Archive for January, 2014

Charlemagne’s bones found in his coffin

Friday, January 31st, 2014

That may seem obvious, but given how often he was exhumed and reburied and parts of him given away as relics, it’s actually quite notable that the collection of bones in the Karlsschrein, the Shrine of Charlemagne, and other reliquaries in the Aachen Cathedral all appear to come from the same person who matches contemporary descriptions of the Frankish king.

Charlemagne died almost exactly 1200 years ago, on January 28th, 814, and was buried in the choir of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen Cathedral. (See Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, written 15-20 years after his death for a description.) In 1000, Otto III, keen to present himself as the successor of the great man, had the burial vault opened. According to German chronicler and bishop Thietmar of Merseburg who was a contemporary of Otto’s, when the vault was opened they found Charlemagne’s uncorrupt body seated upon a marble throne wearing a crown with a scepter in his hand and the gospels open in his lap. Otto reportedly Helped himself to some of the relics and brought them to Rome.

Frederick I Barbarossa was the next to disinter Charlemagne. In 1165, he had the remains exhumed and displayed as holy relics at the Aachen Court festival. Again this was a means for Frederick to establish a connection with the revered leader and to position Aachen as a center of pilgrimage like St. Denis or Westminster. To curry favor with Frederick, Antipope Paschal III canonized Charlemagne that same year, although this, like all of Paschal’s acts, was never recognized by the Vatican. Barbarossa had Charlemagne’s remains reburied, this time in an elaborate third century A.D. Roman marble sarcophagus depicting the Rape of Persephone, which may seem incongruous as a topic for Christian burial, but like many ancient myths was re-interpreted as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.

He didn’t stay there for long. In 1215, Frederick II had Charlemagne exhumed yet again. He commissioned local goldsmiths to make a rich gold casket to hold the bones. That’s the Karlsschrein originally in the placed in the center of the Palatine Chapel underneath a chandelier donated by Frederick Barbarossa in 1168.

Nearly 200 years passed before the next king inserted himself into Charlemagne’s eternal rest. In 1349, some of his bones were removed to individual reliquaries by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He had a gold reliquary made to contain a thigh bone, and the Bust of Charlemagne to contain the skullcap. Louis XI of France contributed to the trend in 1481 by commissioning the Arm Reliquary, a golden arm that contains the ulna and radius from Charlemagne’s right arm.

It was scientists who took over from the emperors and kings. In 1861, Charlemagne’s remains were exhumed again so they could be studied. His skeleton was reconstructed and a very generous estimate (1.92 meters, or 6’4″) made of his height. In 1988, scientists exhumed his remains one more time, this time in secret. This study covered the bones in the reliquaries as well, a total of 94 bones and bone fragments, and they spent years meticulously examining and testing the collection. On Wednesday, January 28th, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, the results of the research were announced.

One of the scientists studying the remains, Professor Frank Rühli, said: “Thanks to the results from 1988 up until today, we can say with great likelihood that we are dealing with the skeleton of Charlemagne.”

From studying the dimensions of the upper arm, thigh and shin bones, scientists have built up a picture of the man behind the skeleton, and it matches descriptions of Charlemagne.

At 1.84 metres (six feet), he was unusually tall for his time. The team also estimated his weight at around 78 kilograms, giving him a slim body mass index of around 23.

The average height for an adult male in the 9th century was 1.69 meters or 5’6″, which put Charlemagne in the 99th percentile. Einhard’s description of him fits the results of the study even in some of the smaller details, like the limp that struck him in his later years. Researchers found that the kneecap and heel bone had deposits consistent with an injury.

From Chapter 22 of the Life of Charlemagne:

Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot.

Babe Ruth’s lost 1923 World Series watch for sale

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

The first World Series Championship rings were given to the New York Giants in 1922 after they defeated the New York Yankees, who were actually their tenants at that time, paying extortionate rent to use the Giants’ Polo Grounds as their home field. The next year’s World Series would be a rematch with a very different outcome. For one thing, the Yankees weren’t their opponents’ tenants anymore. Yankee Stadium opened to a record crowd of 74,000 on April 19th, 1923, and when the New York teams went to the World Series, Babe Ruth inaugurated their new home with a home run in game one. He hit two more home runs in the remaining games of the series and finished the season with a phenomenal .368 batting average, the highest of his career and still to this day the highest batting average in Yankees history. The Yankees won in six, their first World Series win.

The Yankees received a pocket watch for their victory in the 1923 World Series, then a common gift. The Yankees would continue to receive watches until 1927 after which they switched to rings too, and in the next decade all the other teams followed suit. Now rings are de rigeur and watches are artifacts that only rarely appear on the market. It’s a 14 karat gold Gruen Verithin watch made in Cincinnati. It has an unusual pentagonal shape and is engraved on the back with a scene of a pitcher throwing a ball at a hitter while a catcher crouches behind him. Above them writ large is “YANKEES” and below the field is “World’s Champions 1923.”

Babe Ruth’s 1923 World Series watch was one of his most prized possessions, representing the dawn of Yankee dominance, his personal best batting average and the opening of the stadium that would become known as The House That Ruth Built. In 1946, Ruth was diagnosed with cancer at the base of his skull and in his neck. His doctors tried everything — experimental drugs, radiation — but despite a brief remission in 1947, the Babe’s health rapidly deterioration. During this time, his friend Charles Schwefel, manager of the Gramercy Park Hotel whose bar Ruth had been a regular at since the 1930s, was constantly by his side as the cancer took its inexorable toll in 1947 and 1948.

His doctors and family hid his cancer from Ruth, but he could see the writing on the wall. Sometime in those last two years of his life, Ruth asked Schwefel if he’d like to have anything from his collection as a memento. Schwefel asked for the 1923 watch. Ruth had his name engraved on the upper edge of the back of the watch, added a line to the engraving on the inside rear case “To My Pal Charles Schwefel,” and gave his pal the watch.

Schwefel only kept it for two years after which his wife gave it to Charles’ nephew Lewis Fern saying that it should have been his all along. Fern had caddied for Ruth for years, including on May 6th, 1937, when they saw the Hindenburg pass overhead on the way to its tragic fate while they were playing at St. Alban’s Golf Club in Queens. Lewis Fern kept the watch for almost four decades. In 1988, he sold it to an anonymous private collector (sigh) for $200,000. Said collector apparently has one of the greatest sports memorabilia collections in the world, but he keeps it hidden and unpublished. Once the watch was sold to him, it disappeared off the face of the earth and was considered lost.

Now it emerges again, for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Sports Platinum Night Auction in Manhattan on February 22nd. Online bidding has already begun with the current bid at $240,000. The pre-sale estimate is $750,000+, but for such an important artifact from baseball’s most legendary player and most dominant franchise, the sky is the limit.

“As the Babe’s personal award for the first World Championship in New York Yankees franchise history, I believe that this is the most important piece of New York Yankees memorabilia that exists,” said Chris Ivy, Director of Sports Collectibles at Heritage Auctions. “This championship watch, which was thought lost to time, will now take its rightful place as one of the crown jewels of sports memorabilia. Based on prices realized for similar historic championship hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it far exceed our preliminary auction estimate.”

One of the oldest temples in Rome unearthed

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

A team of archaeologists excavating the site of Sant’Omobono in the historic center of Rome have unearthed the foundations of one of the oldest temples in Rome. In the shadow of the 15th century church of Sant’Omobono just east of the Tiberine Island, archaeologists and students from the University of Michigan, the University of Calabria, the Museum of London Archaeology and the City of Rome dug a trench 15 feet deep to reveal the remains of an archaic temple from the 6th century B.C. when Rome was still ruled by Etruscan kings. Along with the remains of the first temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, also built under the reign of the kings in the 6th century B.C. and destroyed in 83 B.C. during Sulla’s second civil war, these are the oldest temple ruins found in Rome.

Because the depth of the trench was seven and a half feet below the water table, the walls had to be shored up with metal sheeting and multiple sump pumps to allow the team to dig through the ancient layers. That’s why Alison Telfer, the Museum of London Archaeology expert, joined the team this season, because of her expertise in excavating waterlogged environments thanks to years of digging in soggy London.

After weeks of excavation, the team found three levels of masonry and a step. The stonework is exceptional, dry wall construction of precision-cut volcanic tufa blocks that are still beautifully flush even after millennia.

Terrenato says the archaeologists had to fight claustrophobia to be able to spend as much as 8 hours a day at the bottom of that trench.

“You’re in a very deep hole, and although you know in theory that the sheeting is going to hold everything up, there is a primal part of your brain that tells you to get out of there, if the walls come closing in there’s not going to be any way out for you,” he says.

The foundations of the temple of Fortuna were visible for only three days — for security reasons, the team could not leave the trench open and it had to be filled up again.

To the west of the temple remains was discovered a large bank of clay that is so straight is can’t have been formed by human hands. Archaeologists believe it may have been built up against a vertical structure that is now gone, perhaps a wooden form that was removed or wall that has long since decayed. It could have been a river wall to protect the temple from flooding or perhaps used during the construction of the temple. About halfway down the clay bank, the team unearthed a group of vessels that are thought to have been votive offerings, sacrifices to the gods that were placed on the site when the bank was being built.

The area in which the temple remains were discovered was known as the Forum Boarium, meaning “cattle market,” a center of trade on a bend in the river that was both a natural harbour and a crossing point of the Tiber. When the temple was built, Rome was already trading with the likes of Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt as well as Italian peoples including the Latins, Etruscans and Sabines. The temple was deliberately built on the harbour so that it would welcome visitors and merchants, standing as a symbol of good will and fair trade guaranteed by the deity.

Archaeologists believe the temple was dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. It was dismantled in the early Republican period, around the 5th century B.C., and replaced with twin temples dedicated to Fortuna and Mater Matuta, a Latin mother goddess whose temples have been found on other ports. The temples were added to and rebuilt over the centuries through at least the second century A.D. In the sixth century an early Christian church was built on the site. The podium of the twin temples, made out of tufa slabs, still survives. It is now part of the foundation of the church of Sant’Omobono.

And that’s not all this archaeological site has to offer. Since it was first discovered during the burst of Fascist construction in the city center in the 1930s, the Sant’Omobono area has revealed evidence from 17 different phases of human occupation, from pottery sherds that date to between the 16th and the 12th centuries B.C., some of the earliest artifacts ever found indicating human habitation of the spot that would become Rome, to the remains of wattle and daub structures from the seventh century B.C.

To read Alison Telfer’s short and ever so sweet weekly reports on the dig, see the Museum of London Archaeology website. Keep an eye on the Sant’Omobono Project’s publications page for upcoming papers on the newly discovered temple and other finds from the season.

Two new Sappho poems discovered

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Although the 7th century B.C. Greek lyric poet Sappho of Lesbos was one of the most revered poets of antiquity and highly prolific, by the Middle Ages most of her works were lost. Only one complete poem and parts of four others have survived, including three fragments among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Now two new poems have been found on a 3rd century A.D. papyrus in private hands.

The anonymous owner brought the papyrus to Oxford University classicist and papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink who recognized its enormous significance. The condition is exceptional. Harvard classics professor Albert Henrichs calls it the best preserved Sappho papyrus known to survive. The two poems are 20 and nine lines each, with a total of 22 lines preserved in their entire length. The last seven lines are missing three to six letters from the beginning and end of verses and there are only traces of the last line remaining.

The subject matter is even more exciting than the condition.

One of the two recovered poems, Prof. Henrichs notes, speaks of a “Charaxos” and a “Larichos,” the names assigned by ancient sources to two of Sappho’s brothers but never before found in Sappho’s own writings. It has as a result been labeled the Brothers poem by Prof. Obbink.

“There will be endless discussion about Charaxos and Larichos, who may or may not be Sappho’s brothers,” Prof. Henrichs commented. One important point in that debate will be the Brothers poem’s clear implication that Charaxos was a sea-going trader. The historian Herodotus, writing about two centuries after Sappho, also describes Charaxos as a wayfarer—a man who traveled to Egypt, where he spent a fortune to buy the freedom of Rhodopis, a beautiful slave he had fallen in love with. Upon his return home, Herodotus relates, Sappho brutally mocked her brother’s lovestruck folly in one of her poems.

The Brothers poem contains no such mockery, but rather depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker — perhaps Sappho herself, but the loss of the poem’s initial lines makes this unclear — advises that a prayer to Hera would be the best way to ensure this success, and expounds on the power of the gods to aid their favorites. The poem’s final stanza speaks of Larichos, presumably Sappho’s younger brother, “becoming a man…and freeing us [Sappho’s family?] from much heartache.”

The second poem is an appeal to the goddess Aphrodite, possibly a prayer for aid in securing the affections of a new lover.

The source of the papyrus is not known. It’s most likely to have come from Egypt where the dry climate preserves papyrus like the Oxyrhynchus fragments.

Dr. Obbink has published a paper about the discovery which is available online here (pdf). It includes a transcription (not a translation) of the text, so those of you who can read Aeolic Greek can read the full poems.

UPDATE: The Telegraph has a translation of the Brothers Poem!

Still, you keep on twittering that Charaxos
comes, his boat full. That kind of thing I reckon
Zeus and his fellow gods know; and you mustn’t
make the assumption;
rather, command me, let me be an envoy
praying intensely to the throne of Hera
who could lead him, he and his boat arriving
here, my Charaxos,
finding me safely; let us then divert all
other concerns on to the lesser spirits;
after all, after hurricanes the clear skies
rapidly follow;
and the ones whose fate the Olympian ruler
wants to transform from troubles into better –
they are much blessed, they go about rejoicing
in their good fortune.
As for me, if Larichos reaches manhood,
[if he could manage to be rich and leisured,]
he would give me, so heavy-hearted, such a
swift liberation.

Rare Edward VI shilling found in Canada

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Retired security system specialist Bruce Campbell (no relation to Ash from Evil Dead) was looking for Victorian-era coins and artifacts along the Gorge Waterway in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 13th, 2013, when he found a coin buried three or four inches deep in the mud flats at low tide. It was so caked in the area’s characteristic blue clay that he couldn’t identify it. He posted pictures of his finds — an 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s a silver dime, an early Canadian penny and the mystery coin — on the Official Canadian Metal Detecting forum where he is a moderator. It was the clay-caked coin that aroused the most interest of the forum denizens, some of whom recognized it as a rare silver shilling from the brief reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I.

The coin is one millimeter thick and 33 millimeters in diameter and was minted at the Tower of London between 1551 and 1553. On the obverse is a bust of the young king crowned facing left. It is inscribed EDWARD VI D G AGL FRA Z HIB REX (Edward VI by the Grace of God King of England, France and Ireland). On the reverse is a shield bearing the royal coat of arms over a long cross fourchee, a heraldic term for a cross where the end of each arm is forked. The inscription reads POSUI DEU ADIUTORE MEUM (I have made God my helper).

This is a significant coin for many reasons. It was one of the earliest shillings — the 12 pence coin was called the Testoon when it was first minted — and it’s the first one that was made of sterling silver instead of base. Edward VI restored the silver standard in 1551, increasing the silver content from a paltry 0.250 (meaning 25% silver by mass) to 0.925. The sterling silver shilling was popular and widely circulated, but that popularity means surviving coins tend to be heavily worn, trimmed or damaged.

The one Bruce Campbell found is in quite good condition. The dense blue clay of the Gorge is a low oxygen environment which makes it an excellent preserver of 500-year-old coins. Campbell attempted to remove the mud crust by cleaning the coin first in olive oil. When that didn’t work, he soaked it in lemon juice for two days and then wrapped it in aluminium foil for a half hour. The crust came off, revealing the details of the design. Obligatory disclaimer: although the results in this case appear to be okay, don’t clean things! Let the experts handle it. You could so easily damage the artifact, ruin its market value and historic patina. Also, you never know what’s in the stuff that looks like dirt.

The coin’s condition and discovery spot has led some to speculate that it might have made its way to Victoria via Sir Francis Drake who may or may not have visited Victoria on a secret mission in 1579. The main evidence of this mission appears to be two other English coins from the 16th century found elsewhere in British Columbia, which is not exactly solid ground considering that coins can travel at any time after they’re minted.

It doesn’t need a Drake association to be awesome. It’s the oldest coin found on the west coast of Canada and it’s an important coin in English history. Now it has drawn the attention of the Royal B.C. Museum. Curator Grant Keddie has made contact with Mr. Campbell and plans to examine the shilling. He’s interested in the Drake theory and will test the material to attempt to discover how long the coin has been in Victoria. Keddie would like other metal detector enthusiasts and mudlarks “to take another look at things they may have found here that are not identified — such as ceramics or glassware — that might date to the same time period as the coin.”

Saucy Fragonard pair together again after 25 years

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Two paintings by French rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard will be on display together for the first time in 25 years in an exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw were created as a matched pair when Fragonard was still a student in the atelier of François Boucher. Like almost all of his works, the two paintings are not dated. We know they were done after he began to study under Boucher in 1750 and before 1752 when the young Fragonard won the prestigious Prix de Rome. He was just 18-20 years old, therefore, when he painted these works that already display the characteristic playfulness and thinly veiled eroticism that would make him famous.

The paintings are thought to have been commissioned by Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien, a writer, amateur artist and avid collector. It is certain that the pair were in his collection when it was sold in 1784 after the Baron’s death. Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw sold as a pair for 500 livres to the leading art dealer of the time: Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, grand-nephew of painter Charles Le Brun and husband of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, official portrait painter of Queen Marie Antoinette. Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun was a pioneer in his field. He actually invented the saleroom lit by overhead lighting, now a staple of art galleries and museums.

The pair then moved through the hands of various other dealers and collectors, including Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in Vienna and Baron Maurice de Rothschild in Pregny-Chambésy, Switzerland, always staying together. In 1954 they were sold again by Baron Maurice three years before his death. This time, they did not survive as a couple. They were sold separately. Blind Man’s Bluff was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art with funds from the Libbey Endowment, a gift from glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey, founder of the Toledo Museum of Art and president from its founding in 1901 until his death in 1925. The See-Saw was bought by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, heir to a great naval construction and oil fortune which he spent building a world-class art collection. It was on display at his private museum in the 17th century palace Villa Favorita on the banks of Lake Lugano in Switzerland, and when those works were transferred to Spain to become the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid starting in the late 1980s, The See-Saw went with them.

Divided by an ocean, the two Fragonards rarely caught a glimpse of each other. They’ve come together three times since their separation: in London in 1968, Paris in 1987 and New York in 1988. Now, thanks to a loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, they’ll be together again in Toledo.

“They’re risqué, they’re provocative—and the artist intended these canvases to be seen together,” said Lawrence W. Nichols, William Hutton senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. “So to reunite these two very important paintings by one of the most significant French artists of the 18th century is quite an exciting opportunity.”

They may not seem all that risqué to our jaded eyes, but even though the only actual glimpse of slightly naughty flesh is the leg of the woman on the see-saw, the erotic imagery was clear to its original audience.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, artists and authors used blind-man’s bluff as a symbol of the folly of marriage, where one took one’s chances in choosing a mate. In Fragonard’s portrayal, however, because only one couple plays the game, neither the ultimate partner nor the final outcome is in doubt. As the youth tickles his blindfolded beloved on the cheek with a piece of straw, an infant, in the role of a classical cupid or putto, brushes her hand with the end of a stick to distract her from the object of her desire. Reaching out to locate her lover, the woman steals a glance from underneath her blindfold and catches the viewer’s gaze with a knowing look—she is the one in control of the situation.

The setting for this courtship game is a terrace surrounded by a low wall—a reference to the enclosed garden, traditional symbol of virginity. Leaning against the wall is a gate that has fallen off its posts. The sexual symbolism of the gate—not only open but broken off—would have been obvious to eighteenth-century viewers.

Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw will be on display at the Toledo Museum of Art from January 24th through May 4th, 2014.

A view that hasn’t been seen in 500 years

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

What you’re looking at here is the beautiful prospect from a lancet window in the north wall of Mingary Castle, a window that was sealed in the late 15th or early 16th century and has now been reopened for the first time in 500 years. Built on a promontory on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the northwest coast of Scotland in the 13th century, Mingary Castle was a stronghold commanding the Sound of Mull, an important part of the great western shipping lane at a time when the Viking/Gaelic rulers of western Scotland ran fleets of galleys for trade, travel and war. Since the ships hugged the coast to avoid Atlantic storms, coastal castles dominated seagoing traffic.

It’s not certain who first built the castle. Clan MacDougall is one possible candidate, but by the time the window was sealed, Mingary Castle was the seat of Clan MacIain, one of the most powerful septs (vassal branches) of Clan MacDonald. Although technically they were vassals of kings of Norway and Scotland at various times, in practice they ran their territories independently as Lords of the Isles. Mingary was one of a chain of strategically important castles in the MacDonald fiefdom.

It was a new threat from the landward side that caused the MacIains to block up the north windows. The slender pointed arch windows, used to fire arrows and crossbow bolts onto attackers, were in walls that ranged in thickness from 60 centimeters (ca. 1’12”) to 80 centimeters (2’7″). This was the thinnest the castle walls got and since they faced land, they were particular susceptible to recently-invented cannons that packed enough punch to pierce much thicker masonry walls. To fix this weak spot, the MacIains had stonemasons fill in the windows and the chambers where defenders wielded their weapons. They did a most thorough job of it, too.

The castle fell out of MacIain and MacDonald control in the early 17th century. The Campbell family, Earls of Argyll, took the castle and held it so effectively that they destroyed Clan MacDonald when they attempted to retake the castle by besieging it. In the early 18th century the Mingary estate was sold to Alexander Murray; 50 years later it was sold to James Riddell whose family owned it until 1848. All of these post-MacIain owners made modifications and additions to the castle, keeping it in livable condition without destroying the original structure from the 1200s. After 1848, the estate was still used by locals, but the castle increasingly deteriorated until the interior was too dangerous to inhabit.

The estate was purchased by Donald Houston 20 years or so ago. He has restored many of the structures on the property, and is now restoring the castle itself with the goal of keeping the walls from crumbling and making the castle inhabitable as a residence for humans again. Because of its relative remoteness and the long centuries of occupation, Mingary Castle is the best preserved 13th century castle in Scotland. It’s therefore of great historical significance to the country.

Mr. Houston has founded the Mingary Preservation Trust, a charitable organization that is raising the £2 million ($3,300,000) needed to restore the castle. (If you’d like to contribute, click here to donate or, if you’d prefer to get a piece of the castle itself, you can adopt your very own stone.)

Part of the restoration project was the reopening of the north wall chambers and lancet windows. On Thursday, January 16th, workmen broke through the incredibly hard infill that blocked off the left top window, gingerly removed the stones and opened it to expose a beautiful view last seen by human eyeballs 500 years ago.

Jon Haylett, a local historian who has been overseeing the excavation said: “There was a real sense of excitement that we could, for the first time in 500 years, look out at a view which was last seen when members of Clan MacIain held Mingary Castle.

“Looking out of the window was an eerie experience, realising that the last person to see that view was probably a stonemason, some half a millennium ago.

“Next to me, doing the clearing, were two modern stonemasons from Ashley-Thomson, the building restoration firm, and I think they were equally moved.”

They were hoping to find organic material or some artifacts embedded in the fill that would help narrow down when the windows were sealed, but so far all the attending archaeologist has found are some tiny bone fragments, probably the detritus of a meal left behind by the masons who last worked there half a millennium ago. They did find an interesting architectural element: a groove around the inside of the window, probably used to hold a shutter or wooden board to close the window when necessary.

Now the restoration team is digging across to the double lancet windows on the right. You can read all about their progress and enjoy the exceptional photographic documentation of the restoration on the marvelous Mingary Castle blog authored by Jon Haylett.

Richard III team members alight in the US

Friday, January 24th, 2014

I’m excited to report that two members of the team who excavated and analyzed the remains of King Richard III in September of 2012 will be coming to the US in February for public lectures. This is the first chance we norms in the US have had to hear from the horses’ mouths about the extraordinary discovery that riveted the world.

The first stop will be Washington, D.C. where they will be giving a talk on the discovery on February 5th, 2014. The lecture is being offered by the Folger Shakespeare Theatre as part of a program devoted to the Bard’s tragedy Richard III. A new staging of the play will be accompanied by Q&As with the performers, talks by the literary director and local poets. The University of Leicester’s Greyfriars Project will be represented by geneticist Dr. Turi King and fieldwork director Matthew Morris, two of the co-authors of the first paper published on the excavation.

Their lecture, entitled Finding Richard, will cover the archaeological excavation (Matthew Morris’ bailiwick) and the DNA analysis (Dr. King’s expertise) that established a genetic link between Michael Ibsen, direct descendant down the female line of Richard’s sister Anne of York, an unnamed second female-line descendant and the skeleton found under the Leicester council parking lot.

The lecture will be held at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation 212 East Capitol Street on Wednesday, February 5th at 7:30pm. Tickets cost $25 for regular people and $20 for members of the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. You can book over the phone at (202) 544-7077 or online here.

After that, Turi King and Matthew Morris will join professors in history, humanities, forensic pathology and English at St. Louis University for a full day colloquium on Saturday, February 8th. The discussion will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the university’s Il Monastero on 3050 Olive Street. It is open to the general public and free of charge.

Jealous of the fine folks of St. Louis who, as if having a kickass arch on the west bank of the Mississippi River weren’t enough, now get to enjoy a day of Richard III nerdery with two pivotal figures from the Greyfriars team? Well don’t be, because the whole thing will be streamed live over the internet! :boogie: 😎 :boogie:

Bookmark this website, mark your calendar, set your alarm clock to wake you up before 10:00 AM Central Time (11:00 AM EST), get breakfast, lunch, beverages and possibly some sort of vessel to hold your waste, then settle down in front of your computer for a luxurious six hours of nothing but Richard III.

Lost work by 17th c. playwright Lope de Vega found

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Syracuse University Spanish professor Alejandro García-Reidy has discovered a copy of a lost play by Spanish Golden Age playwright and poet Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio. Lope de Vega is like Spain’s Shakespeare, only he was far, far more prolific. By his own tally, Lope de Vega wrote about 1,800 plays (although he is generally thought to have been exaggerating with the real number closer to 1,500), plus 3,000 sonnets, three novels, four novellas and nine epic poems, an oeuvre so impressive that it inspired his contemporary Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, to dub him a “Monster of Nature.”

Only approximately 300 of his plays have survived, a small fraction of the total. The rediscovery of one of the works that hasn’t been seen in centuries, therefore, is a find of great significance to the literary and cultural history of Spain and modern theater. The newly found play is called Mujeres y criados (Women and Servants), a comedy written in 1614. We knew it existed because Lope de Vega included it on a list of his plays published in the 1618 edition of El peregrino en su patria (The Pilgrim in his Own Country), but it was never published in any of the collections of his works. It was therefore believed to be lost and has not been included in modern catalogs of his works.

This particular version of the play wasn’t published either. It’s a manuscript copied in 1631 by Pedro de Valdés, director of a theatrical company that staged Lope de Vega’s plays. Later the 56-sheet quarto was bound and acquired by the Library of Osuna, a town in the province of Seville, southern Spain. The Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE) bought the Osuna Library in 1886 and absorbed its book collection. García-Reidy found the volume at the BNE in 2010 while researching Spanish theater of the 16th and 17th centuries. He spent the next three years analyzing the manuscript and ensuring the attribution to Lope de Vega was accurate.

Stylistic analysis and documentary evidence support the attribution. A document from 1614 notes that a theatrical troupe purchased a comedy by Lope de Vega called Women and Servants. When García-Reidy checked the catalogs of the playwright’s work, there was no title by that name. However, he noticed the National Library had an unattributed manuscript entitled Women and Servants, so he checked it out. He found that the play matched the meter characteristic of the author’s work from the period of 1613-1614 and the subject matter covered themes, like the subversion of social hierarchies and conventions, that are common in his plays.

Women and Servants is an urban comedy of considerable quality, according to García-Reidy. That’s meaningful because Lope de Vega was known to have sacrificed quality to achieve his insane output. His work in this period is considered his best. He was at the peak of his abilities and popularity when he wrote this play.

The story takes place in Madrid and stars two sisters, Violante and Luciana, and their lovers, Claridán and Teodoro, one a waiter and the other the secretary of Count Próspero. These two couples, whose love for each other remains secret, find their relationships put to a test with the appearance of two new suitors: Count Próspero himself, who chases after Luciana, and the rich Don Pedro, who courts Violante with the approval of her father. This initial scene leads to a game of hide-and-seek and confused identities in which Luciana must intervene to stay close to her lover. These entanglements give way to several very comical scenes, and the house in which they occur becomes a place where all actors are at the mercy of the tricks played by the two women and their lovers.

García-Reidy thinks this play will work for audiences today because it combines vaudeville-like comedy, sharp wit, dominant female characters and the satire of societal convention. His assessment will be put to the test soon since the Fundación Siglo de Oro theater company has agreed to put on the play this fall. The company specializes in updating historical theater for modern audiences and they have collaborated with researchers to stage Lope de Vega works before.

The play will be presented officially with a public reading by Fundación Siglo de Oro actors within the next few months, but the entire manuscript has been digitized and can be downloaded in pdf form on the BNE website.

Diana regilded

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Last summer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced a major restoration project to clean, conserve and regild the statue of Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that graces the top of the museum’s Great Stair Hall. The 13-foot statue of the Huntress drawing her bow was made in 1893 to top the tower of architect Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. Standing on one foot on a spherical base, Diana was originally a weather vane, turning with the wind atop her tower; only later was she riveted to her base for her own safety. She was the tallest point in the city in her day, and shone so brightly that she could be seen from New Jersey.

Sadly, her fate was tied to that of the building which was demolished in 1925 to make way for the New York Life Insurance Building. New York Life put her in storage hoping she would find a new home in the city, but every attempt to keep her in New York failed and in 1932 she was adopted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

(New York did come to regret its callous rejection of its once-iconic golden lady. In 1967, with the city in the process of building the fourth and last iteration of Madison Square Garden over the graveyard of yet another demolished Beaux Arts masterpiece, the original Penn Station, New York mayor John Lindsay asked Philadelphia mayor James Tate if they could have Diana back to put her inside the new Garden. Tate declined, pointing out that “when no one wanted this poor little orphan girl, Philadelphia took her in, gave her a palatial home and created a beautiful image for her with a worldwide reputation.”)

After three decades exposed to the elements and seven years in storage, Diana needed some work when she got to Philadelphia. She was in decent condition overall, but her surface was darkened by corrosion and everything but a few traces of the original gilding was gone. In the midst of the Great Depression, the museum had neither the means nor the inclination to regild her. Decades later, in the mid-1980s, the museum did consider regilding Diana, but the time and funding wasn’t there. There was no immediate conservation need since the statue was structurally sound.

Thanks to the financial support of Bank of America’s Global Art Conservation Project, in 2013 Diana finally got a full makeover. The focus of the project was first and foremost to analyze and document the statue’s surface and structure. The armature, including the weather vane mechanism which still exists inside the spherical base, was examined for condition and to learn more about how Diana was built. Traces of gilding were examined by a scanning electron microscope to determine the exact composition and color of the original gold. The whole statue was X-rayed and subjected to ultrasonic thickness testing to assess the condition of the molded copper sheets Saint-Gaudens soldered and riveted together.

One the initial observations and tests were complete, conservators cleaned the corrosion, revealing the lovely copper color and the joins. The statue was then primed with a corrosion inhibiting paint containing zinc chromate which left the surface an alarming canary yellow. Thankfully that phase didn’t last long. The statue was then painstakingly covered with 180 square feet of 23.4-karat red gold leaf. Because Saint-Gaudens disliked the use of very bright gold at eye level, the gilding was toned down to match his original intent.

The process took five months. In November, the scaffolding came down and Diana was revealed in her freshly gilded splendor. Behold the shiny:

Visitors to the museum during the restoration got to observe it happening in real time, and the whole process was filmed and shown on screens in the museum. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s conservation page has two videos illustrating the restoration process. I hope many more will follow because those two are straight awesome.

In this one you see conservators sampling traces of the original gilding, doing cleaning tests before removing the corrosion over the whole statue, doing a boroscopic (self-lit remote camera) examination of interior, opening the ball and removing the bow and arrow.

This video features the steam cleaning done after the acidic cleanser removed the corrosion, the X-ray imaging and ultrasonic thickness testing, and the scanning electron microscope analysis of the gold traces.





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