Oldest known city view of Venice identified

A pen and ink drawing in a 14th century travelogue is the oldest known city view of Venice. The image was drawn by Niccolò da Poggibonsi, a Franciscan friar who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt in 1345-50, in his account of his travels now in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. He wrote his travelogue the Libro d’oltramare, after his return to Italy. While the manuscript has been published before, the drawing has not. It was identified by Dr. Sandra Toffolo from the University of St Andrews’ School of History.

When Dr Toffolo discovered the image, she realised that the city view of Venice predates all previously known views of the city, excluding maps and portolan charts. The oldest extant map of Venice was made by Fra Paolino, a Franciscan friar from Venice, and dates from around 1330. Since the discovery, Dr Toffolo has spent the last several months verifying the image through consulting books, manuscripts and articles.

A series of small pinpricks discovered on the original manuscript image also suggests that the city view was more widely circulated. This technique was used to copy images: powder was sifted through the pinpricks onto another surface, thereby transferring the outlines of the image.

Dr Toffolo said: “The presence of these pinpricks is a strong indication that this city view was copied. Indeed, there are several images in manuscripts and early printed books that are clearly based on the image in the manuscript in Florence.

Niccolò left Poggibonsi in Tuscany in March of 1345 and went through Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Chioggia before arriving in Venice. It’s the first city he writes about it in detail. Since his epic voyage was a pilgrimage, Venice gets air time for its many holy relics.

“In this city there are many saints’ bodies, like of Saint Mark the Evangelist, even though it’s not on display. But I saw the whole body of Saint Lucia and of Saint Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, whole and entire, and Saints Cosmas and Damian, and the foot of Saint Mary of Egypt, and saw the thigh bone of Saint Christopher and I measured it — it was from hip to knee four spans long — and other saints’ bodies did I visit.

But the city itself made a big impression with the traveler. The canal system even got its own chapter.

This is a noble city, and it sustains itself better as a community than any other place in the world, and all the men are merchants and the women work by hand, because every necessity of life they have to bring in from the outside for money. The reason is because Venice is all in the sea, has no land around it where they might harvest grain or other to live off of.

Regarding this land, meaning Venice, it is made differently from other places in that the whole city there are no streets on land. Their streets, small and large, are canals of water, and so by water, ie, by boat, one travels everywhere. […] And the city is full of beautiful houses with many bell towers that are so tilted that it seems they’ll fall from the bad foundations. They can’t make better ones because of the sea.

I think it is the most regal port in the world where you can always find ships to navigate anywhere in any country a man has business to visit.

Export blocked for unique anchorite manual

UK Arts Minister Helen Whately has blocked export of a unique 15th century Middle English manuscript. The Speculum Inclusorum (the Mirror of Recluses) was written by an unknown author as a manual for women who chose to become anchorites, a type of religious recluse that gained some popularity in medieval England.

Anchorites dedicated their lives to god by enclosing themselves in a small cell attached to a church. They were usually lay people, not nuns or priests, who chose isolation and self-abnegation inspired by the example of the ascetic Desert Fathers of the 3rd century. Instead of the sacrament of Holy Orders received by priests or the symbolic Marriage to Christ of nuns, anchorites received an enclosure service modeled on the mass said for the dead. The officiant even sprinkled the anchorite with dirt reciting the “ashes to ashes” bit, just like with a casket at a funeral.

The place in which they would be enclosed for life was known as the anchorhold. It had three windows: one slit through which they could observe mass and take communion, one through which servants would deliver food and remove waste, one to the outside world to receive visitors or the sacrament of Confession. While visitors were very rare — the whole point was to be a recluse living a life of isolation, denial and prayer — anchorites were considered extra holy for having chosen enclosure and pilgrims did seek out their council. Julian of Norwich (1342-ca. 1420), an anchoress and author of the oldest surviving English book written by a woman (Revelations of Divine Love), was a spiritual adviser to, among others, Margery Kempe, author of the first autobiography written in English.

Once enclosed in their anchorhold, that was that. There was no leaving the 12×12-foot room, nor any way out even if they’d wanted to. It was referred to as a tomb and that wasn’t just a metaphor. Some had literal graves dug in the ground, open and in full view of the anchorite who for the duration of her entombed life could contemplate the actual tomb she’d occupy when that life was over. (The practice of burying anchorites in their anchorholds appears to have petered off in the 14th century, replaced by churchyard burials.)

As extreme a lifestyle as it was, it was a bit of a trend in the Middle Ages. Researchers have traced about 100 anchorites in 12th century England, and the figure doubles to 200 between the 13th and 15th centuries. Women were particularly drawn to enclosure. There were three times as many anchoresses as anchorites in the 13th century, and twice as many in the 14th and 15th centuries. These were people of means. They had to apply for the position to the bishop and prove they had the financial wherewithal to support themselves for the duration of their enclosure, be it long or short. They paid all costs — food, clothes, furnishings, attendants — which could add up over decades even for the most ascetic anchorite.

They were also more likely to be literate, and a number of guides were written to acquaint the would-be anchorite with their new way of life. The Ancrene Wisse, an anonymous manuscript in Middle English from the early 13th century, advises anchorites not to eat with visitors because it’s too familiar and too unlike the unworldly dead they’re supposed to be, to avoid being vain about their lily-white hands by digging up the dirt floor of their anchorholds “from the grave in which they will rot.” On the plus side, the author recommends against mortification of the flesh via self-flagellation with lead whips, holly or brambles, or by wearing iron, hair or hedgehog skin shirts. (This is the first I’ve heard of hedgehog skin shirts. Presumably worn spines-in for maximum pain. Puts regular hair shirts to shame.)

The Mirror of Recluses was written two centuries later and is specifically directed to women embracing enclosure. Only one other copy was known to exist before the export-barred manuscript appeared at auction in 2014. It is in the collection of the British Library and it is incomplete. The prologue is missing as is a third of the rest of the book.

Being unique and previously unknown, the prologue is of central importance for understanding the origin and authorship of the translation. It provides for the first time a precise date for the work: ‘This Wednysday bi the morow the even of the blissed virgyne seynt Alburgh the secunde yeere of the worthy christen prince kyng Henry the fift’ (i.e. 1414). The wording of the prologue suggests that the manuscript was written within a few years of 1414, because it continues ‘Whos longe lif and hy prosperite the kynge of al kynges kepe and maynten for the sure and holsum governaunce of this regioun’, which strongly suggests that Henry V was still alive, and would thus date the manuscript before his death in 1422. W.W. Skeat’s initial opinion was that, ‘it is an original of the date it professes to be’ (f.iii), but he subsequently felt that it was mid-century.

The location where the author was writing is perhaps suggested by his repeated references to St ‘Alburgh’: in addition to his dating clause cited above, he mentions ‘oure lady seynt Marie and of my forsaide lady seynt Alburgh’. She must be one of two saints: either Alburga/Aethelburh/Ethelburga of Wilton or, more likely, the saint of the same name of Barking (it cannot be Ethelburga of Kent, who was married, not a virgin), each of whom was an abbess of a nunnery. The morrow (day after) the 11 October feast of Ethelburga of Barking was indeed a Wednesday in 1414 (but so too was the day after the 25 December feast of Ethelburga of Wilton, so at present it is difficult to know conclusively which saint and feast-day is being referred to).

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended that export be barred because of its irreplaceable value to scholarship.

Committee Member Leslie Webster said:

Unknown to scholarship until recently, this handsomely decorated copy of a guide to the austere life of an anchorite offers a rich new avenue of exploration into the nature of women’s religious education in the early fifteenth century, and how such texts were circulated. Almost certainly written for female anchorites, the text seems to be linked to the Benedictine nuns at Barking Abbey, a foundation dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, and in the fifteenth century, renowned as a house of educated women, inspired by its Abbess, Sybil de Felton.

Amongst other unique content, this particular manuscript also gives a precise date for the beginning of the text’s composition: ‘this Wednysday bi the morrow, the even of the blissed virgyne seynt Alburgh, the secunde yeere of the worthy christen prince oure souerayn liege lord the kyng Henry the Fiftis’ – or Wednesday, 10 October 1414. Such contemporary detail makes the manuscript a vivid witness to the period, as well as of great importance to our understanding of later medieval thought and society. It is a fascinating treasure that deserves to be saved.

The export license will be deferred until April 13th to give local institutions the chance to raise the purchase price of £168,750. That can be extended to August if someone shows serious intent to raise the money.

16th c. Venetian shipwreck treasures shared with the world

For the first time, plans are being made to send treasures from a 16th century Venetian shipwreck that have rarely been seen, and never outside of Croatia, on an international tour. Danish art curator Line Clausen Pedersen is working with a team of Croatian archaeologists who have been excavating the wreck of the Gagiana, a merchant ship groaning with expensive consumer goods that went down off the east Adriatic coast of what is now Croatia in 1583.

The exact circumstances of its discovery are murky. From what we know, the wreck was discovered in the early 1960s by a fisherman near the islet of Gnalić on the North Dalmatian coast about 17 nautical miles from Zadar. It is at the mouth of the Pašman Channel in the eastern Adriatic, a busy shipping route since antiquity. Authorities learned about the wreck only in 1967 after it was reported by sponge divers.

Found at a depth of  82-95 feet, the wreck is reachable by divers and there were rumors that Belgian sport divers had been looting the artifacts that peppered the surface. The government of the then-Yugoslavia directed the site be explored by archaeologists and that archaeological materials be recovered and conserved. The first official excavation began October 1967 and the salvage of artifacts from the ship and its cargo continued through 1968. Later archaeological investigations in the 1970s opened trenches to reveal information about the lower layers of the wreck.

Six excavations between 1967 and 1996 and, most recently, a University of Zadar and Texas A&M campaign from 2012 to 2014, retrieved an enormous quantity of objects, more than 20,000 of them, including two anchors, hundreds of cannons and cannonballs, eight bronze guns, and an incredibly rich and varied collection of goods that were the ship’s cargo. Destined for Constantinople were more than 5,500 Murano glass objects of 86 different types, including beads, mirrors, window panes, wine glasses, flasks, vases, cups and bowls. There were brass chandeliers, candle snuffers, wooden boxes filled with dozens of leather-framed eyeglasses, razors for shaving, pins, needles, hawk bells, 177 feet of embroidered silk damask and raw materials like coils of brass wire, ingots of lead carbonate, cinnabar, mercury and sulfur.

The artifacts provided key clues to the date and identity of the shipwreck. Two of the guns, sacri (sakers) were cast by Giovanni II Alberghetti in 1582, so the wreck couldn’t have happened any earlier than that. A lead seal bearing the initials of doge Nicolò da Ponte (r. 1578-1585) put the latest possible date at 1585. Archival research did the rest, and the ship was identified as the Gagiana, a merchant vessel sailing from Venice bound for Constantinople lost around Gnalić in November 1583.

The Gagiana might be compared to a container ship today, Clausen Pedersen explains. But the vessel never reached its destination, Istanbul. Instead it sank in mysterious circumstances in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of modern-day Croatia. “The legend is that the captain sunk it and ran off with diamonds,” the curator says. Its high-value cargo was insured, and much of the paperwork survives in archives in Venice. “One set of diamonds is registered and another was apparently on board but not registered. That is part of the narrative,” she says.

Many of the records of the Gagiana‘s voyage have survived in Venice. We know the ship belonged to the Da Gagliano family of Venice, wealthy traders whose business network extended into the Ottoman Empire. Much of the cargo of luxurious goods was destined for the Ottoman Sultan himself, Murad III, whose beloved (and very powerful) mother was Venetian, to decorate his massive new Imperial Harem.

The Gagiana‘s cargo is a unique snapshot into the luxury goods produced in Venice for export or traded through Venice. The spectacles were made in Nuremberg. The brass chandeliers were made in Lubeck. The purple-dyed damask from Lucca. The Murano glassware is particularly spectacular for its vast range of forms and quality. The sheer numbers of artifacts required a dedicated space for their conservation and display and to ensure the integrity of the collection. A new museum was created in Biograd in 1970 solely for the treasures of the Gagiana.

A selection of fine objects went on display at the Croatian History Museum in Zagreb in 2013-2014 and the exhibition was a great success. Clausen Pedersen and the Croatian team are hoping to expand that success and share the treasures of the Gnalić wreck outside the borders of Croatia.

The Danish curator has held early talks with major museums in the US, Europe, and Asia, and is also approaching possible sponsors. “My hope is to attract the shipping industry to get involved in the development of the exhibition,” she says. “They have so much money and they usually do not directly support art or culture. I figured it is a new target group,” she adds. “A shipwreck such as this obviously relates to the legacy of trade and shipping, a large and growing industry even today, the potential of collaboration is great.” She hopes the sponsor will fund some “extravagant technology” that allows a visitor to the exhibition to control an underwater exploration of the shipwreck—because “why not?” she says.

Remains of US pilot downed on D-Day identified

The remains of U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. William J. McGowan, 23, of Benson, Minnesota, have been identified 75 years after he was  killed on June 6th, 1944, during the Allied invasion of Normandy. He flew a P-47 Thunderbolt  for the 391st Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Group, 9th U.S. Air Force.

McGowan was on a sweep and strafing mission near the city of Saint-Lô when his Thunderbolt was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The plane spun at low altitude, crashing into a field and exploding on impact. Witnesses reported to American Graves Registration Service investigators in 1947 that the crash had been a terrible one. The plane was deeply embedded into the ground and burst into flames so intense that the wreck burned for more than a day. Some of the wreckage from the plane was retrieved during that investigation, but no human remains were found. McGowan’s remains were declared unrecoverable on December 23rd, 1947.

A new investigation was undertaken by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in 2010. A team surveyed the crash site near the village of Moon-sur-Elle, re-interviewed witnesses and determined that there was more to be found. They recommended further excavation. The excavation took a few years to come to fruition, but in the summer of 2018, a St. Mary’s University Forensic Aviation Archaeological Field School team excavated the wreck site and did indeed recover potential human remains.

They were sent to a DPAA laboratory for testing in the hope they could be identified as those of Lt. McGowan. Thanks to dental records, anthropological analysis and substantiating circumstantial and material evidence, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced last Wednesday that they had been able to positively identify the remains.

McGowan will be buried July 26 at the Normandy American Cemetery in France. […]

McGowan’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Normandy American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

Cornplanter’s pipe tomahawk returned to Seneca Nation

The pipe tomahawk given by George Washington as a diplomatic gift to Seneca chief Cornplanter in 1792, has been on loan to the Seneca Nation since March of last year. It was in the collection of the New York State Museum in Albany since 1851 when it was donated by Seneca statesman, US Army lieutant colonel, aide to Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ely Samuel Parker, only to disappear under circumstances never explained sometime between 1947 and 1950.

It spent the next seven decades being sold by private collectors to other private collectors on the black market. The last one of them, a woman in the Northwest, bought it for $75,000. In April 2018, she had her lawyers contact the museum to report her acquisition of an artifact that might belong to them. With the law firm acting as intermediary, the unnamed collector offered to return the pipe tomahawk to its legitimate owner. The museum received it in June 2018 and it went on display in the Albany museum’s main lobby on July 17th. The exhibition ran through December 17th.

Disappointed by violated treaties and broken promises, Cornplanter destroyed most of the gifts he had received from the US government. He died in 1836 and there is no record of what happened to the rare surviving pipe tomahawk until Parker’s donation. So when Cornplanter’s pipe tomahawk was loaned to the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in the Seneca Nation’s Allegany Territory in March 2019, that was the object’s first return to Seneca territory since at least 1851.

Seneca-Iroquois National Museum chairman Rick Jemison, director David L. George-Shongo Jr. and Seneca Nation president Rickey L. Armstrong Sr. argued that the tomahawk should stay with the Seneca as it is an important and very rare belonging of one of their greatest luminaries as well as material evidence of the earliest connections between the Senecas and the United States government. The New York State Museum was not persuaded at the time. Apparently the collector who had bought the stolen artifact and gave it to the museum stipulated that it must remain part of the museum’s the permanent collection.

I’m not sure what kind of legal force that requirement could have given the “donor” had no clear title to the tomahawk. Surely the legal owner was the New York State Museum. The donation, it seems to me, was a formality to effectuate the returned of trafficked goods.

Whatever the contractual mechanisms of the donation, they’re moot now.  The museum has had a change of perspective since last year and on Thursday, January 9th, the New York State Museum and the Seneca Nation announced that ownership of Cornplanter’s pipe tomahawk has been officially transferred to the Seneca Nation.

“In Seneca history, Cornplanter stands among our greatest and most respected leaders,” said Seneca Nation President Rickey L. Armstrong, Sr. “George Washington originally presented this pipe tomahawk to Cornplanter as a sign of respect, friendship and recognition of our sovereignty. Now, this piece of our great leader’s remarkable legacy can finally – and forever – remain on Seneca land where it belongs.”