Lost Mendelssohn song found in US

May 6th, 2014

An unpublished song written by Felix Mendelssohn that has been lost for 142 years has been found in the United States. The signed manuscript was discovered by the current owner among his grandfather’s papers. The grandfather was a musician and a Mendelssohn fan, but we don’t know how this unique piece of music made it to the States into his collection.

The song is a short 29 bars for alto voice and piano entitled Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht (A Man’s Heart Is Like a Mine). Mendelssohn wrote it in 1842, using the second stanza of the Friedrich Rückert poem Das Unveränderliche for lyrics. The verses describe the human heart as a mine that can produce precious metals or more utilitarian materials but can’t give anything that it doesn’t contain already. Rückert’s poems were very popular with composers like Schubert, Brahms and Mahler. There are more than 120 musical pieces set to his poetry.

This piece was a private commission from Johann Valentin Teichmann, a manager of Berlin’s Royal Theater who had lived in the Mendelssohn’s Berlin home from 1828 to 1831 when Felix was 19-22 years old. The Mendelssohns were a highly literature, cultured family who hosted a salon for artists at their house in Berlin for many years. Teichmann was part of this cultural community and worked closely with artists, playwrights, composers for decades in his management role at the Royal Theater.

Teichmann appears to have been too enthusiastic about the song for Mendelssohn’s taste. The composer wrote him a pointed letter on May 3rd, a few days after he had delivered the musical manuscript, asking Teichmann not to share the song with anyone else “because I have written it only at your request and only for you.” The letter lets him off the hook about having shown it already to one person, bookseller Wilhelm Besser. Mendelssohn says since the cat is already out of the bag that Teichmann can go ahead and give Besser a copy of the piece.

Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht was never played in public, nor even published. It was only known to scholars from records of its sale at two auctions in Leipzig, one in 1862 and another in 1872. After that second sale, it disappeared from the record, only to crop up across the Atlantic nearly a century and a half later. The letter Felix wrote to Teichmann was found with the manuscript.

The owner has put the autographed musical manuscript and the letter up for auction at Christie’s in London. The pre-sale estimate is £15,000 – £25,000 ($25,320 – $42,200).

Whoever buys it, they won’t be able to keep it secret like Mendelssohn wanted. Now that it’s been rediscovered, the music is public record and has in fact already been performed. Alto Amy Williamson and pianist Christopher Glynn had the honor of playing Mendelssohn’s song for its first public performance on BBC Today:

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Unique early 5th c. hoard found in Limburg

May 5th, 2014

A unique hoard buried in the early 5th century in a field in modern-day Echt, in the Netherlands’ southern Limburg province, has been excavated by archaeologists from VU University Amsterdam. The first glimmers of it appeared in 1990, when a farmer working his field found two gold coins. He inadvertently dropped one of them and although he searched frantically, he couldn’t find it again. Twenty-four years later in early 2014, the farmer and his nephew returned to the find site armed with a metal detector. They discovered five more gold coins and alerted the authorities.

University archaeologists excavated the rest of the hoard, getting a rare opportunity to examine the full archaeological context of a late Roman gold treasure. In fact, this is the first hoard from this period of Netherlands history to be thoroughly documented by archaeologists. The hoard is composed of one gold ring, one silver ingot, nine fragments cut from at least three large silverware plates and 12 gold coins, the most recent of which date to the reign of Emperor Constantine III (407-411 A.D.). They are in mint condition, which suggests the hoard was buried soon after 411 since the coins never had the time to get worn by circulation.

The pieces of silver tableware are what is known as hacksilver, artifacts made of precious metals that were cut up to be used as currency. One edge fragment testifies to what high level tableware it came from. It has a beaded rim and is engraved with a gilded horse and rider. The rider holds aloft a spear and the horse appears to be rearing over a lion, so archaeologists believe it was part of a larger hunting scene. Extrapolating from the curve of the outer edge of the fragment, the dish it came from would have been around 28 inches in diameter and weighed nearly five pounds. This kind of tableware was often used as diplomatic gifts to client chieftains or local dignitaries with whom Rome wished to curry favor, see the Traprain Law Hoard from East Lothian, Scotland for a famous example.

This is the first treasure found in the Netherlands to have both gold coins and hacksilver. The latter testifies to the political and economic upheaval of the time when the hoard was buried. The reason Rome was sending out elaborately decorated, expensive tableware to the far reaches of the empire was to buy protection of the borders. A Germanic war leader would get paid in a gilded silver plate more than two feet wide, then he would cut it up for its silver value and either keep it or distribute among his soldiers just like they would any other currency.

The date of this hoard was a particularly dangerous time in the area. Many historians point to the year 406, the year of the Battle of Mainz, as the final nail in the coffin of Roman control of the Rhineland. Germanic tribes, among them the Alans, Suevi and Vandals, defeated the Franks and crossed the border of the Rhine into Gaul. Constantine III may not have been able to keep the migrating tribes out of Roman territory, but he did make some effort. Historian at the time record him distributing gold to Germanic chieftains so they would defend the Rhine border in absence of army regulars. A study of gold finds in the Netherlands support the contention, as there is a remarkable concentration of gold from the reign of Constantine III.

The owner of the Echt hoard may have been the recipient of one of these pay-offs. Constatine III was defeated in battle and executed by his successor, Constantius, in 411. In the subsequent crisis, the hoard owner may have felt the need to bury the shiny new coins and hacked up fancy silverware the former emperor had given him. He seems to have unloaded it on the gods instead.
 
Thanks to the in-context excavation, we know that the shallow pit in which the treasure was buried is the only place in the area where late Roman artifacts have been found. Other archaeological material has been found in neighboring fields, but not Roman pieces from the early 5th century. This indicates there was no settlement or human habitation of the area during that period. Instead, it seems the treasure was deliberately buried in this out-of-the way spot, a marshy, uninhabited lowland perfectly suited for a ritual burial. Had the hoard been buried with the intent of retrieval, it would have been found near a settlement some place where it could rediscovered with relative ease.

The hoard is now on display in the From Neanderthal to City Dwellers gallery of the Limburgs Museum in Venlo.

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Van Dyck self-portrait acquired by National Portrait Gallery

May 4th, 2014

In December of 2009, Sir Anthony van Dyck’s last self-portrait sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking £8,329,250 ($13,521,704) to collector Alfred Bader and art dealer Philip Mould. Painted in England by the artist shortly before his death in 1641, the portrait is considered one of the finest he ever made and it is almost certainly the only self-portrait likely to come up for public sale in our lifetimes. Before it was sold in 2009, the last time it was on the market was 1712. Even though van Dyck worked for 10 years in England, becoming the pre-eminent court painter and receiving a knighthood from his patron King Charles I, there were no Van Dyck self-portraits in a British public collection.

Thanks to a massive fundraising effort and the contributions of people from all over the world, the National Portrait Gallery has now broken the streak and acquired the 1641 self-portrait. It took a lot of doing. When the portrait came up for sale in 2009, the NPG did not have the funds to join in the raucous bidding that established the new record for a Van Dyck painting. In 2010, Bader and Mould offered the work to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate for £9.5 million ($16,000,000). The museums put their heads together and tried to find a way to save the masterpiece for the nation, but even with a generous grant from the Art Fund, the total was far out of reach. None of the other possible grant sources were able to contribute, and with the economy still so sluggish, the NPG and Tate didn’t think a public fundraising appeal would be able to generate the millions of pounds necessary.

They would get one last crack at the apple. In 2013, Bader and Mould arranged a private sale of the portrait to mining and gaming billionaire, financier and art collector James Stunt, son-in-law of Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, for £12.5 million ($21,000,000). Stunt is British but for much of the year he and his wife live in the insanely huge Los Angeles mansion that once belonged to Aaron Spelling, so he had to apply for an export license to take the portrait to the US. Recognizing the unique importance of the self-portrait, the UK put a three-month export ban on it to give British institutions the chance to prove they could raise the money to buy it back for the nation.

This time the National Portrait Gallery launched a nation-wide fundraising appeal with the immediate goal of raising enough money by the time the export ban was set to expire in mid-February to buy them a little more time. Seeded with a £500,000 ($843,700) grant from the Art Fund and £700,000 ($1,180,000) from the NPG’s acquisition budget, the appeal took off. By the end of January, the effort had raised an impressive £3.2 million ($5,400,000), enough to prove they had a real fighting chance of raising the full sum if given enough time, and so the export ban was extended another five months.

In March, seeing the passionate involvement of the public in the ultimate disposition of the painting, Stunt decided to withdraw his export license application. The painting was then offered to the National Portrait Gallery for £10 million ($16,874,000), a generous boost to the fundraising effort.

“When I agreed to buy this great portrait I didn’t expect the huge swell of public opinion and the strength of emotion its export would generate,” said Stunt, who had planned to hang the portrait in his Los Angeles home.

He added that he had “carefully reconsidered” his position and hoped that his withdrawal, together with the reduced price, would see the appeal succeed.

His hope was not in vain. On May 1st, the National Portrait Gallery announced that the appeal had succeeded. Thanks to £1.44 million ($2,430,000) in donations from more than 10,000 individuals, plus £1.2 million ($2,025,000) donated by two private trusts and the coup de grâce, a £6,343,500 ($10,704,000) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Van Dyck self-portrait was saved for the nation. They also raised an additional £343,000 ($580,000) to fund a national tour of the painting.

The portrait, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, will remain there until August 31st. It will then be removed from public view while conservators assess its condition and experts research its history. Starting in January of 2015, the portrait will tour museums and galleries around the UK for three years.

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Louvre and Prado Mona Lisas as stereoscopic image

May 3rd, 2014

Two years ago, the Prado Museum in Madrid announced that a painting long thought to be a relatively unremarkable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was actually painted contemporaneously with the original, likely by a student following the master as he drew and painted the portrait. Infrared reflectography found that the 18th century black overpaint obscured a hilly background almost the same as the original. When the black overpaint and varnish were removed from the Prado’s copy, further infrared and X-ray analysis found underdrawings and alterations from the tracing and all the way through the upper paint levels that matched those in 2004 scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa. That means from the initial sketches to the changes and corrections as painting progressed, the Prado copy followed along at each stage.

That’s not to say they’re identical, even underneath the cracked and yellowed varnish that darkens and discolors the original. Two German researchers studied both paintings, selecting landmark points (like the tip of her nose, say, or a particular feature in the mountains) and mapping the path from the landmarks to the observer’s sight line. These trajectories tracked perspective changes between the two versions.

They found that the background of the Prado painting, while virtually identical in shape, is 10% more zoomed in than the Louvre version’s. The expansion doesn’t follow a perspectival pattern you’d expect if the landscape were painted from life, which suggests the mountains in the background and the loggia right behind her were painted from a flat studio backdrop. The trajectories illustrated a number of perspective changes in the painting of the figure, particularly dense in Mona Lisa’s hands and head.

With the comparative perspective data, the researchers were able to calculate the positions of the canvases relative to the sitter and then they made a model of Leonardo’s studio during the painting of the Mona Lisa with Playmobil minifigs.

The original (labeled 1st) is further back and to the right of the Prado copy, and the horizontal distance between the versions is about 69.3 millimeters. The average distance between the eyes of Italian males is 64.1mm, a statistically insignificant difference which suggested to the researchers the possibility that the two paintings might have been deliberately positioned to be a stereoscopic pair which when viewed together give the impression of three dimensions

Carbon points out that Da Vinci “intensively worked on the 3D issue.” In addition, in inventory lists there were hints of the existence of two “Mona Lisa” paintings on his property at the same time, and that he owned colored spectacles, Carbon said.

This evidence “might indicate that he did not only [think] about the 3D issue theoretically but in a very practical sense in terms of experiments,” Carbon added. Also, when looking at the original colors of the two paintings the only real difference was in the sleeves, in which they are reddish in one version and greenish in the other. “This could be a hint to Leonardo’s approach to look at the two La Giocondas through red-green (red-cyan) spectacles,” he said, similar to those one might don to watch a 3D movie.

That’s a lot of speculation and there are significant counterpoints refuting this hypothesis. The hands work as a stereoscopic pair because the trajectory differences are horizontal. Most of the trajectories on the upper portion of Mona Lisa’s body like her face and hair have a vertical orientation. Still, Leonardo did write about binocular vision and depth perception, so it’s possible he had some idea there could be a dimensional payoff in the positioning of the two canvases.

You can read the whole paper here (pdf) to get the fully fleshed out argument with math and everything. It could all be pure imagination and it would be worth it for the minifig studio alone, as far as I’m concerned.

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London on film, now and then

May 2nd, 2014

Last year when I posted about Claude Friese-Greene’s rare natural color films of Britain in the mid-1920s restored and preserved by the British Film Institute, one of the commenters (hi Karen!) noted that she kept looking up locations in the period film on Google Maps to compare what they look like now to what they looked like 90 or so years ago. Someone else had a similar idea, only he kept to the same medium.

Short film director Simon Smith spent much of 2013 following in Claude Friese-Greene’s footsteps. Smith took modern versions of the Biocolour camera and with an impressive attention to detail, placed himself precisely where Friese-Greene had shot his scenes of London in 1927 at the end of his three-year cross-country journey. The result is a side-by-side before-and-after view of London in 1927 and in 2013.

The shooting angles are so well-matched, even where there are more street lanes or a completely different skyline. It’s remarkable how similar old and new London vistas are despite all the new construction.

Simon Smith didn’t stop at Friese-Greene’s film. Next he turned to another film in the BFI National Archive, Wonderful London, filmed in 1924 by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller. Parkinson was General Manager of Master Films, a production company that focused on creating cheap, short melodramas, romances and action pictures until 1924 when the company folded. Parkinson and Miller had worked together before on Master Films’ 1922 anthology Tense Moments from Famous Plays, which I would dearly love to see because it sounds awesome.

(I would also do unspeakable things to see Parkinson’s unreleased 1928 The Life Story of Charlie Chaplin, a pictorial history of Charlie’s poor childhood on the streets of London. Parkinson shot the neighborhoods Chaplin grew up in, the schools he went to, old music hall artists young Charlie performed with, and contrasted them with his luxurious accommodations at The Ritz during his triumphant 1921 return to the London of his youth. Apparently the movie was never released because Chaplin got wind of it and prevented its distribution. The original film was discovered in the attic of one of Parkinson’s relatives in 1997 and sold at Christie’s for $28,552. As far as I can tell, whoever bought it has not published it. Boo!)

After Master Films went out of business, Parkinson and Miller focused on travelogue shorts, starting strong with Wonderful London, a series of 20 short films each about 10 minutes long that capture London’s lesser known attractions and non-touristy neighborhoods along with the famous sights.

This time, Smith went for a more unusual approach. Instead of the side-by-side, he embeds the 1924 film into the middle of the modern scenes he shot to match. It’s eerie and cool to see the modern world blend into the sepia world like someone opened a rift in space-time. I do miss the split screen in one way, though: I wish I could see the entirety of the 1924 footage instead of just a little chunk of it amidst the London of today.

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Exact 3D replica of King Tut’s tomb opens

May 1st, 2014

An exact 3D facsimile of King Tutankhamun’s tomb opened outside the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Wednesday. This ground-breaking approach to heritage preservation and sustainable tourism has been a long time in the making. Zahi Hawass was still in charge in November of 2008 when the Supreme Council of Antiquities approved a project to thoroughly document and reproduce three endangered tombs in the Valley of the Kings, those of Seti I, Queen Nefertari and Tutankhamun. Seti’s and Nefertari’s were already closed to the public due to their precarious conditions. King Tut’s was and is in grave danger from the changes in temperature and humidity caused by up to 1,000 tourists visiting the tiny burial chamber daily. For its own good, Tut’s tomb is going to have to be closed too, and in fact should already be closed. Only its value to the tourist trade is keeping it open right now.

Madrid-based Factum Arte, which as early as 2001 was studying the tombs and developing technology specifically for scanning them, began work on the tomb of Tutankhamun in March, 2009. Over the course of five weeks, the FA team scanned the walls, ceiling and sarcophagus using a low intensity red light laser 3D laser scanner that captures the surface at 100 micron resolution with 100 million independently measured points per square meter, the highest resolution ever reached on such a large scale. The mechanics of this scanner made it impossible to record the entirety of the cramped tomb with it, so a white light 3D scanner with a resolution of 250 to 700 microns was brought in to scan the entire burial chamber and sarcophagus. The space was then photographed using low level cold lights to take pictures of the reliefs at a 1:1 ratio. The last step was a close analytical observational study of the surface.

When the recording of the tomb was complete in May, Factum Arte took the data back to its facilities in Madrid where the team set to work analyzing the 3D data and the high resolution images, running routing tests and ensuring exact color matching using samples from the tomb. The reliefs were routed out of panels made from low-density polyurethane resin. The tiles were then put together in sections and cast with a rigid backing. The paintings on the tomb surface were applied with an adhesive transfer. The first attempt failed because the elastic material resisted settling into the 3D surface, so in 2012 the team devised a new thinner elastic material that is held in place with a low contact adhesive and then cured under pressure in a vacuum bag. The result was not only perfectly sealed, but the print quality improved significantly.

Meanwhile, political upheaval in Egypt blocked the final implementation of the plan. The facsimile tomb would be stuck in limbo in Madrid until November of 2012 when it finally made its way to Cairo to mark the 90th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The facsimile was set up in a covered outdoor space in Cairo’s Conrad Hotel. You can see the walls go up in this video:

Now the final stage of the project has been completed. The replica tomb of Tutankhamun has been built next to the house of Howard Carter at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

The replica tomb was so accurate that some Tutankhamun experts among the Egyptologists and dignitaries burst into tears while attending the opening in Luxor today.

“We are not talking virtual reality, it is a physical reality,” Mr Lowe told The Independent from Egypt. “To have an emotional response to something you know to be a copy is an extraordinary moment.”

The hope is that tourists will have the same reaction so they won’t mind having to make do with the facsimile when Tut’s real tomb is closed. There are great advantages to the replica, like museum-style information and the ability to get close to the surfaces. A replica of the pre-historic Lascaux cave in France has been a smashing success, attracting 10 million visitors since it opened in 1983, and it doesn’t have the benefit of high resolution, 3D laser-scanned reproduction. Egyptian authorities plan to ease into the replacement, keeping the original tomb open for now but gradually reducing the number of people allowed in.

A 30-minute special on the replica tomb will air on BBC2 Friday and BBC News Saturday. Here’s a video explaining the scanning and printing process from Factum Arte:

This is raw footage of the production of the replica, from software combining the laser scanning data with the digital photography to the printers carving out panels of the tomb with a router:

Here is a very long, silent video journey through the photographic data, but if you’d like to explore the high resolution photography of the walls without having to sit through all that, Factum Arte’s website has an excellent Flash viewer that allows you to zoom in wherever you’d like and even compare the photography to the laser scanned relief. Click the up arrow at the bottom of the window to navigate between the four walls, the pictures and the scans. The level of detail is truly something to behold.

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18th c. Chinese wallpaper found at Woburn Abbey

April 30th, 2014

Conservators at Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, have found one of the oldest pieces of Chinese wallpaper in Britain hidden under multiple layers of newer wallpaper. Historic interiors expert Lucy Johnson was researching the decoration of the 4th Duke’s private bedchamber at the behest of the current Duchess of Bedford when she found an invoice from 1752 detailing the purchase of “India” paper, its cost and description. “India” was used as a generic reference to imports from Asia which were brought to England by the East India Company. Johnson also found a reference in the archives to a decorating firm with the excellent name of Crompton and Spinnage having hung India paper in the Duke’s bedroom in 1752.

With the archival evidence pointing to a possible treasure behind the wall coverings in the 4th Duke’s bedchamber, the Woburn Abbey team set about carefully stripping the built up layers in the hope that the first Chinese paper might still be there underneath. Small fragments were found during work in June, but in December they hit the motherlode: a large scene of a male silver pheasant surrounded by pink tree peonies and other flowers and a small bird in the lower left.

The decoration was hand-painted in Canton. The outlines were printed with engraved woodblocks and then colored in by hand with watercolors and gouache. The flora and fauna while native in China would have been exotic novelties in Britain. The fragment is one of the four earliest examples of Chinese wallpaper exported to Europe and it’s the best preserved of the four. Of the three other examples, one had to be extensively restored, once was overpainted and one is very small. The Woburn Abbey piece was covered up only thirty years after it was first hung, so the colors are still bright.

John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford, died in 1771. Within a decade or so after his death, his bedroom was converted to a staff room. The elegant Chinese paper was covered with a modest black-and-white block printed distemper paper. A renovation from the 1840s or 50s hung another block printed distemper paper, this one made by machine. The product was inexpensive and indication of the low status of the once-splendid room.

In 1955 Woburn Abbey opened to the public for the first time. The Duke’s former bedroom was converted to the visitor’s entrance and was renamed The Red Souvenir Room. A red embossed flock on pint moiré silk wall covering was installed over the old staff room wallpaper.

It went back to being the 4th Duke’s bedroom in 1977, when a set of 17th century Mortlake tapestries were hung on the walls and the room was redecorated to look like a proper bedroom. It still didn’t look anything like it had when the 4th Duke actually lived there, though.

Now that the all the layers have been exposed, the bedroom is the centerpiece of new exhibition, Peeling Back the Years: Chinese Wallpaper at Woburn Abbey.

The Duke’s private bedroom has been left in its ‘investigative state’ with the various layers of wallpaper on display alongside original documents and items used to make and preserve Chinese wallpaper today.

Visitors can then follow the trail upstairs to the brightly coloured Chinese room with floor to ceiling Chinese wallpaper dating back 1820. [...]

Within the house trail a selection of Chinese related artworks reflecting the collecting tastes of the Duke of Bedford chart the progression through the different rooms and periods. Outside in the gardens the second trail links to the depictions in both the 18th and 19th century wallpaper.

Next to the fragment of the original wallpaper in the Duke’s bedroom is a reproduction of how the whole wall would have looked when it was new. The repro was custom-made for the exhibition using traditional methods and materials in China.

The exhibition and garden trails will be open until September 28th.

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Madrid begins search for Cervantes’ remains

April 29th, 2014

Researchers in Spain have begun the search for the remains of literary icon Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Although Don Quixote, today considered the first modern Western novel, was recognized as a pioneering masterpiece as soon as the first volume was published in 1605, its author’s mortal remains rest in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid.

It wasn’t always thus. After his death on April 22nd, 1616, Cervantes was laid to rest in the convent in a properly marked grave. The author left instructions in his will that he be buried in the convent which had been built just four years earlier in 1612. It happened to have been built near his home, but that wasn’t the reason for his selection. Cervantes had a deep bond of gratitude tying him to the Trinitarian order.

In 1571, the 24-year-old Miguel de Cervantes, then traveling in Italy, joined the Spanish army. He was a soldier in the company of Captain Diego Urbina on the galley Marquesa when he fought in one of the seminal battles of European history: the Battle of Lepanto, a naval battle between the Holy League of several European countries and the Ottoman Empire that took place on October 7th, 1571, in the Gulf of Corinth.

According to a contemporary report, Cervantes showed great bravery. He was ill with a fever, but refused to stay below deck. He insisted that he would rather fight and die for king and God rather than be safe and hide. In the course of the battle he was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in his left arm. The latter broke both the radius and ulna and severed a nerve, leaving his left arm almost entirely without movement.

He convalesced for six months and then reupped, fighting in several Mediterranean battles. In September of 1575, his ship, the Sol, was attacked by Algerian pirates and he was taken captive. For five years he was a slave in Algiers. He led four unsuccessful escape attempts before he was finally ransomed in 1580. His family was nearly bankrupted raising the funds to free him and his younger brother Rodrigo, and they wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of the Trinitarians. The Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives was founded in the late 12th century with the ransoming of Christians captured during crusades and by non-Christian pirates as one of its pillars.

Cervantes never forgot the service the Trinitarians did him and his family. That’s why he chose to spend eternity in the embrace of the Trinitarian convent. Unfortunately eternity was interrupted in 1673 when the convent was rebuilt and expanded by architect Marcos Lopez. Cervantes’ remains and those of the other dignitaries buried there were removed during construction and reinterred in the new church, only this time the graves weren’t marked.

The city would benefit financially from tourists being able to visit the grave of Spain’s greatest writer, but that’s not its sole motivation in funding a search for his remains.

“Why search for the remains of Miguel de Cervantes? Because he is a figure of worldwide importance. Because all humanity is in his debt. And because we have the opportunity and the technology capable of finding those remains, removing them from an anonymous grave and covering them with a memorial stone,” said Fernando de Pardo, the historian in charge of the project.
“He has given us so much, we are going to try at least to do something by putting his name on a stone to differentiate it from a nameless tomb.”

On Monday, the dozen cloistered nuns who live in the convent separate from all contact with outsiders made way for technicians from Falcon High Tech to begin a sweep of the foundations and walls with ground-penetrating radar and infrared scans. A previous GPR sweep in 2011 bore no fruit. The hope is that this time new magnetic impulse technology will penetrate further and provide more detailed results illuminating the location of grave cavities within the structure.

At least 15 people are known to have been buried in the convent, two of them close to Cervantes, so even if remains are discovered there’s no guarantee they’ll be those of the author, or that it will even be possible to pick out his from a potential bone jumble. His war wounds and dental damage will be instrumental to identification. The shots from an arquebus (a muzzle-loaded, smoothbore longarm firearm that was a precursor to the musket and rifle) can’t help but have left evidence of their presence in his chest and left arm.

As for his unfortunate teeth, we have his own words to go by. Here’s how the author describes himself in the author’s preface of Exemplary Novels:

an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, and silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustaches, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted….

There are no confirmed portraits of Cervantes from life. Cervantes mentions a portrait of him by Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar in the Exemplary Novels and there is a painting that claims to be of Cervantes that was attributed to Jauregui in the past, but modern scholarship doesn’t accept the attribution. Some people think this El Greco portrait from ca. 1605 may be of Cervantes, but the only evidence is that he was in Toledo around the time the portrait was painted and had friends in common with El Greco.

Researchers hope that if they do find the remains, they might be able to do a facial reconstruction to give us our first confirmed portrait of Miguel de Cervantes.

There are several obstacles to overcome before they get to that point, however. First, they have to find viable results from the radar sweep. After three weeks of careful analysis, those results will be presented to Madrid’s city hall where they will decide whether there is enough evidence to break ground on an archaeological excavation. They have the permission of the Trinitarians to proceed with excavations should it get to that point.

If researchers do get extra lucky and manage to find the remains of Cervantes, after analysis they will be reinterred in the convent as per her final wishes. This time, however, there’s going to be a monument involved, or at least a plaque.

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Picasso curtain at Four Seasons restaurant in danger

April 28th, 2014

A 19-by-20-foot stage curtain painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 that now hangs in the Four Seasons Restaurant (no relation to the hotel) is in danger. RFR Holding, owners of the historic Seagram Building since 2000, want to take the painting down, ostensibly because the travertine wall it hangs on has suffered structural damage, but only their engineers think the wall is structurally unsound and removing the fragile curtain is far more likely to damage it than errant stone facing becoming unmoored and tearing through the fabric.

The Picasso curtain was a front cloth for a production of Le Tricorne by the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev which premiered on July 22nd, 1919, at London’s Alhambra Theatre. Based on a novella by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and with music by Manuel de Falla, the ballet tells the story of a miller and his wife who get playful revenge on the lecherous governor who hit on the wife and tried to have the miller arrested. Falla had written El corregidor y la molinera, a two-scene pantomime of the novella, during World War I. It was a popular and critical success. Diaghilev and Ballets Russes dancer/choreographer Léonide Massine saw the show in Madrid in May of 1917 and felt it could be developed into a full-length Spanish ballet.

The Ballets Russes began their second season of performances in Spain in June. During the season, Falla took Massine and Diaghilev to see the best flamenco dancers in the city. That summer most of the troupe toured South America while Massine and Diaghilev traveled around Spain, absorbing the music and dance and working together on Le Tricorne. Pablo Picasso, who had already collaborated with the Ballets Russes on the ballet Parade, music by Erik Satie, scenario by Jean Cocteau, in 1916-7, worked with them on the Spanish ballet. One of the Ballets Russes dancers, Olga Khokhlova, quit before the troupe went to South America and traveled to Barcelona with Picasso. Within a year Picasso and Khokhlova would be married.

During their time in Spain, Léonide Massine hired Félix Fernández García, a flamenco dancer from Seville, to teach him the footwork. Fernández García expected to dance the lead in the production and indeed traveled with the troupe to London, but he found out from the advertising posters that Massine would be dancing the part of the Miller. His reaction to the bad news was to start carrying a ticking metronome with him everywhere he went. When one night he was found dancing naked on the altar of the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, Fernández García was committed to Long Grove Hospital for insanity. He would remain institutionalized at Long Grove until his death in 1941. In a creepy twist, after his institutionalization Diaghilev had García declared dead in Spain in 1919.

Picasso joined the troupe in London to finish his work on the sets and costumes. He made the drop curtain in a paint studio on Floral Street, Covent Garden, over the course of three weeks. The curtain hung in front of the stage during the overture the first major number after which it was raised to reveal the set pieces. In keeping with the ballet’s focus on Spanish culture, Picasso chose to depict a scene at a bullfighting ring even though there is no bullfight in the story.

Diaghilev kept the curtain after the show was over. Less than a decade later in 1928. he cut off the marbleized paper edges and sold the painted center to Swiss collector G. F. Reber. In 1957 it was purchased for $50,000 by Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram owner Samuel Bronfman. When her father asked to help decorate the Seagram Building, she and architect Philip Johnson chose the dramatic Le Tricorne for what would become known as Picasso Alley, the hallway connecting the Four Seasons’ two dining rooms, the pool room and the grill room.

In 2005, the painting was donated to the New York Landmarks Conservancy by Vivendi Universal, then owners of the Seagram company, on the condition that the curtain remain in situ at the Four Seasons. The Seagram Building and the Four Seasons restaurant were given landmark status in 1989, but because in theory the Picasso curtain is moveable, it isn’t covered by landmark protections. This became an acute problem in November of 2013 when the Landmarks Conservancy got a call from Aby Rosen, co-founder of RFR, claiming there was a steam leak in the wall and they’d have to take down the painting to repair it. When asked for the engineer’s report, Rosen replied there was none.

Next the Landmarks Conservancy received a letter from RFR on December 20th telling them work on the wall would begin the first week in January. This time there was an engineer’s report — no mention of a steam leak, just of the tiles moving a half-inch indicating structural issues — but when the LC sent their experts to assess the soundness of the wall, their findings were significantly different. Although they also found some tiles had moved, the amount of the movement was much less and fewer tiles were affected.

Finally a plan was in place to take down the curtain at 3:00 AM on February 9th so as not to disturb diners at the Four Seasons. The Conservancy rushed to court to get a temporary restraining order blocking the move which according to RFR’s lawyer involved rolling the fragile canvas up “one click at a time” and putting it in a rented van. Even the art mover admitted the curtain might “crack like a potato chip” in the process. Less than two days before the planned move, the court issued the restraining order.

The owners of the Seagram Building stunned the judge by arguing they can just replace the famed artist’s work if anything happened to it.

“If we break it, we buy it,” lawyer Andrew Kratenstein told Justice Matthew Cooper’s clerk outside the courtroom.

There aren’t enough eyes to roll over that one. The curtain is obviously not replaceable being a unique work by a dead master. That they would even attempt such an argument underscores that they really don’t care what happens to the painting. Rosen was heard referring to the curtain as a “schmatte,” meaning “rag” in Yiddish. The engineering claims are barely believable, so what seems to be going on here is that Rosen wants to put some of the art he likes — he’s an avid collector of works by artists like Jeff Coons and Damien Hirst — in the space currently occupied by the largest Picasso in the country.

The restraining order is still in place, having been extended several times. The Conservancy has asked for an injunction preventing the removal of the curtain. The court will hear arguments from experts on April 30th and May 1st, after which Judge Carol Edmead will rule on the request. They’re buying time, basically. The larger legal question of whether the Conservancy can stop the owners of the building from doing whatever they want to their property is a thornier problem.

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Wreck of City of Chester found in San Francisco Bay

April 27th, 2014

The wreck of the City of Chester, a steamship that sank with much loss of life in August 22, 1888, has been rediscovered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The ship was found in May of last year during a sonar survey of another shipwreck. The Office of Coast Survey Navigational Response Team 6 was scanning the wreck of the Fernstream, a freighter that went down in 1952. While they were in the neighborhood, NOAA director of maritime heritage James Delgado asked the team to look for the City of Chester.

After working with historic data provided by NOAA historians, the Coast Survey team conducted a multi-beam sonar survey and a sonar target the right size and shape was found. The team spent nearly nine months sorting through the data. A follow-up side-scan sonar survey confirmed that the target was City of Chester, sitting upright, shrouded in mud, 216 feet deep at the edge of a small undersea shoal. High-resolution sonar imagery clearly defined the hull, rising some 18 feet from the seabed, and the fatal gash on the vessel’s port side.

The wreck won’t be salvaged or interfered with in any way –it’s a protected grave site owned by the state of California — but its rediscovery will be a central feature of an upcoming exhibition at the historic Coast Guard Station on Crissy Field, on the northeast shore of the Presidio.

The story of the City of Chester provides a glimpse into a fraught period in US, particularly California, history. Headed for Eureka, California, the steamship hit a fog bank on its way out of San Francisco Bay. It slowed down and sounded the whistle at regular intervals to alert any other ships in the area and soon received a whistle response from another ship, the Oceanic, a steamship twice Chester‘s size. According to news accounts of the shipwreck, Oceanic sent a double whistle signal, indicating the ships should pass each other on the starboard side, and the Chester acknowledged with a double whistle reply. However, the Chester, either because the signals were misunderstood or because the tides drove it off-course, made for the port side of Oceanic.

They were already just half a mile apart when they became aware of each other’s presence; there was no time to avoid disaster. Oceanic plowed into the smaller ship, impaling it on its bow. The impact knocked some passengers directly into the water. Others were pulled up onto the Oceanic from the Chester deck. A few people were able to make it onto boats launched by the Chester in the six minutes it was still above the water after the collision. Oceanic sent down rescue boats of its own and threw life preservers to the survivors struggling in the cold, rough waters of the bay. Out of the 106 passengers and crew on the Chester manifest, 16 died, two of them small children.

It was the worst loss of life in the San Francisco Bay until 1901 when the City of Rio de Janeiro hit a reef and 123 people were lost. Because the Oceanic was coming from Japan and had some Asian crew (judging from the names, the officers were all Anglo) and because the question of Chinese immigration was on fire in the 1880s, there was some ugly racial commentary in the wake of the tragedy. John Walker, an able seaman (that’s a position, not a value judgment) on the Chester who was the first to emerge on the wharf after his rescue, told reporters:

“On the Oceanic the Chinese crew seemingly became terror-stricken as soon as the accident occurred, and much time was lost in the lowering boats of the latter steamer. If the crew had been white, there would have been more lives saved. Finally the boats of the Oceanic were lowered and did good work picking up those who were floating in the bay, sustaining themselves on life-preservers and bits of wreckage.”

That wasn’t necessarily the dominant narrative, however. Several articles credit the courage of a Chinese passenger on the Oceanic who rescued a little girl from the waves and held her, sitting astride a capsized lifeboat, until help came. Here’s a particularly telling account in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union of August 24, 1888:

A GALLANT CHINAMAN.

How a Mongolian Sailor Rescued a Baby from a Watery Grave

The conduct of Ah Lun, the Chinese sailor spoken of by Captain Metcalf as the rescuer of a little baby, is described by those who saw the incident as courageous in the extreme. Ah Lun was in a boat with three other Mongolians, and among the debris he discovered the head of a child. Throwing down his oar, he dived in after the little one, and then, after swimming for some distance, succeeded in reaching her. A few strokes brought him to the boat, which had been capsized in the whirlpool formed by the sinking steamer, and, climbing on the keel, he placed the child in such a position that the salt water was forced out of her mouth.

A few moments afterward he was taken off and brought on deck, where a mother was waiting to claim the little one. It was then discovered that Ah Lun had sustained many bruises and lacerations, his legs and arms being cut and scratched severely.

Deputy Surveyor Fogarty was specially delighted with the conduct of the Chinaman, who it appears, is an old acquaintance of his. When the urbane Deputy reached the deck the Chinaman accosted him, and after receiving his congratulations asked if he did not think he ought to be allowed to go on shore, though he was not a certificated man. Fogarty assured him that if it was in his power to let him, he would be made an American citizen without delay.

“If ever a Mongolian deserved to be habeased corpused,” said Mr. Forgarty to a Call reporter, “I think Ah Lun is the man.”

Ah Lun not being a “certificated man” who nonetheless deserves to be “habeased corpused” is a reference the legal chaos that followed the United States’ first law blocking one particular ethnic group from immigration: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act prohibited Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, and miners from entering the country for 10 years. Only a few categories of professionals like merchants were allowed entry, and they had to secure a “section 6 certificate” from the Chinese government attesting to their occupation. Chinese immigrants who already lived in the United States were prohibited entry to the US without an identity document known as a return certificate. It also excluded Chinese immigrants from applying for US citizenship.

In practice, enforcing this law was a monster problem for the courts. The Act contradicted the terms of an 1880 treaty between China and the United States, and there were thousands of people who fell through the cracks of the return certificate system. If they were out of the country, traveling back home to see family, perhaps, when the law was passed, then obviously there was no way for them to have secured the return certificate or the section 6 certificate before it was invented.

With anti-Chinese sentiment so thoroughly entrenched in San Francisco politics, the collector of the port, the political appointee responsible for enforcing the Exclusion Act, denied entry to anyone lacking the certificates, even if securing them was a complete impossibility short of inventing a time machine. When they were refused entry into San Francisco, the Chinese filed writs of habeas corpus in federal court on the grounds that they were being illegally detained on their ships.

So that’s what Ah Lun was talking about when he asked Fogarty if he could be allowed on shore despite not being a “certificated man,” and when Fogarty said he deserved to be “habeased corpused,” or released from confinement aboard ship so he could return to his San Francisco home. As the deputy surveyor, Fogarty would have had some involvement in these court cases. The surveyor and deputy surveyor were part of the U.S. Attorney’s team in at least one very high-profile habeas corpus writ which eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. It was ultimately decided in favor of the petitioner, Chew Heong, on treaty grounds and because he had left the country in 1881, before the Act was passed. The decision also confirmed the citizenship of anyone born in the United States, including the children of Chinese immigrants.

Even as more amendments were tacked on to the Exclusion Act to make it ever more exclusionary, the habeas corpus petitions kept coming, so much so that they clogged the docket of federal judges and ground the system to a near-halt. By the end of the decade, more than 7,000 habeas corpus writs had been filed in the California district court alone.

In 1888, the Chinese government, sick of the treaty violations and horrified by violence against Chinese immigrant communities like the 1885 Rock Springs massacre in which 28 Chinese miners were killed and hundreds forced to flee for their lives by a mob of 150 white miners and railroad workers, negotiated a new treaty with the US. The Bayard-Zhang Treaty of March, 1888, prohibited immigration or return of Chinese laborers for 20 years. The only exceptions were for people who had assets of at least $1,000 or immediate family living in the US.

The treaty was not well-received in China, and the government began to back away from ratification unless the chains were loosened a little bit. Meanwhile, it still wasn’t draconian enough for the Americans, so in October of 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, a supplement to the Exclusion Act that locked the door tight.

Terms of Scott Act:

SEC. 1. It shall be unlawful for any chinese laborer who shall at any time heretofore have been, or who may now or hereafter be, a resident within the United States, and who shall have departed, or shall depart, therefrom, and shall not have returned before the passage of this act, to return to, or remain in, the United States.

SEC. 2. That no certificates of identity . . . shall hereafter be issued; and every certificate heretofore issued in pursuance thereof, is hereby declared void and of no effect, and the chinese laborer claiming admission by virtue thereof shall not be permitted to enter the United States.

When the Scott Act came before the Supreme Court the next year, the decision went entirely the opposite way from the 1884 case. It was unanimously upheld. Chinese Exclusion continued to be the law of the land, with regular amendments over the years, until World War II.

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