Farmer plows up Archaic kouros

November 6th, 2018


Archaeologists have discovered four Archaic era kouros statues in Atalanti, central Greece. The first of the sculptures was discovered by the property owner when he was plowing a field. He unearthed the limestone torso of a nude male youth 2’9″ high and immediately alerted the regional archaeological authority to his find. The kouros was recovered and transferred to the Archaeological Museum of Atalanti.

The Ephorate of Antiquities of Fthiotida and Evritania dispatched an archaeological team to conduct a thorough field excavation of the find site and environs. They have been digging there since mid-October and have found another three life-sized kouroi. In a test trench on the north section of the site, the team found a limestone kouros four feet high. It is intact from head to the thighs and depicts a bearded man with his left leg forward. Next to it was the lower torso of a male 2’8″ long extending from the lower back to the tibia. The plinth that runs along the back surface is intact. The third kouros was found last Friday (November 2nd). It is 3’1″ from throat to thighs and the left leg is extended. A trihedral block found right next to it is likely a fragment of the base of the third statue.

It’s a remarkable haul for such a short excavation of a small portion of a field which has seen such recent agricultural activity, but the Archaic sculptures aren’t the only archaeologically significant remains discovered at the site. In deeper layers than the ones where the kouroi were located, archaeologists unearthed seven graves dating from the 5th century B.C. through the second. The grave goods are reportedly impressive although no details are forthcoming yet. This was not a random group of burials. Their arrangement and location near the modern city Atalanti indicates they were part of an organized cemetery of the ancient Mycenaean city of Opus, founded in the Late Helladic period (1600–1100 B.C.) and well-populated until the Gothic invasions of the 4th century.

Share

Bag that may have held Walter Raleigh’s head found in attic

November 5th, 2018

A red silk velvet bag found in the attic of West Horsley Place in Surrey may have been used to carry an illustriously gory cargo: the embalmed head of Sir Walter Raleigh. It’s a long shot. There is no organic residue visible to the naked eye that suggests the bag was used to hold the decapitated head of a man executed for treason and the soft, elegant bag is not the type that would have been used to place the head immediately after the execution.

Raleigh’s head had an extensive history continuing long after it was separated from his neck. Sir Walter was arrested in July 1603, less than four months after the death of Queen Elizabeth, for conspiring to overthrow King James I. At his trial that November, Raleigh denied vociferously having plotted against the king. The only evidence was the written confession of his alleged co-conspirator who was not allowed to testify and be cross-examined at trial.

Nonetheless, Raleigh was convicted. His death sentence was commuted by King James and he remained imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1617 when the king pardoned him so he could go on yet another epic voyage of discovery, this time seeking out the mythical city of El Dorado in Venezuela. James had ended two decades of war with Spain when he signed the Treaty of London with King Philip III in 1604, so part of the deal with the pardon was that Raleigh wouldn’t resume his old pirating ways and interfere with Spanish colonies or shipping.

When Raleigh’s men disregarded that stricture and raided the settlement of Santo Tomé de Guayana, Raleigh lost his son Walter and sealed his own fate. Upon his return to England in June 1618, he was arrested for the 1603 treason conviction, his pardon now invalidated by the violence against the Spanish colony. He was in poor health and was escorted to London very slowly. A couple of months and a couple of failed escape attempts later, Sir Walter Raleigh was back in the Tower of London where he would spend his last days.

The Royal Warrant for the execution dated October 28th, 1618, specified Raleigh would not be drawn, hanged and quartered, the usual execution method for traitors, but rather the king’s “pleasure is to have the head only of the said Sir Walter Raleigh cut off at or within our palace of Westminster.” The king’s pleasure would not have to wait long, likely driven by his desire to clear the diplomatic slate of the Raleigh imbroglio so he could get back to the business of arranging his son’s marriage to the Spanish Infanta. The next morning, October 29th, 1618, Raleigh was taken to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster Palace where he was beheaded.

The body was buried in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, out of sheer expediency. It was the closest to the palace, and this whole business was done in haste in the hopes of avoiding angry crowds. Raleigh was a national hero; popular sentiment was very much on his side. Shipping his headless body to Beddington where Raleigh and his wife had planned to be buried together would have run the risk of drawing far too much attention.

According to the earliest known published account of the execution, Sir Walter’s head “was shewed on each side of the Scaffold, and then put into a red leather bag and his wrought velvet gowne throwne over it, which was afterwards conveyed away in a mourning coach of his Ladyes.” Lady Raleigh had the head embalmed and kept it with her for the remaining 29 years of her life. One source, 18th century antiquarian William Oldys, reported that she preserved the head “in a case.”

Carew Raleigh, the only son of Sir Walter to survive his father, inherited West Horsley Place upon the death of his maternal uncle Sir Nicholas Carew in 1643. He lived there with his mother until her death in 1647. Sir Walter Raleigh’s head lived with them too. After Bess’ death, the head passed to Carew. He told Elias Ashmole (the man the Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum is named after) that he still had his father’s skull in the 1660s.

Carew sold West Horsley Place to Sir E Nicholas in 1665 and moved to London where he died the next year. He was buried with his father’s body at St. Margaret’s Church, but it was his two eldest sons Walter and Carew who would go to their eternal rest with Sir Walter Raleigh’s head at St Mary’s Church in West Horsley.

Beheadings are something of a recurring motif in the history of West Horsley Place. Nobody that we know of was actually executed there, but several of its owners have met the slicing side of the headsman’s axe and last year conservators assessing the condition of the building discovered an actual executioner’s axe.

Share

Greek vase looted from Warsaw museum during WWII returned

November 4th, 2018

A 4th century B.C. Greek vase that was stolen from the National Museum in Warsaw by German occupiers has been returned to Poland. The red figure lekythos with a rare sphinx design, one of very few in Poland, is a small piece at just 3.7 inches high and 2.4 inches wide, but it is of immense historical importance because it is the first archaeological object plundered during the war that has been recovered by the nation.

The vessel, made to store oils and perfumes, was discovered during excavations in the east Crimean town of Kerch, one of the most ancient cities in Crimea which was founded as the Greek colony of Panticapaeum 2,600 years ago. By the early 20th century, it belonged to Józef Choynowski, a Polish collector who was born in the Kiev area. An avid archaeologist, he participated in digs in Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia and amassed a large, ecclectic collection of prehistoric crafts, prints, paintings, osteological remains and archaeological material.

In 1901, Choynowski decided he would exhibit his entire collection in Warsaw and then donate it to the museum. The exhibition opened in the autumn of 1902. A few months later, on March 19th, 1903, Józef Choynowski officially donated his collection to the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw, stipulating that it must be permanently on display and that no part of it would ever be loaned or moved out of Warsaw. In December of 1923, Choynowski’s collection of 4380 objects was transferred to the National Museum in Warsaw.

It would know less than 20 years of peace. Art historian, archaeologist and SS Untersturmführer Peter Paulsen was in Poland within days of Warsaw’s surrender on September 27th, 1939. As leader of the Sonderkommando Paulsen, his brief was to “secure” objects of archaeological and historic significance from the conquered territory. Nazi officials from Hitler on down had no high opinion of Poland’s cultural patrimony, so the artworks and antiquities deemed to be “Germanic” cultural assets were the explicit focus of the SS special command. The Veit Stoss altarpiece in Krakow, for example, the largest Gothic alterpiece in the world made in the late 15th century specifically for the High altar of Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica, counted as German because the sculptor Veit Stoss was originally from Nuremburg, even though he lived and worked in Krakow for 20 years and the altarpiece had been commissioned by the regent of Poland.

In the end, the Sonderkommando Paulsen just stole everything it could and shipped it to Germany to stash in museums, castles, salt mines wherever they had a nook or cranny to accommodate the ever-expanding collection of patrimony plundered from occupied countries. Warsaw’s library and the national museum were stripped of far more than the few items listed as desirable in lead-up to the invasion. The Choynowski collection was plundered and many of its most prized pieces exported to Germany.

Without any clear records of what was taken by the SS, dispersed or destroyed by the ravages of war, Poland’s Ministry of Culture has struggled since the war to figure out which of Choynowski’s pieces are missing. Its database of war losses currently lists about 60 objects from the collection, but that is in no way definitive.

Thankfully, it was enough to get this one little lekythos back. The vase was slated to be sold in 2017 at the Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger auction house in Munich. The auctioneers checked the database, saw that it was looted from Poland during war and alerted the ministry. The seller was Ingrid Haack. It had been in her family for decades and she had no idea of its ugly ownership history. She promptly agreed to withdraw it from the sale and return it to Poland.

Share

Naughty mosaic found in 2nd century latrine

November 3rd, 2018

A ribald mosaic has been discovered in a Roman latrine at the ancient site of Antiochia ad Cragum near modern-day Guney on the southern coast of Turkey. The mosaic covered the floor of the 2nd century A.D. latrine, providing some visual entertainment for the gents as they made use of the public facilities. It was rather naughty entertainment at that, a good fit for the environment.

The mosaic consists of two mythological scenes that don’t exactly cleave to the Bullfinch versions. One is of Narcissus, only instead of being entranced by the reflection of his beautiful visage, he is entranced by his beautiful phallus. The second features Ganymede, described in the Illiad “the handsomest mortal man on earth,” a youth so beautiful that Zeus took the form of an eagle and carried him away to Olympus to serve as his cupbearer. The mosaic flips that account and depicts Ganymede having his genitalia sponged clean by a bird.

“We were stunned at what we were looking at,” said Michael Hoff, an archaeologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “You have to understand the myths to make it really come alive, but bathroom humor is kind of universal as it turns out.” […]

Narcissus is shown with an uncharacteristically long nose, which would have been considered ugly by the beauty standards of the time. He looks down, presumably admiring the reflection of his conspicuous penis instead of his face.

In myth, Zeus disguised himself as an eagle to kidnap the Trojan adolescent Ganymede and make him a cupbearer to the gods. (The myth offered a model for relationships between men and adolescent boys in ancient Greece.) In art depicting that abduction, Ganymede is often shown holding a stick and rolling hoop as a toy.

In the image in the latrine, Ganymede instead holds tongs with a sponge, a reference to the sponges that would have been used for wiping the toilet. And Zeus is not an eagle but a heron, with a long beak grasping a sponge and dabbing Ganymede’s penis.

“Instantly, anybody who would have seen that image would have seen the [visual] pun,” said Hoff. “Is it indicative of cleaning the genitals prior to a sex act or after a sex act? That’s a question I cannot answer, and it might have been ambiguous then.”

The floor was discovered on the last days of this season’s excavation of Antiochia ad Cragum. The University of Nebraska team has been excavating the ancient city, built in the 1st century A.D. by Roman client king Antiochus IV of Commagene, since 2005. An enormous mosaic from the public baths made international news when it was discovered in 2012, and another large floor mosaic was discovered in an adjacent temple the next year. They were geometric and floral in pattern, however, whereas the latrine mosaic is figural. Naughty Narcissus and Gamy Ganymede are the only examples of figurative mosaics found thus far at Antiochia ad Cragum.

Share

Ball in the Stone Part III: The Treasure

November 2nd, 2018

The journey’s twists and turns had taken their toll. Mainly on my feet. Sitting on a bench near Keat’s grave, looking at the pyramid and the Porta San Paolo under the warm sunlight, I was weary but content. I realized that my half-formed idea of walking as much of the Aurelian Wall as remained would be too ambitious for a week-long trip, but I had done the full south perimeter and that felt like a real accomplishment.

Only the matter of the cannonball remained. I still wanted badly to capture it even though walking around the wall up to the north gates was no longer an option at this point. The Piramide metro station rose up to play the part of my Merlin, cutting through the city to deliver me north to Castro Pretorio where I could pick up the trail of the wall again and walk along it towards the Porta Pinciana and the Borghese Gardens where my quest had been so cruelly interrupted coming from the other direction.

My busted feets were revitalized by the sheer happiness of walking a new stretch of wall, one I had never ever seen before when I lived in Rome. Castro Pretorio station is named after the Praetorian Guard barracks whose remains are embedded in the wall. I was delighted to find modern-day offices and barracks of the Italian military adjacent to the Metro station. One does enjoy a 2,000-year-old recurring theme.

For a length I was able to walk directly under the looming shadow of the wall, one section of which was topped with razor wire, as if it were still a bulwark against all manner of barbarians overunning the city’s defenses (or at least foolhardy idiots trying to scale a particularly unstable piece). While I soon had to cross the insanely busy multi-lane Corso d’Italia instead of walking directly under it, I had every hope that I would be able to spot the cannonball in the tower. I greeted the Porta Pia with a jaunty how-de-do. I doffed my cap to the late Porta Salaria, demolished in 1921. I stopped short, foot brakes squealing Looney Tunes-style, at the church of Saint Teresa of Avila. This was the marker. Across the Corso d’Italia, now split into lanes on either side of an underpass, somewhere in that section of wall the treasure awaited me.

Crossing the small lane to the fence keeping traffic vehicular and pedestrian from falling into the underpass, I gazed hungrily at the towering heights of brickwork. And there it was. A large hole like so many areas of wear and tear I had seen on my journey along the walls. The cannonball itself was barely visible. The sun was in my eyes and it is so much smaller than the hole it carved out for itself in 1870. It was a dark curve more than anything.

Click to claim your reward.The reward had to be brought back for the benefit of mankind. Them’s the rules of the hero’s journey. Even a dark curve would count as long as the camera could capture it. One shot. Then another. Is that…? If I zoom in can it be…? And so it came to pass as I had scarce dared hope. The Ball in the Stone was mine. Now it is yours too.

I all but flew to the Porta Pinciana and strutted down the Via Veneto living the history nerd’s most dolce vita. Okay so the wings kinda gave out and I snagged a bus at the bottom of the street, but the shine of my final tally of seven gates, miles of largely uninterrupted walls and one precious cannonball picture could not be dulled.

Share

I can’t believe I missed this

November 1st, 2018

A famous medieval icon of the Madonna and Child traditionally held to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist has been conclusively identified as the work of late 13th century artist Filippo Rusuti, creator of the grand upper facade of St. Mary Major. That mosaic depicting Christ enthroned among angels, saints and the symbols of the Evangelists actually bears the artist’s signature in mosaic tiles. The facade is today mostly hidden by the 18th century loggia built over it, but the verisimilitude of the signature made it possible for experts to confirm the one on the icon.

Art historians had previously attributed it to the Master of San Saba due to some stylistic similarities to frescoes in the nave of the Church of San Saba. A restoration that began in 2017 used the latest technology to analyze the panel painting (canvas mounted on walnut). That’s how the previously invisible signature of the artist was discovered. Like the mosaic, the icon is Byzantine in style with rigid figures imbued with symbolism rather than naturalistic postures and affect.

The icon’s permanent home is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo to which it has deep ties extending back to the 13th century. The church’s founding and early history is hazy — many church records were destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome — but it does appear on a list of Roman churches from the late 1220s, early 1230s. The physical structure as it exists today is largely Baroque, an expansion and reconstruction designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in the mid-17th century that drastically altered its 15th century predecessor. The greatest international claim to fame and tourist attraction of Santa Maria del Popolo today, the Cerasi Chapel with its two Caravaggio masterpieces, Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus, dates to the Baroque reconstruction.

Long before the Caravaggio pilgrims lined up on the church steps waiting for it to open, however, pilgrims seeking the blessings of the Madonna traveled to Santa Maria del Popolo to venerate the icon. Legend dates its miraculous reputation back to the earliest records of the church. The story goes that the icon of Virgin and Child was painted by the very hand of St. Luke the Evangelist and kept with the rest of the most important relics in Christendom in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran palace, the Pope’s residence. In 1230, the Tiber overflowed its banks, as it was wont to do, and with the flood came plague. To cure the city of this pestilence, the Pope led the city in a procession carrying aloft the icon to Santa Maria del Popolo. The plague ended and the Madonna of San Luca became one the most venerated icons in Rome.

Several Popes and cardinals were passionately devoted to the icon. The high altar of Santa Maria del Popolo was commissioned, likely by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, in 1473 to showcase it. One of those popes, Sixtus V, put Santa Maria del Popolo on the list of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome in 1586, replacing the church of Saint Sebastian on the Appia outside the walls, solely because of the importance of icon.

I came so close to seeing the restored icon last week, darn it. It is currently on display at the Castel Sant’Angelo through November 18th. I didn’t even realize it was there and I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it even if I had known because I’ve seen the icon at Santa Maria, albeit not within such close view. I did have the Castel Sant’Angelo’s exhibition of arms and armature on the short list, however, and saw the other half of that show at the Palazzo Venezia. Time got away with me is all, what with all the questing and wall walking.

Share

Watch the first film Frankenstein restored

October 31st, 2018

This year is the bicentennial of the publication of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking masterpiece Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is a fitting celebration of the momentous anniversary that the Library of Congress has restored the first motion picture production of Frankenstein and uploaded it to the web for our viewing enjoyment this Halloween.

The first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein was produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1910. It was directed by James Searle Dawley, former apprentice of Edwin S. Porter, pioneering director of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, and starred actors from Edison’s stock company — Augustus Phillips as Victor Frankenstein, Charles Ogle as the Monster and Mary Fuller as Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth. Unlike his mentor Porter, Dawley took a static approach, filming staged wide shots straight-on like the audience was viewing a play.

Edison’s title calls it a “liberal adaptation” of the novel, and he wasn’t kidding. Crammed into less than 14 total minutes, the story eschews the now-classic horror elements of Shelley’s story. The creature is not the work of a surgical student who has made liberal use of graveyard materiel. He is created from a sort of alchemical experiment, a witch’s brew of ingredients tossed into a cauldron that produces a crusty carbuncle turned flaming skeleton turned Einstein-haired weirdo.

This was a deliberate choice, the result of growing concerns for the purported immorality of the increasingly popular medium. Edison, keen to keep his most golden goose laying those lucrative eggs, created the first censorship board in 1909 to kowtow to the concerns of moral scolds. Frankenstein was the fist production under the new ethos. The Edison Company catalogue of March 1910 emphasized how bowdlerized the film was as a selling point.

“To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s [sic] story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”

Ergo, the complicated questions Mary ShellEy raised about the boundaries of science, the responsibilities of parenthood, the dangers of hubris are replaced by a garden variety morality tale in which a man’s inner evil expresses itself outwardly.

Even though the story had been staged to great success in a myriad adaptations since the 1820s (it was the plays that made the novel a best-seller), the first film of Frankenstein was no a box office success. Critics reviewed it positively, but audiences didn’t respond. After the usual few months of distribution, the prints were withdrawn and the film recycled.

One of them survived, falling into the hands of Wisconsin collector Alois Detlaff in a freakishly round-about way. The rare 35mm print had belonged to his wife’s grandmother Marie Franklin who had a performing jones and used to put on little shows accompanied by film shorts, including Frankenstein. She left her collection to her son. He left it to his son who sold it to a collector who sold it to another collector who sold it to Detlaff in the 1950s.

He knew the film was in his collection and had screened it privately, but the print was in bad condition so he stashed it, only making public its existence after the American Film Institute declared it one of the top 10 most significant lost films in 1980. The movie has been in the public domain since the 1930s and there are many copies of it available online. They’re all pretty terrible, rips from DVDs Detlaff burned of his unrestored print. The Library of Congress went back to the source, restored the film and recreated the missing elements from the originals.

The Library purchased the Dettlaff Collection in 2014 and while it is full of titles we are delighted to add to our holdings, we were especially interested to see Frankenstein, joking that perhaps it might arrive from Wisconsin on a bed of spun gold. While it came in a fairly nondescript can, it didn’t take us long to get the reel into our film preservation lab for a 2K scan in advance of photochemical preservation. From that 2K scan we worked on a digital restoration. The film’s head credits and the first intertitle were missing, but fortunately the Edison Historic Site in East Orange, New Jersey, had a copy of the head credit we could drop into place; the intertitle was recreated using the style of the other titles. We asked Donald Sosin, a highly regarded silent film composer and accompanist, to provide a score.

So without further ado, be he trick or be he treat, here is the first on-screen Frankenstein:

Share

Ball in the Stone Part II: the Call of the Wall

October 30th, 2018

The plan was to go back to the Appia Antica, walk the ecological park of Valle di Carafella, check out its various columbaria and nymphae, maybe hit a catacomb or two. The Museo delle Mura had been such a treat on Sunday that I didn’t get very far down the ancient road after going through the Appian Gate. So Tuesday I set off bright and early going largely the same way. A rhino was spotted and it was good. Instead of taking Via di San Sebastiano, however, which leads directly to the gate and the museum, for variety’s sake I decided to take the Via di Porta Latina which diverged left to go to a different, much smaller gate a short distance from the big one. It’s a pretty road with large walled villas on either side, walls I hugged more than once when cars barreled down the tiny cobblestone street.

The gate in sight, I stopped to read the info panel about the wee church of San Giovanni in Oleo, a Renaissance structure (original design attributed Bramante, current roof by Borromini), built on the site of a 5th century church which ostensibly marked the spot where John the Evangelist was martyred by Domitian by being boiled in a vat oil. Well, almost martyred. It didn’t take, so alive and unboiled, John was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation.

An obstacle arose here too in the form of a tour group that would not move the hell on so I could get a picture of the Porta Latina. Patience, which I hear is a virtue although I wouldn’t know from personal experience, paid off eventually. Proof:

After stepping through the gate, I was visited by a vision of the Aurelian Wall extending down the hill in the opposite direction from the Porta Appia. It called to me, a stone and brick siren 30 feet high and a half-mile long. I had to follow its call. That whole stretch of wall from the Porta Latina to the Porta Metronia is a park, a peaceful green space on the perimeter of a residential neighborhood. There were more dogs than people.

It was so wonderful a walk that I would have gone on to the next gate, the Porta San Giovanni, had not dark forces prevented me. The dark force in this case was the construction of Metro Line C whose high scaffolding was wrapped tight like an anti-present blocking the view of the wall and access to the street under it. I could have continued nonetheless, heading in that direction even if not at the foot of the wall or even in view of it, but I didn’t know when I’d get back to proper wall walking. I turned back, going on to the Porta Appia to resume my original trajectory.

And so I reached the Valle di Carafella, embarking on an exploration of its archaeological sites. There was just one problem. Most of the sites of note are way at the end of the park. I enjoy an ecological preserve, mind you, and had I not had a very specific brief, I would have gladly spent the day hiking the whole thing. Instead, I reached the working farm, received the blessing of Juno’s representative, and then turned back.

It was the wall, you see. Its call could not be denied. Facing the Porta Appia, I turned left and walked. And walked. And walked some more. I reached the Porta Ardeatina and the Christoforo Colombo, the large thoroughfare that took us home/to town so often when I was a child. I kept going. And going. At one point I found some stairs and climbed them. They took me to a high road (far more modern) that tracked the inside of the wall. It was from the internal wall perimeter that I saw the gate. It was the Porta San Paolo.

When I walked through it, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius welcomed me. The marble cladding, mottled grey and white, gleamed in the sun. Never once, when I was little, did I imagine the blackened, weed-choked pyramid could ever look like this. It’s one of the best restorations I’ve ever seen. It was a little thin on cats, however. They used to colonize the base of the pyramid and there were zero cats to be found. Thankfully the Cimitero Accatolico, the non-Catholic cemetery best known as the final resting place of John Keats, “one whose name was writ in water,” was as catty as I recalled.

With such a broad stretch of Aurelian Wall under my belt, my quest for the cannonball was reinvigorated. It would be mine. Oh yes, it would be mine. Stay tuned for Part III wherein your faithful narrator’s journey comes to its explosive (unexploded, actually) conclusion.

Share

The quest for the ball in the stone: Part I

October 29th, 2018

I didn’t set out to go on a hero’s journey, complete with call to adventure, ordeal by forces of supernatural power, abyss-despair-failure, overcoming all hardships to gain the reward, but that’s what ended up happening. This is the final part of the quest, wherein I return with the treasure to benefit humanity. So, like, you guys.

The story begins on September 20th, 1870, when the army of the Kingdom of Italy, then less than a decade old, breached the ancient Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia to wrest Rome from the white-knuckle grip of Pope Pius IX and make it the capital of a truly unified Italy. The date and the breach of the walls has gone down in history with a spin that’s more legend than fact. The army did “besiege” the city, but the siege amounted to three hours of cannon fire against the walls.

If you’re thinking that maybe it’s not all that remarkable that a few hours of cannon fire would breach a 1600-year-old wall peppered with holes, cave-ins, crumbling ramparts and patchwork repairs, you are wise. The Pope’s resistance was token. He knew it was over; he just didn’t want to go down without some pretense at fighting back. After those three hours of artillery lobbed at Porta Pia, 72 troops — 53 Italian and 19 papal — were dead and the kingdom’s forces made their triumphal entry down the Via Pia, today named Via XX Settembre after that momentous day.

Nowadays, the Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia is a snarl of traffic with the modern version of the ancient consular roads transporting an endless parade of cars, motorini and buses both tourist and public. The Corso d’Italia, fat with lanes and divides and over and underpasses, runs along the outside of the wall past the former Porta Salaria (demolished in 1921) to the Porta Pinciana.

Somewhere between the Porta Pia and Pinciana, embedded high on a tower of the Aurelian Wall is a single cannon ball that was shot during the siege of September 20th. As I had already determined to walk as many tracts of the ancient wall I could manage, I thought it would be groovy to cap one of those walks with a picture of the 1870 cannon ball in the 270s wall. I knew from my childhood days that the Borghese Gallery is right across from the Pinciana Gate north of the city, its massive park stretching out below the villa itself practically all the way down to the Porta del Popolo, the gate adjacent to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo famous for its Caravaggio paintings. The stretch of Aurelian Wall that goes up the hill from the Porta del Popolo towards the Porta Pinciana still stands. It’s called the Muro Torto (crooked wall, after a sharp dogleg east) and when I was a kid, I had a distinct fixation with it, staring at the looming structure whenever we drove by it. I was looking forward to experiencing that looming feeling even more keenly walking at its feet.

Such was my call to adventure. The ordeals began with a “sidewalk” that could only have been designed by forces of supernatural malignity. Sometimes it was wide enough for two feet. Sometimes it wasn’t. More than once it was a line painted on asphalt, literally forcing my back against the wall, hands clutching the clammy grunge of masonry and brick as cars sped past me so fast they made a laser-like “pew!” sound. When there was sufficient sidewalk to lower the risk from almost certainly deadly to “danger Will Robinson” flailing, new enemies sprang up in the form of weeds. The embankments and sides of the walls were choked with vegetation, so much so that I feared I’d miss the cannon ball hidden in cascades of wild plants.

But the obstacle that would defeat me, seemingly ending my quest, was road work. I wasn’t even at the top of the hill when the sidewalk and right lane were taped off for some pressing infrastructure modification project. Being in Rome, I did as any Roman would do and simply ducked under the tape to continue on my not-so-merry way. I was chased out by a supernatural apparition only spoken of in hushed tones in this city but never seen: an actual worker working.

Now I was on the street, a target for high-speed vehicles and their eardrum-shattering horns. Again I had to walk feet splayed outwards, heels together, in the few inches of gutter space that made the difference between life and death. If the cannonball had appeared during that stretch, there was no way I could have seen it.

Finally at the top of the hill but not even at the Porta Pia yet, the wall disappeared. The last I could see of it ended in a piney private park far above me. I had to admit defeat. Crushed, bereft of cannonballs, I lost hope and had to find a new reason to go on. I walked heavily down the steps to the Spagna Metro station and made my way to the patrician domuses under the Palazzo Valentini in Trajan’s Forum where I had booked a tour.

It turned out to be an epic tour and will be a topic for its own chanson de geste, but it could not erase the memory of my lost cannonball. It would be the Aurelian Wall itself that would resuscitate the deceased hope that I might achieve my quest after all.

Share

Oldest intact shipwreck found in Black Sea

October 28th, 2018

The long story and vertiginous conclusion of your faithful narrator’s two-day quest to get a picture of yet another random artifact will be soon told in (excessive) detail, but it’ll take me a while to get the pictures leading up to THE picture sorted, so while I’m winging over ocean I guess I’ll let the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project get a little attention. Its researchers have discovered the oldest known intact shipwreck, a merchant vessel of Greek design previously only seen on the side of Greek vases.

It was found a little over a mile below the surface of the dark, cold Black Sea, preserved in mind-boggling detail by the lack of oxygen and wood-devouring organism. The ship is 75 feet long and is resting comfortably on the sea floor complete with mast, rudders and rowing benches.

“A ship surviving intact from the classical world, lying in over 2km of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” said Professor Jon Adams, the principal investigator with the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP), the team that made the find. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.” […]

The team reportedly said they intended to leave the vessel where it was found, but added that a small piece had been carbon dated by the University of Southampton and claimed the results “confirmed [it] as the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind”. The team said the data would be published at the Black Sea MAP conference at the Wellcome Collection in London later this week.

With so much of it intact, the ship can be identified as the same type depicted on the Siren Vase in the British Museum. The Siren Vase, believed to have been found in the Etruscan necropolis of Vulci but made in Attica, dates to 480-470 B.C., the same period as the ship. It pictures Odysseus tied to the mast to resist the song of the sirens who surround him. Six oars are visible on the port side.

I can’t tell from the photo of the shipwreck how many oars it had, but it looks to me that there are seven or eight rowing benches extant, so very similar in size to the imaginary vessel on the vase. It’s pretty amazing to picture Odysseus’ rowers perched on those benches.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

November 2018
S M T W T F S
« Oct    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
252627282930  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication