Archive for November, 2015

The First Book of Fashion

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

University of Cambridge historian Dr. Ulinka Rublack, author of the excellent Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, and Maria Hayward have published a unique 16th century manuscript documenting one German accountant’s daring and elegant forays into personal style. The Klaidungsbüchlein, or “book of clothes,” is the ancestor of every fashion blog, Instagram and Tumblr and it slays them all.

Matthäus Schwarz was born in Augsburg on February 20th, 1497, the son of a wine merchant and innkeeper. Even as a teenager Schwarz showed an interest in fashion, realizing how quickly trends came and went. That understanding would inspire him to meticulously record what he wearing, when and why, noting his age down to fractions of years. After learning bookkeeping through apprenticeships in Milan and Venice, as soon as he returned to Augsburg in 1516 he got a job as a clerk with Jakob Fugger, the head of one of the richest, most powerful mercantile, mining and banking firms in Europe. Schwarz quickly worked his way up, becoming head accountant by the age of 23.

That same year he began to document his outfits, keeping a style blog in the form of illuminated manuscript. He commissioned local artist Narziss Renner, then just 19 years old, to reconstruct 36 images of him from birth through his early 20s based on detailed descriptions and old drawings. Renner then made tempera portraits of each important outfit going forward, while Schwarz made notes on the date, his age and the occasion.

Schwarz took pleasure in gorgeous, expensive clothes, but they were also an important form of self-expression for him. He was successful at his job and made good money, but he wasn’t rich. He was a middle class burgher, but he spent all of his discretionary income on clothes and was involved in every aspect of the design. There was no prêt-à-porter and if there had been Schwarz still would have gone for the couture. This wasn’t just a foppish indulgence. He put on a sartorial display as a means to better himself socially. His grandfather Ulrich had pulled himself up by his bootstraps, rising from common carpenter to guild leader to mayor of Augsburg only to be charged with corruption by opponents of greater wealth and status. He was convicted and hanged in 1478, a stain on the family reputation that Matthäus, like his father, felt keenly. The right kind of clothes were essential to Matthäus’ hopes that he might regain the ground lost by his grandfather’s disgrace.

It worked. He caught the eye of Ferdinand, brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who invited Schwarz to his wedding. When Charles returned to Germany after a nine year absence and he and Ferdinand were in Augsburg for the Imperial Diet in 1530, Schwarz commissioned six extremely intricate outfits he hoped would please them. Schwarz’s employer Jakob Fugger was very close to the emperor, having spent huge sums to help secure his election to the office, so Schwarz wasn’t just a nameless face in the crowd. A devout Catholic in a region rent by the religious conflicts of the Reformation, Schwarz telegraphed his support for the emperor and the Church by his choice of colors. In 1541 he and two of his brothers were ennobled.

Renner and Schwarz worked together for 16 years. After that, Schwarz kept going, employing other artists, including one from Christoph Amberger’s studio, to paint his looks until 1560 when he was 63 years old. By then he had 75 pages of parchment with 137 portraits of himself, including the first secular nude since Albrecht Durer’s. It was a bold nude, too, with both front and back views and an unstinting self-assessment: “That was my real figure from behind, because I had become fat and large.” His son followed in his father’s footsteps, although he was less prolific and his styles less colorful.

Schwarz had the manuscript bound in 1560 and while it was basically a personal account, he appears to have shown it to a select audience. Over the years word got out because in 1704 Sophie of Hanover, granddaughter of James I and mother of George I of England, borrowed the manuscript and had it copied by scribe J.B. Knoche. She kept a copy and gave another to her to her niece Elizabeth Charlotte of Orléans, sister-in-law of King Louis XIV of France. Sophie’s copy is now in the State Library of Hanover.

The original is in the collection of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, one of the oldest museums in the world. The book is so fragile that even scholars very rarely get to see it, and then only with two trained curators gingerly turning each page. Before now, most of the color photos of the manuscript were taken from the Hanover copy. The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthäus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg is the first, and given the caution with which the manuscript is treated very possibly the last, edition to publish all the original images in color. Since the copies have notable errors in coloration that Schwarz would have been appalled by, having a full color record of the delicate original is a precious thing.

The First Book of Fashion is available in hardcover and EPUB eBook from the publisher and in hardcover and Kindle from Amazon. If delayed gratification is not your bag, you can peruse Mr. Schwarz’s analog Instagram in this pdf which is a scan of the Hanover copy. The picture quality isn’t great, though.

Two years ago, Dr. Rublack collaborated with Tony award-winning costume designer and dress historian Jenny Tiramani, who also collaborated on the book, to recreate one of Schwarz’s most dramatic and politically significant outfits: a gold and red silk doublet over a fine linen shirt with yellow leather hose he wore for the 1530 return of the emperor. Watch this video documenting the recreation because it’s awesome. Even just putting on the outfit is crazy complicated. Oh, and killer codpiece too.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/91hysO_suRo&w=430]

The First Book of Fashion includes a pattern for the gold and red outfit, just in case you want to try your hand at recreating such a glamorous Renaissance look.

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14th c. birch bark letter found in Moscow

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Russian archaeologists have unearthed a letter written on birch bark in Moscow’s historic Zaryadye district close to Red Square. The archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences found the letter 13 feet below street level in a layer with more than 100 small and large artifacts dating to the 14th century.

The first birch bark letters were discovered in 1951 in Novgorod, preserved in its heavy, waterlogged clay soil. Letters were scratched on the inner, trunk-facing side of the birch bark sheet using a stylus made of iron, bone or bronze. The letters were dated with a combination of stratigraphy (dating of the layers in which they were found), dendrochronology (tree ring dating) and palaeography (handwriting analysis) and linguistic analysis (examining the features of the text). They range in date from the 11th through the 15th century.

The vast majority are letters from private individuals detailing the minutiae of their lives. Some are petitions of peasants to their lords. Some are debt lists, but since they open with the imperative “Take” it’s probable that they too were letters, probably of instruction on collecting the enumerated debt. One very special group of birch bark letters appear to be lessons and doodles. There are 17 drawings and notes by a young boy named Onfim. He lived in the 13th century and was around six or seven when he drew scenes of men on horseback, knights in battle, even himself as a fantastical beast next to alphabet and writing exercises. It’s a remarkable testament to a how highly literate this society was at all economic strata.

Since that first discovery in 1951, more than 1000 birch bark letters have been found, almost all of them in Novgorod. The second greatest number, 45, were found in Staraya Russa, a town 60 miles south of Novgorod. Only nine other cities can claim birch bark letter discoveries. None were found in Moscow until 1988. It took 20 years before a second and third were unearthed at the foot of the Kremlin. None of those three quite followed the Novgorod standard. Moscow 1, as the 1988 find was dubbed, was a draft or copy of a property deed or claim. Moscow 2 had a small inscription that was hard to make out. Moscow 3 was a very long inventory of property of a Muscovite prince and it was written in ink, not scratched with a stylus. (Only two of the thousand plus Novgorod letters were written in ink.)

That makes Moscow 4, the newly discovered piece, the first true Novgorod style birch bark letter found in the city. Like the overwhelming majority of the Novgorod ones, this is a private letter. The strip of bark has the smooth surface and carefully cut edges indicating it was specifically prepared for use as stationary. Each letter is printed very clearly and distinctly along the length of the fibers, as they are in Novgorod. The other Moscow letters were written against the grain.

The letter is a sad one. Addressed simply to “Sir,” it tells of the writer’s misfortunes while traveling to Kostroma, a city 217 miles to the northeast that was part of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The writer was detained along with a certain Yuri and his mother by someone “who had the right to do so.” This person, likely an official of some kind, took 13 bel (a relatively small denomination of currency in medieval Russia) from them and then another three. Finally the author had to pay 20 and a half bel more to buy their freedom. The total of 36.5 bel was a signficant amount of money back then. Since it appears the captor had legal rights, this may have been the repayment of a debt with extra tacked on for interest.

Every Novgorod birch bark letter find is exciting, but the rarity of a Moscow find and the precise printing of this letter make it of particular interest to archaeologists. It will be conserved to ensure its long-term survival and studied further at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Most of the birch bark letters have been uploaded to an online database. The website is down right now but it was working earlier. From what I could gather when it was up, it hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s not quite a complete record. Still, you can photographs of each letters in high resolution, plus transcriptions and translations.

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Earliest church in the tropics unearthed in Cape Verde

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

A team of archaeologists from the University of Cambridge has unearthed the remains of the first known Christian church in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição was built around 1470, shortly after the Portuguese discovered the island, out of wood. What the team has found are the remains of an expansion of the church from 1500 with masonry walls and an interior decorated with vibrant colored tile imported from Lisbon.

Documentary evidence pointed to the location of the first church, so in 2007 the team dug test pits and found foundations and a significant burial ground. With the support of the mayor and the Cape Verde government, archaeologists were able to return this season and fully excavate the site.

“We’ve managed to recover the entire footprint-plan of the church, including its vestry, side-chapel and porch, and it now presents a really striking monument,” said Christopher Evans, Director of the CAU.

“Evidently constructed around 1500, the most complicated portion is the east-end’s chancel where the main altar stood, and which has seen much rebuilding due to seasonal flash-flood damage. Though the chancel’s sequence proved complicated to disentangle, under it all we exposed a gothic-style chapel,” he said.

“This had been built as a free-standing structure prior to the church itself and is now the earliest known building on the islands — the whole exercise has been a tremendous success.”

The Cape Verde archipelago was discovered in 1456 by Alvise Cadamosto, an Italian explorer hired by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal to explore the west coast of Africa. The islands were uninhabited. There weren’t any mammals at all, in fact, or trees. They were, however, conveniently located in the Atlantic 350 miles off the coast of Africa, which would soon make the archipelago an important platform for the transatlantic slave trade. In 1462 the Portuguese founded the first permanent European settlement in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The island and its capital, the city of Ribeira Grande (modern-day Cidade Velha), flourished from the trade in human flesh both economically and culturally, becoming the second richest city in the Portuguese empire and developing through the mixing of European and African cultures into the first Creole society.

The city declined rapidly in the 18th century after it was sacked by the French pirate Jacques Cassard in 1712. He gutted Cape Verde so thoroughly that, according to his memoirs, he had too much loot to fit on his eight ships and had to leave some of it behind for fear his fleet would sink from the weight. Ribeira Grande never recovered from the Cassard blow. When the slave trade was outlawed in the 19th century, the economic engine of the city died. Necessary maintenance was abandoned and the hill wash carried down into the city by seasonal floods was left to accumulate. The capital was moved to the town of Praia and Ribeira Grande became a sleepy village.

Nossa Senhora da Conceição followed this pattern, falling into disuse around 1790. The archaeological remains from its heyday, however, give us a unique glimpse into the early history of the island. The discovery of the tombstones of dignitaries like mid-16th century town treasurer and slave trader Fernão Fiel de Lugo confirm the existence of people who while known were enveloped in an aura of legend. An estimated 1,000 people were buried under the floor of the church before 1525, an incredible density of information about the dawn of the first Creole society.

Preliminary analysis of samples shows that about half the bodies are African, with the rest from various parts of Europe. An excavation is being planned to collect data for isotope analysis of more bodies to learn more about the country’s founding population and its early slave history.

“From historical texts we have learned about the development of a ‘Creole’ society at an early date with land inherited by people of mixed race who could also hold official positions. The human remains give us the opportunity to test this representation of the first people in Cabo Verde,” said Evans.

Watch this video for an overview of the history of the city and for great footage of the excavation of the church.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/7lDWR5R6EII&w=430]

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Burial vaults found under Washington Square Park

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

Workers installing a new water main on Washington Square Park East last Tuesday discovered a burial vault probably dating to the early 19th century. Work stopped and Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants were called in to examine the vault at the intersection of Washington Square Park East and Washington Square Park North and carefully excavate the surroundings. They immediately discovered a second vault parallel to the first.

Cameras dropped into the vaults found the chambers are about the same size — 8 feet deep, 15 feet wide and 20 to 27 feet long — with fieldstone walls and barrel-vaulted brick ceilings. The interiors are whitewashed and have a wooden door at one end. The first vault has jumbled skeletal remains of maybe 10 individuals. The second holds about 20 intact wooden coffins.

Numerous coffins, perhaps two dozen, covered the floor of the vault. Some were in disarray but others looked to be in a fine state of preservation. Smaller coffins attested poignantly to the burial of children, when it was not uncommon for families to suffer the loss of their youngest members.

More helpful to historians than anything, perhaps, many of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped ornamental identification plates that will — once they are decipherable — help [Alyssa Loorya, President and Principal Investigator of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants,] and others put names to the skeletons; and with the names, context; and with context, new stories of old New York.

With space at such a premium, Manhattan is replete with built-over burials. In fact, the what is now Washington Square Park was first acquired by the city specifically for use as a graveyard. It was farmland in the late 18th century, outside the confines of the city. In April of 1797, the New York City Council bought 90 lots, the eastern two thirds of the future park, for use as a potter’s field, a public burial ground for the indigent. Its brief was expanded every time New York was hit with a yellow fever epidemic (there were four major outbreaks during the lifetime of the cemetery). Victims’ bodies were buried in the potter’s field outside of the city for sanitation purposes. Historians estimate that more than 20,000 people were buried there between 1797 and the cemetery’s closure in 1826.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that human remains have been found before during work at the park, starting in 1890 when the foundations were dug for the Washington Square Arch. Architect Stanford White stopped work to document the bones, gravestones, pieces of coffins and one relatively intact coffin. Since then individual graves had cropped up on occasion when the city had cause to dig in the Washington Square Park area, but when in 1965 Con Edison workers broke through an intact burial vault at the northeast corner of the park (the same location where the vaults were found last week), nobody had seen anything like it. The remains of three partially burned coffins and 25 individuals were found in that vault.

There is cartographic evidence from the early 19th century that a large plot extending across the northeast corner of the park from Washington Square Park East to Washington Square Park North and several adjoining blocks belonged to the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Pearl Street Church and Cedar Street Church, both Presbyterian, are each known to have had small cemeteries carved out of the larger lot. The Cedar Street Church cemetery was the larger of the two. It is now the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church which has kept excellent records going back to 1808, so it may be possible to identify one of the names on the coffins, should they have been part of the Cedar Street congregation.

All construction work at the site has been halted. By city policy, all burials must be left in place and intact. The water main project is now being redesigned around the vaults.

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Synchrotron X-ray imaging virtually opens mystery box

Friday, November 6th, 2015

A badly corroded box found in a 17th century tomb has been virtually opened by powerful synchrotron X-ray imagining and its contents revealed in exceptional high resolution. The box and its contents are not so portentous, archaeologically speaking, but the phenomenal quality of the imaging opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

The metal box was found in one of more than 1,500 tombs unearthed under the old Saint-Laurent church which is now the Grenoble Archaeological Museum. The site has been in use since the 4th century when it was a cemetery outside the ancient city. Starting with a cruciform church in the 6th century, buildings were constructed on top of the remains of earlier buildings in four known stages. The current Saint-Laurent building is a 12th century Romanesque church that was deconsecrated in 1986 and converted into the museum.

The crypt from the 6th century church was discovered in the basement of the Romanesque church in 1803 and subsequent excavations peeled back layers to reveal burials from the 4th through the 18th century. This one church and its environs encompass a complete history of Christian burials over an astonishing 16 centuries. Modern archaeologists have been exploring the burials for the past 20 years, taking the unique opportunity to study the evolution of Christian funerary traditions spanning 1600 years.

More than 2,000 artifacts have been discovered in the tombs, many of which are on display in the museum which beautifully weaves the open excavated crypts into exhibition space. The box was found buried next to a body in a group of 195 graves from the 17th centuries. It’s a tiny piece — just 4 centimeters (an inch and a half) in diameter — and is so fragile conservators decided to restore it only to the point of stopping the oxidation process that was eating away its metal. Because corrosion had worn a hole in the lid, they could see that there were three round coin-like objects inside, but couldn’t make out any further details.

The museum reached out to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) team to scan the box using synchrotron X-ray phase contrast micro-tomography.

This technique, which can be likened to a highly powerful medical scanner, is capable of producing high resolution 3D images of the inside of a sample in a non-destructive manner. “It was only supposed to be a small feasibility study to produce an image for an exhibition. However, the results were so astounding that it turned into a full scale research project”, says Paul Tafforeau who carried out the experiments and produced the 3D images of the box.

The scanner found that the “coins” inside were actually clay religious medals. There were also two pearls inside the box. The medallions were stuck together and in bad condition, but the synchrotron X-ray was able to virtually separate them and make a 3D virtual model so crisp and detailed it has to be seen to be believed. Behold:

The imaging is far better than anything we can see with our puny human eyeballs so markedly inferior to those of any cephalopod. We now know that there are two identical medals sandwiching a different one between them. The middle medal, which has the most surviving detail, depicts Christ on the cross with two figures — probably Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary — standing on either side. The other side of the medal shows Christ wearing the crown of thorns, rising from the tomb with one leg out of the coffin and holding the standard of the Resurrection and Victory.

The other two medals were both more damaged, but fortunately in different places so it was possible to use the image of one medal to fill in the blanks on the other. One side shows the baptism of Christ and bears an inscription from John 1:14 VERBUM CARO, FACTUM EST (“And the word was made flesh”). The other side is a Nativity scene, with the Magi bringing gifts to the baby Jesus on Mary’s lap. The inscription is a verse recited during the Stations of the Cross: ADORAMUS TE, CHRISTE ET BENEDICIMUS TIBI (“We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee”).

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“World’s greatest cat painting” sells for $826,000

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Images of cats have gone viral long before the Internet, or even the computer, was a thing. A 19th century painting of cats that drew crowds and critical accolades in the analog era sold at Sotheby’s Tuesday for $826,000, almost three times the high pre-sale estimate.

My Wife’s Lovers is a monumental 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting weighing 227 pounds, so heavy Sotheby’s had to construct a special wall to display it during the preview period. It was painted by Austrian artist Carl Kahler who specialized in horse racing scenes and had never painted a cat before he went to San Francisco in 1891. There he met Kate Birdsall Johnson, a wealthy philanthropist, art collector and animal lover who had begun buying fancy Angora cats during her travels in Europe in the 1880s and never stopped.

Mrs. Johnson invited Carl to Buena Vista, the Johnsons’ country estate near Sonoma and home of the oldest winery in California, still in operation today. (It wasn’t actually a working concern in the decade plus the Johnsons lived there as they had no interest in wine production, but as aficionados of art and architecture, they did ensure the preservation of the original press house and winery so the estate could return to its proverbial roots after World War II.) There she commissioned him to make a portrait of 42 of her cats and Kahler got to work. He spent close to two years sketching individual cats in their many and varied postures.

Lore has it that the painting was given its exquisite moniker by Kate’s husband Robert, but that can’t be true because he died in March of 1889 in Paris after a sudden illness struck him while he was traveling abroad. I imagine the name was Mrs. Johnson’s idea, a tribute to her beloved husband, doubtless inspired by something he had often said about her feline companions. It reads to me like an old inside joke between a long and happily married couple.

The painting was finished by the spring of 1893. Justifiably proud of her cat colony captured in all their dynamism and character by Kahler’s brush, Mrs. Johnson loaned My Wife’s Lovers for exhibition in the California Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It went on display in the Women’s Department (yeah, I know) and was a smash hit with the crowds. From the Final Report of the California World’s Fair Commission

The pictures on the walls were numerous, and embraced novel and meritorious works of art. Probably the one that attracted the most attention was a large canvas painted by C. Kahler, and owned by the late Mrs. Kate E. Johnson of San Francisco, the title being “My Wife’s Lovers.” It contained figures of forty-two large Angora cats, being only a fraction of the total number in possession of the owner, and represented these household pets in every conceivable attitude of playfulness.

Kate Birdsall Johnson only had a few months to enjoy her pets’ fame as live art models. She died on December 3rd, 1893, of pneumonia. Sotheby’s lot information says she left $500,000 in her will for the care in perpetuity of her cats, but that’s not correct. Her will was published in the paper when it was filed for probate a week after her death, and there is no half million dollar bequest.

~ Tangent time! ~

Kate Johnson’s will opens with a sweet nod to her father-in-law:

Thanking God for his undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts, I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul.

George C. Johnson’s soul may well have needed those prayers, primarily because of the way he made the fortune that Kate so graciously and devoutly bequeathed. A Norwegian immigrant, he first came to northern California in 1850 as captain of a ship carrying US Army food stores into the epicenter of the California Gold Rush of 1849. He sailed up the Sacramento River to its tributary the Feather River and stopped in Nicolaus, California, where he settled in waiting for further orders. Two years later, the army sent Major Richard Livingston Ogden, quartermaster of the Department of the Pacific, to track Johnson down. He found the ship permanently moored, draped with awnings, and Captain Johnson on deck swinging in a hammock while his wife rocked in a rocking chair.

Ogden inspected the cargo, consisting mainly of barrels of salt pork, and found it no longer suitable for army consumption, or human consumption, really. So naturally he ordered it sold at auction where it was bought for a dollar a barrel. By George C. Johnson. Johnson rinsed the rust and stink off the pork, repackaged it and sold it in Marysville, a Gold Rush boom town, for $16 a barrel. He used the profits to invest in a San Francisco hardware business which was hugely successful, soon becoming the largest hardware company on the Pacific Northwest coast. By the end of the decade he was consul for Norway and Sweden and acting-consul for Denmark to the Port of San Francisco.

George died in 1872, leaving his estate of an estimated $3 million to his only son Robert.

~ End Tangent ~

By the time it got to Kate, the estate was worth around $2 million, much of it in property. She willed that a third of it be donated to the Roman Catholic Church for the purpose of building a free hospital for “all sick women and children of the poor, without regard to religion, nationality or color.” Mary’s Help Hospital took years to get off the ground, then more years to get back on its feet after the 1906 earthquake, but eventually Kate’s legacy was honored and the hospital still exists today as Seton Medical Center.

There is no reference to Kate Johnson’s cats in her will. Apparently at the time cats had no legal designation — livestock qualified as personal property, but not pet cats — and therefore could not be explicitly provided for in her final will and testament. There is, however, a significant bequest of $20,000 to Helen Shellard “a maiden schoolteacher,” as the San Francisco Call describes her. Later articles note that Miss Shellard, a distant relative of Kate’s, had agreed while Kate was still alive to care for her cats after her death. Kate Johnson put the $20,000 bequest in her will specifically so Helen could afford to take on her many cats. Twenty thousand dollars in 1893 money is worth about $525,000 today, but that’s not where Sotheby’s got their spurious figure. They got it from an inaccurate 1949 article in the Shamokin News-Dispatch which also went wildly overboard with the total cat numbers. The papers at the time of her death claimed she had 200 cats; by 1949 that figure had grown to 350.

Mrs. Johnson didn’t have hundreds of them, though, not even close. On February 1st, 1894, when Helen was finally able to sort out the technicalities and rescue the by-then neglected cats from Buena Vista, there were 32 of them. Given that, I strongly suspect the 42 cats in Kahler’s painting were the full complement of Kate’s cats in 1893. Mind you, 32 was more than enough for Miss Shellard’s modest Telegraph Hill home to accommodate. She had to evict two tenants, screen in a porch and some of the yard to make room for the Johnson cats.

As for the painting, it led an exciting life after Mrs. Johnson left this one. It was purchased at her estate sale in 1894 by Ernest Haquette, a French-born art dealer who hung the painting in his Palace of Art gallery and cafe’, an innovative combination which made it a hot spot for the city’s social and business elite to enjoy elegant meals and cocktails for lunch and hugely expensive art any time. It was the best museum in the city before the de Young or SFMoMA were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

In 1906, the Palace of Art burned to the ground in the raging inferno that leveled whatever parts of the city were still standing after the earthquake. My Wife’s Lovers was hanging in the gallery at the time, but it somehow survived the conflagration. It was acquired by another gallery owner and passed through several hands over the decades. In the 1940s it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Julian of Julian Art Galleries who put it on tour culminating in a cat show at Madison Square Garden. Again Mrs. Johnson’s cats were a smash hit and more than 9,000 prints of the painting were sold spurring Cat Magazine to dub it “the world’s greatest painting of cats.”

The anonymous California buyer who just spent $826,000 to buy it was directly inspired by its past popularity: “I purchased My Wife’s Lovers by Carl Kahler based on my mother’s fond memories of the image. I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at 91. Its California history made it all the better.”

[youtube=https://youtu.be/K7E3YjntTY0&w=430]

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Lost Oswald the Lucky Rabbit film found in BFI archive

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Not one to be outdone by the National Library of Norway, the British Film Institute has discovered a lost Walt Disney film starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike Empty Socks, the short found last year in NLN’s subarctic bunker archive of nitrate films, there wasn’t even a 25-clip of Sleigh Bells known to survive. No part of Sleigh Bells has been seen since it made its original release in 1928.

The six-minute animation was found in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted by a researcher searching the online catalogue. He recognized the name of the film as one thought lost. The print entered the BFI archive in 1981 as part of a collection of movies from a recently shuttered Soho film studio. It was titled and dated 1931, but had no references to Disney or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The title was generic enough to not ring any bells (pun intended) and the BFI doesn’t have the manpower to watch every one of the one million films in its archive, so it was just duly catalogued and socked away in storage.

In the movie Oswald skates and plays ice hockey on a lake accompanied by his interspecies lady friend, a cat named Ortensia who looks a little like Felix the Cat in a hat and skirt. It was drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (Ub did all of the drawing for Disney’s early characters; Walt had limited artistic talent) and Walt Disney under contract with Universal Studios which had hired the pair to get a piece of the lucrative cartoon pie. The Oswald films were Universal’s first animated pictures and while Disney had had some success with the combination of live action and animation in the Alice Comedies series, Oswald was his first big hit.

Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald wasn’t really his, not by law. He belonged to Universal and once the character proved to be a success, Charles Mintz, the producer of the Oswald pictures, wasted no time in planning Disney’s ouster. He stealthily poached all of Disney’s employees except for Ub Iwerks who was loyal to Walt and refused the job offer. Iwerks warned Disney of Mintz’s machinations but Disney handwaved away his concerns. It was only in the spring of 1928 when Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract that he finally realized Iwerks was right. Not only was Mintz not offering to increase Disney’s take on the popular cartoons, he told him he had to make more films for 20% less money. Mintz had no need to accommodate him since he had an experienced Oswald team ready to go without Disney.

Walt and Ub walked away and were all the better for it since the next idea they came up with was Mickey Mouse. Mintz’s production company took over making Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal until karma struck. The next year, Universal president Carl Laemmle fired the Mintz-Winkler studio and handed Oswald to Walter Lantz, a director Mintz had hired. Lantz produced Oswald cartoons until 1943 when the character was all but retired. He would go on to invent Woody Woodpecker.

In 2006, the Walt Disney company reacquired the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit property from NBC Universal. They were delighted, therefore, at the rediscovery of Sleigh Bells. Walt Disney Animation Studios restored the print and made a new film print of it as well as digital copies. The restored cartoon will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank on December 12th, 2015, as part of It’s A Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, a program of holiday-themed films from the late 1920s to the present.

Here’s a brief preview of Sleigh Bells released by the BFI:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/FI2Gu1ZFmAk&w=430]

Here’s a news story about the find that has some views of the film and its canister which look to be in surprisingly good condition.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/wAKOjQ1RAKU&w=430]

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Museo dell’Opera del Duomo reopens in Florence

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

After more than 20 years of planning and execution and 45 million euros spent, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral) in Florence reopened to the public on Thursday. More than 750 artworks — paintings, textiles, architectural models, sculptures — are on display in a completely redesigned space that finally allows the museum to exhibit monumental pieces from the exterior and interior of the Duomo, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower). The Museum of the Works now houses the largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the world, statues and reliefs in marble, bronze and precious metals by such towering figures as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio del Pollaiolo and Michelangelo Buonarotti.

More than 200 of these works have never before been on public display before because exhibition space was so limited. The acquisition in 1998 of the Theater of the Intrepids, an 18th century playhouse built on the site of Renaissance artists’ workshops that had once belonged to the Opera, allowed the museum to more than double its space. Because the theater had long since been gutted and was being used as a parking lot, there was nothing of historical or architectural interest to preserve. This allowed the architects to restructure the old museum and the theater, fusing them together into a single logical space. There are now more than 6,000 square meters (64,600 square feet) of room for the masterpieces from the history of the construction of this great church to spread out and breathe in 25 rooms over three floors. To accommodate monumental pieces that were made to be viewed from afar, several large halls were created ranging in size from sixty to a hundred feet long with ceilings twenty to fifty feet high.

The flexibility afforded by the theater large, empty theater building solved the museum’s thorniest problem: how to properly exhibit the elements of the Duomo’s original facade designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th, early 14th century. Arnolfo’s facade was incomplete at the time of his death (sometime between 1302 and 1310), covering only the bottom third of the church. Standing next to the multicolored marble facades of the Baptistery and Campanile, its whiteness where finished and roughness where unfinished were much criticized. Over the years various contests were launched to find a solution but they came to naught. Finally in 1587, the Medici Grand Duke ordered the court architect to demolish the facade and replace it with a brick veneer painted in Mannerist style. In 1688 that was repainted with fake columns and architectural details on the occasion of the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand to Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. That paint job was faded to all but nothingness by the mid-19th century. The white, green and red marble facade we know today is shockingly recent, designed by Emilio de Fabris to coordinate with the other striped structures in the complex and constructed between 1876 and 1886.

The Opera managed to keep most of the facade, despite the inexplicable lack of care taken to preserve the works during demolition, in its store rooms. It also kept in its archives the only surviving drawing of Arnolfo’s original facade: a 17th century copy of a sketch drawn by Bernardino Poccetti in 1587 just before demolition. When the Museo dell’Opera opened in 1891, the monumental figures from the facade couldn’t possibly fit. The best it could do was exhibit a little wooden maquette of the facade while more than 100 original pieces — 40 statues, 60+ architectural features — stagnated in storage.

The lofty spaces of the theater gave the museum the opportunity to do something extremely cool about the facade: reconstruct the whole damn thing indoors. Using the Poccetti sketch as a guide, architects recreated the 14th century facade along one wall of the 1,500-square-foot great hall. The sculptures and reliefs were positioned in their original locations, with a few select pieces of particular importance being brought down to the museum floor so visitors can actually see them while plaster copies were put in their original places.

Across from the reconstructed Arnolfo facade is another monumental installation: the Baptistery facade. The famous Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief that once graced the east wall of the Baptistery, the north door, an earlier work by Ghiberti made to match the first doors by Andrea Pisano, and said Pisano doors, all extensively restored, are installed in the facade, topped by the monumental sculptures that topped them in the 16th century. (Copies of the doors now take the brunt of the weather and pollution in the Baptistery itself.)

Other rooms are dedicated to important works and history, like Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (1455), Michelangelo’s unfinished and all the more beautiful for it Bandini Pietà (ca. 1547–1553), and the two intricately carved choir lofts that once stood above the doors of the sacristies inside the Duomo, one by Luca della Robbia (completed in 1438), the other by Donatello (completed in 1439). These masterpieces of early Renaissance sculpture were removed by order of groomzilla Grand Duke Ferdinand because he considered them too passe’ for his fashionable wedding. He replaced them with massive Baroque choir lofts.

The great dome of the cathedral designed and built by architect, artist, goldsmith and inventor Filippo Brunelleschi also get its own hall. It houses original wooden models of the cupola and lantern and, incredibly, some of the pulleys and gear Brunelleschi devised to get construction materials 170 feet off the ground. I haven’t been able to determine if the 9-foot scale model of the dome discovered under the floor of the theater during construction in 2012 has been integrated into the museum as was discussed at the time.

(Speaking of Brunelleschi’s dome, you have to watch this documentary about its construction. Master masons from the United States go to Florence and join in a project to build a scale model of the dome to see if they can figure out how he did it. It is absolutely riveting viewing. It’s fascinating to see Brunelleschi’s genius brought to life by masters who clearly feel the noble history of their craft with every brick they lay.)

Basically, this is a whole new museum. If you’ve been to the Museo dell’Opera before, you have all the reason you need to get back there stat because its previous incarnation bears no resemblance to its current splendor.

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Royal Collection restorers find hidden pooper

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

A painting in the Royal Collection has been hiding a man captured in the moment of answering a call of nature for more than a hundred years. A Village Fair with a Church Behind by 17th century Dutch painter Isack van Ostade is a vibrant, bustling scene of peasants exploring market wares in a fictional village under the shadow of an unrealistically large church. Restorers were cleaning the oil-on-canvas work in preparation for an upcoming exhibition when they found that a shrub in the bottom right corner was a relatively recent overpainting. When they removed the bush, they found a man popping a proverbial squat, trousers down, head bent in concentration.

Here is the painting before cleaning:

Here it is after cleaning:

The canvas entered the Royal Collection in 1810 when it was acquired by the future King George IV, then the Prince of Wales. It hung in Carlton House, the Prince’s London home. Exhibition curator and surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures Desmond Shawe-Taylor notes that the notoriously dissipated “George IV loved that kind of thing … Being a man of the world, [he didn’t] mind a few rude jokes.” His successors were not quite so enamored of toilet humor. Restorers believe the rustic pooping fellow was probably painted over the last time the canvas was restored in 1903, after it was moved to the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

The modification took place two years into the reign of Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, who was himself was no stranger to bawdiness. Dubbed Edward the Caresser by Henry James, he was a regular at a number of exclusive Parisian brothels, particularly Le Chabanais where he kept his custom-made sex chair. He wouldn’t have had any direct involvement in the pooper cover-up. It was likely a curatorial decision to bring the painting in line with the proprieties of a time when the mere discussion of a much-needed women’s public lavoratory took five years because council members couldn’t even talk about bodily functions without terminal monocle popping. Displaying a painting of a man dropping a deuce next to a church, no less, would have been cause for great consternation. Another ribald Dutch painting bought by George IV, A Village Revel by Jan Steen (1673), was altered around the same time when a man’s naked buttocks on the tavern sign were covered with a bull’s head.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor again:

“Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature’, the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style’; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly.”

The painter of A Village Fair with a Church Behind, Isack van Ostade, was born in Haarlem in 1621. He was trained by his older brother Adriaen who had a strong influence on his early works. Once he struck out on his own in 1642, Isack shifted his focus from the rustic interiors that characterized his brother’s work to peasant genre works set in a detailed but fictional landscape. He specialized in winter scenes and crowded exteriors, like the series of paintings he did of people milling about outside roadside inns. His signature touch in these busy scenes full of people and animals was a white horse, unmissably luminescent in the center left of A Village Fair with a Church Behind. Isack died at the tragically young age of 28. His short life was a prolific one; he completed about 400 paintings in the decade he had.

The painting is one of 27 Dutch 17th and 18th century works from the Royal Collection that will be on display in Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, an exhibition exploring the quotidian captured in rich detail by artists like Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer. The exhibition runs from November 13th, 2015, to February 14th, 2016, in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

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Bejeweled, gilded silver Tiffany bike on display

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

The summer the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened a new wing dedicated to business and innovation. One section of it, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, explores how certain consumer goods — clocks, ready-to-wear clothes, refrigerators — both drove and embodied social change in the US. Bicycles, for instance, gave women a whole new independence of movement and helped support the Victorian dress reform movement which sought to liberate women from the restrictive fashions of the day and advocated less binding, less bulky, more practical garments for use in sports and activities like swimming or bicycling.

One of the pieces on display is a sparkling example of the roles innovation and fashion played in the bicycling craze of the late 19th century. It’s a Ladies Columbia Bicycle made in 1896 by the Pope Manufacturing Company at its Hartford, Connecticut, factory, then the largest bicycle factory in the world. It was a safety bicycle, so-called because unlike its predecessor the penny-farthing, it put pedals close to the ground for easier balance and stopping and had a chain-drive that allowed for much smaller wheels. By 1896 those wheels were inflatable pneumatic tires which gave a much smoother, faster ride than the boneshaker of yore with its hard rubber tires.

What makes this particular Ladies Columbia Bicycle stand out among the 60 bicycles in the Smithsonian collection is what happened to it after it came off the line at the Hartford factory: it was decorated with silver, gold, diamonds and emeralds by Tiffany & Co. Introduced in late 1895 for the Christmas shopping season, the Pope Manufacturing Company’s glamorous Tiffany Bicycle was more of a marketing tool than a big seller, and no wonder since it cost a prohibitive $500 before customization. In its newspaper ads to Tiffany Bike was used as a lure to induce potential buyers to visit the company’s local branch where a wide array of affordable models were available for purchase.

The Tiffany Bicycle in the Smithsonian belonged to Mary Noble Wiley of Montgomery, Alabama, wife of Spanish-American War veteran and United States Representative from the state of Alabama Ariosto Appling Wiley. The nickel-plated steel frame was decorated by Tiffany with floral and filigree designs in sterling silver covered with a thin layer of gold. The handlebars have ivory grips with silver bands and gold embossed designs. The lamp is sterling silver with a rock crystal lens. The wheel rims are made of bird’s eye maple. To keep Mrs. Wiley’s skirts from getting caught in the chain and wheel spokes, twine was tautly threaded over them. Mrs. Wiley’s initials — MNW — were monogrammed onto the front tube in gold and studded with 12 small diamonds and eight small emeralds.

Unfortunately we know very little about its creation and acquisition. Mary, known as Wiley gave it to her son Noble Wiley in 1915 to keep for his then-infant daughter Hulit to enjoy when she was old enough. Noble packed it away in a special bicycle trunk where it remained for 15 years until he had cause to unpack it and recall how awesome it was. He wrote a letter to Tiffany & Co in New York City asking for more information about it. That letter has survived, but alas any response he may have received has not. In 1950 he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.

It was selected for display in the Object Project and earlier this year conservator Diana Galante cleaned and restored it to make it ready for its closeup. She found that years of polishing had eroded some of the gilding, exposing the silver beneath to tarnish. The original rubber tires, whose sulfurous fumes played a part in the tarnishing process, were cracked and misshapen, a decay that is all but unavoidable in the life cycle of century-old natural rubber.

After an initial cleaning to remove grime and old wax, the bicycle’s tarnish problem needed to be addressed. Galante used gentle abrasives to remove the corrosion returning the silver to its original shine. She coated the gilded areas were resin to keep them from tarnishing while on display. Visitors can see it now on display at the National Museum of American History in a custom enclosed display case (which will also help prevent tarnish while keeping this literal jewel of a bike safe), suspended in a mount specially designed to keep the rubber wheels from having to bear the weight of the bike.

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