Help save earthquake-threatened Bernini masterpiece

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble bust of Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena, needs your help. This Baroque masterpiece is part of the permanent collection of the Galleria Estense in Modena which houses the internationally important art collection of the Dukes of Este who ruled Modena for more than 500 years (1288–1796). Modena was devastated by the earthquakes that hit the north central Italian region of Emilia Romagna last May and the damage to the Galleria Estense was extensive. The museum has been closed ever since, the bust of Francesco I kept for its protection in a large wooden box where not even the workers can see it.

It’s a miracle that Bernini’s sculpture survived this time. Before the museum can reopen, its masterpieces need to be secured as much as possible against future seismic events. The kind of specialized equipment required to retrofit museums for earthquake safety is very expensive and Italy is flat broke. That means initiatives of government agencies like the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities need private funding.

In the case of the bust of Francesco I d’Este, the non-profit heritage protection organization Fondo Ambiente Italiano (in English known as the Italian National Trust) is helping the ministry raise money to develop a bespoke anti-seismic pedestal which will keep the sculpture from crashing to the floor when the next earthquake hits.

In cooperation with a team of qualified experts of the IUAV University of Venice, we are working on an innovative seismic isolating device system based on the theory of the double pendulum. Essentially, the anti-seismic pedestal diminishes the strength coming from the ground to the piece of art, therefore securing it from destruction.

In the US, they’ve started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $60,000 of the $80,000 they need to build and install the pedestal. There are 30 days left in the campaign and so far they’ve only raised $1,372 from 20 contributors. I think we can do better than that.

Historical preservation and heritage protection suffers enormously from slashed budgets and so often there’s no way for people who care but who happen to live far away from the problem to pitch in. I’ve often wanted to help donate when I’ve come across these kinds of stories and been frustrated by how localized these fundraising campaigns are. Requiring people to send a personal check across oceans by mail in this day and age just locks out the world. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, draws the world in, but it only works if people hear about it, so please spread the word. If you’re on Facebook, here’s the related FB page you can link to to promote the campaign.

There are some exceptional perks for contributors to this one: two free tickets to the museum for a $10 contribution, two free tickets and a book about the Este art collection for $20. For $50 they carve your name — or the name of the person in whose name you donate — on the new pedestal. It keeps getting better from there. A hundred dollars gets you all of the above plus of a bottle of Del Duca PDO Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, a top of the line balsamic aged 12 years. You could easily spend that much on a vinegar of this quality imported from the magical land where all true balsamic vinegar is made. Or if opera is more to your taste, 100 bucks will get and a friend an evening at the Luciano Pavarotti Opera House. Like cars? Modena has got you covered with two tickets to the new Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari . For the big donations, you get Modena handed to you on a plate, with all the goodies at the lower rates plus a personalized tour of the city for $1000 and a weekend with hotel included plus all the above for $5000.

See the video below for more details about the campaign, the Galleria Estense and a very sad shot of the box Francesco d’Este is in right now, and please spread the word. Even if Baroque sculpture of luminaries from Italian ducal families is not your bag, the next campaign that is inspired by the success of this one might save your favorite thing ever.


Oldest complete Torah found at Bologna University

The oldest complete Torah in the world has been discovered in the library of the University of Bologna. Known simply as “Scroll 2,” the sheepskin scroll is 118 feet long and 25 inches wide and had been erroneously dated to the 17th century by librarian Leonello Modona in 1889. Modona was the first to catalog the university’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts. He was himself Jewish and highly educated but he wasn’t a Hebrew scholar so his dating was a guess. It was even accompanied by a question mark.

The key to cracking the true age and rarity of this Torah was the script. Modona had described it as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices,” but when Professor Mauro Perani came across the scroll last year while working on a new catalog of the university’s Hebrew manuscript collection, he immediately recognized that the script wasn’t some weird anomalous Italian style, but rather a superb example of a Babylonian script that was in use way earlier than the 17th century. It was in fact a hand more like the 12th or 13th centuries. Perani sent pictures of the scroll to other Hebrew scholars who all concurred with his assessment that the script dated to the 12th or 13th century.

Another important clue to the great age of this scroll is the presence of line justifications, compressed letters and “crowns” over certain letters prohibited in the rules on Torah copying established by the great 12th century rabbi Maimonides. Maimonides’ rabbinical regulation on how scribes should copy the Torah have been followed religiously, if you’ll pardon the term, for almost 900 years. The scribe who copied Scroll 2 either predated Maimonides (d. 1204) or hadn’t yet heard about the new standard.

The textual and graphic evidence of age was confirmed by two radiocarbon tests, one performed at the University of Salento and the other by the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The results date the scroll to between 1155 and 1225. This makes it the oldest complete Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) known to have survived. The previous record-holder dates to the 14th century.

Torahs this old are such rarities because even if they managed to survive destruction during centuries of pogroms, expulsions and the horrors of World War II, Torahs that are worn or damaged can no longer be used for services because they are deemed to have lost their holiness. When a Torah’s lifetime has run out, it is ritually buried.

Scroll 2 appears to be in beautiful condition. We don’t know how long it has been curled up in the University of Bologna library, but Perani thinks it’s been centuries. The University began teaching Hebrew classes in the 15th century, but it’s not likely they’ve had it in their possession quite that long. There’s some speculation that it may have been part of a Dominican monastery scriptorium — in the early Middle Ages, Dominican friars were known to sometimes work with Jewish scholars on ancient texts — when it fell victim to Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796. Bologna became part of a French Revolutionary client statelet called the Cispadane Republic, later expanded into the Cisalpine Republic. They adopted the same constitution of Directory France which came with suppression of monastic orders. Scroll 2 could have been sent to Paris as booty and then brought back to Bologna with other spoils after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 and given to the university library.

There will be further studies to see if the history of this remarkable Torah can be traced. Meanwhile, the majestic scroll is set to go on display at the university next month. Plans are also in motion to photograph it in high resolution and upload it onto the library website.

Chinese teen’s graffiti on Egyptian temple cleaned

Two years ago, a Chinese teenager visiting Egypt with his parents etched his name on a sandstone relief of Alexander the Great in the temple of Amenhotep III in Luxor. On May 24th, Shen, a Chinese tourist visiting the temple posted a picture of the “Ding Jinhao was here” graffito defacing Alexander’s chest and lap to the microblogging site Weibo describing it as “the saddest moment in Egypt. I’m so embarrassed that I want to hide myself. I said to the Egyptian tour guide, ‘I’m really sorry.’ I tried to erase this shame by rubbing it off, but my effort was in vain.”

The post went viral immediately. Within 12 hours, the picture had been re-tweeted (re-Weiboed?) more than 90,000 times and engendered universal condemnation on and offline. People tracked the vandal down using what is both creepily and awesomely called “a human flesh search” (doxing sounds so innocuous by comparison) and discovered he’s a 15-year-old boy in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, East China. His school’s website was hacked and abusive messages left excoriating him for being an awful 13-year-old tourist (recalling my own youth, that phrase might be redundant).

Things got so heated Ding’s parents spoke to the Nanjing Modern Express taking the blame for their failures as parents and asking for forgiveness. Ding’s mother apologized to the Egyptian people and to all the people in China who were upset by her son’s actions. Ding is older and wiser, according to mom, and now recognizes that what he did was wrong.

Ding’s parents told the Modern Express that it was their lack of education and supervision that led to his mischief.

They said the attack happened when their son, now in middle school, was little. They were with a tourist group and did not notice when he scrawled on the sculpture, the mother said.

“We have taken him sightseeing since he was little, and we often saw such graffiti. But we didn’t realise we should have told him that this is wrong,” she said. The mother also implored internet users not to hound her son.

This is a hot topic because as of 2012, Chinese tourists officially outpaced Americans and Germans as the world’s top spenders on international tourism. In 2012, 83 million Chinese nationals spent $102 billion on travel outside China. Just two weeks ago Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang appealed to his countrymen to be polite when traveling abroad so as to not besmirch China’s reputation with their “uncivilized behavior.”

“They make a racket in public places, carve words at scenic spots, cross the road when the light is red, spit, and do other uncivilized things,” Wang was quoted as saying. “This is detrimental to the image of the country’s people and leaves a bad impression.”

So did the plaid polyester slacks and questionable headgear that marked American tourists in my day.

Anyway, the end result of all this brouhaha was that Egyptian antiquities ministry looked into the graffito and were able to remove it with relative ease. The etched lines were only superficial, which isn’t surprising given that they were scratched by a 13-year-old, and the main layer of the engraving was unscathed. The relief is now back to its former faded splendor. You wouldn’t know Ding Jinhao was ever there.

Documents stolen by collector returned to museums

Some of the thousands of historical documents stolen by collector, historian and presidential inauguration expert Barry Landau and his accomplice Jason Savedoff are making their way home to the museums, libraries and historical societies from which they were pilfered. After Landau and Savedoff were caught in the act by a staffer at the Maryland Historical Society on July 9th, 2011, the FBI found 10,194 stolen documents and ephemera in Landau’s New York City apartment.

By the time the thieves pled guilty and went to prison in February of 2012, researchers from the National Archives and Records Administration had traced 4,000 of the artifacts to 24 institutions nationwide burgled by Landau and Savedoff. Since then, the rest of the documents have been identified, but because they were evidence in a trial, the documents couldn’t be returned right away even after they were matched with their home institutions.

The return process has begun in earnest now. The Maryland Historical Society received 21 of the 60 pieces stolen on Monday, May 13th.

Among the items recently returned to the Maryland Historical Society on Monument Street were a 1920 Democratic National Convention ticket stub and admission passes to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Each document was encased by clear Mylar, carefully placed inside the envelopes and categorized by four-digit penciled numbers by investigators.

In a folder marked number 2977 from Box 22 and dated 8/12/11 was a small, index card-size ticket that read “Admit the bearer May 26th 1868,” to the gallery for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. But on the back was a new mark, Savedoff’s small, penciled mark “W2,” which stood for “Weasel 2.” Landau referred to himself as “Weasel 1,” according to court documents.

Another folder held a narrow, white piece of paper with elegant cursive detailing Lincoln’s funeral procession in Vermont.

The oldest document stolen from the library by Landau and Savedoff was an invitation for the “Baltimore Assembly” dance, held on Nov. 5, 1793.

You can see video of the “W2” Savedoff penciled on the back of the Johnson impeachment ticket in this news story. Weasel 1 and 2 also wrote “shoot” on the back of documents they intended to steal. The Maryland Historical Society has no intention of removing the thieves’ annotations. There are no conservation issues that would require the removal of a few pencil marks, and now they’ve become a part of the history of the documents. In the case of the MHS, where a staffer unimpressed by their gifts of cupcakes and smarmy bonhomie caught the Weasels in the act and finally stopped their reign of thievery, those pencil markings are a badge of honor.

Overall, authorities say about 20% of the stolen documents have been returned to their legitimate owners with the rest slated to be returned within the next few months. The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has received almost all of the several hundred documents and memorabilia stolen by Landau and Savedoff over four visits. It’s hard to be certain, however, because the ephemera collections are not inventoried in as much detail as the more important document archives. Their unique, historically significant pieces like a letter from George Washington to Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and a letter for Marie Antoinette were easier to trace and return than the tickets and programs and invitations.

It took a lot of research to identify the memorabilia. Some of the targeted museums were able to provide records and the Weasels both volunteered information as part of their plea bargains, but the National Archives and Records Administration had to dig deep to find the proper owners. Theme matching was helpful. Institutions known to have strong collections in certain areas were the likely sources for documents in that category. For instance, documents about former Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore were traced to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania which has a vast collection of Moore’s correspondence and papers.

Many of the institutions subjected to the Weasel depredations have revised their security policies in light of the thefts. Staffers at the Maryland Historical Society now check bags and notebooks for any pilfered documents before visitors are allowed to leave, and they’ve rearranged the chairs so visitors can’t hide away and steal their hearts out unseen by librarians. Even the National Archives has added layers of security, with searches of all people leaving the building and regular training for employees to introduce them to the ever-evolving ways thieves devise to steal stuff.

Landau is currently serving a seven year sentence for the thefts. Savedoff was sentenced to just one year.

Golden phallus so popular museum to sell replicas

The Roman gold pendant in the shape of a phallus that was discovered in 2011 in Hillington, Norfolk, has become such a popular exhibit at the Lynn Museum that replicas will be sold at the gift shop. The small but proud gold member was unearthed by metal detectorist Kevin Hillier on January 30th, 2011, in a field belonging to farmer Neil Riseborough. Hillier reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and at an inquest in April of 2011, Norfolk coroner William Armstrong declared it official treasure trove.

Experts at the British Museum assessed fair market value of the phallus at £800 ($1200). That sum, which technically is a finder’s fee rather than a sale price, is split between the finder and the landowner. Local museums have first dibs and although Lynn Museum has a budget even tinier than a two-centimeter phallus, they were able to raise the money with donations from the Friends of the King’s Lynn Museum (they contributed £80), and grants from the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund (£400) and the Headley Trust (£320). In January 2012, the phallus went on display.

The figure is formed out of a sheet of gold soldered together along the length with an aperture at the ends and two globes of gold soldered to each side of the base. Between the testicular globes is a transverse loop that was soldered separately. The loop suggests the phallus was worn as a pendant, possibly by a Roman soldier since the use of phalluses as amulets to ward off evil spells was not a local religious practice. It’s a rare object as most of the other ancient phalluses discovered in Britain are made out of base metals. The gold is bright and the piece is in excellent condition.

The little artifact has captured the imagination of museum visitors like nothing else in its collection, so when last year the museum began looking into the possibility of creating souvenirs inspired by local objects, replica Hillington phalluses leaped to mind. The museum has commissioned artist Sue Heaser to create the souvenirs.

Mrs Heaser, who is also an archaeological illustrator, said: “This is the most extraordinary thing I have ever done. I love working with ancient jewellery and the craftsmanship involved here is amazing.”

Normally Mrs Heaser would be able to make a mould directly from the piece but this has not been possible as the pendant is so delicate. Instead Mrs Heaser has had to painstakingly measure, draw and photograph the piece in order to make a mould. A silicon model of the piece has allowed Mrs Heaser to make a mould. She will later use metal clay to make a replica.

The replicas will not be made out of shiny real gold, though, and it will be a solid piece rather than a hollow sheet seamed up at the side. Silver and bronze replica phalluses will be available in the gift shop within the next few months.

Retail manager Maria Wong said the museum was also looking at some of its other exhibits to replicate as souvenirs.

Miss Wong said: “This is a very exciting project. This is the first time we have reproduced from our own collection. The Hillington Phallus is a very popular exhibit at Lynn Museum.”

I think it’s a great idea and I love how cool they are about this. It’s very Roman, really, since they were entirely sanguine about nudity in general and phalluses in particular. Phalluses were everywhere in ancient Rome, so widespread a symbol that when stuffy 19th century curators at institutions like National Archaeological Museum in Naples and the British Museum had to deal with the mountains of penises in art, graffiti and consumer goods found at Roman sites, they locked them all up in secret rooms that only “men of good character” were allowed to enter.

Two hundred years later, I doubt a local museum in the US would be able to even contemplate such an addition to the gift shop without somebody starting a boycott or a letter-writing campaign to stop it from corrupting their children with its penisness. I doubt they’d be persuaded by the historical fact that Romans gave their children phallus amulets to keep them safe. Roman kids were bristling with phalluses.