Archive for April, 2014

18th c. Chinese wallpaper found at Woburn Abbey

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Conservators at Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, have found one of the oldest pieces of Chinese wallpaper in Britain hidden under multiple layers of newer wallpaper. Historic interiors expert Lucy Johnson was researching the decoration of the 4th Duke’s private bedchamber at the behest of the current Duchess of Bedford when she found an invoice from 1752 detailing the purchase of “India” paper, its cost and description. “India” was used as a generic reference to imports from Asia which were brought to England by the East India Company. Johnson also found a reference in the archives to a decorating firm with the excellent name of Crompton and Spinnage having hung India paper in the Duke’s bedroom in 1752.

With the archival evidence pointing to a possible treasure behind the wall coverings in the 4th Duke’s bedchamber, the Woburn Abbey team set about carefully stripping the built up layers in the hope that the first Chinese paper might still be there underneath. Small fragments were found during work in June, but in December they hit the motherlode: a large scene of a male silver pheasant surrounded by pink tree peonies and other flowers and a small bird in the lower left.

The decoration was hand-painted in Canton. The outlines were printed with engraved woodblocks and then colored in by hand with watercolors and gouache. The flora and fauna while native in China would have been exotic novelties in Britain. The fragment is one of the four earliest examples of Chinese wallpaper exported to Europe and it’s the best preserved of the four. Of the three other examples, one had to be extensively restored, once was overpainted and one is very small. The Woburn Abbey piece was covered up only thirty years after it was first hung, so the colors are still bright.

John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford, died in 1771. Within a decade or so after his death, his bedroom was converted to a staff room. The elegant Chinese paper was covered with a modest black-and-white block printed distemper paper. A renovation from the 1840s or 50s hung another block printed distemper paper, this one made by machine. The product was inexpensive and indication of the low status of the once-splendid room.

In 1955 Woburn Abbey opened to the public for the first time. The Duke’s former bedroom was converted to the visitor’s entrance and was renamed The Red Souvenir Room. A red embossed flock on pint moiré silk wall covering was installed over the old staff room wallpaper.

It went back to being the 4th Duke’s bedroom in 1977, when a set of 17th century Mortlake tapestries were hung on the walls and the room was redecorated to look like a proper bedroom. It still didn’t look anything like it had when the 4th Duke actually lived there, though.

Now that the all the layers have been exposed, the bedroom is the centerpiece of new exhibition, Peeling Back the Years: Chinese Wallpaper at Woburn Abbey.

The Duke’s private bedroom has been left in its ‘investigative state’ with the various layers of wallpaper on display alongside original documents and items used to make and preserve Chinese wallpaper today.

Visitors can then follow the trail upstairs to the brightly coloured Chinese room with floor to ceiling Chinese wallpaper dating back 1820. [...]

Within the house trail a selection of Chinese related artworks reflecting the collecting tastes of the Duke of Bedford chart the progression through the different rooms and periods. Outside in the gardens the second trail links to the depictions in both the 18th and 19th century wallpaper.

Next to the fragment of the original wallpaper in the Duke’s bedroom is a reproduction of how the whole wall would have looked when it was new. The repro was custom-made for the exhibition using traditional methods and materials in China.

The exhibition and garden trails will be open until September 28th.

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Madrid begins search for Cervantes’ remains

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Researchers in Spain have begun the search for the remains of literary icon Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Although Don Quixote, today considered the first modern Western novel, was recognized as a pioneering masterpiece as soon as the first volume was published in 1605, its author’s mortal remains rest in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid.

It wasn’t always thus. After his death on April 22nd, 1616, Cervantes was laid to rest in the convent in a properly marked grave. The author left instructions in his will that he be buried in the convent which had been built just four years earlier in 1612. It happened to have been built near his home, but that wasn’t the reason for his selection. Cervantes had a deep bond of gratitude tying him to the Trinitarian order.

In 1571, the 24-year-old Miguel de Cervantes, then traveling in Italy, joined the Spanish army. He was a soldier in the company of Captain Diego Urbina on the galley Marquesa when he fought in one of the seminal battles of European history: the Battle of Lepanto, a naval battle between the Holy League of several European countries and the Ottoman Empire that took place on October 7th, 1571, in the Gulf of Corinth.

According to a contemporary report, Cervantes showed great bravery. He was ill with a fever, but refused to stay below deck. He insisted that he would rather fight and die for king and God rather than be safe and hide. In the course of the battle he was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in his left arm. The latter broke both the radius and ulna and severed a nerve, leaving his left arm almost entirely without movement.

He convalesced for six months and then reupped, fighting in several Mediterranean battles. In September of 1575, his ship, the Sol, was attacked by Algerian pirates and he was taken captive. For five years he was a slave in Algiers. He led four unsuccessful escape attempts before he was finally ransomed in 1580. His family was nearly bankrupted raising the funds to free him and his younger brother Rodrigo, and they wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of the Trinitarians. The Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives was founded in the late 12th century with the ransoming of Christians captured during crusades and by non-Christian pirates as one of its pillars.

Cervantes never forgot the service the Trinitarians did him and his family. That’s why he chose to spend eternity in the embrace of the Trinitarian convent. Unfortunately eternity was interrupted in 1673 when the convent was rebuilt and expanded by architect Marcos Lopez. Cervantes’ remains and those of the other dignitaries buried there were removed during construction and reinterred in the new church, only this time the graves weren’t marked.

The city would benefit financially from tourists being able to visit the grave of Spain’s greatest writer, but that’s not its sole motivation in funding a search for his remains.

“Why search for the remains of Miguel de Cervantes? Because he is a figure of worldwide importance. Because all humanity is in his debt. And because we have the opportunity and the technology capable of finding those remains, removing them from an anonymous grave and covering them with a memorial stone,” said Fernando de Pardo, the historian in charge of the project.
“He has given us so much, we are going to try at least to do something by putting his name on a stone to differentiate it from a nameless tomb.”

On Monday, the dozen cloistered nuns who live in the convent separate from all contact with outsiders made way for technicians from Falcon High Tech to begin a sweep of the foundations and walls with ground-penetrating radar and infrared scans. A previous GPR sweep in 2011 bore no fruit. The hope is that this time new magnetic impulse technology will penetrate further and provide more detailed results illuminating the location of grave cavities within the structure.

At least 15 people are known to have been buried in the convent, two of them close to Cervantes, so even if remains are discovered there’s no guarantee they’ll be those of the author, or that it will even be possible to pick out his from a potential bone jumble. His war wounds and dental damage will be instrumental to identification. The shots from an arquebus (a muzzle-loaded, smoothbore longarm firearm that was a precursor to the musket and rifle) can’t help but have left evidence of their presence in his chest and left arm.

As for his unfortunate teeth, we have his own words to go by. Here’s how the author describes himself in the author’s preface of Exemplary Novels:

an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, and silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustaches, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted….

There are no confirmed portraits of Cervantes from life. Cervantes mentions a portrait of him by Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar in the Exemplary Novels and there is a painting that claims to be of Cervantes that was attributed to Jauregui in the past, but modern scholarship doesn’t accept the attribution. Some people think this El Greco portrait from ca. 1605 may be of Cervantes, but the only evidence is that he was in Toledo around the time the portrait was painted and had friends in common with El Greco.

Researchers hope that if they do find the remains, they might be able to do a facial reconstruction to give us our first confirmed portrait of Miguel de Cervantes.

There are several obstacles to overcome before they get to that point, however. First, they have to find viable results from the radar sweep. After three weeks of careful analysis, those results will be presented to Madrid’s city hall where they will decide whether there is enough evidence to break ground on an archaeological excavation. They have the permission of the Trinitarians to proceed with excavations should it get to that point.

If researchers do get extra lucky and manage to find the remains of Cervantes, after analysis they will be reinterred in the convent as per her final wishes. This time, however, there’s going to be a monument involved, or at least a plaque.

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Picasso curtain at Four Seasons restaurant in danger

Monday, April 28th, 2014

A 19-by-20-foot stage curtain painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 that now hangs in the Four Seasons Restaurant (no relation to the hotel) is in danger. RFR Holding, owners of the historic Seagram Building since 2000, want to take the painting down, ostensibly because the travertine wall it hangs on has suffered structural damage, but only their engineers think the wall is structurally unsound and removing the fragile curtain is far more likely to damage it than errant stone facing becoming unmoored and tearing through the fabric.

The Picasso curtain was a front cloth for a production of Le Tricorne by the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev which premiered on July 22nd, 1919, at London’s Alhambra Theatre. Based on a novella by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and with music by Manuel de Falla, the ballet tells the story of a miller and his wife who get playful revenge on the lecherous governor who hit on the wife and tried to have the miller arrested. Falla had written El corregidor y la molinera, a two-scene pantomime of the novella, during World War I. It was a popular and critical success. Diaghilev and Ballets Russes dancer/choreographer Léonide Massine saw the show in Madrid in May of 1917 and felt it could be developed into a full-length Spanish ballet.

The Ballets Russes began their second season of performances in Spain in June. During the season, Falla took Massine and Diaghilev to see the best flamenco dancers in the city. That summer most of the troupe toured South America while Massine and Diaghilev traveled around Spain, absorbing the music and dance and working together on Le Tricorne. Pablo Picasso, who had already collaborated with the Ballets Russes on the ballet Parade, music by Erik Satie, scenario by Jean Cocteau, in 1916-7, worked with them on the Spanish ballet. One of the Ballets Russes dancers, Olga Khokhlova, quit before the troupe went to South America and traveled to Barcelona with Picasso. Within a year Picasso and Khokhlova would be married.

During their time in Spain, Léonide Massine hired Félix Fernández García, a flamenco dancer from Seville, to teach him the footwork. Fernández García expected to dance the lead in the production and indeed traveled with the troupe to London, but he found out from the advertising posters that Massine would be dancing the part of the Miller. His reaction to the bad news was to start carrying a ticking metronome with him everywhere he went. When one night he was found dancing naked on the altar of the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, Fernández García was committed to Long Grove Hospital for insanity. He would remain institutionalized at Long Grove until his death in 1941. In a creepy twist, after his institutionalization Diaghilev had García declared dead in Spain in 1919.

Picasso joined the troupe in London to finish his work on the sets and costumes. He made the drop curtain in a paint studio on Floral Street, Covent Garden, over the course of three weeks. The curtain hung in front of the stage during the overture the first major number after which it was raised to reveal the set pieces. In keeping with the ballet’s focus on Spanish culture, Picasso chose to depict a scene at a bullfighting ring even though there is no bullfight in the story.

Diaghilev kept the curtain after the show was over. Less than a decade later in 1928. he cut off the marbleized paper edges and sold the painted center to Swiss collector G. F. Reber. In 1957 it was purchased for $50,000 by Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram owner Samuel Bronfman. When her father asked to help decorate the Seagram Building, she and architect Philip Johnson chose the dramatic Le Tricorne for what would become known as Picasso Alley, the hallway connecting the Four Seasons’ two dining rooms, the pool room and the grill room.

In 2005, the painting was donated to the New York Landmarks Conservancy by Vivendi Universal, then owners of the Seagram company, on the condition that the curtain remain in situ at the Four Seasons. The Seagram Building and the Four Seasons restaurant were given landmark status in 1989, but because in theory the Picasso curtain is moveable, it isn’t covered by landmark protections. This became an acute problem in November of 2013 when the Landmarks Conservancy got a call from Aby Rosen, co-founder of RFR, claiming there was a steam leak in the wall and they’d have to take down the painting to repair it. When asked for the engineer’s report, Rosen replied there was none.

Next the Landmarks Conservancy received a letter from RFR on December 20th telling them work on the wall would begin the first week in January. This time there was an engineer’s report — no mention of a steam leak, just of the tiles moving a half-inch indicating structural issues — but when the LC sent their experts to assess the soundness of the wall, their findings were significantly different. Although they also found some tiles had moved, the amount of the movement was much less and fewer tiles were affected.

Finally a plan was in place to take down the curtain at 3:00 AM on February 9th so as not to disturb diners at the Four Seasons. The Conservancy rushed to court to get a temporary restraining order blocking the move which according to RFR’s lawyer involved rolling the fragile canvas up “one click at a time” and putting it in a rented van. Even the art mover admitted the curtain might “crack like a potato chip” in the process. Less than two days before the planned move, the court issued the restraining order.

The owners of the Seagram Building stunned the judge by arguing they can just replace the famed artist’s work if anything happened to it.

“If we break it, we buy it,” lawyer Andrew Kratenstein told Justice Matthew Cooper’s clerk outside the courtroom.

There aren’t enough eyes to roll over that one. The curtain is obviously not replaceable being a unique work by a dead master. That they would even attempt such an argument underscores that they really don’t care what happens to the painting. Rosen was heard referring to the curtain as a “schmatte,” meaning “rag” in Yiddish. The engineering claims are barely believable, so what seems to be going on here is that Rosen wants to put some of the art he likes — he’s an avid collector of works by artists like Jeff Coons and Damien Hirst — in the space currently occupied by the largest Picasso in the country.

The restraining order is still in place, having been extended several times. The Conservancy has asked for an injunction preventing the removal of the curtain. The court will hear arguments from experts on April 30th and May 1st, after which Judge Carol Edmead will rule on the request. They’re buying time, basically. The larger legal question of whether the Conservancy can stop the owners of the building from doing whatever they want to their property is a thornier problem.

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Wreck of City of Chester found in San Francisco Bay

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The wreck of the City of Chester, a steamship that sank with much loss of life in August 22, 1888, has been rediscovered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The ship was found in May of last year during a sonar survey of another shipwreck. The Office of Coast Survey Navigational Response Team 6 was scanning the wreck of the Fernstream, a freighter that went down in 1952. While they were in the neighborhood, NOAA director of maritime heritage James Delgado asked the team to look for the City of Chester.

After working with historic data provided by NOAA historians, the Coast Survey team conducted a multi-beam sonar survey and a sonar target the right size and shape was found. The team spent nearly nine months sorting through the data. A follow-up side-scan sonar survey confirmed that the target was City of Chester, sitting upright, shrouded in mud, 216 feet deep at the edge of a small undersea shoal. High-resolution sonar imagery clearly defined the hull, rising some 18 feet from the seabed, and the fatal gash on the vessel’s port side.

The wreck won’t be salvaged or interfered with in any way –it’s a protected grave site owned by the state of California — but its rediscovery will be a central feature of an upcoming exhibition at the historic Coast Guard Station on Crissy Field, on the northeast shore of the Presidio.

The story of the City of Chester provides a glimpse into a fraught period in US, particularly California, history. On its way to Eureka, California, the steamship hit a fog bank on its way out of San Francisco Bay. It slowed down and sounded the whistle at regular intervals to alert any other ships in the area and soon received a whistle response from another ship, the Oceanic, a steamship twice Chester‘s size. According to news accounts of the shipwreck, Oceanic sent a double whistle signal, indicating the ships should pass each other on the starboard side, and the Chester acknowledged with a double whistle reply. However, the Chester, either because the signals were misunderstood or because the tides drove it off-course, made for the port side of Oceanic.

They were already just half a mile apart when they became aware of each other’s presence; there was no time to avoid disaster. Oceanic plowed into the smaller ship, impaling it on its bow. The impact knocked some passengers directly into the water. Others were pulled up onto the Oceanic from the Chester deck. A few people were able to make it onto boats launched by the Chester in the six minutes it was still above the water after the collision. Oceanic sent down rescue boats of its own and threw life preservers to the survivors struggling in the cold, rough waters of the bay. Out of the 106 passengers and crew on the Chester manifest, 16 died, two of them small children.

It was the worst loss of life in the San Francisco Bay until 1901 when the City of Rio de Janeiro hit a reef and 123 people were lost. Because the Oceanic was coming from Japan and had some Asian crew (judging from the names, the officers were all Anglo) and because the question of Chinese immigration was on fire in the 1880s, there was some ugly racial commentary in the wake of the tragedy. John Walker, an able seaman (that’s a position, not a value judgment) on the Chester who was the first to emerge on the wharf after his rescue, told reporters:

“On the Oceanic the Chinese crew seemingly became terror-stricken as soon as the accident occurred, and much time was lost in the lowering boats of the latter steamer. If the crew had been white, there would have been more lives saved. Finally the boats of the Oceanic were lowered and did good work picking up those who were floating in the bay, sustaining themselves on life-preservers and bits of wreckage.”

That wasn’t necessarily the dominant narrative, however. Several articles credit the courage of a Chinese passenger on the Oceanic who rescued a little girl from the waves and held her, sitting astride a capsized lifeboat, until help came. Here’s a particularly telling account in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union of August 24, 1888:

A GALLANT CHINAMAN.

How a Mongolian Sailor Rescued a Baby from a Watery Grave

The conduct of Ah Lun, the Chinese sailor spoken of by Captain Metcalf as the rescuer of a little baby, is described by those who saw the incident as courageous in the extreme. Ah Lun was in a boat with three other Mongolians, and among the debris he discovered the head of a child. Throwing down his oar, he dived in after the little one, and then, after swimming for some distance, succeeded in reaching her. A few strokes brought him to the boat, which had been capsized in the whirlpool formed by the sinking steamer, and, climbing on the keel, he placed the child in such a position that the salt water was forced out of her mouth.

A few moments afterward he was taken off and brought on deck, where a mother was waiting to claim the little one. It was then discovered that Ah Lun had sustained many bruises and lacerations, his legs and arms being cut and scratched severely.

Deputy Surveyor Fogarty was specially delighted with the conduct of the Chinaman, who it appears, is an old acquaintance of his. When the urbane Deputy reached the deck the Chinaman accosted him, and after receiving his congratulations asked if he did not think he ought to be allowed to go on shore, though he was not a certificated man. Fogarty assured him that if it was in his power to let him, he would be made an American citizen without delay.

“If ever a Mongolian deserved to be habeased corpused,” said Mr. Forgarty to a Call reporter, “I think Ah Lun is the man.”

Ah Lun not being a “certificated man” who nonetheless deserves to be “habeased corpused” is a reference the legal chaos that followed the United States’ first law blocking one particular ethnic group from immigration: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act prohibited Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, and miners from entering the country for 10 years. Only a few categories of professionals like merchants were allowed entry, and they had to secure a “section 6 certificate” from the Chinese government attesting to their occupation. Chinese immigrants who already lived in the United States were prohibited entry to the US without an identity document known as a return certificate. It also excluded Chinese immigrants from applying for US citizenship.

In practice, enforcing this law was a monster problem for the courts. The Act contradicted the terms of an 1880 treaty between China and the United States, and there were thousands of people who fell through the cracks of the return certificate system. If they were out of the country, traveling back home to see family, perhaps, when the law was passed, then obviously there was no way for them to have secured the return certificate or the section 6 certificate before it was invented.

With anti-Chinese sentiment so thoroughly entrenched in San Francisco politics, the collector of the port, the political appointee responsible for enforcing the Exclusion Act, denied entry to anyone lacking the certificates, even if securing them was a complete impossibility short of inventing a time machine. When they were refused entry into San Francisco, the Chinese filed writs of habeas corpus in federal court on the grounds that they were being illegally detain on their ships.

So that’s what Ah Lun was talking about when he asked Fogarty if he could be allowed on shore despite not being a “certificated man,” and when Fogarty said he deserved to be “habeased corpused,” or released from confinement aboard ship so he could return to his San Francisco home. As the deputy surveyor, Fogarty would have had some involvement in these court cases. The surveyor and deputy surveyor were part of the U.S. Attorney’s team in at least one very high-profile habeas corpus writ which eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. It was ultimately decided in favor of the petitioner, Chew Heong, on treaty grounds and because he had left the country in 1881, before the Act was passed. The decision also confirmed the citizenship of anyone born in the United States, including the children of Chinese immigrants.

Even as more amendments were tacked on to the Exclusion Act to make it ever more exclusionary, the habeas corpus petitions kept coming, so much so that they clogged the docket of federal judges and ground the system to a near-halt. By the end of the decade, more than 7,000 habeas corpus writs had been filed in the California district court alone.

In 1888, the Chinese government, sick of the treaty violations and horrified by violence against Chinese immigrant communities like the 1885 Rock Springs massacre in which 28 Chinese miners were killed and hundreds forced to flee for their lives by a mob of 150 white miners and railroad workers, negotiated a new treaty with the US. The Bayard-Zhang Treaty of March, 1888, prohibited immigration or return of Chinese laborers for 20 years. The only exceptions were for people who had assets of at least $1,000 or immediate family living in the US.

The treaty was not well-received in China, and the government began to back away from ratification unless the chains were loosened a little bit. Meanwhile, it still wasn’t draconian enough for the Americans, so in October of 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, a supplement to the Exclusion Act that locked the door tight.

Terms of Scott Act:

SEC. 1. It shall be unlawful for any chinese laborer who shall at any time heretofore have been, or who may now or hereafter be, a resident within the United States, and who shall have departed, or shall depart, therefrom, and shall not have returned before the passage of this act, to return to, or remain in, the United States.

SEC. 2. That no certificates of identity . . . shall hereafter be issued; and every certificate heretofore issued in pursuance thereof, is hereby declared void and of no effect, and the chinese laborer claiming admission by virtue thereof shall not be permitted to enter the United States.

When the Scott Act came before the Supreme Court the next year, the decision went entirely the opposite way from the 1884 case. It was unanimously upheld. Chinese Exclusion continued to be the law of the land, with regular amendments over the years, until World War II.

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200-year-old douche and friends find new home

Saturday, April 26th, 2014

The 200-year-old vaginal syringe discovered underneath the historic landmark New York City Hall in lower Manhattan will find a permanent home under the same roof as thousands of other artifacts discovered during the constant churn of New York’s soil over the course of decades. Until now, artifacts discovered at excavations, usually surveys in advance of construction, have been spread out to 13 different institutions across the city, including Barnard College and Columbia University. Now the Landmarks Preservation Commission has created the New York City Archaeological Repository, a 1,400-square-foot, climate-controlled space at 114 W. 47th St., to host the artifacts in conservation conditions.

The last single location in New York to host the city’s archaeological patrimony was New York Unearthed, a privately-funded museum that closed in 2005. The museum was created by property owners the William Kaufman Organization as part a deal with the city. They would get to build on land known to be replete with rare archaeological artifacts from the earliest days of New Amsterdam without having to submit to an Environmental Quality Review. In return, they would fund a history museum on the first floor. The next owners honored the agreement, but when they sold the building in 1999, the new owners wanted nothing to do with the museum. They let it stay in place without paying rent or utilities, but they refused any further funding.

After the museum folded in 2005, the massive collection of two million artifacts that were once on display in the 1,400 square foot space were rescued by the New York State Museum in Albany. A few pieces are on display there, but almost the entire collection is in storage in steel cabinets.

It seems like for now at least, the new repository will be much the same: a place to store, catalog and study. It’s not a museum and will not be open to the public. Scholars and museums will be allowed to examine pieces upon request. Archaeologists are glad to get the opportunity to do their research in one location and to be able to do comparative analysis of related artifacts. It won’t be complete without the Albany collection, however, so I hope there are some long-term plans afoot to reunite all of New York’s material culture.

The property for the repository was donated by the Durst Organization, a big real estate company that is still family run and which boasts a strong complement of history nerds in the family. The land was donated in honor of Nan Rothschild, a member of the Durst family and an anthropology professor at Barnard. An earlier Durst, Mr. Seymour B. Durst, built up a collection of New Yorkiana — historic photographs, postcards, maps, newspapers, assorted memorabilia — so vast that by the time he died in 1995, it filled all five floors of his townhouse. The Durst family donated the collection and funds to conserve it to the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, where it is now known as the Seymour B. Durst Old York Library Collection. The Durst Organization is also funding a massive digitization project. When it’s complete, the entire collection will be made available online for scholars and the general public.

I can’t help but hope that Durst attitude will rub off on the repository plan, expanding it so that millions of New York City artifacts will be all together again and on display for the public to enjoy.

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Blood in French Revolution gourd isn’t Louis XVI’s

Friday, April 25th, 2014

Spanish National Research Council researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox has sequenced the full genome of DNA recovered from a gourd said to have contained a handkerchief dipped in the blood of the guillotined King Louis XVI. The results indicate the blood was not Louis XVI’s.

The functional genome analysis was based on two main points, the genealogical line and the physical appearance, and in both cases the result was negative. According to the historical records that go back to his 16 great-great grandparents, Louis XVI had a very heterogeneous genealogical line in which central European ancestors predominated, mainly from the area that today is Germany and Poland, while the genome recovered from the pumpkin belongs to an individual with a clear French and Italian component. In terms of physical appearance, the sequenced DNA points to an average height in France at the time and brown eyes, while portraits and historical accounts describe Louis XVI as the tallest man on the court and with blue eyes.

Only one man in 16 generations of Louis XVI’s great-grandfathers had Northern Italian ancestry: Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy. Meanwhile, the history of the gourd itself places it in Italy for at least the past century, so the possibility that the genetic material inside the gourd was contaminated long after Louis’ death is not negligible.

Although the researchers cannot pin down a precise height from the gourd DNA, the genome suggests the individual was in the bottom 4 percentile for height. We can’t pin down Louis’ exact height either — people who described him as the tallest man at court could have been flattering him — but estimating from the 162-centimeter (5’4″) length of his coronation robe, Louis was around 185–190 centimeters (6′ – 6’3″) tall.

This will be another blow to forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier who first tested the dried blood on the inside of the intricately carved gourd and compared the Y-chromosome DNA to that recovered from a mummified head previously identified as the remains of King Henry IV. His results found that the DNA from the gourd belonged to a man with blue eyes with a rare genetic makeup that isn’t in any current databases of European DNA. The DNA recovered from the trachea of the mummified head shared multiple alleles from that rare haplotype.

Those results were called into question last year by a team of geneticists from the University of Leuven in Belgium who took a more direct approach. They compared the Y-DNA of the blood from the gourd and the mummified head to modern DNA extracted from three living male descendants of the House of Bourbon. The three men were found to share Y-chromosome DNA, as you would expect from their family connection to Bourbon men on the lineage between Henry IV and Louis XVI. Neither the gourd blood nor the head matched this established Bourbon variant. They also compared the mitochondrial DNA of the head to modern Bourbons down the female line and there was no match.

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Casket of 12th c. Swedish king opened

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Uppsala University researchers and clerical officials from Uppsala Cathedral opened the reliquary casket of King Eric IX of Sweden, the patron saint of Stockholm, on Wednesday. There’s footage of the solemn opening in this Swedish-language video. The casket was opened as recently as 2000, but the remains weren’t studied or conserved at the time. This year is the 850th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Uppsala as the archbishopric of Sweden and the Cathedral plans an unprecedented exhibition in honor of the jubilee. Since they wanted King Eric’s funeral crown as part of the exhibition, officials decided to amortize the opening by allowing the university to examine the remains.

Little is known about this king. There are many miracles attributed to him and his remains but not much in the way of historical or archaeological evidence. There is at least one surviving chronicle that mentions him in passing. Most of what we know of him comes from hagiographies that date to the 13th century at the earliest. According to them, Eric was a pious and just king who came to power in 1156 after the murder of King Sverker I. He wrote Sweden’s first law book, hence the nickname Eric the Lawgiver, traveled the country, which still had a significant complement of non-Christians, dispensing justice and founding churches.

According to these accounts, Eric was killed by nobles who resented his devout Christianity (and the 10% tithe his piety made him enshrine in law) who were in cahoots with Magnus, son of the king of Denmark. He was at church on Ascension Day, May 18th, 1160, when a messenger interrupted services to tell him an army of rebels were coming for him.

After mass he recommended his soul to God, made the sign of the cross, and, to spare the blood of the citizens, who were ready to defend his life at the expense of their own, marched out alone before his guards. The conspirators rushed upon him, beat him down from his horse, and struck off his head with a thousand indignities in derision of his religion. His death happened on the 18th of May, 1151. God honoured his tomb with many miracles.

Eric was venerated almost immediately after his death, his remains collected as holy relics. They were kept at the Trinity Church (the current church by that name was built in the 13th century) in Uppsala where the king was martyred and used in processions every year on May 18th. His son Canute, undisputed King of Sweden from 1173 to 1195, strongly supported the cult of Saint Eric, but Pope Alexander III, who had created the archbishopric of Sweden in 1164, refused to canonize him. In an important (from a canon law perspective) letter he wrote to Canute in the 1170s, Alexander admonished the Swedish church for allowing veneration of a man who was drunk when he was killed by a bunch of other drunks, insisting that the determination of sainthood was solely in Rome’s purview. That may or may not be Eric he was talking about (he doesn’t name the saint in question), but he does say “a great many signs and miracles are wrought by him,” and since he’s addressing the king, it’s a strong possibility he meant Eric. The Swedish church still observes a saint day of May 18th for Eric, even though he never did get the official imprimatur.

The reliquary holding his bones and funeral crown was moved to the Uppsala Cathedral, built on the site of the original Trinity Church, after construction was completed in 1273. The current gilt silver reliquary was made in the 16th century. The original one is thought to have been worn out from all the handling during processions. The second was made in 1435 in the shape of a Gothic cathedral. It was melted down in 1573 by King John III to finance a war with Russia. He and his wife then had the current casket made from 75 pounds of gilded silver the next year.

The reliquary was opened and some bones distributed to other churches in the 14th century, so the skeletal remains are not complete. The skull, minus the lower jaw, is still there, however, as are the long bones of the legs and the remains of the collarbone in a special pouch. The new study will examine the cervical vertebra and collarbone for cutting marks. The bones will be measured, X-rayed and DNA extracted if possible. Isotope testing on the teeth will hopefully answer long-standing questions about his origin. (His name, Eric Jedvardsson (son of Edward), suggests he may have English heritage, but the hagiographies claim he was from Västergötland or Uppland, in southern Sweden.)

That’s all secondary to the main research project: an interdisciplinary study of osteoporosis. The project compares ancient remains to modern ones to study changes in bone density and joint damage from the disease. The Uppsala University team have examined other skeletons from the early Middle Ages as part of this project, but they were all regular folk. Information from an upper class individual will fill in an important blank.

The gilded copper crown with glass stone accents, Sweden’s oldest royal crown, will be conserved and then put on display for the first time in modern memory at the Heaven Is Here exhibition in Uppsala Cathedral from June 18th through November 16th. Celebrating the 850th jubilee, the exhibition features more than 50 historical religious artifacts from diocesan churches as well as installations by contemporary Swedish artists. It’s the first time so large an exhibition has been held in an active church in Sweden.

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Celebrate St. George’s Day with an orgy of dragons

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

If you, like me, are grumpy about the complete dearth of dragons in the past two episodes of Game of Thrones, the British Library is providing a healing unguent for that burning sensation in the form of gorgeous illuminations of dragons from Medieval manuscripts. The library’s always outstanding Medieval Manuscripts blog kicked off the homage to the winged serpents of lore with a selection of diverse representations.

Dragons were popular subjects in Medieval literature, making appearances in manuscripts from Bibles to bestiaries to histories to romances to hagiographies. Although St. George may be the saint most associated with dragon-slaying today, he was far from the only holy figure to have that claim to fame. Dragons in this tradition are symbols of demonic evil and paganism, and indeed like George, many of the saints whose legends have them fighting dragons lived in the fourth century when the battle between Christianity and the traditional polytheistic religions came to a head.

The late 4th century bishop Mercurialis of Forlì, the first bishop of the city, slew a dragon and saved the Forlians from a fate worse than death (ie, their own pre-Christian beliefs). Early 4th century Saint Theodore of Amasea (aka St. Theodore of Tyro), who burned down a temple of Cybele was martyred for refusing to join in pagan sacrifice while a soldier in the Roman army, killed a dragon with a cross. Saint Margaret of Antioch (d. 304), daughter of a pagan priest who disowned her when she became a Christian and dedicated her virginity to God, slew a dragon from the inside out. Tortured by a Roman governor and would-be suitor, Margaret was swallowed by Satan in the form of the dragon only to burst out of its belly holding after making the sign of the cross. St. George himself defeated the maiden-devouring dragon after crossing himself, and the grateful population of “Silene” (it’s uncertain which city the legend refers to) convert to Christianity in response.

This association of saint-slain dragons with victory of paganism is made explicit in many of the hagiographies. Here’s an instructive passage from the Life of Saint Silvester in the Golden Legend, a popular compendium of the lives of saints compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275:

In this time it happed that there was at Rome a dragon in a pit, which every day slew with his breath more than three hundred men. Then came the bishops of the idols unto the emperor and said unto him: O thou most holy emperor, sith the time that thou hast received christian faith the dragon which is in yonder fosse or pit slayeth every day with his breath more than three hundred men. Then sent the emperor for S. Silvester and asked counsel of him of this matter. S. Silvester answered that by the might of God he promised to make him cease of his hurt and blessure of this people.

Then S Silvester put himself to prayer, and S. Peter appeared to him and said: Go surely to the dragon and the two priests that be with thee take in thy company, and when thou shalt come to him thou shalt say to him in this manner: Our Lord Jesu Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried and arose, and now sitteth on the right side of the Father, this is he that shall come to deem and judge the living and the dead, I commend thee Sathanas that thou abide him in this place till he come. Then thou shalt bind his mouth with a thread, and seal it with thy seal, wherein is the imprint of the cross. Then thou and the two priests shall come to me whole and safe, and such bread as I shall make ready for you ye shall eat.

Thus as S. Peter had said, S. Silvester did. And when he came to the pit, he descended down one hundred and fifty steps, bearing with him two lanterns, and found the dragon, and said the words that S. Peter had said to him, and bound his mouth with the thread, and sealed it, and after returned, and as he came upward again he met with two enchanters which followed him for to see if he descended, which were almost dead of the stench of the dragon, whom he brought with him whole and sound, which anon were baptized, with a great multitude of people with them. Thus was the city of Rome delivered from double death, that was from the culture and worshipping of false idols, and from the venom of the dragon

Aside from those in the lives of saints, I think my favorite dragons from the Medieval Manuscripts selection are the ones battled by Alexander the Great. Alexander became a chivalric hero in the Medieval romances and as such had several confrontations with fantastical creatures. In the French illuminated manuscript Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (c. 1420 -1425), which you can browse in glorious high resolution here, he fights dragons with large emeralds embedded in their heads, dragon with ram horns and dragons with two heads, eight legs and multiple eyes on their torsos.

The mythologizing of Alexander the Great started in antiquity, with the source of many of these fantastical stories in the Medieval romances going back to a Greek language biography by Pseudo-Callisthenes, an unknown author from the 3rd century. Another ancient source the Medieval writers relied on heavily was the Historia Alexandri Magni by Quintus Curtius Rufus, a 1st century historian who used the character Alexander to teach lessons about proper kingship versus tyranny, a subject people who lived under Julio-Claudian rule obviously had a strong personal interest in exploring.

The Historia Alexandri Magni is incomplete, with the first two books and parts of the remaining eight lost, but that didn’t stop authors like Walter of Châtillon in the 12th century and the Archpriest Leo in the 10th century from writing epic poems and prose in Latin based on the Historia. They just filled in the blanks with bits from other sources (like the Greek version of a heavily mythological Persian history of Alexander that was translated by Simeon Seth, an 11th century Jewish doctor and chamberlain to Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas) and from their own fertile imaginations. Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre is a French treatment of Archpriest Leo’s Historia de preliis Alexandri Magni.

Another Alexander romance with a particularly juicy dragon treatment is Les faize d’Alexandre, a French translation of the Historia Alexandri Magni done by Vasco da Lucena for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, between 1468 and 1475. It didn’t make the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry, but its author, Sarah J. Biggs, has been tweeting additional dragons today and one from Les faize d’Alexandre is a stand-out:

Who is that lady in bed with the dragon while a crowned man watches? That is Olympias, mother of Alexander, and the dragon is his real daddy. The voyeur is his, let’s just say adoptive, father Philip II of Macedon. This is what happens when the first two books of an ancient source go missing. Things get a tad fanciful and that version spreads far and wide. The Medieval Alexander romances all start with a dragon impregnating Olympias. There’s a less naughty version in the Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre where the dragon is just flying in through the window rather than actively making out with her.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. Egyptian pharaoh and sorcerer Neptanabus takes refuge in Macedonia after the gods tell him he’s about to be defeated by the Persian king Ochus. He bills himself as an astrologer and becomes a regular at court while the king is abroad fighting. Neptanabus becomes infatuated with Olympias and conceives a cunning plan to get in her bed through deception. He tells her the god Ammon will soon come to her chambers and together they will conceive a child. He then either changes himself into a dragon or tricks her into thinking he’s a dragon (there is some variety in the retelling) and they have sex, Olympias certain the whole time that she’s being impregnated by the god Ammon.

Neptanabus then sends Philip a dream about Ammon getting his wife pregnant, so when he returns he’ll accept the demi-god foster son rather than, say, slaughter the baby and his mother for her adultery. Philip isn’t happy about it, but he takes it. Later magical occurrences confirm the accuracy of the prophecy, and so little Alexander is set on his path to greatness.

He does eventually find out about the deception. Alexander is 12 years old and doing military maneuvers when he playfully pushes Neptanabus into a ditch and breaks his neck. As any smartass would, Alexander tells Neptanabus he should have known that was going to happen,. The pharaoh replies that nobody can avoid their fate, and that his fate was to be killed by his own son. He then explains the true circumstances of the conception. Alexander takes it improbably well, as does Olympias. Alexander buries Neptanabus with all honors due a king, sorcerer, rapist, liar who conned his mother, father, country and himself into believing he was the son of a god.

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Happy 100th birthday, Wrigley Field!

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014


Chicago’s iconic ballpark Wrigley Field turns 100 years old today. It is the second oldest Major League Baseball park after Boston’s Fenway Park (opened April 20, 1912). Although it is the home field of the Chicago Cubs, they’ve never actually won a World Series there. The famously benighted club’s glory days took place at the long-defunct West Side Park where in 1906 the Cubs scored the most victories (116) and the best winning percentage (.763) in Major League history. The lost to the White Sox in the World Series that year, but won the next two. The subsequent World Series dry spell is the longest in history.

Wrigley Field has seen a championship, however, just for a team in a league that stopped existing right after they won. It wasn’t called Wrigley Field then. When it opened its doors, it was called Weeghman Park after Charles Weeghman, the “Quick Lunch King,” owner of a chain of lunchrooms. Weeghman’s diners served only cold sandwiches, and instead of tables and chairs or stools and a bar, they were packed with school-style chairs where a single arm curves around into a table. No hot food = no wait, and eating like you’re taking a test = no lingering. He was able to cram so many people into his diners and get them out the door so quickly that at its peak, the main lunchroom served a mind-boggling 35,000 people a day.

Weeghman was never one to rest on his laurels or focus narrowly on his business, a lack of focus that would ultimately lead to his downfall. One of the side-interests he pursued avidly was baseball. He founded a Chicago team of the Federal League, an upstart organization that from 1914 to 1915 challenged the National League and American League as the “third major league.” First known as the Chicago Federals or ChiFeds, the team name was changed for the 1915 season to the Chicago Wales.

To give his new team a place to play, Weeghman leased land on the corner of Clark and Addison from the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary and hired Zachary Taylor Davis, architect of Comiskey Park, to build a new concrete and steel baseball field. Work began on February 23, 1914, with an official groundbreaking on March 4th. You read those dates right. Weeghman Park was built in two months. It cost $250,000.

On April 23rd, 1914, Weeghman Park opened with a game between the Chicago ChiFeds and the Kansas City Packers. Future hall of famer Joe Tinker managed the home team, and the Chicago crowds came out to support him and the new team. In an auspicious beginning that sadly would not be bourne out in the long-term, the ChiFeds won handily. You can read the Chicago Tribune’s review of the opening game here. The ChiFeds lost in the finals of the league championship that year, but they won the title the next year, making them the Federal League’s most successful club.

That wasn’t enough to save the league. It folded shortly after the season ended, but Weeghman bounced back, acquiring the National League’s Chicago Cubs and bringing them over from the fire-prone wooden West Side Park to his two-year-old Weeghman Park. To fund the record-setting $500,000 acquisition of the team, Weeghman enlisted investors from the Chicago business community, including gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr.

Wrigley’s company was going great guns, while Weeghman’s began to stumble. His investments in film production and theater ownership were failures that sucked support from the diners that had made his fortune. With many of his demographic (ie, young working men) heading off to war, the lunchrooms began to suffer. No sooner had the boys come home than the Spanish Influenza struck. It would claim 20 million lives worldwide before it ebbed. Meanwhile, nobody was keen to lunch in established jam-packed with people coughing their potentially lethal pathogens all over each other.

Weeghman tried to shore up his bottom line by borrowing money from Wrigley with shares in the Cubs as collateral, or by selling shares outright. Wrigley took an increasingly direct interest in the club, moving their spring training grounds from Florida to Pasadena where he had a mansion and a large plot of land downtown easily converted into a ball field. By 1918, Weeghman was finished at the park he built. Wrigley owned most of his stock and finally demanded that in return for yet another loan, Weeghman retire as president of the Chicago Cubs and devote himself solely to his business.

Wrigley didn’t immediately rename Weeghman Park after himself. It kept its original name for a couple of years, then changed to Cubs Park in 1920. Six years later, in November of 1926, the park was renamed Wrigley Field. It owns many historical firsts. The Star Spangled Banner was first played there before games. Wrigley was the first field to allow fans to keep foul balls they caught (elsewhere they had to hand them over to ushers). It was the first baseball field to have an organist playing. The first televised baseball game was the Cubs versus the Dodgers on July 13th, 1946. It was the last field to host night games because it was the last to install lights in 1988, believe it or not. Babe Ruth made his famous “Called Shot” (if it actually happened) at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series, his last year in the game.

While almost all of the old parks have been demolished to make way for stadiums with high-tech amenities, Wrigley Field carries on with all its myriad problems and disadvantages. A half-billion dollar renovation is slated to begin in the offseason this year, although there are obstacles, mainly the owners of the rooftop bleachers whose prize locations will be endangered by the refurbishment.

Today, Wrigley Field is celebrating its birthday in grand style. The Cubs will play the Arizona Diamondbacks with both teams wearing throwback jerseys of the Chicago Federals for the Cubs and the Kansas City Packers for the Diamondbacks. The first 30,000 fans to arrive at the park will get a free replica 1914 Chicago Federals jersey (WANT!) and will be greeted by ushers wearing period costumes in 1914-style. The ground crews will also enjoy some vintage styles: 1914 Weeghman Park jackets. Even the concessions stands are get into the spirit of things, offering 1910s specials like a breaded pork sandwich with slow-cooked onions and spicy mustard on a toasted roll and a Reuben Dog, a beef hot dog topped with corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island and Swiss cheese.

Before the game begins, visitors will enjoy historic photographs and videos on a right field board. Charles Weeghman’s grand-niece Sue Quigg will throw the first pitch using a 100-year-old ball first thrown at a ChiFeds game by her grandmother Dessa Weeghman.

For a wonderful series of retrospective articles, see the Chicago Tribune’s Wrigley 100 page. The Chicago Cubs have a site dedicated to the centennial as well. You can purchase tickets there, although I don’t see where they tell you if tickets are still available for today’s game.

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Only extant Revolutionary War mine tunnel opened

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The only mine tunnel from the Revolutionary War known to survive has been opened and explored by a firefighter in the first stage of its preservation. The 125-foot tunnel was designed by Polish humanist, engineer and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko during the 1781 siege of the earthen Star Fort in the town of Ninety Six, South Carolina. The plan was for the tunnel to extend underneath the Star Fort so that it could be mined from below and blown up. British reinforcements arrived before the tunnel was finished, which is why it, unlike its more successful brethren, managed to survive the war.

The earthworks of Star Fort are still in existence and the entire site is now a National Park. The Park service and experts from the University of South Florida sent Greenwood firefighter Russel Cline down into the tunnel with breathing equipment since they had no idea what kind of air quality he would encounter. He found that it was remarkably good, considering the three-and-a-half foot high tunnel is more than 230 years old. The video records that the vaulted tunnel is lined with brick and mortar which at first glance, at least, still impressively sound, a testament to Kosciuszko’s skill and attention to detail.

Now that the path has been cleared, researchers will fully map and measure the tunnel with 3D imaging, laser scanning and remote sensing technology. This will give archaeologists a detailed understanding of the tunnel’s condition, and, since the it can’t be opened to the general public for its own good and ours, it will allow researchers to create 3D models to bring the tunnel to life for park visitors.

The village of Ninety Six (the origin of the name has been lost in the mists of time) played a significant role in the Revolution. A frontier town in western South Carolina, Ninety Six was the site of several battles of the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758–1761), when the Cherokee fought against the British during the French and Indian War. Its strategic importance was undiminished 15 years later when Revolution came. In 1775, Ninety Six was the site of the first Revolutionary War battle south of New England. The year after that a casualty of another battle fought in Ninety Six claimed another first. Francis Salvador, a recent immigrant from London, prominent landowner and the first Jew to hold elected office in what would become the United States, was shot three times at the Battle of Twelve Mile Creek on August 1, 1776. Before the American militia could rescue Salvador from the battlefield, the Loyalists’ Cherokee allies scalped him. He was the only one to receive this treatment, and he died from his wounds a few hours later making Francis Salvador the first Patriot Jew to die in the Revolutionary War.

In 1780, the British army — in this case experienced Loyalist troops organized into regular army regiments rather than militias — decided to fortify Ninety Six. The Provincial regiments and their slaves built a fort in the shape of an eight-point star, with earthen walls 14 feet high. Two stockade walls would keep attackers busy to give the 550 troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger the chance to defend.

On May 22nd, 1781, Patriot Major General Nathanael Greene laid siege to the Star Fort. He had almost twice the number of troops and Colonel Kosciuszko on his side, but Star Fort proved a tough nut to crack nonetheless. The siege lasted 28 days, the longest siege of the Revolutionary War. First the Patriots dug an approach trench, but te defenders attacked during the construction giving Kosciuszko the only wound he ever experienced in the seven years he fought for the Patriot side: a bayonet to the buttocks.

Next Kosciuszko built a Maham Tower, a 30-foot-high siege tower with a covered platform at the top. From that height, sharpshooters could pick off the fort’s defenders, but not for long. Cruger had sandbags stacked above the parapet, protecting his troops from the sharpshooters. When the Greene’s troops tried shooting flaming arrows into the fort to set it on fire, Cruger had all the roofs removed from the buildings inside the fort making it hard for anything to catch fire.

The mine tunnel was Kosciuszko’s last engineering attempt to win the siege. It stopped short when news that 2,000 British troops were marching to Ninety Six from Charleston. On June 18th, tried a frontal assault on the fort. They reached the sandbags before they were outflanked on both sides by Cruger’s men and retreated to the trenches. With the British reinforcements just 30 miles away and having lost 150 troops in the assault, Greene ordered a full retreat.

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