Peter the Wild Boy’s grave given Grade II listing

February 21st, 2013

A modest headstone in the cemetery St. Mary’s Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire, simply inscribed “Peter the Wild Boy – 1785″ has been granted Grade II listing, marking it as a monument of special historic interest. The gravestone is in good condition, but it’s the man who is buried under it who makes it historically significant. Peter’s life and thus his final resting place are important witnesses to the history of disability in England, a subject English Heritage has been exploring through its listed buildings and landscapes.

Peter the Wild Boy was found as a youth living a feral existence in the woods at Helpensen, about 25 miles southwest of Hanover, Germany, in May of 1724. When local farmer Jurgen Meyer found him, Peter was naked, filthy, with matted hair and long fingernails, walking on all fours and unable to speak. He had apparently been subsisting on a diet of acorns and whatever else he could forage for an unknown length of time. Small in stature, he was thought to be about 12 years old.

Meyer turned him over to the town mayor who turned him over to the St. Spiritus Poor House. Peter lived there nine months before being moved to the hospice adjacent to the prison of Celle, reportedly because he ate so much the poor house could no longer support him. There he was named Peter as he seemed to respond to the name, and it was there that Peter met the most elevated of patrons: King George I of England, who was visiting in his capacity as Elector of Hanover.

The King and the Wild Boy had dinner, which must have been an interesting study in contrasts. George left him in the care of the gardener in Hanover, but the story of the feral child returned to London with him and curiosity spread. In February 1726, Caroline, then Princess of Wales, had Peter brought to court. He became something of a pet to King George, an unwitting jester, amusing the aristocracy and nobility of England with his uncivilized antics. He liked picking the pockets of courtiers and royalty, tried to kiss fine ladies, snatched the Lord Chamberlain’s staff, wore his hat in the king’s presence, fought tooth and nail every morning when servants attempted to dress him in his elegant green suit.

It wasn’t all fun and games. Peter was baptized and given a tutor, Scottish doctor John Arbuthnot, who tried to teach him to speak. He learned how to say his name and a garbled version of “King George,” but that was as far as he got. There’s a painting of him of the east wall of the King’s Staircase in Kensington Palace. He’s standing next to Dr. Arbuthnot on a trompe l’oeil mural that depicts King George I’s courtiers and favorites as if they were clustered on a balcony overlooking the stairs. Peter is wearing his green coat and holding oak leaves and acorns, still his favorite food, in his right hands.

London society went wild over the Wild Boy. He was the subject on everyone’s lips in 1726, as a novelty and as a scientific and philosophical exhibit. To Enlightenment thinkers, Peter was a prism through which to address the question of nature vs. nurture, the “noble savage” and man’s origins in a “state of nature” before civilization permanently alters his mind and soul. Daniel Defoe called out those attitudes in a pamphlet published July 23rd, 1726, entitled Mere Nature Delineated Or a Body without a Soul.

“[Peter] seems to be the very which the learned World has for many Years past to wish for viz one that being kept entirely from Society so as never to have heard any one speak must therefore either not speak at all or if he did form any Speech himself then they should know what language Nature first form for Mankind.”

The social and intellectual reactions to an abandoned boy were prime fodder for the great satirists of the era. Jonathan Swift satirized the Peter craze in his 1726 piece It Cannot Rain But It Pours, Or, London Strewed With Rarities. Later that year, he and Dr. Arbuthnot collaborated on another satirical broadside about the lionizing of Peter, The Most Wonderful Wonder that ever appeared to the Wonder of the British Nation.

He wasn’t a boy raised by bears (seriously, in the discussion about which animal raised him, Mama Bear was one of the most popular theories) or evidence of the theoretical state of nature. From an examination of his portrait on King’s Staircase, geneticists now believe Peter suffered from Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a chromosomal disorder characterized by drooping eyelids, prominent “Cupid’s bow” lips, coarse hair and a severe intellectual disability.

Of course, when a person is a trend, he’s going to fall out of favor soon enough. After Queen Caroline’s death in 1737, Peter was sent to live with a Mrs. Tichbourne, one of the late Queen’s bedchamber ladies, in her farm in Hertfordshire. She was paid generously to take care of him and by all accounts she was kind to him. He traveled with her on several trips to visit farmer James Fenn at Axters End in Berkhamsted, finally moving from Mrs. Tichbourne’s home to Mr. Fenn’s.

He was happy there. The government granted Peter a lifetime pension of £35 a year (paid to his caretakers) and the farmers treated him well. He liked being out in the open, helping the farmers with their work. Sometimes he wasn’t all that helpful. He liked loading manure on carts, for instance, but he liked it so much that he’d assiduously unload a full cart just to load it again. He would spend nights out of doors, looking at the stars, and would sometimes wander off impressive distances.

After James Fenn died, Peter moved in with James’ brother Thomas Fenn at Broadway Farm. His drive to go walkabout got dangerous once when he disappeared in the summer of 1751 and could not be found. Ads in the paper with offers of rewards bore no results. Months later, in October 1751, inmates were released from a Norwich jail when the building caught fire. One of the inmates was hairy and spoke in grunts and was soon identified as the missing Wild Boy. Norwich is 130 miles away from Berkhamsted. How Peter got that far, nobody knows.

He was returned to Thomas Fenn’s farm where, to avoid any future such incidents, Mr. Fenn fitted him with a leather and iron collar inscribed “Peter the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted shall be paid for their trouble.” It’s creepy because it was padlocked in the back and looks like a dog collar or the kind of collars slaves were made to wear in Georgian England. On the other hand, it would keep him from being thrown in the slammer a hundred miles away should be wander too far afield again. That collar still exists today, in the library of Berkhamsted School

Peter would live at Broadway Farm, which passed through several hands after Thomas Fenn’s, for the rest of his life. He died on February 22nd, 1785, around the age of 72 and was buried at St. Mary’s. The grave is well-tended to and there are often flowers left on it, a symbol of the affection in which Peter’s memory is still held. A plaque inside the church reads:

To the memory of Peter, known as the Wild Boy, having been found wild in the forest of Hertswold near Hanover in the year 1725. He then appeared to be about 12 years old. In the following year he was brought to England by the order of the late Queen Caroline, and the ablest masters were provided for him. But proving himself incapable of speaking, or of receiving any instruction, a comfortable provision was made for him at a farm in this parish, where he continued to the end of his inoffensive life. He died on the 22nd of February, 1785, supposed to be aged 72.


2,200-year-old warrior’s grave found in Russia

February 20th, 2013

In the summer of 2004, the Krasnodar regional museum near the village of Mezmay in the Central Caucasus was notified of a site that had been looted on a large scale. Staffers reconnoitered the area and found an ancient necropolis disfigured by 100 pits dug by looters. Upon inspection of the spoil heaps (material discarded by looters), experts found artifacts of archaeological significance like iron spear-heads, two complete bronze helmets in pieces, an iron mace in the shape of a Tree of Life and a fragment from a gold torque.

The discoveries spurred systematic excavation of the one-acre necropolis. Archaeologists found six burials, three of them recently looted. The necropolis appears to have been in use from the 3rd century B.C. to the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. One of the three graves which had not been plundered has now been fully excavated and turns out to be the elaborate three-level grave of a high status warrior, probably a chieftain. It dates to the earlier period of the necropolis, the late 3rd century or early 2nd century B.C. The culture cannot be conclusively determined — the site is 2,600 feet above sea level in the Caucasus mountains, hard enough to reach that little archaeological exploration has been done — but it was certainly influenced by Hellenism even as it maintained its own particular traditions and practices.

The grave pit is 12.5 feet wide, 14 feet long and 8.5 feet deep today, although the ground has shifted and subsided over time. The first level has a large dolomite slab along the eastern edge. Remains of animal bones and pottery fragments found on the slab and around it suggest it was used as a table for a sacrificial funeral feast. The second level contains the bones of three horses and a cow. Iron bits, cheek pieces and one large bead were found on the remains of the horses, part of the tack they were buried with.

On the third level archaeologists found a layer of charcoal 2 inches thick. There’s no evidence of fire in the pit itself, so this charcoal must have been deliberately added to the cist. The remains of a wooden coffin, decayed into a few pieces of wood and some compacted decomposed timber, covered the skeleton of an adult male. Buried with him was a prodigious number of grave goods, concentrated at his head, chest and feet. Because it’s such an impressive collection of artifacts, here’s a full list of what was found in this warrior’s grave:

  • two forged bronze helmets, one of which was initially on the head of the deceased
  • a gold temple ring
  • a black-glazed kantharos, or drinking cup
  • an oval gold fibula brooch with a rock crystal bead mounted in the center, a tunnel was drilled through the middle of the bead from both sides
  • a matched pair of round gold plaques with a hole in the middle
  • an iron sword along the northeast wall
  • a fragmented iron sword inside the left humerus
  • a hollow gold bead near the left wrist
  • three gold plaques of a type sewn to clothing found north of the elbow bone
  • a short iron sword along the right elbow
  • along the blade was a rectangular gold plaque mounted with a beautiful black patterned agate
  • a gold bracelet found near the handle of the sword
  • a bi-metallic fibula was in the shape of a Hercules’ Knot (a figure eight) found near the right radius
  • a bronze cast mirror with a figured handle found in the pelvic area
  • a pendant made from a chalcedony bead
  • a gold button found on the chest near the spine
  • a second gold button similar to the first found near the left humerus
  • two gold buttons near the right shoulder
  • a pendant made from a gold coin from Sinope depicting Athena on one side and Nike on the other
  • a cast glass semi-spherical bowl
  • a cast glass skyphos or two-handled wine cup
  • an iron axe
  • a gold umbo-shaped plaque near the handle of the axe
  • a long iron sword placed between the legs of the deceased with the sharp end pointed towards the pelvis
  • a round gold plaque with multi-colored inlay
  • the vertical rod of an iron tripod decorated with figures of deer found under the blade of the sword
  • two bowls found between the warrior’s legs
  • a rolled-up piece of iron chainmail near the right shinbone
  • underneath the chainmail were the ends of four long and three short spears
  • against the opposite wall, the iron ends of another two long spears and three short spears found fused together
  • a large forged bronze basin turned upside down with fragments of iron tongs underneath
  • a red clay kantharos with three handles
  • a black-burnished lamp
  • fragments of a bronze jug
  • an unidentified object made from a piece of horn
  • a bone knife found under the left shin
  • the complete skull of an adult wild boar
  • a large wheel-turned jug
  • one wheel-turned jug made of grey clay
  • one wheel-turned kantharos with three handles also made of grey clay
  • a penannular bronze bracelet
  • an iron arrowhead

That’s more than a dozen gold artifacts, and the gold and agate plaque is unique. This is the first gold sword decoration ever discovered in this part of the world. Suck it looters!


Replica to be made of oldest shipwreck in Canada

February 19th, 2013

A team of Spanish maritime historians will build a full-size, seaworthy replica of the San Juan, a Basque whaling galleon that sank near the shore of Red Bay, Labrador, in the autumn of 1565. The wreck of the 52-foot, three-masted, 250-ton ship was discovered in 1978 by Parks Canada divers working on clues unearthed in documents found in Valladolid and Oñate by federal archivist Selma Huxley Barkham. It’s the oldest shipwreck ever discovered in Canadian waters and an invaluable source of information about Basque shipping in general and the Basque presence in Canada in particular.

Canadian archaeologists will meet with Spanish experts this week to share all the information on the ship’s construction they’ve accumulated over the decades.

“Right from the start, we thought this was a really, really great idea,” said Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada’s chief of underwater archeology. “For archeologists, this is basically the ultimate final product. You’re taking all of the research from a site that’s been excavated, then you take it to the maximum in experimental archeology,” physically recreating “what is lost.”

The replica will take several years to build. It’s scheduled to be up and running by 2016 in time to be a part of the celebrations in the Basque city of San Sebastian which has been designated by the Europe Council of the European Union as a European Capital of Culture for 2016. San Sebastian is on the southern coast of the Bay of Biscay and was an important capital of shipping during the Middle Ages and Age of Discovery. Many of the whaling expeditions to Labrador (known as the Carrera de Terranova or Newfoundland Run) in the 16th century departed from San Sebastian and were funded by its financiers.

The Terranovan whaling voyages were as profitable as the Carrera de Indias (Indies Run) which transported massive quantities of gold and silver to Spain. The earliest Spanish records on Labrador whaling date to the 1540s and they document extensive trade in “lumera” (whale oil used for lamps which burned brighter than vegetable oils), and blubber that was used in the construction of ships, the manufacture of soap, pharmaceutical products and in the textile industry. The Basque shipping industry had extensive experience in whaling closer to home, so when the new market opened in the New World, their expertise ensured big profits from day one. Even during war between France and Spain and outbreaks of piracy in the 1550s, Basque ships carried whale products to England, Flanders and Spain.

An average of 15 Basque ships a year did the Labrador-Europe run, each of them carrying at least 1,000 400-pound barrels of whale oil and blubber. That’s a conservative estimate. Many years production exceeded 15,000 barrels per year. The number of whales killed in the Strait of Belle Isle averaged 20 per ship. The San Juan was carrying almost 1,000 barrels of whale oil when she went down. Most of that was salvaged from the wreck and sent to its destination.

Although Basque whalers were a major presence in the Labrador straits from the 1530s to the early 17th century, they haven’t gotten much attention because they didn’t put down roots. Their interest in Canada was purely commercial; there was no attempt to colonize it. They summered on the coast, building camps and red-tiled huts over cauldron furnaces which boiled for days, rendering the whale blubber. Those curved red tiles are highly distinctive, a characteristic element of Basque architecture and one of the few pieces of physical evidence the Basque crews left behind. They were also used to roof the cooperage cabins in which all those thousands of barrels needed to transport the whale oil were made.

One of the most exceptional Basque artifacts ever recovered in Labrador’s Red Bay was a nearly complete whaling rowboat known as a chalupa. Sounds delicious, I know, but it’s actually a small vessel used to chase, harpoon and tow whales. It was found pinned beneath the collapsed side of a 200-ton whaling ship and was excavated and re-assembled board by board. It’s now on display at the Red Bay National Historic Site visitor’s center, along with reconstructions of the red-tiled rendering cauldron huts, models of the San Juan and a replica of a section of a whaling hull that shows how the barrels were packed.


USS Monitor sailors to buried at Arlington

February 18th, 2013

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced last week that the remains of two sailors recovered from the wreck of the USS Monitor, the Civil War ironclad warship that was on the Union side in the first battle of ironclads in history, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8th, the 151st anniversary of the famous battle. Navy and U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) representatives will pick up the remains from the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii and escort them to Virginia on March 7th. The next day’s burial ceremony with full military honors will take place at 4:00 PM. A horse-drawn caisson, a two-wheeled carriage used during the Civil War to carry artillery ammunition, will bear the caskets to their graves.

“These may very well be the last Navy personnel from the Civil War to be buried at Arlington,” said Mabus. “It’s important we honor these brave men and all they represent as we reflect upon the significant role Monitor and her crew had in setting the course for our modern Navy.”

The Monitor was the first ironclad warship made in the United States. It was a response to the news that the Confederacy had created a casemate ironclad over the hull of the former USS Merrimack, a steam-powered frigate that was docked at the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia and had been half-assedly scuttled by Union forces as they evacuated after Virginia seceded. The Virginia and a flotilla of accompanying ships attempted to break the Union blockade by engaging the Union fleet at the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8th, 1862. They were doing well, taking down several Union ships on the first day, but then they stopped on account of darkness. The second day the Monitor showed up and the two ironclads went head-to-head in an epic clash of iron titans.

They fought each other for three hours. The Virginia had 14 gun ports and fixed guns positioned in each, much like traditional wooden ships only with iron cladding. The entire ship had to be turned in order to fire. The Monitor, on the other hand, had the advantage of a revolutionary rotating gun turret that could hold two massive Dahlgren artillery guns and 14 men. There were no breaks to stop the turning, though, and the close quarters, muzzle-loading and heat of the guns meant that they couldn’t just rotate the turret and fire at will. They were able to get off one shot every five to eight minutes. Most of the shots were fired as the turret turned. Since these ships weren’t exactly fast movers, those strafing shots still made contact.

The final result was technically a draw. Both ships battered each other to a standstill and the Virginia withdrew. In strategic terms it was a win for the Union because they looked cool and because the blockade remained unbroken. The two ironclads met again on May 8th but did not engage, despite the Virginia‘s attempt to draw the Monitor out. Three days later, the Virginia was scuttled when Confederate forces withdrew from Norfolk.

On New Year’s Eve 1862, the Monitor sank in a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It was being towed by the USS Rhode Island at the time, but its iron cladding and top-heavy turret made it particularly susceptible to rough ocean waters. Most of the 62 crewmen were rescued by the Rhode Island, but 16 went down with the ship.

The wreck discovered on the Atlantic floor in August 1973. As attempts to raise the entire ship were deemed too likely to damage the wreck and too expensive, the site was named a National Marine Sanctuary and later a National Historic Landmark to protect it from treasure hunters and coastal traffic. Parts of it have been raised, however: the propeller in 1998, the steam engine in 2001 and on August 5, 2002, a team of Navy divers and NOAA experts, raised the 150-ton revolving gun turret.

During the 41 day lead-up to the recovery of the turret, divers found the remains of two sailors, one on top of the other, who had been trapped inside the turret when the ship capsized and sank. The turret was found inverted with the crewmen buried under coal, debris and two Dahlgren guns 13.5 feet long. Despite 140 years spent under water and the rough circumstances of their demise, the sailors’ skeletons were almost complete.

In the attempt to identify the crewmen, JPAC experts were able to extract DNA and discover a number of personal details. One was about 35 years of age and walked with a limp. He wore a gold ring and had a notch in his teeth indicating that he smoked a pipe. The other was about 21 years old and had broken his nose at some point. He wore mismatched shoes. JPAC was unable to pinpoint who the two men are, although the names of the 16 sailors who lost their lives aboard the Monitor are known and there are a number of pictures taken of the ship and crew. The DNA did not match any of the known descendants and family members of the Monitor crew.

Last year, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, facial reconstructions made from the molds of the skulls were publicized in the hope that somebody might have some old family pictures that identified the men. It was a long shot, and unfortunately no information was discovered.

The three most likely candidates are Jacob Nicklis, Robert Williams and William Bryan. The reconstructed face of the older sailor does bear a resemblance to Williams, the 30-year-old Welsh-born first-class fireman of the Monitor, but they weren’t able to confirm the identification. In the picture at right left, Robert Williams is the strapping mustachioed fellow in the hat standing with his arms crossed on the right just behind the guys playing checkers.

JPAC will continue to try to identify the sailors, but it’s been more than a decade since they were recovered from the ocean floor and the Navy believes it’s time to bury their remains.

Artifacts from the wreck site will continue to be recovered. The wreck, like many other iron ships, has become unstable and is in danger of imminent collapse. The NOAA wants to make every effort to save belongings of the crew and any parts of the ship they can over the next few decades before they decay. Past and future artifacts recovered from the wreck are conserved and displayed at the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, which also has a nifty full-sized replica of the Monitor outside the entrance which you can visit.


1540s Maiolica plate found hanging on cottage wall

February 17th, 2013

A woman in Somerset, England, discovered she had a rare Italian Renaissance Maiolica plate hanging on the wall of her cottage when she invited appraiser Richard Bromell of Charterhouse Auctioneers in Sherborne, Dorset, to assess some of the objects in her home for their market value. It was hanging in a makeshift wire frame behind a door that was always open. Only about two inches of it were visible when Bromwell caught a glimpse of it.

At first he thought it had to be a 19th century reproduction worth perhaps £2,000 ($3,100), but when he took it to experts at the Ashmolean Museum they confirmed that it was the real thing: a Maiolica charger made in Urbino around 1540. The owner had inherited it from a relative years ago and had no idea of its age or value. It was put up for auction at Charterhouse on February 14th with a pre-sale estimate of £100,000 ($155,000), but due to massive interest from bidders all over Europe and the US, the final hammer price was an astonishing £567,000 ($880,000).

It’s the condition and quality of the painting that made the market salivate. The dish is nearly 500 years old, but the colors are still brilliant and the finish glossy. The only damage was a repaired chip about 1.4 inches wide on the bottom of the charger. It’s barely noticeable and doesn’t overlap with any of the figures, just with the yellow border and a green scribble of grass.

The plate is 16 inches in diameter and painted in a style called istoriato, an elaborate, highly detailed scene from history or legend. The subject on this piece is the Feast of Herod, although it takes a little looking to see it. Herod and his wife sit at a table under the columned portico in the left background. Walking up the steps towards them is Salome and some ladies carrying the head of John the Baptist on a platter. In the center background between the upper tree trunk on the left and the riverbank on the right is the executioner standing next to John’s headless body.

The rest of the scene is populated by wealthy revelers banqueting front and center, musicians to the left of them, ladies dancing to the left of the musicians, skinny dippers in the river on the right and a townscape in the back. It’s a big ol’ Renaissance party that could be set in any hilly town in Europe. One extra special touch is a hint of what may be the painter’s name hidden in the fur stole of the woman sitting on the right side of the central foreground banqueting table.

The design is a version of The Feast of Herod, a woodcut by German printmaker Sebald Beham dating to 1525-1545. The maiolica version leaves out the figure of death of holding a scythe who follows a couple walking just beneath Salome and John’s head. The architecture and overall scene is compressed to fit onto a plate, but other than those changes and the marvelous addition of color, it’s a faithful rendition.

No wonder that it claimed one of the highest prices ever paid for Italian pottery. The lucky buyer was London jewelery dealer S.J. Phillips Ltd. Company director Francis Norton said: “The plate is in wonderful condition and we really fancied it and were determined to get it. We don’t know what we’ll do with it yet but we might put it on display.”


Vermeer’s Woman in Blue at the Getty

February 16th, 2013

Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Woman in Blue Reading a Letter that was restored to its original beauty before going on a tour of Asia last year has touched down in the United States. From February 16th to March 31st, it will be on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, its only stop in North America before it returns to the Rijksmuseum in time for the museum’s grand reopening on April 13th.

“This truly represents an extraordinary opportunity for Southern California,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Vermeer’s Woman in Blue is one of his greatest and most famous masterpieces. It has very rarely traveled outside of Amsterdam and this is the painting’s first visit to the West Coast. Vermeer’s paintings of women reading letters and engaged in other private, domestic activities have a unique intimacy and reality to them that can only be fully appreciated in the flesh. His finest works, like the Woman in Blue, have a magical immediacy that has never been rivaled.”

Taking advantage of the rare presence of such a great example of an interior subject from the Dutch Golden Age, the museum is exhibiting a number of other pieces along with the Vermeer which focus on people engaged in private moments inside the home. Works from the Getty’s permanent collection include Gerard ter Borch’s Music Lesson, Jan Steen’s Drawing Lesson, Pieter de Hooch’s Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy, and Frans van Mieris’s The Doctor’s Visit. An additional piece, An Elegant Lady Writing at Her Desk with a Dog beside Her, has been loaned for the exhibition from a private collection in New York. I love the geometry in Hooch’s painting and I can’t help but wonder what the doctor is peering at in his balloon flask in the Mieris work.

This is a great time to be on the West Coast if you’re a fan of Vermeer and other Dutch masters. The de Young Museum in San Francisco is currently hosting what is probably Vermeer’s most famous work, Girl with a Pearl Earring, as part of an exhibition of 35 important paintings from the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis in The Hague. Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis features 35 important works by Dutch Golden Age masters like Vermeer, Rembrandt and Jan Steen. A companion exhibit at the de Young, Rembrandt’s Century, will be centered on Rembrandt’s etchings and those of other artists who preceded and followed him.

Girl and friends will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta next, where they will be on exhibit from June 22, 2013 to September 29, 2013. The last stop before they return to the Netherlands will be Frick Collection in New York City. You can catch them there from October 22, 2013 to January 12, 2014.

Again we have a major renovation to thank for this artistic bounty. The Mauritshuis is also closed right now while the space is being renovated and expanded. It will remain closed until mid-2014 after which it will have a grand reopening of its own.


The last Medici, savior of Florence’s art, exhumed

February 15th, 2013

Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, only daughter of Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and wife of Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine, died on February 18th, 1743, at the age of 75. Historical accounts describe it variously as a long, painful death, a sudden fever or an “oppression on the breast.” The culprit was long thought to have been the syphilis her husband infected her with shortly after their marriage, a disease which was also said to be the cause of their childlessness. Another possible candidate was breast cancer.

Last October, the Electress Palatine was exhumed from her crypt in the Basilica of San Lorenzo as part of a collaborative research project by the University of Florence and the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany. A tent was raised around her bones which remained in situ for a week while researchers took pictures and made a 3D scan of the skeleton. Two medallions were removed from the coffin for restoration and a sample of bone was taken for further laboratory analysis. The body was then reinterred. Because we live in an amazing era, the scans allowed the researchers to create an exact replica of the skeleton, including the crown she was still wearing, using a 3D printer.

The bone sample and material recovered from a pot found in the coffin which is believed to have contained her entrails in keeping with a traditional Medici burial practice, are being DNA tested by biological anthropologist Albert Zink of the European Academy of Bolzano, who also worked on the team who sequenced the genome of Otzi the Iceman.

Anna Maria Luisa’s skeleton “does not indicate late-stage syphilis, which is characterized by skull remodelling and bone outgrowth”, says Zink. But, he adds, it does not rule out earlier stages of the disease, which can in some cases result in organ failure and death.

Anna Maria’s husband died in 1716 when he was 58 and she was 48. Any syphilis she may have contracted from him would have been very far advanced indeed by the time of her death.

“Full DNA-sequence information may allow us to identify any susceptibility genes for breast cancer,” [Zink] says, “but we don’t yet know if the sample is of sufficient quality for this since the tomb environment had been very damp.”

It’s not surprising that the tomb would be damp given that the 1966 flood of the Arno River that drenched Florence in as much as 22 feet of mud and water also swamped the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo. It is surprising that despite the flood, the Electress’ skeleton was found mainly intact and articulated.

Scientists were also surprised to find that Anna Maria was buried with the crown of the Palatinate, not one of the Medici crowns. It’s a testament to the connection she felt to her title, which she used consistently until her death, and to her long-deceased husband. They reputedly had an amicable relationship, STDs or no STDs, and shared a passion for art and culture that made the court of the Palatinate a magnet for musicians, painters, architects.

That passion for art led Anna Maria to the act that would define her legacy and that of her illustrious family in the city they had ruled for 300 years. As the last of the Medici, it was up to her to save the cultural patrimony of the city which was in mortal danger of dispersal.

The question of the succession of the Grand Duchy had been her father Cosimo III’s obsession for years before his death in 1723. Anna Maria’s eldest brother Ferdinando died childless of syphilis in 1713. The youngest brother Gian Gastone hated his wife, generally preferred the company of his male favorites, and was unlikely to produce an heir. Seeing the writing on the wall, Cosimo was frantic to find a way to keep the Grand Duchy in Medici hands. It was technically a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire and Joseph I was keen to take control of it. To no avail, Cosimo tried to force Gian Gastone to get back together with his detested wife and impregnate her. By 1709, Cosimo was so desperate he made his brother Cardinal Francesco Maria de’ Medici renounce his vows and marry Eleanor of Gonzaga. Francesco Maria died childless in 1711.

He then tried to reinstate the Republic of Tuscany which had died with the creation of the Grand Duchy in 1533. He actually got the Holy Roman Emperor to agree to the plan, but then he torpedoed the agreement by changing the terms so that Anna Maria would inherit the Grand Duchy first and the Republic reinstated only after her death. Charles VI was Holy Roman Emperor by this time, and when Cosimo promulgated a decree through the Tuscan senate that the Electress would inherit should Gian Gastone pre-decease her, Charles was furious. He felt that Cosimo was trying to abrogate his rights to determine succession.

Cosimo was no longer given a say in the fate of the Grand Duchy after that. He tried to get the European powers to acknowledge Anna Maria as heir, but he failed. In the end, they determined that if Gian Gastone died childless, the Grand Duchy would go directly to the Austrian House of Lorraine. Anna Maria was out.

She was not going to be ignored, however. She was still the heir to her younger brother’s allodial title, meaning all the property owned by the family independent of the fiefdom of the Grand Duchy. When Gian Gastone died of a variety of diseases in July 1737, Anna Maria inherited a bunch of cash, the Duchy of Urbino, the family regalia, the contents of many palaces and one of the greatest collections of art ever known to man. The Lorrainers immediately made it clear that they had zero respect for the Medici patrimony except insofar as it could be converted to ready cash. They auctioned off furniture from Medici palaces in the Palazzo Vecchio, melted down silver objects from the Pitti Palace for coin and threatened Anna Maria with physical harm if she didn’t turn over her internationally famous jewelry collection so they could sell the stones.

Under this kind of pressure from the avaricious House of Lorraine, within a month of her brother’s death the formidable Anna Maria already had a draft drawn up of what would become known as the Family Pact. By the terms of this contract, the Medici possessions including “all furniture, effects and rarities” including “galleries, paintings, statues, libraries, jewels and other precious things such as holy relics” would be bequeathed to the new Grand Duke, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, husband of Maria Teresa of Austria and father of Marie Antoinette of France, and to his heirs only on condition that none of said possessions ever be removed from the capital and the Grand Duchy. They were to stay forever exactly where they were so they could “remain ornament of the state, for the use of the Public and to attract the curiosity of foreigners.” Grand Duke Francis Stephen agreed to the terms and the pact was signed in October 1737.

By this act, Anna Maria single-handedly saved the immense cultural heritage of Florence from succumbing to the fate of other Italian ducal estates that had been absorbed by European Powers. Mantua, for instance, was stripped bare when the Gonzaga line died out in 1627. The Gonzaga art collection was sold in its entirety to Charles I of England, and what was left was taken by the Habsurgs when the last Grand Duke of the French Gonzaga branch died in 1708. In 1731, the same fate befell the Duchy of Parma with the demise of the Farnese family. Three years after the death of the last Farnese duke, the ducal art collections were removed from the family palaces and shipped to the House of Bourbon rulers in Naples.

This would surely have happened to Florence as well if not for Anna Maria’s badassness. The vast majority of what is now in the Uffizi Gallery, Pitti Palace, Palazzo Vecchio, the Laurenziana library, Magliabecchiana library, Palatine library, a large chunk of the Bargello and everything in the smaller suburban Medici villas would be gone. Florence as we know it today would not exist. Think of how prescient Anna Maria was to recognize the value of her family holdings to city tourism. Mantua and Parma are lovely towns rich in history, but there is no comparison between them and Florence when it comes to tourist appeal. People go to Italy just to see Florence, and it’s not because of ruins or monuments like with Rome because the city doesn’t have many of those. They go to see the art. That’s Anna Maria’s doing.

Monday marks the 270th anniversary of her death. In her honor, Florence will hold celebrations of her life and legacy and Italy is releasing a stamp of a portrait of Anna Maria made by Antonio Franchi in the late 1600s and now in the Palazzo Pitti. The Reiss Engelhorn Museum is joining in the celebrations with a new exhibit dedicated to the Medici. The Medici – People, Power and Passion opens on February 17th and covers the family history from the founder Giovanni di Bicci until the Electress. She gets particular attention as the results of the exhumation study will be part of the exhibit.


The Little French Renaissance Book of Love

February 14th, 2013

A recent addition to the British Library’s most excellent collection of digitized manuscripts is a valentine that puts contemporary efforts to shame. Written by Pierre Sala around 1500, the Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) is a 5-inch by 3.7-inch book of poems and prose that he hand-wrote with gold ink on purple parchment and had professionally illuminated as a gift for his lover Marguerite Builloud. He even had a wood and leather carrying case made with rings on the edges so his lady love could hang it from a chain on her girdle.

Pierre Sala was a renown humanist, author, cook, personal valet and equerry to King Louis XII. Born and raised in Lyon, a center of the French Renaissance, his writings are important transitional works in the shift from the scriptural, patristic approach to scholarship of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance revival of classical philosophy and secular sources of knowledge. He wrote about the lives of Greek philosophers, collections of ancient aphorisms, histories, treatises and of course, romances and poetry.

He was also something of an accidental archaeologist and antiquities collector. When he built his house on the hill of Fourvière in the center of Lyons in 1514, he unearthed a large number of Franco-Roman remains from when the city was known as Lugdunum. This collection was so impressive the king came to visit it like a tourist in 1522. Pierre even named the house Antiquaille after them.

By then, he had sealed the deal with Marguerite. Perhaps this book helped. It is replete with references to the two of them. M and P are carved into the stylized floral pattern on the wooden cover. Their initials, drawn out of crossed compasses, decorate the pages like in a middle schooler’s Trapper Keeper. (I am aware I just seriously dated myself there). The poems and illustrations are all about love, of course, but not necessary mushy expressions thereof. The alternative name of the volume is “The Enigmas of Love” and the hardships of love, the obstacles, the dangers, are the dominant theme of the 12 drawings and the quatrains they illustrate.

Pierre starts off telling Marguerite that he wants to put his heart inside this daisy (Marguerite meaning daisy in French), that his thoughts will always be with her. The drawing opposite depicts a man putting his heart into daisy. His facial features are very basic, deliberately left so by the illustrator, a Parisian artist known as the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse, so another artist could fill in the details to make him look like Pierre. That artist was probably Jean Perréal, a painter in the employ of the French royal family who was a personal friend of Pierre’s. Perréal never did in fill the face, but he went on to make the rather dreamy portrait of Pierre at the end of the book.

The daisy allegory is followed by a man playing blind man’s bluff with three ladies, with the accompanying poem expressing his hope that if he can catch at least one of them, she won’t escape for a year. The next poem urges caution in Italian but recommends he not despair even though there are no assurances. The drawing across from it is of a solitary table with a candle burning on top.

The cautionary tales and juxtapositions — a wise man painting a fool, a pilgrim and a beggar illustrating the proverb “don’t limp in front of a lame person,” a man carrying a man on his shoulders while trampling another man on the ground illustrating the proverb “trampling on one man to help another” — continue through to the end.

My favorite is two women trying to catch flying hearts with a net. The quatrain describes the ladies as Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner who have stretched out their net to trap the unstable hearts that pass by. The best thing about that is the poem doesn’t spell out the word “heart.” It’s a little <3 drawing, a Renaissance emoticon!

We don't know if she ever wore it like a hipster chain wallet, but Marguerite must have liked it, or at least not hated it too much, because she and Pierre were married and lived together at Antiquaille until his death in 1529.


“Ape Woman” gets decent burial 153 years later

February 13th, 2013

Julia Pastrana was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1834, with two congenital diseases that would be her fortune and her curse. Generalized hypertrichosis lanuginosa caused her face and body to be covered in long, straight, thick black hair, her jaw to jut out and her ears and nose to be disproportionately large; gingival hyperplasia thickened her lips and gums.

The circumstances of her childhood are unclear, muddled by later promotional legends. According to A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities a book by Dr. Jan Bondeson whose cover Julia graces, she was found in a cave when she was two years old being cared for by a so-called root-digging Indian named Espinosa who insisted the child was not hers. She did love her, though, and raised her until her death. When Espinosa died, the governor of Sinaloa took Julia on as a servant. It wasn’t charity that inspired his actions; he wanted to study her as a medical curiosity.

Tired of being mistreated, Julia left his employ in 1854. According to some sources she was bought as a circus sideshow — slavery was illegal but circus exhibits were still bought and sold — by a Mexican customs agent who took her to the United States. American impresario M. Rates claimed he found her in Mexico and convinced her to go on the sideshow circuit in North America. He exhibited her as the “Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman” and she was a sensation. Doctors examined her, declaring her a human-orangutan hybrid and a new species of animal altogether.

She had a lovely soprano voice and a petite figure (she was just four feet, five inches tall) with tiny hands and feet. She was a nimble and graceful dancer. Her singing and dancing were often mentioned in surprised tones for their quality and elegance. Her mind was also far from brutish. She spoke three languages and was by all accounts a kind, warm, intelligent person, an excellent conversationalist and a generous donor to charitable causes. She was also punctilious about her appearance. It may have been monetized by its association with beasts of the wild, but she always made sure her hair was elaborately coiffed and her dresses pretty and feminine albeit very short for Victorian sensibilities.

In New York she met a Theodore Lent. He married her and became her manager, doubtless the former was a means to secure the latter. He brought her to Europe where she was a great success. Lent made sure she had very little in the way of society, despite her yearning for friends and affection, out of fear that if people knew she was a gentle, well-read, fully human woman, her shows wouldn’t sell as well.

She got pregnant during the European tour. They were in Moscow in 1860 when she went into labour. Her son Theodore was born with hypertrichosis and only lived 35 hours. Julia died from a birth-related fever a few days later. Her last words were reportedly “I die happy; I know I have been loved for myself.”

Unfortunately, her husband put the lie to those sad final words. He showed his true disgusting colors after the death of his wife and child by either selling their bodies to a Russian anatomy professor for £500 and then buying them back for £800 after they were embalmed when he realized he could still profit off of them, or by having them embalmed and taking them on the road. He nailed the feet of his wife and little baby to boards with poles so they could be displayed standing up. Then he married a bearded lady whom he named Zenora Pastrana and billed her as Julia’s sister. He and his new wife traveled Europe on exhibit next to the corpses of his dead wife and child.

In 1921, Julia and little Theodore’s bodies were purchased by Earl Jaeger Lund, a Norwegian show promoter who put them on display at his amusement park and on tours until the 1970s. Finally in 1972 there was enough of an outcry about this horrendous spectacle that the remains were put in storage at the Oslo fairground. They saw even more mistreatment out of the public eye. Vandals broke in and damaged Julia’s body in 1976, and threw the baby’s body into a ditch where it was devoured by mice. In 1979, Julia’s body was stolen only to be recovered shortly thereafter in a suburban garbage dump, her arm severed.

After it was recovered, Julia’s body was moved to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the Oslo University Hospital where it remained in storage from 1997 until now.

In 2005, Mexican artist Laura Anderson Barbata, then in Oslo for a residency, began to campaign for Julia Pastrana’s body to be returned to Mexico for the proper Catholic burial that had so long been denied her. It took years before she got some attention, but in 2008 she submitted paperwork in favor of Julia’s repatriation to Norway’s National Committee for the Evaluation of Research on Human Remains. Last year the committee admitted that it was unlikely Julia Pastrana would have wanted to end up a specimen.

There were still some hoops to jump through. The University was amenable to returning the body, but they weren’t comfortable just handing her over to Laura Barbata because she was the only one who had asked.

A breakthrough came after the current governor of Sinaloa, Mario López Valdez, joined Ms. Barbata’s cause last year and petitioned for Pastrana’s repatriation. The Mexican ambassador to Denmark, Norway and Iceland, Martha Bárcena Coqui, offered to work with the university to accept the body.

“We understood that she must have suffered enormously during her lifetime and that her remains did not receive the respect they deserved for many years,” Ms. Coqui said by e-mail.

The institute agreed to begin the process of transferring Ms. Pastrana to Mexican custody last August.

Last Thursday, Barbata confirmed Julia’s identity before her body was sealed in a coffin. On Tuesday, Julia’s mortal remains were finally laid to rest in a cemetery in Sinaloa de Leyva. It’s touching to see crowds of people attending her funeral and her white coffin covered with flowers. Her last show was finally worthy of the person she was.


Louis I of Orléans found in The Agony in the Garden

February 12th, 2013

Conservators at Madrid’s Prado Museum have uncovered a rare portrait of Louis I, Duke of Orléans, son of Charles V of France and brother of Charles VI, hidden under overpaint in The Agony in the Garden, a 15th-century French painting depicting Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while Peter, John and James slumber. The museum first encountered the work in February of 2011, when the private owner offered it to the Prado for study and potential acquisition. The lab gave it the full analytical monty: ultraviolet photography, X-rays, Infra-red reflectography, tests on the pigments and the panel.

They found that the painting was an extremely high quality piece. The pigments contain large amounts of expensive lapis lazuli painted on a Baltic oak panel. Tree ring analysis of the oak indicated the tree was felled in 1382. The X-rays and Infra-red reflectography revealed the artist had painted two figures on the bottom left which were later painted over with a thick layer of brown. The standing figure is clearly a saint, identified by the lamb at her feet as Saint Agnes. At her feet, a male figure kneels holding a scroll and looking at the scene in the garden. The man is dressed in sumptuous clothes that were fashionable around 1400. According to painterly convention, his posture and position indicates that he was included in the painting because he or his family commissioned the work.

Conservators could not identify the kneeling figure from the X-rays. The pattern on his sleeves was a likely clue — they could be a family emblem — but it wasn’t clear what they were. Saint Agnes was another clue. She takes a protective posture in the painting so could be the patron saint of the man kneeling in front of her. Researchers looked for someone in the upper ranks of French nobility with a connection to Saint Agnes and Louis of Orléans came up. Agnes was the patron saint both of his father King Charles V, to whom he was devoted, and of his wife Valentina Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan.

There are only three extant portraits of Louis, all of them manuscript illuminations. If the Donor could be confirmed as Louis of Orléans, this painting would be the only one of him ever found. Restorers decided to attempt to remove the overpainting to reveal the figure if it could be accomplished without damaging the original paint. The top layer was a natural resin varnish, easily removed using a light solvent. There were two layers of overpainting, the most recent applied in the 19th century or later. The overpainting was separated from the original paint by an isolating layer of varnish, but because the original paint is a very fragile egg tempera, it was too risky to use any solvents. Instead, restorers removed the overpaint with scalpel, looking through a stereoscopic microscope at the highest magnification so they could identify non-original pigment not visible to the naked eye.

Once liberated from their brown prison, the figures were revealed in all their brilliant glory. The colors were far brighter and richer than the colors on the saints and Jesus. The Donor’s scroll was found to be inscribed with the first words of the Psalm 50, aka the Miserere mei. The decorations on the sleeves turned out to be gold nettle leaves and they looked like appliqué rather than a fabric print.

The nettles were the key to the identification of Louis of Orléans. The nettle leaf was one of the duke’s emblems, one he particularly favored from 1399 until his death in 1407. Inventories of his possessions have survived and the 1403 inventory list “LXV feuilles d’or en façon d’orties,” meaning 65 gold leaves in the shape of nettles. He would have used these to decorate his clothes, like the dramatic fur-lined batwing houppelande the Donor wears in the painting.

Comparisons with the manuscript depictions of Louis support the identification. The distinctive nose and chin are similar in all the images, but his bald pate is only visible in the painting because Louis wears a hat in all three illuminations. He can’t wear a hat in Gethsemane, however, because he’s in the presence of God, Father and Son, no less. That makes this portrait even more remarkable.

Once Louis’ identity was pinned down, researchers were able to extrapolate from that the possible artist. There are very few surviving panel paintings from this period, and the style and quality of this one is unique so there is no means to devise attribution by comparing techniques. Louis of Orléans had painter in his household. Colart de Laon worked as a painter and as personal valet to the duke from 1391 until Louis’ death. He then did the same work for Louis’ son Charles until 1411. Contemporary sources praise him as one of the most significant artist of the day, but none of his work has been known to survive.

This painting is a small piece, probably intended for a use in a private chapel rather than a large church. The Gethsemane theme and the Miserere mei were usually included in funerary artworks, and since Louis’ family is not included in the panel, it’s likely that it was commissioned by his wife or son after his assassination.

Louis I, Duke of Orléans, Count of Valois, Duke of Touraine, Count of Blois, Angoulême, Périgord, Dreux, and Soissons, regent of France when his older brother Charles VI, aka Charles the Mad, went insane, was assassinated by his cousin and co-regent John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. John’s courage against Ottoman forces in the Battle of Nicopolis (1396) earned him his nickname and his bullheaded vanity helped ensure his side was utterly routed. You can read all about it in one of my favorite books of all time, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Many of these events are covered in Book IV of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, which sadly I cannot find for free online, but here’s a full version available for 90 cents.

The Prado decided to purchase the painting, needless to say. They cleaned the entire thing, removing the overpaint that had darkened and dulled the rest of the figures and revealing the original brilliant color. The Agony in the Garden is now on display in Room 58A of the Villanueva Building. For more about the painting and restoration, watch these subtitled videos on the Prado’s website.





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