spanish Civil Guard and coming to fruition in the United States. The stolen tapestry was first identified by a curator at a museum in Lérida when he saw it in an auction catalogue from the Brussels Antiques and Fine Art Fair of January 2010. The Spanish authorities contacted the Belgian police who investigated the tapestry and found that it was co-owned by a Belgian gallery owner and two partners in Milan and Paris. They found the owners had shopped the piece around to various galleries since 2008.

For reasons that are not clear to me but probably have something to do with auction houses being, on the whole, fairly amoral organizations, the discovery of the tapestry did not stop the sale. It went ahead in April of 2010. The tapestry sold for $369,000 to a dealer in Houston. That’s when Spain turned to the United States for help in stopping this sick cycle of fencing stolen goods. They invoked the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty and after an investigation, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents in Houston seized the tapestry in November of 2012.

There was never any doubt that this was the tapestry stolen in December of 1979 from the Cathedral of St. Vincent Martyr of Roda de Isábena. It’s a wool-silk weave depicting three saints – Saint Ramón, Saint Vincent and Saint Valerius — paying homage to the Virgin Mary and Christ child. Saint Valerius was bishop of Zaragoza in the late 3rd, early 4th century. Saint Vincent was his deacon. They were both tortured under Diocletian (a gridiron was reputedly involved) and died at Roman hands. Relics of Saints Vincent and Valerius are still kept at the cathedral in Roda.

Saint Ramón was bishop of Roda-Barbastre from 1104 until his death in 1126. He’s the one who commissioned the building of the Romanesque Cathedral we see today (with many later additions). His remains were buried in a beautiful sarcophagus in the cathedral. All three of these saints, therefore, have strong connections to Roda and the Huesca region in general. The tapestry was commissioned to honor the town’s main religious figures and it hung above the church’s altar for nearly 500 years.

The sleepy town of Roda d’Isàvena was a county capital and seat of the diocese in Saint Ramón’s days. The episcopal see was moved to Lleida in 1149 and Roda slowly contracted from a bustling regional center to a one-horse hamlet. Today it is the smallest village in Spain to have a cathedral. This sadly made it a prime target for the depredations of Erik the Belgian, real name René Alphonse van den Berghe, an art thief who for 30 years looted museums, churches and monasteries mainly in Spain but also elsewhere in Europe.

He was arrested in Spain in 1981 and jailed for the next four years (with a few hours’ break in 1983 when he faked a heart attack and then escaped from the hospital by literally tying his sheets together and climbing out the window; he was immediately recaptured). He was never convicted of anything, probably because during those years stolen and missing artwork just kept turning up mysteriously. In other words, he cut a deal, and now the statute of limitations has run out so he feels free to confess/brag about his exploits which, according to him, include 600 thefts of more than 6,000 artifacts — statues, paintings, tapestries, jewels, manuscripts, altarpieces, you name it.

Spain was one of his favorites targets because it was packed with cultural patrimony kept in unsecured venues in small, off-the-beaten-path towns. It was easy for him to just walk in and help himself to whatever he liked. It’s hard to know what’s true or not because he’s a scumbag and proven liar, but according to interviews he’s given, much of his thieving was not just enabled but actively commissioned by church authorities. He claims whenever the Vatican wanted to convert some of their clutter into cash, they’d sell it to him and call it stolen in public.

Apparently he prided himself on selecting artifacts based on their beauty rather than their monetary value. Not that that inspired him to treat them with due reverence. One of the objects he stole from Roda’s Cathedral of St. Vincent Martyr is the chair of Saint Ramón, a 9th century cross-frame wooden stool carved with Nordic motifs that is the oldest piece of furniture known to survive in Spain. Erik the Belgian cut it to pieces to make it easier to smuggle out of the country. Decades later, after the statute of limitations had run out, he arranged for the return of some fragments. Those are now arranged on an acrylic cross-frame structure to give visitors and pilgrims some sense of how it once looked.

As he tells the story, the chair was burned by his men when he was being tortured by the cops in 1982 and they mailed the fragments to the Ministry of Culture, but from what I can tell from news articles, as late as the mid-1990s the chair was in parts unknown. The remains don’t look scorched at all either. It’s probably just another one of his tall tales, like when he says he broke into Yuste Monastery, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V moved to after his abdication in 1556 until his death in 1558, stripped it completely bare of all its valuables and then had sex with his girlfriend on Charles’s bed.

I suppose we should be happy The Virgin and Saint Vincent tapestry is still in one piece and, uhh, unstained. Conservators will double-check on that score. The tapestry will be kept at the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Spain (IPCE), a center for restoration with the latest technology and experts in the field. It will be examined and analyzed in great detail to see if it requires any interventions to keep it from deteriorating any further and to determine the optimal conditions for its long-term preservation.

Since that picture’s a little blurry, here’s some B-roll from the ceremony that shows the tapestry being carried into the room in a crate, then unrolled and displayed.


The Digital Public Library of America opens today

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

At noon today, the Digital Public Library of America opened for business. Modeled on the greatness that is the Europeana library, the DPLA collects more than two million objects from museums, historical archives, universities and libraries across the country. The focus is American cultural history as reflected in photographs, manuscripts, letters, maps, artifacts, books, audio, films and more, all drawn from contributing institutions like the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the New York Public Library, Harvard University, the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection and the University of Virginia. The DPLA conveniently collates material already online — things you could find if you searched the websites of those institutions individually — but it also includes items that have been digitized but were isolated on local computer systems.

The library’s goal is to be a history-targeted Google, a vast repository of historical information that is open to the public and fully searchable. It has none the barriers that keep certain institutional sites from being included in Google search results, and unlike Wikipedia, its contents are mainly primary sources. The hope is that it will prove itself to be an invaluable tool for research, where students, teachers, scholars, journalists and happy nerds in general can get information from the horse’s mouth instead of via layers of edited composition. You can search by keyword, or browse by subject, and if you register for an account, you can save your searches, individual items and exhibitions and make shareable playlists out of them.

The contents are not exclusively American since many of the contributing institutions have artifacts from other countries that have been uploaded to the digital library, plus there are collaborations with international counterparts planned. DPLA has already partnered with Europeana on an app which allows users to search both databases at once, and they are working together to create an exhibition about European emigration to the United States during the boom years of the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition will bring together manuscripts, photographs, historical records from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Jewish Museum of London, the Royal Library of the Netherlands, the Saxon State Library and the Norwegian Photo Archives.

That one is not available yet, but the library has compiled seven online exhibitions to kick off festivities. What’s cool about them is they each have a local flavor since the topics are drawn from specific partner collections and then fleshed out with additional substance from other institutions. For example, the History of Survivance: Upper Midwest 19th Century Native American Narratives exhibit is about Native American communities in Minnesota. It taps the Minnesota Digital Library and Minnesota Historical Society for period photographs and artifacts which exemplify the times and cultures being explored.

It’s the kind of thing you would get to enjoy if you lived in Minnesota and could check out the new show at the historical society. Most people don’t have that opportunity, however, and I love that even with its vastly wide rubric, the DPLA is dedicated to showcasing local history. The Minnesota sites are excellent in their own right, but I don’t know how many times I’ve been researching a story or link-surfing only to reach a local history site that has very limited resources and few options for sharing the wealth of their collections, archives, curatorial knowledge. The DPLA can give those sorts of institutions a great boost to their Internet presence as well as send them new real-life eyeballs.

The best part, other than having everything in one place, is how easy it is to stumble on collections you didn’t know existed. Did you know that Harvard University Library has a collection of 3,500 daguerreotypes, 3,106 of which have been digitized and are available to view over the Internet? I can never get enough of daguerreotypes so that’s good and bookmarked now. I found that by popping around the timeline, and I found the Digital Library of Georgia by letting my clicking finger do the walking over the map.

There are still some vagaries and bugs here and there. If you travel the timeline, for example, and drag the selecting tool to the decade you want, there are bars of varying length reflecting the number of artifacts in the database from the years you picked. However, sometimes when you click on a year that in decade view claimed to have an item, in year view it’s showing zero items. Also, when you’re going through the exhibits and you click on the information icon, the info includes the URL to the artifact on its home website, but it’s not hot so you have to copy and paste it into the browser address bar to go there. Another nit to pick is that the images, while almost all of them are highly zoomable, can’t be opened full-size.

That’s small potatoes, though. Let’s not forget that when Europeana debuted, it was so hugely popular that the whole site crashed and was completely out of commission for months. Minor weirdnesses are to be expected in the early days, and the DPLA is going to be expanding mightily over the next years. Future plans include apps, the library used a developer platform by third parties, partnerships with additional institutions and, avoiding the controversies that bogged down Google Books, some kind of digital lending model for works — books and other media — that are still under copyright.

So off you go, then. Cancel all your plans for the weekend and have yourself a voyage through time, space and culture instead.


King Khufu’s port, papyri found on Red Sea

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

The remains of a large commercial harbour complex dating back to the Fourth Dynasty 4,500 years ago have been discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, a town on the Red Sea shore 110 miles south of Suez city, Egypt. Inscriptions and radiocarbon dating of pottery date the site to the reign of the pharaoh Khufu (aka Cheops). The port was one of a network on both sides of the Gulf of Suez used to transport limestone blocks from the quarries and copper and turquoise from the mines in south Sinai back to the Nile Valley. It’s the earliest found to date, the oldest commercial port found in Egypt and according to Sorbonne Egyptologist and excavation director Pierre Tallet, the oldest commercial port ever found anywhere, predating any others by 1,000 years.

Archaeologists from the French Institute for Archaeological Studies (IFAO) found a long L-shaped quay that starts on the beach and runs east under water for 525 feet before turning southeast for 394 feet. It appears to have been a breakwater structure that protected moored ships from the strong winds and powerful north-south currents of the Red Sea coast. Inside the protected area researchers found 24 pharaonic anchors. Made out of limestone, the anchors are carved into triangular, rectangular and cylindrical shapes with a hole in the upper section. Many of them were found in pairs which suggests deliberate placement rather than haphazardly discarded ship accessories. That’s why researchers believe they were stationed permanently in the water so that ships in transit could be moored to them.

This is an exciting find because although Egyptian anchors have been discovered before, most of them date to the Middle Kingdom and had been put to new uses. These are the first ancient anchors found in situ where they did their original anchor duty. It’s the oldest and largest collection of early Bronze Age anchors ever discovered.

The harbour complex continues inland. Even more anchors (99 of them, to be specific) were found in the remains of a light camp installation about 650 feet from the shore. There were hieroglyphic inscriptions on some of the anchors which Tallet believes were the name of the boat to which they once belonged. There’s a mound of limestone blocks nearby which was probably used as a visual landmark.

A mile and a quarter inland from the mound are the remains of an isolated rectangular building about 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The building is divided into 13 elongated cell-like rooms. Its function is unknown but we do know it’s the largest pharaonic building found on the Red Sea coast.

Just over two and a half miles from the shore at the at the foot of the mountains are groups of camps and what may be defensive surveillance installations. The largest of them has a complex of rectangular structures with cell-like rooms that were probably living spaces for the workers.

Three miles from the shore, just south of the camps is a system of 25 to 30 galleries carved into the bedrock. The galleries are not a new find; they were first discovered in 1823 by British Egyptologists Sir John Garner Wilkinson and James Burton who thought they were catacombs. There was no follow-up until 1954 when French researchers François Bissey and René Chabot-Morisseau began to explore the area only to be stopped before they really got going by the Suez crisis. Tallet’s team used Bissey and Chabot-Morisseau’s notes and Google Earth satellite images to find the site when their project began in 2008.

Excavations began in 2011 on four of the galleries. The team found that the galleries were not catacombs; they were storage facilities used to keep dismantled boats safe from the elements. Pieces of ropes, textiles, large pieces of wood, fragments of cedar beams, a piece of boat timber nine feet wide, the end of an oar were discovered in the galleries. The galleries range in length from 52 feet to 112 feet and are an average of 10 feet wide and seven feet high. They were not carved haphazardly at different times, but according to a pre-planned layout. Access to the galleries was protected by causeways of monumental stone blocks. The entrances were closed and opened by an elaborate portcullis system of large limestone blocks similar to the ones used during Fourth Dynasty funerary structures. The blocks were inscribed with the Khufu’s name written in red ink.

Inside the storage galleries archaeologists made another major find: hundreds of papyrus fragments, 10 of them in very good condition. These are the oldest papyri ever found. They’re a social history bonanza, describing the administration of the harbour complex during the 27th year of Khufu’s reign. There are monthly reports on the number of harbour workers, on how they were supplied with bread and beer. Perhaps most riveting of all the papyri is a diary that describes the work of gathering limestone for the construction of the Great Pyramid. From the Discovery News slideshow of the finds:

[I]t’s the diary of Merrer, an Old Kingdom official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

From four different sheets and many fragments, the researchers were able to follow his daily activity for more that three months.

“He mainly reported about his many trips to the Turah limestone quarry to fetch block for the building of the pyramid,” Tallet said.

“Although we will not learn anything new about the construction of Cheops monument, this diary provides for the first time an insight on this matter,” Tallet said.

I love how it’s a fully graphed out table, a spreadsheet in hieroglyphics. The papyri are now in the Suez museum where they will be conserved, catalogued and studied.

The harbour complex was definitely Khufu’s baby, used during his reign and for a few decades later. Pottery evidence indicates that the installations were occupied primarily during the first half of the Fourth Dynasty. There are some traces that parts of the complex were still in use in the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty, 72 years after Khufu’s death, but after that it was abandoned.


If you’re seeing this, DNS has reached you

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

According to various handy DNS propagation checkers, most of the world is seeing this site at its new location, but there are a couple of stragglers (London, Auckland) that still see the blog as it was on the old host this morning. They’ll be back in the loop shortly.

Hi London! Hi Auckland! If you’re seeing this entry, you’ve caught up. Any comments you left in the last six hours didn’t make it here, so please do repost them if you can.

Now to secure a nice, juicy, huge-picture-laden story to inaugurate all this lovely new space I have. If a certain request I submitted to a certain archaeological organization gets accepted, there’s going to be a deluge of sweet photography coming at you. :chicken:


The Lancet admits: You knew something, John Snow

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

One hundred years and one month to the day after the birth of John Snow, the first anesthesiologist in the UK, the man who identified that cholera was transmitted by the ingestion of water contaminated by feces and who performed the first modern epidemiological study to defeat that dread disease, the British medical journal The Lancet has finally published a correction to the paltry obituary they ran when he died far too soon at the age of 45 in 1858.

The Lancet wishes to correct, after an unduly prolonged period of reflection, an impression that it may have given in its obituary of Dr John Snow on June 26, 1858. The obituary briefly stated:

“Dr John Snow: This well-known physician died at noon, on the 16th instant, at his house in Sackville Street, from an attack of apoplexy. His researches on chloroform and other anaesthetics were appreciated by the profession.”

The journal accepts that some readers may wrongly have inferred that The Lancet failed to recognise Dr Snow’s remarkable achievements in the field of epidemiology and, in particular, his visionary work in deducing the mode of transmission of epidemic cholera. The Editor would also like to add that comments such as “In riding his hobby very hard, he has fallen down through a gully-hole and has never since been able to get out again” and “Has he any facts to show in proof? No!”, published in an Editorial on Dr Snow’s theories in 1855, were perhaps somewhat overly negative in tone.

:giggle: The modern Lancet appears to have a gift for understatement commensurate with the Victorian-era publication’s gift for hyperbolic metaphor.

The cause of this shameful oversight was Thomas Wakley, founder and editor of The Lancet and avid social reformer whose efforts to shut down noxious polluting factories John Snow had damaged by testifying before a Select Committee of Parliament that miasmic fumes from tanneries and soap factories were not the cause of cholera epidemics. That was the proximate cause of the 1855 editorial excoriating Snow’s gully-hole and it doubtless played a major role in the journal’s editorial decision to publish a weak, two-sentence death notice for a great medical innovator three years later.

Wakley and The Lancet had gone up against Snow on various medical issues from the beginning of Snow’s career when he made his bones as a newly minted member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England by writing letters to the editor rebutting published articles. His letters about the dangers of the use of arsenic as a preservative in cadavers and on the physics of respiration were his first published works. Wakley wasn’t a fan. He was an old school physician who believed in the superiority of the inductive method — accumulation of facts leading to a general conclusion — and found Snow’s rebuttals excessively reliant on his own clinical experience. In the issue of May 25th, 1839, he refused to publish one of Snow’s letters posting instead a rather brutal iceburn:

“The remarks of Mr. John Snow on a recent communication from M. H., on the physiology of respiration, have been received. We cannot help thinking that Mr. Snow might better employ himself in producing something, than to criticizing the productions of others.”

Burned or not, John Snow actually took Thomas Wakley’s advice. He stopped sending letters to the editor and focused on a specialty that would ultimately tie together all the areas that he became known for: respiration, mechanisms and pathologies thereof. That interest was reflected in his first paper, On Distortions of the Chest and Spine in Children, from Enlargement of the Abdomen, published in the London Medical Gazette in April, 1841, which analyses the effect of abdominal deformity on breathing.

Five years later, his interest in respiration led him to investigate the brand new field of anesthesia, which at its heart was a question of how to walk the fine line between pain prevention and the suppression of respiration. When ether first came to England from the United States in 1846, it had a bad reputation. Snow created a delivery system that was more reliable — described in detail in 1847’s On the Inhalation of the Vapour of Ether in Surgical Operations — and became England’s first specialized anesthesiologist.

On April 7th, 1853, Snow was called to Buckingham Palace by Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria’s physician of 19 years, to administer chloroform to the Queen during the delivery of her eighth child, Prince Leopold. Her gave her small doses through a dainty handkerchief every time she had a contraction, enough to provide pain relief but not to render the royal body unconscious. According to Snow’s case book, the Queen was “very cheerful” after the successful delivery and “express[ed] herself much gratified with the effect of the chloroform.”

The Queen’s imprimatur granted chloroform and Dr. Snow a whole new legitimacy in medical circles and in the wider society. The Lancet not only disapproved, but actually refused to believe it had even happened. In an unsigned editorial probably written by Wakely, the Lancet disparaged the “rumor” that the Queen had been given chloroform because it had “unquestionably caused instantaneous death in a considerable number of cases” of surgical anesthesia, and therefore it stood to reason that “the obstetric physicians to whose ability the safety of our illustrious Queen is confided do not sanction the use of chloroform in natural labour.” The editorial made no distinction between analgesic use and anesthetic use.

It wasn’t all bad between Snow and The Lancet. In 1846 he wrote a letter to the editor expressing dismay at The Lancet‘s use of the term “allopathy” in an article about homeopathy because it lent legitimacy to the practice. The letter was published and the editor agreed. Snow published 15 papers in The Lancet during his career, eight of them after the 1853 editorial, several of them about chloroform.

In 1849, Snow published his first paper on the cause of cholera. As an expert in respiration, he found the conventional wisdom that the disease was contracted by inhaling the miasmic vapours of decomposition unsatisfying. If the disease is conveyed by inhalation into the blood stream, then why are its symptoms centered in the alimentary system? Ten years before Pasteur and without realizing microscopic bacilli were to blame, Snow recognized that whatever caused cholera was some small, highly reproductive creature swallowed by its victims.

Having rejected effluvia and the poisoning of the blood in the first instance, and being led to the conclusion that the disease is communicated by something that acts directly on the alimentary canal, the excretions of the sick at once suggest themselves as containing some material which, being accidentally swallowed, might attach itself to the mucous membrane of the small intestines, and there multiply itself by the appropriation of surrounding matter, in virtue of molecular changes going on within it, or capable of going on, as soon as it is placed in congenial circumstances

He continued to research the disease for years after the initial publication. He hit the streets, mapping out the affected areas, noting sources of water, sewage, contaminants, population density, overall health of the residents, all the stuff that epidemiologists do today only he did it first. In 1854, a major outbreak of cholera devastated Soho. By interviewing the locals, Snow pinpointed the source as one specific water pump on Broad Street. He convinced authorities to remove the pump handle making it impossible to use. The outbreak ended.

The story of the Broad Street pump handle has become part of the Snow mythos, although he himself noted that the outbreak was already waning when the pump was disabled simply from people fleeing the area. Also, the council just returned the handle after the outbreak was over without doing anything about the cesspits that were contaminating the water being pumped. They were just covering all their bases. They didn’t particularly believe Snow’s theory and they preferred denial anyway because nobody likes to think they’re drinking their neighbors’ shit.

Snow’s research was pretty much dismissed by medical societies and journals too. Miasma theory held strong sway. Finally King Cholera pitted Snow and Wakley against each other in an arena where Wakley had been an intensely passionate advocate since he founded The Lancet in 1823: public health reform. Wakley was a dedicated activist, going up against the medical and political establishment in favor of the downtrodden again and again.

The 1855 Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act would have greatly reduced the fumes released by the many factories stinking up poor sections of London and other cities in England. Some of them would have had to close altogether. Wakley and many other medical professionals believed the putrid stenches belched by these establishments were sources of illness and epidemic diseases like cholera. The inhalation of effluvia from decomposing matter or diseased flesh, it was widely held, caused disease.

John Snow disagreed. His epidemiological research had shown that the highest concentration of cholera infection happened around water sources, not around glue factories no matter how many dead horses they had lying around. Here’s his testimony before the committee.

Q: “To what points would you desire to draw the attention of the Committee as regards the sanitary question?”
A: “I have paid a great deal of attention to epidemic diseases, more particularly to cholera, and in fact to the public health in general; and I have arrived at the conclusion with regard to what are called offensive trades, that many of them really do not assist in the propagation of epidemic diseases, and that in fact they are not injurious to the public health. I consider that if they were injurious to the public health they would be extremely so to the workmen engaged in those trades, and as far as I have been able to learn, that is not the case; and from the law of the diffusion of gases, it follows, that if they are not injurious to those actually upon the spot, where the trades are carried on, it is impossible they should be to persons further removed from the spot.”

Wakley responded with an eruption of editorial fury. The brief quote cited in The Lancet yesterday doesn’t begin to do it justice.

They have “scientific” evidence! They bring before the Committee a doctor and a barrister. They have formed an Association. They have a Secretary, a bone merchant, who has read the writings of Dr. Snow. Now, the theory of Dr. Snow tallies wonderfully with the views of the “Offensive Trades’ Association” — we beg pardon if that is not the right appellation — and so the Secretary puts himself in communication with Dr. Snow. And they could not possibly get a witness more to their purpose. Dr. Snow tells the Committee that the effluvia from bone-boiling are not in any way prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants of the district; that “ordinary decomposing matter will not produce disease in the ‘human subject.'” He is asked by Mr. Adderley (of the Committee), “Have you never known the blood poisoned by inhaling putrid matter?” (Snow’s response) “No; but by dissection-wounds the blood may be poisoned.” (Adderley asked) “Never by inhaling putrid gases?” (Snow responded) “No; gases produced by decomposition, when very concentrated, will produce sudden death; but when the person is not killed, if he recovers, he has no fever or illness.”

Dr. Snow next admits that gases from the decay of animal matter may produce vomiting but says this would not be injurious unless frequently repeated.

Is this scientific evidence? Is it consistent with itself? It is in accordance with the experience of men who have studied the question without being blinded by theories? […]

It will be very difficult to persuade us that the long-continued action of gases known to have such lethal powers, if concentrated, is not injurious to health, when in a state of dilution … and we presume that there is hardly a practitioner of experience and average powers of observation who does not daily observe the same thing. Why is it then, that Dr. Snow is singular in his opinion? Has he any fact to show in proof? No! But he has a theory, to the effect that animal matters are only injurious when swallowed! The lungs are proof against animal poisons; but the alimentary canal affords a ready inlet… The fact is that the well whence Dr. Snow draws all sanitary truth is the main sewer. His specus, or den, is a drain. In riding his hobby very hard, he has fallen down through a gully-hole and has never since been able to get out again. […]

In that dismal Acherontic stream is contained the one and only true cholera germ, and if you take care not to swallow that you are safe from harm. Smell it if you may, breathe it fearlessly, but don’t eat it.

The bill eventually passed, but the provisions against the “offensive trades” were significantly weakened. Although in 1856 The Lancet did publish two of Snow’s papers on how cholera is spread (The Mode of Propagation of Cholera and On the Supposed Influence of Offensive Trades on Mortality), Wakley’s rage against Snow still hadn’t dissipated sufficiently three years later to grant the man a proper obituary, something The Lancet did often for professionals of far less consequence who nobody remembers anymore.


Programming note

Monday, April 15th, 2013

The blog is on the move again. We’re switching to a new host with unlimited bandwidth because two bandwidth exceeded shutdowns in three months is more than I can tolerate. The data transfer will begin shortly. Any comments posted after the transfer has begun may be lost, so steel yourself.

Once the content has moved, DNS propagation might make the site unavailable for as long as 48 hours depending on where you are. In my experience, it has never taken anything close to that much time, but forewarned is forearmed and all that.

Whatever happens, don’t freak out. It’ll all be cool in the end. :cool:


Digital imaging reveals history of moai carvings

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Researchers at the University of Southampton have used digital imaging to examine in greater detail the carvings on the back of Hoa Hakananai’a, an Easter Island statue in the British Museum. Eight feet high with the oversized head, prominent eyebrow ridge, long nose, longer ears and downturned mouth characteristic of the moai (meaning “statue” in the Rapa Nui language), this particular specimen some unusual features. Most of the moai — 834 out 887 — were carved out of tuff, a soft volcanic stone that is easily carved. This is one of only 13 that was made of hard basalt, a much more difficult material to carve, which suggests this statue was commissioned by someone of wealth and rank. Its body was once painted in red and white, but all the paint was lost during the long ocean voyage from Easter Island to England in 1868.

The back of the statue is covered in intricate ceremonial imagery connected to the birdman cult, a religion that grew on the island starting around 1400. Hoa Hakananai’a was made around 1000-1200 A.D., so those carvings were added hundreds of years later. By the 17th century with the culture under pressure from ecological disaster, the ascendance of the birdman seems to have come at the expense of the moai and the traditional ancestor worship that generated them. The monoliths began to be toppled. There were still some standing when Captain James Cook crew arrived in 1774 — a landscape painted by William Hodges, Cook’s artist, depicts several standing moai wearing their red stone hats — but only a few. The last report of upright statues came in 1838. When Hoa Hakananai’a was removed from Rapa Nui in 1868, there were none left standing.

In the transitional period between the moai and the birdman, at least some of the old statues were carved with symbolism from the upstart cult. The soft tuff statues were easily eroded, so little evidence remains on their bodies. The carvings on the basalt statues, therefore, are important sources of information about the profound cultural changes on Easter Island from the 15th century onward. Yet, they have not been thoroughly studied by archaeologists, not even Hoa Hakananai’a who has been sitting in the British Museum for 145 years.

Imaging technology can help bridge that knowledge gap. The University of Southampton researchers deployed photogrammetric modelling, wherein an object is photographed hundreds of times from different angles to create a composite digital model that can be viewed in 360 degrees, and reflectance transformation imaging which takes hundreds of high resolution pictures under different angled lights to illuminate details with light and shadow, a far more agile digital version of an analog archaeological practice done with flashlights and head tilts.

Using these techniques, Mike Pitts and the team made some fascinating discoveries, perhaps the most significant being the apparently simple recognition that a carved bird beak is short and round, not long and pointed as previously described: this allowed the two birdmen on the back to be marked as male and female, unlocking a narrative story to the whole composition relating to Easter Island’s unique birdman cult. They also realised that the statue is one of the few on Easter Island that did not stand on a platform beside the shore. It is now believed to have always stood in the ground, where it was found, on top of a 300 metre cliff.

Mike comments: “Study of the tapering base suggests that rather than being the result of thinning to make it fit into a pit, as often suggested, it is more likely part of the original boulder or outcrop from which it was carved. This may also explain why, as we now see it in the British Museum, it appears to lean slightly to the left – its uneven end resulted in its being incorrectly set into its 19th century plinth.”

There are several phases of carving on the back, separated by centuries. The carving around the waist of three bands is a maro, a symbolic loincloth which, along with the ring just above it, were part of the original design. Later, once it was half-buried in debris, four komari, inverted V shapes representing female genitalia, were carved from top to bottom on the back of the right ear.

Even later than that, the central story of the birdman — a male fledgling with an open beak reaching out of the nest while two birdmen with the head of a bird and human hands and feet stand watch on either side of him — was carved on the back. The human-bird hybrid on the right has a rounded beak, indicating femaleness. That suggests the two birdmen are actually the chick’s mom and dad. Underscoring the gendering of the birdmen, the female is on the side of the komari, while the male is flanked by a carving of a ceremonial dance paddle called an ‘ao, a symbol of male authority.

The digital imaging has also revealed a rounded shape near the bottom half of the female birdman which could be the egg the fledgling has just hatched from, and the remains of what may have been fingers around the statue’s navel that were later removed.

Creating digital models of such complex surfaces is a complex process. The project is ongoing, so the team hopes to reveal even more details as they continue to work on it.


First book printed in US could make $30 million

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in British North America 136 years before it became the United States, is one of the rarest books in the world. There are only 11 copies known to have survived, and they are all held in libraries: the John Carter Brown Library, the Yale University Library, the Bodleian Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Henry E. Huntington Library, Harvard University Library, the American Antiquarian Society, the Rosenbach Library & Museum and two copies in the Boston Public Library which belong to Boston’s Old South Church. One of those copies, known as the Beta Copy because it’s slightly less pristine compared to the Alpha Copy, will be going on the auction block at Sotheby’s in November.

It’s been two generations since the last time one of these psalters was offered for sale. In January of 1947 it sold at auction for what was then a record $151,000 to rare book dealer Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach. Rosenbach had set the previous record for a book in the English language sold at public auction when he bought a First Folio of Shakespeare for $72,000 in 1933. He also held record for the most expensive book period bought at a public sale, a Gutenberg Bible he had purchased in 1926 for $106,000. This little six-by-five-inch hymnal of psalms blew them all away. Rosenbach turned out to be acting as an agent for a group of Yale alumni who in September of that year donated the Bay Psalm Book to the university library.

Old South Church has decided to part with one of their copies because it might make as much as $30 million, a princely sum that will allow it to remain solvent while fulfilling its Vision for the 21st Century (pdf), a mission statement that covers everything from building renovations to art programs to support for the poor. The church will still retain ownership of the Alpha Copy and that one is governed by a number of restrictions on sale so it’s not going anywhere.

In 1640, 20 years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the good folk of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided the books of Psalms they had brought with them from England just wouldn’t do anymore. They thought the translations were too distant from the original Hebrew, and since the colony now had a printing press imported from London and operated by an indenture locksmith named Stephen Daye, they set about making their own psalter. A group of 30 “pious and learned” ministers, all literate in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, each translated a section of the Book of Psalms into English verse. John Eliot, Thomas Weld and Richard Mather (grandfather of the Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Trials fame) edited the volume.

The psalms were meant to be sung during services as hymns, but the quality of poetry was clearly not the ministers’ priority. Look, if you dare, at the broken and battered corpse of the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
Want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of the tender-grasse,
Doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
He doth in paths of righteousness:
For his names sake leade mee.
Yea though in the valley of deaths shade
I walk, none ill I’le feare:
Because thou are with mee, thy rod,
And staffe my comfort are.
For mee a table thou hast spread,
In preference of my foes:
Thou dost annoynt my head with oyle.
My cup it over-flowes.
Goodness & mercy surely shall
All my dayes follow mee:
And in the Lords house I shall dwell
So long as dayes shall bee.

Yeah. I feel bad for any deity who had to listen to that for hours on end, week after week, while presiding over those interminable Puritan meetings.

After the ministers were done butchering the classics, 1700 copies of the book were published, enough so every family in the colony could have one. It was the third work published by the Stephen Daye press, but the first book. (The first piece printed was a broadside of the Oath of a Freeman, now lost, and the second an almanac in pamphlet form.) Despite its atrocious turns of phrase, the Bay Psalm Book remained popular for decades after that first print run, with multiple revised editions published during the 17th century.

In 1703, bibliophile and historian Reverend Thomas Prince, who was then still at Harvard University, began to build a “New England library,” a collection of every written work, manuscript or printed, pamphlet, paper or book, ever made in New England. Fifteen years later the good reverend was appointed pastor of the Old South Church and remained such until his death in 1758. During his five decades plus of collecting, Prince purchased no fewer than five copies of the Bay Psalm Book, a remarkably prescient choice considering that the books were still fairly widespread at that time.

In his will he bequeathed the entirety of his library to the Old South Church, stipulating that it remain together in perpetuity. That didn’t happen. For 46 years, half of his books were kept at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The collection was reunited at the Boston Public Library in 1866. Or rather, most of his collection was reunited, because somewhere in the penumbra of those decades, three of the five copies of the psalm book had mysteriously moved on.

By the mid-19th century, the Bay Psalm Book was exceptionally rare and certain collectors lusted after it with an unscrupulousness that would have made King David blush. Three private collectors — Edward A. Crowninshield, George Livermore and Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, 20th mayor of Boston — all educated men of wealth and position, had wheedled copies out of Old South Church deacons by offering deceptively dismal trades or simply by flattery. Shurtleff scored the best of the five: Richard Mather’s own personal copy bearing his autograph. Crowninshield secured the copy that would be auctioned in 1947.

Old South Church authorities didn’t cotton on to these shenanigans until 1875. They sued Shurtleff’s estate to get the Mather copy back, but it was too late. The statute of limitations had run out. That copy is now in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. Had the deacons not been such saps, Old South Church would be rolling in $30 million books.


Michelangelo’s Cleopatra: profane and profaner

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

There are only about a dozen of Michelangelo’s drawings in the United States, so the US exhibit of 26 important drawings from the extensive collection of the Casa Buonarroti, the museum established by his family in a house he once owned in Florence, is a not-to-be-missed event. Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane Masterpiece Drawings from the Casa Buonarroti is an exhibit of figural and architectural drawings by Michelangelo on subjects both religious (sacred) and worldly (profane). It debuted in February at the College of William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art in honor of the museum’s 30th anniversary and has now moved to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where it will run from April 21st until June 30th.

The theme is an exploration of Michelangelo’s personal philosophy, his attitude towards religious and secular matters, as reflected in his drawings. The sacred sphere is represented by his depictions of religious figures like his large scale Virgin and Child and in architectural designs for churches like the façade of San Lorenzo in Florence. His ground plan of the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome, which was too complex and expensive to ever make it out of the planning stage, is one of the largest drawings in the collection and has never been seen before in the United States. The profane architectural pieces are mainly designs for military fortifications, but much like his sacred pieces, the plans are so elaborate they would have been far too expensive and difficult for the conception to become reality.

The star of the profane figural drawings is Cleopatra. Although a worldly subject, on one page back and front, she incarnates both sides of the show’s theme. The recto or front depicts Cleopatra’s idealized calm in the moment when the serpent strikes her breast. It’s a Madonna-like expression of dignity and resignation. Her elegance and refinement have earned her distinction as one of Michelangelo’s most beautiful figures, but what’s on the back is not serene and not beautiful either, at least according to some beholders. The verso is a drawing of the same Cleopatra, only this one’s expression is sheer agony. The details are nowhere near as refined: she’s a grotesque with empty, wonky eyes and buckteeth. How these contrasting ladies came to find themselves on the front and back of a page is a question that has long intrigued art historians.

The Cleopatra on the recto is one of the rare complete, finished pieces Michelangelo drew. Most of his drawings were studies or sketches for projects that would later come to fruition in another medium. Art historian Johannes Wilde dubbed these finished pieces “presentation drawings,” because they were intended to be given as gifts. Rarely for a Michelangelo drawing, there’s a clearly documented ownership history for Cleopatra that confirms it was a gift from the master to a handsome young friend.

Some time during the 1530s, Michelangelo gave Cleopatra to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a Roman nobleman who met Michelangelo in 1532 when the artist was 57 and Cavalieri 23 years old. They became fast friends and remained so until Michelangelo’s death 32 years later. The question of whether Michelangelo’s feelings for his beautiful friend were more than platonic is an open one, but he did dedicate more poems to Cavalieri than to anyone else (see this one for an example; the female pronouns in the translation are not present in the Italian) and gave him at least six completed drawings (The Fall of Phaethon is the most elaborate).

In 1562, two years before Michelangelo’s death, Cavalieri was forced to give Cleopatra to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. He had little choice in the matter and made it known in his letter accompanying the “gift” that depriving himself of that drawing caused him as much pain as if he’d lost a son. Half a century later in 1614, Duke Cosimo II donated Cleopatra and several other drawings to Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger for the gallery he was creating in the family home that would become the Casa Buonarotti museum.

According to an inventory of Medici artifacts, Cleopatra was hanging in a frame from the 1560s, which means the ugly Cleopatra was out of view at least as soon as it left Cavalieri’s possession. At some point, probably in the 19th century, a backing was glued to the drawing, a common curatorial technique at that time to preserve fragile paper works. You could still faintly see there was another drawing on the back if you lifted it to the light, so when the Uffizi gallery was restoring the piece in August of 1988 in preparation for a major show at Washington’s National Gallery, they decided to remove the backing to reveal what was there.

The discovery of the second, much more anguished Cleopatra made international news. Some experts believed it was also done by Michelangelo himself, others that it was clearly not in the master’s hand, others flip-flopped. But what if the ratchet Cleopatra came first and the more accomplished one later? What if in fact the rough, anguished figure is the recto and the finished one the verso? It wouldn’t be the first time Michelangelo turned over a page that had already been drawn on by a student. What if that student in this case were Tommaso de’ Cavalieri himself?

Cavalieri tried his hand by drawing the figure on the verso. Not yet a Cleopatra, the head may have been inspired by an antique sculpture that the two friends inspected together, such as the famous Sleeping Ariadne in the Belvedere Court of the Vatican. Or it may have been inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Famous Women: is this Agrippina, the grieving wife of Germanicus, or the Carthaginian Queen Sofonisba just after draining the fateful cup of poison? However, Cavalieri’s halting effort fell short of its classical inspiration (the display of teeth had especially negative connotations). To demonstrate “buon disegno,” Michelangelo reversed the sheet and performed a miracle of artistic alchemy: ugliness became beauty, harrowing but unbecoming emotion became serene resignation, an indecorous head was transformed into a doomed Cleopatra. We are privileged witnesses of Michelangelo turning base matter into gold.

I like this theory. To my admittedly inexpert eye, the rough Cleopatra doesn’t look like any of Michelangelo’s figural studies which even at their most dashed off are composed and lovely.






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