William Hogarth’s house reopens after 3 years

November 14th, 2011

Eighteenth century painter, engraver and social satirist William Hogarth’s house in Chiswick, West London, has reopened after an extensive three-year restoration. It’s been a longer voyage than originally planned.

Hogarth, famous for his satirical prints condemning social ills of the era like the cheap gin that drove the poor to unemployment, dissolution, suicide, and the dangers of moral laxity among the moneyed classes, purchase the 1715 house as a country home in 1749. Chiswick was a small village surrounded by fields back then. Now it’s a suburb of London, dwarfed by sprawl and the A9 highway.

The house was closed to the public for renovation in September 2008. The construction work was finished by July of 2009 with only the museum’s new installations left to do before the scheduled reopening. Then a fire broke out in the electrical closet under the staircase. Firemen put out the blaze promptly but the damage was sufficient to require an additional two years of renovation. Thankfully the large collection of Hogarth’s prints owned by the museum trust was still in storage at the time of the fire.

The fire ended up being more blessing than curse in some ways. It revealed the original wood flooring of the house, and engendered major grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the John & Ruth Howard Charitable Trust, the Old Chiswick Protection Society and the William Hogarth Trust for a more complete renovation, the first full refurbishment of the house in 60 years. Along with the floors, the wall paneling was restored and fireplaces reopened. Also, experts in historical paint colors performed a detailed analysis of the original wall colors and recreated them exactly, so the current interior palette of grays and pinks is authentic to the house when Hogarth lived there.

The contents of the house are also true to the period, many of them artifacts original to the home that had long since been scattered. There are replicas of furniture depicted in Hogarth’s prints, his eye glasses, a Chinese porcelain punchbowl that the Hogarths must have loved because it was broken and mended several times, the stand for his pug’s food bowl, Hogarth’s painting chest, original engraved plates, even his palette — later used by J.M.W. Turner — which was loaned to the museum by the Royal Academy.

There are also portraits of Hogarth’s sisters (copies of originals now owned by Yale University) and his servants, a mourning ring for William’s wife Jane, and a number of other personal artifacts that belonged to his family members who remained in the house until 1808. The idea is to give a sense of how people lived in the house, not just to present a viewing gallery of Hogarth’s prints, which is why the curators have collected information about the various characters who lived there before and after the Hogarths as well.

The ground floor and first floor are open to the public. The ground floor includes a really smart feature that should be included in every museum of a historical house: computer displays that allow people who can’t climb the stairs to the second floor to take a virtual tour of the upstairs living quarters.

Another brilliant idea implemented by the museum is to offer replica 18th century suits for children to wear and compare themselves to the period portraits while they visit the house. I can’t even tell you how ecstatic I would have been to get to roam a museum in full costume.

The Hogarth’s House museum opened to the public on Tuesday, November 9th, the day before Hogarth’s 314th birthday. It’s open from noon to 5 PM, Tuesday through Sunday and admission is free. You can take a virtual tour of your own and learn more about Hogarth’s work with this audio slideshow from the BBC, narrated by Antiques Roadshow expert Lars Tharp.


Hubble cleared of censoring rival Lemaître

November 13th, 2011

American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble has traditionally been credited with the discovery that of the expanding universe. In 1929 he published a paper which described how the more distant a galaxy is from earth, the faster it appears to move away from us, a principle now known as Hubble’s Law. Using the speed of recession as deduced from redshift data (measured by astronomer Vesto Slipher) and the distance from earth to those galaxies (measured by Hubble himself), Hubble was able to calculate the cosmic expansion rate, a constant now known as the Hubble Constant. That discovery made him a luminary in the field and resulted in the coolest telescope ever being named after him in 1983.

The only problem is he wasn’t the first to discover it. Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître published his own findings about the velocity-distance relationship, including a nearly identical cosmic expansion constant deduced from recently published redshift data, in a French-language paper in the Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles in 1927. The journal was fairly obscure and the article only translated into English for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1931. The 1931 version, however, was missing key paragraphs about the expansion constant.

The spotty translation has long been known to historians and astronomers, but earlier this year controversy erupted over whether Hubble might have had something to do with muzzling his competition. Astronomer Sidney van den Bergh suggested (pdf) that the translator had intentionally dropped the cosmic expansion paragraphs, and mathematician David Block built on that (pdf), speculating that the “fiercely territorial” Hubble, concerned that he and the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California, receive all the credit for the expanding universe, influenced the English publication to censor the paragraphs that showed that Lemaître had gotten there first.

There was no evidence of this but neither was their evidence exonerating Hubble from the charge, until now. Mario Livio, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, has found definitive proof that Hubble had nothing at all to do with the missing paragraphs. The culprit, as it happens, was none other than Georges Lemaître.

After going through hundreds of pieces of correspondence of the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as minutes of the RAS meetings, and material from the Lemaître Archive, Livio has discovered that Lemaître omitted the passages himself when he translated the paper into English!

In one of two “smoking-gun letters” uncovered by Livio, Lemaître wrote to the editors: “I did not find advisable to reprint the provisional discussion of radial velocities which is clearly of no actual interest, and also the geometrical note, which could be replaced by a small bibliography of ancient and new papers on the subject.”

As for why Lemaître chose to censor his earlier discovery of the expanding universe, the letters don’t provide his motivation. Livio thinks that Lemaître just didn’t particularly care to claim the find. The data he had used to calculate the expansion constant had been improved on since 1927, so his old work might have looked out of date. He also might not have thought there was much of a point to including his earlier but more tentative findings since Hubble’s had already been published two years before.


Viking sailors found the sun using Iceland feldspar?

November 12th, 2011

Vikings were known to have traveled extensively in the unfriendly waters of the North Atlantic, perhaps reaching as far as North America. How was it possible, in a time before the invention of the magnetic compass (in Europe, at any rate; they had magnetic compasses in Han Dynasty China (2nd c. B.C. – 1st c. A.D.), for sailors to navigate even under consistently overcast conditions when you can’t see the sun during the day nor the stars at night?

According to medieval Icelandic sagas, Vikings navigated using a sunstone, a mineral that polarizes light and thus allows the sun to be found even through heavy cloud cover. A passage in the 12th-13th century Rauðúlfs þáttr (pdf) saga describes its use:

The weather was overcast, and snow was falling, as Sigurður had predicted. The King then summoned Sigurður and Dagur into his presence. He sent a man out to observe the weather, and there was not a patch of clear sky to be seen. The King then asked Sigurður to determine how far the sun had travelled. He gave a precise answer. So the King had the sun-stone held aloft, and observed where it cast out a beam; the altitude it showed was exactly as Sigurður had said.

The sólarsteinn is mentioned in other sagas as well, described as a great treasure, and appears in several inventories of church property during the 14th and 15th centuries. None of the sources specify what mineral the sunstones were, however. There have been various likely candidates (cordierite, iolite, feldspar) since 1969 when Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou first proposed that sunstones were real minerals with polarizing properties rather than legendary talismans with supernatural powers.

A new study led by University of Rennes physicist Guy Ropars found that a transparent calcite crystal known as Iceland feldspar, aka Iceland spar, can indeed find the sun through the clouds and with a remarkable degree of accuracy. They used a piece of spar that was recently recovered from a British shipwreck from 1592.

In the laboratory, Ropars and his team struck the piece of Iceland spar with a beam of partly polarized laser light and measured how the crystal separates polarized from unpolarized light.

By rotating the crystal, the team found that there’s only one point on the stone where those two beams were equally strong—an angle that depends on the beam’s location.

That would enable a navigator to test a crystal on a sunny day and mark the sun’s location on the crystal for reference on cloudy days. On cloudy days, a navigator would only be able to use the relative brightness of the two beams.

The team then recruited 20 volunteers to take turns looking at the crystal outside on a cloudy day and measure how accurately they could estimate the position of the hidden sun.

Navigators subdivide the horizon by 360 degrees, and the team found that the volunteers could locate the sun’s position to within 1 degree.

Even after the magnetic compass was invented in Europe in the 1300s, the feldspar was still an important navigational tool, hence its presence on an Elizabethan ship a full four centuries after the end of the Viking era. The study found that even a single cannon from the shipwreck interfered with the compass by as much as 90 degrees. Therefore they couldn’t rely on the compass data alone. If the sun was obscured, a sunstone was crucial to avoid drastic navigation errors from a magnetic compass on a ship laden with cannon.

You can see the neat double refraction effect of Iceland spar in this video:


$1,000 reward offered for stolen 1795 Spanish cannon

November 11th, 2011

On the night of November 2, a Spanish bronze cannon from 1795 was stolen from a suburban Detroit business and its owner is offering a $1,000 reward for any information leading to its recovery. Matt Switlik, cannon collector and expert on historic field artillery, had brought the cannon to the Edston Plastic Company in Romulus, Michigan, to have a plastic replica made for a museum to use as a donation container.

The thieves were looking for a far more pedestrian haul of easily sold power tools and scrap metal. They made off with 20 of the former and several 200-pound boxes of aluminum. The cannon was hidden in the back under some racks and a coffin blanket. The thieves stumbled on it entirely by accident when they rolled out a coil of wire.

The cannon was cast in Seville in 1795. The crest of King Charles IV of Spain is engraved on it, as is the date, a serial number of 3610 and markings indicating it was made from copper from Mexico and from the Rio Tinto government mines in southwestern Spain. The 2.6 inch caliber weapon is 42 inches long, weighs 225 pounds.

Matt Switlik purchased it as part of a matched pair in 1974 from Inez Bandholtz, the widow of Maj. Gen. Harry Hill Bandholtz who acquired the cannons in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and brought them back to Michigan when he retired from the Army after World War I.

The cannon is far too identifiable to be sold to collectors, so if the thieves do anything, they’ll try to sell it for scrap. The $1000 reward is double what they would get for the scrap value of the copper alone.

Switlik, a historian who collects cannons, paid $1,000 for it nearly four decades ago and now values it at about $12,000. He’s getting word out that his cannon was stolen to collectors across the country and sent an e-mail to 600 people Tuesday.

“As a stolen piece, it’s not worth anything,” said Forrest Taylor, owner of www.cannonsonline.com based in Maryland. Taylor buys, sells and reproduces cannons and said collectors will know Switlik’s cannon was stolen if they come across it.

Taylor also said he believes that the cannon’s actual value may be closer to $20,000.[...]

“I’d sure like my cannon back,” Switlik said. “The other one is lonesome.”

The Romulus police are investigating leads from the crime scene and looking for surveillance video any neighboring business might have. Anyone with information about the cannon should contact the Romulus Police Department at (734) 941-8400.


Remembering the original veterans of Veterans Day

November 10th, 2011

November 11th is called Veterans Day in the United States, a federal holiday in honor of all military veterans, living and dead. It only became such in 1954, however. It started out as Armistice Day, a day to honor the fallen soldiers of World War I on the anniversary of the official cessation of hostilities when Germany signed an armistice on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. Four days earlier King George V had declared November 11th would thenceforth be observed as Remembrance Day in honor of the members of the armed forces who had been killed in the Great War.

I’m going to kick it old school in today’s entry because I think it’s a shame the US doesn’t have a day set aside to remember all the lives lost in World War I. Our involvement came late and the battlefields were distant. As a nation we didn’t pay the same cost Europe did, although many Americans paid with life and limb, so once World War II eclipsed the horror of our first foray into global war, it was easier for us to forget. So here’s just a little bit of remembrance of the original veterans of Veterans Day.

The members of the American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 in West Hartford, Connecticut, veterans all, were recently reminded of their forefathers who fought in World War I. Post commander Andrew Battistoni was trying to get the cornerstone of their original building to stop from wobbling on its display table. The old building had been demolished when a new retail and residential complex was built in 2007. They meant to install the original cornerstone in the new building, but that didn’t happen so instead they put it on display. While Battistoni was chipping away at some uneven concrete that was making the cornerstone wobble, a little copper box fell out. It was a World War I time capsule.

A newspaper clipping from The Hartford Courant gave a sense of how long the capsule rested, sealed in concrete. The article was dated June 15, 1929 — more than 82 years.

Along with the clipping were items from WWI veterans from West Hartford. For example, there was a cigarette lighter from Waldo C. Hayes and a watch that belonged to Francis B. Velhage — from whom the post draws its name. In all, 23 West Hartford soldiers lost their lives in WWI, and many of them were represented inside the copper box. There were Bibles and medals, donated by the families for inclusion in the capsule.

Neither Battistoni, a member of the American Legion post for 15 years, nor anyone else in the organization knew anything about it. The fact that they kept the cornerstone was a complete coincidence. The capsule won’t be forgotten now, though. It will go on display at the American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 building on Veterans Day. After that, Battistoni plans to take the capsule and the artifacts it contained to local schools to teach them about West Hartford’s sons who fought in World War I.

Not everyone wants to be reminded of the horrors of that war. A team of French archaeologists is excavating the Killian Shelter, an underground tunnel near the town of Carspach in the Alsace-Lorraine region on the border with Germany. The 410-feet-long tunnel housed German soldiers from the 6th Company of the “Reserve Infanterie Regiment 94″ and was destroyed by shelling in March of 1918. Only 13 of the 34 dead were retrieved at the time because it was too dangerous to go any further into the tunnel. The 21 remaining are still in there along with their gear and personal belongings.

When the battlefield at Fromelles was excavated in 2008 and the remains of 250 soldiers found, there was an avalanche of attention paid. People all over the Commonwealth volunteered DNA samples to help identify the remains. The dead of the Killian Shelter, on the other hand, have barely made the news at all in Germany.

“Britain, France and Belgium still refer to it as the Great War, but our memory of it is totally buried by World War II with the Holocaust, the expulsion from the east, the Allied bombardment,” Fritz Kirchmeier, spokesman for the German War Graves Commission, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “World War I plays only a minor role in the German national memory.”

The Commission is holding out little hope that it will be able to track down the families of the dead.

“We haven’t reached anyone yet and it will be very hard, as you can imagine, given the time that has lapsed,” said Kirchmeier. “It’s a difficult business that involves contacting local registry offices.”

It would not appear to be an insurmountable problem, though, if the public interest was there. The names and dates and places of birth of all the 21 soldiers are known. Their dog tags have been found. The soldiers include Musketeer Martin Heidrich from Schönfeld, aged 20, Private Harry Bierkamp, born Jan. 18, 1896 in Hamburg, and Lieutenant August Hütten from Aachen, aged 37.

A memorial stone bearing their names stands in the nearby German war cemetery of Illfurth. The Commission will rebury the bodies in the cemetery unless it manages to contact descendants and they decide to have the remains repatriated to Germany.

They don’t even need DNA, just a thorough records search and even that seems too exhausting a prospect. That saddens me. I would want to know if my grandfather’s remains were found.

To close with a more positive note of remembrance, Britain’s Imperial War Museum has an outstanding website dedicated to the upcoming centennial of the start of World War I. There are podcasts tracing each step of the war with interviews with veterans, updates on museum exhibits, World War I in the news and archaeological discoveries like the current excavation of the infamous Gallipoli battlefield in Turkey.

Now they’ve added a Flickr account called Faces of the First World War to help people put some faces to the names engraved on memorials and read off of casualty lists. The Imperial War Museum collected the pictures between 1917 and 1920 as part of its mission to keep a record of soldiers’ experiences of war. The pictures were donated by families. Sometimes it was the only picture of a fallen soldier the family had. Sometimes they came with letters telling the stories of the deceased. Sometimes there was only a name.

The first 100 photographs have already been uploaded to usher in the 11/11/11 Remembrance Day. More pictures and biographical information will be uploaded every weekday until August 2014, the centennial of the outbreak of war.


Art hoard worth millions found in Polish shed

November 9th, 2011

Two hundred works of art ranging from the High Renaissance to German Baroque to the Modern period have been discovered in the dirty backyard shed of a retired bricklayer in Szczecin, Poland. Only one work has been positively identified thus far, a 1903 lithograph by Jozef Czajkowski, and it provides a clue as to the provenance of the rest of the paintings: it is listed on the Art Loss Register as having been looted from the Silesia Museum in Katowice, southern Poland, during World War II. The oldest work, still not identified by name, dates to 1532.

The bricklayer, known only as Antoni M. since Polish law prohibits printing his family name at this juncture, is 92 years old and recently suffered a series of strokes. He cannot speak, so we don’t know how he got his hands on this collection. Preliminary investigations indicate that he found the art in the 60s while working on a construction site. He secreted it away and built a shed in his garden purposely to store the purloined paintings.

It’s not just a lean-to, either. According to police reports, the building looked like a bunker or a bomb shelter, with 30-inch-thick walls, a metal door and interior sliding walls. Unfortunately, he paid all that attention to security and none whatsoever to keeping conditions inside the bunker propitious for a massive art collection. The works were exposed to moisture and dust and are in very poor condition.

They’ve been transferred to the National Museum in Szczecin where Polish and Italian art historians are assessing the damage and working to identify each piece.

Antoni M. is under formal investigation for handling stolen art. Polish police are working closely with Interpol to trace the history of the works and figure out how they wound up in a backyard shed.

Here’s some raw footage of piles of art crammed into that filthy shed and then laid out in what looks like a conference room, maybe at the police station or in the museum.


The original dunce was actually brilliant

November 8th, 2011

I learned something new today. The word “dunce” comes from one Johannes Duns Scotus, a 13th century Franciscan friar, philosopher, theologian and professor at Oxford, Cambridge and Paris, who in his own time was considered a brilliant man. He was born probably in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland, around 1265. (Ireland and England also claim him as their own, but the strongest evidence suggests he was indeed a Scot, hence the “Scotus” cognomen.)

According to Luke Wadding, a 17th century Franciscan historian who cites earlier sources, young John was tending sheep for his father when two Franciscan friars came along begging for their keep, as was the wont of the mendicant orders. When they found that the boy didn’t know his proper prayers, they endeavored to teach him the Lord’s Prayer. He memorized it instantly after just hearing it once. Amazed at his intellectual gifts, the friars persuaded his father to let the boy go with them and be educated at their monastery in Dumfries.

Again according to Wadding’s sources, the novice friar was swept up in King Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in the early 1290s.

Hence it appears, that the Holy Virgin granted to Dunse innocence of life, modesty of manners, complete faith, continence, piety, and wisdom. That Paul might not be elated by great revelations, he suffered the blows of Satan; that the subtle doctor might not be inflated by the gifts of the mother of Christ, he was forced to suffer the tribulation of captivity, by a fierce enemy. Gold is tried by the furnace, and a just man by temptation. Edward I., king of England, called, from the length of his legs, Long Shanks, had cruelly invaded Scotland, leaving no monument of ancient majesty that he did not seize or destroy, leading to death, or to jail, the most noble and learned men of the country. Among them were twelve friars; and that he might experience the dreadful slaughter and bitter captivity of his country, John of Dunse suffered a miserable servitude; thus imitating the apostle in the graces of God, and the chains he endured.

Who knows if it’s true that he was kidnapped to England, but we do know that he took his Holy Orders and was ordained a priest in 1291 in Northampton, England. After that he went to Merton College, Oxford, were he distinguished himself in all branches of study, especially mathematics and theology. By 1301 he was a professor of theology at Oxford. The next year he was lecturing at the University of Paris, although only briefly because he was expelled for taking the side of Pope Boniface VIII against King Philip IV on the pressing matter of the taxation of Church property. He was back and teaching again at the University of Paris in 1304.

Known as Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Doctor) for his nuanced and complex dialectical approach to thorny theological questions, Duns Scotus made a name for himself defending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that Christ’s mother was conceived without Original Sin) against the objections of Saint Thomas Aquinas and his Dominican followers. He is said to have rebutted 200 arguments against the Immaculate Conception one after the other while he was teaching in Paris. His school of thought was dubbed “Scotism” as opposed to Acquinas’ “Thomism.”

His reputation spread far and wide, attracting huge numbers of students — one doubtlessly apocryphal story says he had 30,000 students — to the university. His followers were called “Dunsmen” or “Dunces.” Even after his early death of “apoplexy” on November 8, 1308, his arguments continued to hold sway in Paris, so much so that by the end of the 14th century, the University made upholding the Scotist position on the Immaculate Conception a requirement for everyone who taught there.

Duns Scotus’ intellectual gifts continued to be held in high reverence until the rise of the humanists in 16th century. His dense, detailed, indirect reasoning was derided as sophistry and his followers hopelessly behind the times, incapable of understanding the “new learning” of Renaissance humanism. The Dunces, already saddled with a reputation for painful hair-splitting, now became synonymous with unrelenting, unteachable idiocy.

They even got their own accessory, the “dunce cap” donned by many an elementary school dolt in the era before timeouts. John Duns Scotus was an advocate of the conical hat, you see, because wizards were known to wear them and wizards are smart. The point symbolized knowledge and the funnel shape drove all that knowledge downward directly into the head. Once the dunces became associated with dumbness, the pointy hat became their symbol.

So now dunces and their hats are part of our collective cultural consciousness while the original Duns Scotus is widely forgotten. Not entirely, though. The Catholic Church still hearts him. John XXIII recommended him highly to theology students, and Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1993.


Rare Cultural Revolution propaganda found at U of M

November 7th, 2011

A staffer going through boxes in a storage room at the University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies has discovered a complete set of 15 paper-cut propaganda posters from the early days of the Cultural Revolution. Carol Stepanchuk, the Center for Chinese Studies’s community outreach coordinator, fished them out of the clutter and showed them to faculty members who recognized them as rare artifacts to survive a turbulent era.

The posters were made using the ancient Chinese craft of paper-cut, decorative cuttings in red paper that are traditionally used as auspicious decoration for weddings, birthdays, Lunar New Year, and other celebrations. The detail and complexity of these posters make them superb examples of the art, but they are also of notable historical significance because they give a pictorial view of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of fairly autonomous local artists in the southern provinces, far from the center of power in Beijing where artists were directly controlled by Mao Zedong.

Associate history professor Wang Zheng said the collection was produced at a small, folk art institute in the southern province of Guangdong, and it most likely wasn’t commissioned by Communist Party leaders. She said it shows how young artists at the time understood and related to the decade-long Cultural Revolution, and she plans to use one of the images in a book she is writing.

“They did not have embedded interests in the establishment, and the Cultural Revolution was to smash the establishment,” Zheng said. “The young ones who didn’t have power … likely identified with it.”

Given the joyous depiction of the destruction of China’s cultural heritage, Zheng’s assessment seems spot on to me. One of the posters, for instance, is entitled Eliminating the “Four Olds”. Launched by Mao and General Lin Biao, Mao’s second-in-charge and designated successor, in a speech from the Tiananmen Rostrum on August 18, 1966, the Destruction of the Four Olds was one of the first campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. The “Four Olds” are Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas, and the poster shows a brigade of Red Guards sledge hammering, trampling, burning, burying Chinese literature, film, religious iconography and cultural artifacts emblematic of foreign imperialism and China’s feudal past. The large flag in the foreground with the image of Mao on it reads “Rebellion is justified.”

Lin Biao’s presence is a key dating point. In September of 1971 he fled China after an apparent coup attempt only to die in a plane crash on his way to Russia. (Suspicious circumstances abound, needless to say.) That’s one of the things that makes this collection so rare, because even in China proper very few such posters survived since references to Lin Biao were destroyed after his death, and outside of China they’re even rarer.

According to Ena Schlorff, the Center for Chinese Studies’ program coordinator, the images were donated to the University of Michigan by U of M professor Michel Oksenberg who is thought to have secured the posters while doing research in Hong Kong in the early 70s. He joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1973 and he donated a large collection of materials, including these 15 pieces, when he left the university in 1991. Schlorff knew the posters were there — she had been Oksenberg’s secretary — so they weren’t lost, exactly, but it wasn’t until their rediscovery that the current faculty knew about them and recognized their particular importance.

Professor Wang plans to include one of the images in a book she’s writing about the Cultural Revolution. She’s also trying to track down the artists who did the painstaking cutout work to interview them about their experiences during the period.

The University of Michigan has no immediate plans to put the collection on display, but they have made me a very happy panda by digitizing all the posters and uploading high resolution scans of them for us all to marvel at the incredibly intricate work in extreme closeup.


The devil is in Giotto’s details

November 6th, 2011

A restorer working on a fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi has discovered a the face of a devil hidden in the clouds. Medievalist and St. Francis expert Chiara Frugoni divined the demonic presence in fresco number 20 out of a series of 28 depicting the life of St. Francis as written by St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure was the seventh Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor and was commissioned by the Order to write the official biography of St. Francis in 1260. Fresco 20 is the death and ascension of St. Francis, painted by Giotto between 1296 and 1304.

St. Francis is shown lying on his death bier, surrounded by mourning friars while his soul is taken to heaven by a host of angels. Bonaventure described the scene in Chapter XIV of the hagiography: “In the hour of transit of the blessed Francis a friar saw his soul ascend to the heavens in the form of an enormously bright star.” The profile of the demon is on the right side of a cloud underneath the bright star, staring at the crotch of an angel.

“It’s a powerful portrait, with a hooked nose, sunken eyes and two dark horns,” Ms Frugoni said in an article in a forthcoming issue of the St Francis art history periodical.

“The significance of the image still needs to be delved into. In the Middle Ages it was believed that demons lived in the sky and that they could impede the ascension of human souls to Heaven.

“Until now it was thought that the first painter to use clouds in this way was Andrea Mantegna, with a painting of St Sebastian from 1460, in which high up in the sky there’s a cloud from which a knight on horseback emerges. Now we know that Giotto was the first (to use this technique).”

The figure hasn’t been seen until now because it’s almost impossible to spot looking up from the floor of the basilica. It took carefully examination of close-up photographs to find the little devil.

Sergio Fusetti, the chief restorer of the basilica, notes that theology may not have been Giotto’s entire motivation. He could have included the demon as a private joke, perhaps to spite someone who had done him wrong, or perhaps just for the fun of having a hidden image in the clouds.

There are some more pictures — unfortunately all of them small — on the Franciscan website.


112-year-old Christmas pudding found in cupboard

November 5th, 2011

112-year-old Christmas plum puddingWhat is probably the oldest Christmas plum pudding in the world, tinned 112 years ago in 1899, has been found at the back of a kitchen cupboard in Poole, Dorset and donated to the National Museum of the Royal Navy at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in Hampshire. It was donated by a woman who found it in her cupboard after her husband’s death. She knew nothing about it other than the date stamped on the can — 1900 — and that it had been in her husband’s family for years.

112-year-old Christmas plum pudding tin, backThe handsomely decorated tin marks it as “Peek, Frean & Co’s Teetotal Plum Pudding – London, High Class Ingredients Only.” Instructions on the bottom state “This pudding is ready for use but may be boiled for an hour if required hot.” Peek Frean was a cookies and confectionary company established in 1857. Within a few years they focused on making confections for export to distant locales like Australia and India, hence the sealed tins. The back of the container depicts children holding out plates, presumably to beg for more of that delicious teetotal plum pudding.

This particular pudding was also destined for faraway lands, South Africa specifically. It’s a teetoal pudding because it was a special issue, commissioned by Victorian philanthropist and superintendent of the Royal Naval Temperance Society Agnes “Aggie” Weston. She ordered 1000 tins of brandyless Christmas plum pudding to be sent to Royal Navy sailors fighting in the Boer War. There’s a message from her on the tin as well: “For the Naval Brigade, In the Front, With Miss Weston’s Best Christmas & New Year, 1900, Wishes.” As far as we know, this is the only surviving tin of the 1000.

Agnes "Aggie" WestonThe daughter of a lawyer, Agnes Weston received a religious education and was involved in missionary work and the temperance movement from an early age. While still in her 20s she opened a café (liquor-free, of course) for soldiers. When some of her regulars were posted overseas, she wrote to them. One of her correspondents shared her letter with a ship’s steward who wished he could get so nice a letter. Agnes heard about it and started to write to him. From then on, she was a warm benefactress of the Royal Navy.

Still advocating temperance, Agnes was allowed on board ships to give lectures on the virtues of sobriety. Surprisingly, this did not make her unpopular. Quite the opposite, in fact. She and her friend and partner in philanthropy Sophia Wintz raised money and eventually founded four hostels for sailors called “Sailor’s Rests.” Any sailor could get a clean bed and meal in the Rests. The Rests also provided baths and recreational facilities, and although there were temperance lectures and obviously none of the meals came with beer, anybody was welcome. They didn’t have to be sober. The idea was that sailors who had a nice place to sleep, enough to eat and wholesome activities to do wouldn’t be out barhopping and carousing.

Because of her genuine care and affection for the sailors (and her endless nagging about their drinking habits), she became known as Mother Weston or the Mother of the Navy. The success of the Rests didn’t keep her from supporting the sailors overseas. In addition to her copious personal correspondence, Agnes also printed a monthly newsletter and a journal for distribution to sailors on board ships.

In 1909 she published a book about her life’s work with the sailors of the Royal Navy, My Life Among the Bluejackets, in which she describes the great pudding caper of Ought Ought.

As Christmas drew near it occurred to one of us that a Christmas pudding for each man of the Naval Brigade would be a nice little present. Messrs. Peak, Frean & Co. carried out the order, and the puddings went off, each in its tin, “With Miss Weston’s good wishes,” in time to reach the front. They were passed on and were not hung up anywhere. A bronzed bluejacket on his return said to me:

“Directly Ladysmith was relieved you were outside the gates, and those puddings they were just splendid after living so long on mealies and mule flesh. We said, ‘Mother is here, and knows just what we want.’ They made the same remark as tobacco and other gifts were served out.”

In recognition of her lifetime of dedication to the health and welfare of Royal Navy sailors, Agnes Weston was made Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She died that same year and was buried with full naval honors. During World War II, a frigate named after Somerset beach town Weston-Super-Mare became known colloquially in the navy as “Aggie-on-Horseback” after the Weston who was still beloved by sailors even 22 years after her death.

The tin is not on display at the museum yet. It’s in need of some conservation first. It will briefly go on display in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s upcoming Victorian Festival of Christmas between November 25th and 27th, along with rations from both World Wars.





September 2015
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