Letters reveal mysterious final illness of Oscar Wilde’s wife

January 5th, 2015

Constance Lloyd, photographed in Heidelberg in 1896 when she was 36 years oldConstance Lloyd, wife of Oscar Wilde and mother of his two sons, was just 39 years old when she died. It was a botched gynecological operation that claimed her life, but for ten years before that she had suffered from a neurological disorder that hasn’t been identified. Now Merlin Holland, son of Constance and Oscar’s youngest son Vyvyan, has found key evidence in some of her private letters to her brother Otho.

Constance was an accomplished woman in her own right. She was a published author of children’s books and an advocate for dress reform and women’s rights. After the disaster of Wilde’s 1895 criminal libel action against John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, father of his feckless idiot of a lover Alfred Douglas, for accusing him of sodomy and Wilde’s subsequent conviction and imprisonment for homosexual acts, Constance took the kids, changed their last name to Holland, and fled to the continent. They wound up in a small town outside Genoa, a location that would prove fateful since it put her in close proximity to Italian obstetrician and gynecologist Luigi Maria Bossi.

Bossi dilatorLuigi Maria Bossi was appointed to the first professorship of gynecology in Italy in 1887. He invented a four-pronged dilator to dilate the cervix and speed up delivery in women with eclampsia and other dangerous conditions. The Bossi uterine dilator was an effective device, dilating the cervix in a matter of minutes and giving patients a chance to survive and heal from complications that were often fatal to mother and infant without having to risk surgery, infection and permanent damage to the reproductive organs.

He also opened an ob/gyn clinic in Genoa that reserved half the beds for poor women in labour, was vociferously opposed to the then-common idea that uterine cancer was contagious and advocated that women with tuberculosis not be compelled to terminate their pregnancies. He founded two gynecology and obstetrics journals, one for doctors and one for midwives.

"Manual of Obstectrics for Midwives" by Luigi Bossi, 1913So he wasn’t a total quack, but he had … issues. In 1918 he was suspended from practice at the Institute for Gynecology and Obstetrics of the University of Genoa for two years over a question of “moral character,” which, considering that the next year he would be murdered by the husband of one of his patients, seems likely to have been a grossly unethical personal relationship with a patient (or several patients). Most relevant to his treatment of Constance Lloyd, Bossi was a dedicated proponent of the theory that women’s nervous problems — symptoms including tremors, aches and pains, fainting spells, shortness of breath, fatigue — were caused by their lady parts. Her “neuralgia,” mobility problems, exhaustion and all the rest were symptoms of uterine disorder and the cure for it was to be found in her reproductive organs.

Dr. Swift curing the incurable with "neck to knee" massageThat old hysteria chestnut had plagued Western medicine since Hippocrates first babbled about wandering uteri in the 5th century B.C., but it really took off with the rise of medical gynecology in the second half of the 19th century. The invention of the vibrator to cure hysteria through orgasm was a benign result of this misunderstanding of anatomy and psychology, but there were plenty of monstrous approaches attempted as well, a flurry of medical professionals removing ovaries and uteruses and then congratulating themselves on having “fixed” hysterical symptoms like dysmenhorrea (painful menstruation).

Bossi believed that at least half of all female suicides were of gynecological origin, that suicide was somehow tied to menstruation, and that surgical interventions on the uterus and ovaries could cure the symptoms of hysteria. He persisted in his beliefs long after most of the ob/gyn community had abandoned hysteria to the province of psychiatry, publishing his theories in a German medical journal in 1911. The response was almost unanimous condemnation from gynecologists and psychiatrists. They considered the idea that the uterus was responsible for mental illness medically unfounded and socially dangerous since it would encourage families of mentally ill women to push them into needless gynecological surgery to avoid the madhouse. Only one prominent gynecologist, 84-year-old German gynecology professor Bernhard Schultze (who had for years been an advocate for gynecological surgery on inmates of insane asylums), supported him. Bossi wrote a book on hysteria and gynecology in 1917; it was the last gasp of this ugly chapter in medical history.

Oscar, Constance and their son Cyril in happier daysThe tide turned conclusively against the physiological hysteria theory thanks to painfully obvious studies published in the first couple of years of the 20th century. (It turns out, men had those exact same symptoms too, and they didn’t have any ovaries and uteruses to excise.) That was too late for Constance Lloyd. By the time she sought treatment from Bossi in late 1895, she was having severe difficulty walking. Bossi thought the cause of her mobility issues was a bladder prolapse that he could repair surgically, leaving her right as rain within six weeks. The operation took place in December of 1895. It didn’t work. In April of 1896, Constance declared herself “lamer than ever” and sought alternative therapies — galvanism, hot baths — from a doctor in Heidelberg.

All these therapeutic manoeuvres failed, and by October, 1896, in addition to the persistent lameness of her leg, a tremor appeared in her right arm. This so disrupted her handwriting that she was eventually forced to use a typewriter. “I am tired of doctors and no doctor finding out what to do with me,” she lamented. Moreover, she suffered protracted and excruciating headaches as well as extreme fatigue brought on by the mildest exertion. This was observed by her brother who, in July, 1897, noted that after only a few minutes’ walk to the station she collapsed on the road from exhaustion and had to be dragged to safety. And, if this was not enough, she developed a left facial palsy towards the end of her life.

According to the unpublished correspondence of Constance and her brother, her 9-year illness was characterised by widespread pains, right leg weakness, tremor of the right arm, profound fatigue, and a left facial paralysis. For the first 7 years the clinical picture was dominated by intermittent acute episodes followed by extended periods of recovery; in the last 2 years her disability became permanent with gradual deterioration. A likely diagnosis is multiple sclerosis of the relapsing-remitting type that subsequently developed into secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.

MS had been identified as a distinct disease and named in 1868 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. (Coincidentally, Charcot had some crazy ideas about hysteria too. He thought it was an inherited neurological disorder centered in the ovaries, uncurable but treatable with pressure on the ovary or ovariectomy and observable through hypnosis. Before his death in 1893 he would come to accept that hysteria was psychological in nature rather than neurological.) Multiple sclerosis was described in detail in an important neurology text by Sir William Gowers in 1888, but in the 1890s it still wasn’t widely known in the general medical profession.

In 1898, a desperate Constance returned to Bossi. This time he proposed that the culprit of her genitourinary and mobility problems was a uterine fibroid. She had surgery to remove the putative fibroid on April 2nd, 1898.

On the third or fourth postoperative day, Constance developed intractable vomiting. Profoundly dehydrated and in the absence of intravenous fluids, she grew progressively weaker, lapsed into unconsciousness, and died on April 7, 1898. This sequence of events suggests that she could have developed severe paralytic ileus, either as a direct result of the surgery or secondary to intra-abdominal sepsis.

Multiple sclerosis is associated with genitourinary symptoms in about two-thirds of female patients. It is conceivable, in Constance’s case, that the apparent pressure effects on the bladder (supposedly due to a fibroid) were really a manifestation of multiple sclerosis.

 

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Oliver Cromwell’s burial plate sells for $116,719

January 4th, 2015

A gilt copper plate that was placed over Oliver Cromwell’s chest when he was laid to rest in his coffin sold at a Sotheby’s auction last month for £74,500 ($116,719), six times its pre-sale estimate of £8,000 – £12,000. Bidding started at the low estimate and rapidly increased in increments of thousands. The hammer price was £60,000 (the rest of the cost is the buyer’s premium) and the buyer, who was in the room, is anonymous.

The plaque is 6.5″ by 5.5″ and is engraved on both sides. The front is engraved with the coat of arms of the Protectorate — the flags of England, Scotland, Ireland with Cromwell’s personal arms, an argent lion rampant borrowed from the arms of his ancestors the Princes of Powys, on an inescutcheon in the center, a crowned English lion supporting the left and the Welsh red dragon (a replacement for the Scottish unicorn James I had placed on the Royal Arms) supporting the right — and the motto “Pax quaeritur bello,” meaning “Peace is sought by war.” The inscription on the back gives Cromwell’s vital statistics: “Oliver Protector of the Republic of England, Scotland and Ireland. Born 25 April year 1599. Inaugurated 16 December 1653. Died 3 September year 1658. Here he lies.”

He didn’t lie there for long. After his death from malarial fever, Cromwell’s body was embalmed and put in a lead anthropoid coffin which was sealed and then placed in an elaborately decorated wooden coffin. The coffin and an effigy of the Lord Protector dressed in velvet, gold lace and ermin accessorized with the Imperial crown, orb and scepter, lay in state at Somerset House from September 20th until early November. The funeral procession took place on November 23rd, but he had already been quietly interred at Westminster Abbey two weeks earlier because his body was poorly embalmed and the stench had become problematic two months after his death. After enough pomp and ceremony to rival any royal funeral (Cromwell’s was in fact modeled after the funerary ceremonies of James I), Cromwell was officially buried in a vault in the Henry VII Lady Chapel.

Less than two years later, Charles I’s son was restored to the throne. Although on August 29th, 1660, the Cavalier Parliament passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act pardoning almost everyone involved in the execution of Charles I, the 59 signatories of the king’s death warrant were specifically exempt from Charles II’s mercy. That fall, 10 of the regicides still living were tried, convicted and executed. The penalty for High Treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered; ie, the condemned were tied to a horse and dragged to the gallows where they were hanged until almost dead, then disemboweled, castrated, beheaded and their bodies cut into four sections.

On December 4th, Parliament passed a bill of attainder posthumously declaring Oliver Cromwell, his son-in-law Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw, president of the High Court of Justice for the trial of King Charles I, guilty of High Treason. Bradshaw had died a month after Cromwell and was buried the day before him. Ireton had been dead and buried for nine years. All three were interred in the same chapel at Westminster Abbey. Parliament ordered the bodies exhumed and on January 30th, the 12th anniversary of Charles I’s execution, the corpses were dragged in their coffins to the west London execution site of Tyburn where their shrouded bodies were hanged. After hanging for an hour, the corpses were taken down, decapitated and the bodies tossed in a pit beneath the gallows. The heads were placed on 20-foot spikes in front of Westminster Hall where Charles I’s trial had taken place.

It was during this ugly process that the coffin plate was taken. It was “found in a leaden canister, lying on the breast of the corpse” by James Norfolke, Serjeant-at-Arms to the Speaker of the House of Commons, who had been tasked with exhuming the regicides’ bodies. He helped himself to the plaque and it remained in his family for hundreds of years until it was acquired by the Harcourt family in the 19th century. The sellers have chosen to remain anonymous so we don’t know if it’s been with the Harcourts since then or sold to another party at some point.

Either way, the plaque has had a much easier ride than Cromwell’s head. It stayed on its spike at Westminster Hall for close to 30 years. There are differing reports on what happened to it — blown down in a storm, surreptitiously removed in the dark of night — and the relic went underground until 1710 when it went on display at Claudius Du Puy’s private museum of curiosities in London. After Du Puy’s death, it passed through at least three more hands, including the Hughes brothers who again put it on macabre display, before being purchased by Josiah Henry Wilkinson in 1814. The Wilkinsons kept it in a velvet lined box, whipping it out for house guests to gasp over, for generations until Horace Wilkinson gave it to Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College, Cromwell’s alma mater, for proper burial in 1960. The burial was kept secret until 1962 and the exact location has never been revealed.

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Digitized Freer|Sackler collections up and running

January 3rd, 2015

As promised, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s digitized collections went live on January 1st, 2015. The new website is called Open F|S and is populated with high resolution images of the museums’ 40,000 works of Asian art. You can search by keyword or browse by object type, topic, name, culture, place, date and whether it’s currently on display.

Just to take the database for a quick spin, I did a keyword search for “peacock” because I am thoroughly obsessed by the Peacock Room, originally a dining/Chinese porcelain display room in the London home of shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland that was lavishly decorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1876-7. The entire room was purchased in 1904 by future museum founder Charles Lang Freer who had it installed in his Detroit home. It was moved to the new Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after Freer’s death in 1919. All that moving wasn’t good for the room. Attempts to repair structural damage in the late 1940s neglected much of Whistler’s work, leaving colors darkened and patterns obscured. The room was returned to its early splendour by a punctilious cleaning and conservation in 1993 and is now on display in all its glory.

The Peacock Room exhibition page has a nice image gallery, but the photographs are too small to feast upon the details to my satisfaction. Those dark days are over now. The Open F|S entry on the Peacock Room has four huge pictures that you can click on to zoom in or that you can download.

The peacock search results pointed me to a wealth of other beautiful objects. The textiles are particularly fantastic to view in high resolution because you can see the details of the stitching and fabric, like in this late 18th century painting on silk by Mori Sosen. I also love seeing ceramics, like this gazelle vessel made in 12th-14th century Syria that is part of Freer’s ceramic collection on display in the Peacock Room, in extreme close-up because the cracks and flakes give you a whole new perspective on the glazing and design.

If you plan to enjoy this resource for browsing or to make art work of your own using the Freer and Sackler collection images, consider signing up as a beta tester. They are looking people willing and eager to go down the rabbit holes of this vast digital wonderland and report back on any issues. So far I’ve encountered a couple of minor weirdnesses — the zoom feature cutting the picture in half, difficulty clicking between the different Peacock Room images — but they were quickly resolved by refreshing. The only actual feature that I reported as questionable is that you can zoom past the native resolution which gives you a close-up view of a lot of pixellated, blurry edges. I think the zoom should max out at the highest res. Beta testers will also be given early access to future closed test versions of Open F|S which sounds like good clean fun to me.

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New year of hoards begins with Anglo-Saxon coins

January 2nd, 2015

Barely did the year turn before news broke of a new hoard of coins unearthed by metal detectorists in an English field. The finder, Paul Coleman, was scanning farmland near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, as part of the Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club‘s yearly Christmas rally when he discovered a piece of lead and a silver coin. When he moved a larger fragment of lead, he saw there were rows of coins underneath. Buckinghamshire Finds Liaison Officer Ros Tyrrell was on site in case something notable was found, so she was able to coordinate a proper excavation after the first few coins were exposed.

The area was cordoned off and before an increasingly large crowd of detectorists (there were more than 100 club members at the rally) the find carefully excavated. Silver coins filled a large lead container, apparently a bucket that was folded over at the top to cover the hoard, buried about two feet underground. Portraits on some of the coins identified them as having been minted during the reigns of Ethelred the Unready (reigned 978-1013, 1014-1016 A.D.) and the Danish King Cnute (r. 1016-1035 A.D.).

As the coins were removed from the soil, they were packed in poly bags and then carried to the farmhouse in an orange Sainsburys plastic shopping bag. On the farm’s kitchen table spread with newspapers, the entire hoard was counted out. The final tally was 5251 silver pennies (plus half of another), one of the largest hoards of Anglo-Saxon coins ever discovered.

After the counting was done, Ros Tyrrell brought the coins that night to the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Halton and the next day they were transported by van to the British Museum. It was December 22nd, so much of the staff was on holiday, but the conservator who was at work immediately set about cleaning and cataloguing the coins. The cleaning process went smoothly, revealing coins in excellent condition. They are shiny, unclipped and so free of wear and tear that it seems likely they were never circulated.

There was a Royal Mint in Buckingham during the reign of Ethelred within a day’s walking distance from the find site. Given the dates and flawless condition, it’s possible these coins went straight from the mint into the ground, perhaps to hide them from the army of William the Conqueror as it advanced towards the mint.

There will be a coroner’s inquest to determine whether the hoard qualifies as treasure trove which it certainly will since it’s more than 300 years old and made of precious metal. Once declared treasure, a British Museum valuation team will determine its market value and a local museum will be given the opportunity of acquiring the hoard by paying the amount of the valuation. The fee will then be split between the finder and the landowner. Early speculation puts the possible value as high as $390 a coin for a total of $2 million, but that’s just spitballing based on the Ethelred coins. We won’t have solid figures until every coin has been identified and dated.

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Ancient amulet with 59-letter palindrome found

January 1st, 2015

A 1,500-year-old amulet inscribed with a 59-letter Greek phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards has been found in Cyprus. Archaeologists from the Paphos Agora Project discovered it in 2011 during the first season of excavations of the ancient agora of Neo Paphos. Neo Paphos, a harbour city on the southwest coast, was the capital of Cyprus in the late Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.

The inscription reads:

ΙΑΕW
ΒΑΦΡΕΝΕΜ
ΟΥΝΟΘΙΛΑΡΙ
ΚΝΙΦΙΑΕΥΕ
ΑΙΦΙΝΚΙΡΑΛ
ΙΘΟΝΥΟΜΕ
ΝΕΡΦΑΒW
ΕΑΙ

which translates to “Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

Renown for its temples to Aphrodite (she made landfall at Paphos after her birth from the sea), Neo Paphos also had an early connection to Christianity. It features in the Acts of the Apostles 13:6-13 wherein Paul curses a false prophet with a year of blindness for trying to lead the Roman proconsul Lucius Sergius Paullus astray. Amazed by the power of God working through Paul, Lucius Sergius converts to Christianity. After the death of Theodosius I, the last emperor to rule both the East and West halves of the Roman Empire, in 395 A.D., Cyprus became part of the Eastern Empire, and although the traditional Greek polytheistic religion was actively suppressed by the authorities, a strong culture of Hellenistic Christianity developed.

The amulet is evidence of how long polytheistic beliefs survived on Cyprus and how Christianity was integrated into traditional religious practices, a religious syncretism that would endure for centuries after Theodosius made Christianity the state religion. It 1.4 inches wide by 1.6 inches long and is made of mud clay. One side of the amulet is crudely engraved with images of Egyptian deities. At the bottom is a crocodile with open jaws. Above him is a mummy wrapped in bandages (probably meant to be the god Osiris) lying on a boat. To the left of the mummy is a bird (its comb suggests it may be a rooster), to the right is a snake and what archaeologists have identified as a dog-headed figure or cynocephalus even though the head is just a rudimentary circle.

Above the mummy is a depiction of Harpocrates, a Hellenized version of the Egyptian child god Horus, deity of silence and secrecy, sitting on a cross-frame stool and holding a large scepter in his left hand. He is recognizable because of the characteristic position of his right hand raised to his mouth, a depiction of the hieroglyphic for “child” which the Greeks misunderstood as a “shh” gesture. Horus the Child/Harpocrates was often depicted with a dog, which is how, I believe, the archaeologists identified the cynocephalus as such, but there are incongruities with the design that suggest the carver was confused about the religious iconography.

“It must be stated that the depiction is fairly unskilled and schematic. It is iconographically based on Egyptian sources, but these sources were not fully understood by the creator of the amulet,” adoration,” [Joachim Śliwa, a professor at the Institute of Archaeology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland,] wrote in the journal [Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization] article.

For instance, rather than sitting on a stool, Harpocrates should be sitting on a lotus flower, with legs drawn up, Śliwa said. Additionally, the dog-headed cynocephalus should not be mimicking Harpocrates. In “the classic version, the cynocephalus faces Harpocrates with paws raised in adoration,” Śliwa wrote.”We can find no justification for the cynocephalus’s gesture of raising its right paw to its lips in a manner similar to Harpocrates.”

Even stranger is the fact that Harpocrates and the cynocephalus have crisscrossing lines on their bodies, which suggest the ancient artist thought these figures should be mummified along with Osiris. While the cynocephalus can be shown with mummy bandages, Harpocrates is not supposed to have them. Mummy bandages have “no justification in the case of Harpocrates,” Śliwa wrote.

It makes sense that after more than a century of official Christianity, with all the temples, schools, libraries, etc. where one might learn the standard polytheism destroyed or redirected towards Christianity, people exploring traditional religious imagery and language would wind up with jumbled details.

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224th anniversary of Aztec Sun Stone’s rediscovery

December 31st, 2014

On Wednesday, December 17th, Mexico City celebrated the 224th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Aztec Sun Stone, the basalt monolith carved under the reign of Moctezuma II just a few years before the Spanish conquest. The circular stone, 12 feet in diameter and weighing more than 24 tons, was originally painted in brilliant red, blue, yellow and white. Archaeologists believe it was placed on top of the main platform of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), perhaps initially intended to be a sacrificial altar but then erected vertically when the massive stone cracked so it was no longer the thick drum-shape of traditional altars.

It is a world-famous icon of Aztec sculpture, but there are competing theories on what the imagery carved onto the stone represents. According to the National Museum of Anthropology, at the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity Tonatiuh inside the glyph “ollin” meaning “movement.” He holds a human heart in each hand and his tongue is the stone knife used for sacrifices. Four squares around his face contain the glyphs for the four previous cycles of creation and destruction. Concentric rings surrounding the central figure contain multiple calendar glyphs: the first ring has the glyphs for 20 of the 260 days in the Aztec calendar, the second features small boxes that may represent the 52 years of an Aztec century. You can examine the carving in glorious high resolution on Google Art Project.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered all Aztec religious icons removed and replaced them with Christian ones. The Sun Stone was toppled and dumped carved side up on the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. A few decades later, Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar, the second Archbishop of Mexico, ordered the stone, which he considered an evil, satanic influence on the city’s residents, flipped carved side down and buried. There it remained entirely forgotten until December 17th, 1790, when it was unearthed less than two feet under the surface by workers repaving the square. They propped it upright next to the find spot.

Mexican astronomer, anthropologist, historian and writer Antonio de León y Gama documented the find. He commissioned Francisco de Agüera to make a highly accurate and detailed drawing of the Sun Stone, the first known image of it ever made. In 1792, León y Gama published Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasión del nuevo empedrado que se esta formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790 [Historical and Chronological Description of the Two Stones that were Discovered in 1790 in the Main Square of Mexico City] about the discovery of the stone and the statue of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue. It was León y Gama who, recognizing the calendar glyphs, interpreted the monolith as a timekeeping device, a giant sundial to mark astronomical events like solstices. His view dominated the scholarship for close to a hundred years. Even today the piece is commonly called the Aztec Calendar Stone.

It was Antonio de León y Gama who rescued the stone from further disrespect. The Viceroy of New Spain and the Church wanted to use the stone as a step leading up to the entrance of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, the church built in the shadow of the Templo Mayor ruins 20 years or so after Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar had ordered the Sun Stone buried for its satanism. Letting parishioners stomp their dirty shoes all over a sacred Aztec artifact would have been a satisfying symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. It also would have been a conservation disaster. León y Gama persuaded Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, that since the stone wasn’t really a pagan idol like the statue of Coatlicue, but rather a calendar, it should be properly displayed, not trampled. The stone placed on the exterior wall of the Cathedral’s southwest tower where it became a popular attraction known as “Montezuma’s Clock.”

The Aztec Sun Stone stayed on the Cathedral until 1882 when it was moved along custom-built tracks two blocks to the new National Museum. Three years after that it moved the museum’s Gallery of Monoliths. In 1964, the Sun Stone was moved one last time, to the newly built National Museum of Anthropology. Now the museum can celebrate its own 50 year anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the Sun Stone’s final move and the 224th anniversary of the stone’s rediscovery all at the same time.

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The Year in History Blog History

December 30th, 2014

And so another year ends and a new one dawns. As has become customary, I shall pay Janus his due by looking back at the Year in History Blog History. Statistically speaking, it has been a rich year, with nearly 1,600,000 total pageviews. In June we passed the milestone of 5,000,000 total pageviews since stats were installed in 2009. We’ll end the year just 85,000 or so views short of the six million mark which, fair warning, I plan to celebrate with some sort of Steve Austin reference.

I was delighted to see statistical support for one of my little follies this year. Some of you mocked my love for the world’s oldest eel when I blogged about his demise at the venerable age of 155 this August, but it turns out we Åle appreciators are legion. That entry was the most viewed new post of the year with 13,582 views. (Brundage’s sex flowchart from the Medieval penitentials, a perpetual favorite since I first posted it in 2010, was the most viewed of the year with 16,831 views.) The second most viewed new entry this year was a surprise: the deciphering of the French shorthand annotations in the 1504 edition of Homer’s Odyssey printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius. People dig puzzles, man, and that wasn’t the only article about shorthand to get tons of attention this year.

Probably the biggest story of the year in terms of sheer media saturation was the excavation of the great Kasta tumulus in Amphipolis. There were so many developments in quick succession that I had to restrain myself from posting about them daily. As it is I covered the initial discovery of the mosaic, the reveal of the Persephone portion, the discovery of what may or may not be the head of one of the entrance sphinxes and lastly of the human remains. Little stories are still cropping up even though the excavation is over for now, but I’m holding back until we get some concrete news.

Most enjoyable reasearch rabbit hole award goes to the backstory of the 1908 cartoon illustrating the dire consequences of women being allowed to smoke in public establishments. I had a wonderful time digging through the period newspaper articles about the controversy that exploded at the end of 1907 over the prospect of women being allowed to smoke in the public rooms of the trendy Fifth Avenue French restaurant Café Martin. The story has everything: women’s rights, European sophisticates versus US pearl-clutchers, a deeply corrupt politician who had knocked up at least a half-dozen dance hall girls and would soon die of syphilis lecturing women about moral behavior, and best of all, a fantasy vision of a bar filled with liberated ladies doing naughty things under the shadow of a free fudge and almonds buffet.

Not as playful but perhaps even more compelling was the life story of Anne of Brittany explored on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of her death. She was so young when she had to lead men-at-arms and hurtle head-first into political gamesmanship with kings and emperors to save the independence of her homeland. The only woman to ever be queen of France twice, from the age of 14 until her death at 36, she was pregnant at least 14 times with only two daughters surviving. Between all that, she somehow she found the time to rule her duchy and introduce the art and philosophy of Renaissance humanism to France. The tomb she commissioned for her father, Duke Francis II, was the first work in the Renaissance style done in France, and since I didn’t post this in the original entry, I’m taking the opportunity now to glory in the phenomenal carving of the allegory of Courage defeating the dragon of Evil/Discord which as attacked the tower of Good/Conscience. All the sculptures on the tomb are exceptional, but I am completely obsessed with that dragon.

Probably the most enjoyable post to write was the one about how Misty the Diplodocus lead researchers to discover 55 barnacle specimens assembled, labeled and presented to a Danish colleague by Charles Darwin himself. From the teenagers who beat their dad to the money dinosaur fossils to the Darwin expert with specific knowledge of his fossil trades being in charge of finding specimens for the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s Misty-inspired exhibition, it was such a randomly fortuitous chain of events.

I also loved learning more about the Adena Mound in Chillicothe, Ohio, which at the beginning of the year was the radiocarbon dated to the first century A.D. The history of the mound is a sad one — it suffered the fate of so many of its brethren when it was busted down to nothing in 1901 so the land could be farmed — but the excavation that destroyed it also saved the small fragments of tree bark that made the dating possible now that the technology is advanced enough to work with tiny samples.

Speaking of the dire fate of Ohio earthworks, it was averted for the Hopewell Junction Group earthworks also in Chillicothe. The non-profit Arc of Appalachia was able to purchase 193 acres covering the earthworks after just eight frenetic days of fundraising. It wasn’t the only fundraising triumph this year. The Art Fund’s campaign to acquire the unparalleled artistic and industrial archive that is the Wedgwood Collection succeeded in record time, raising £2.74 million in three weeks.

One of my favorite finds of the year was the Roman wooden toilet seat unearthed at Vindolanda. Roman sites all over the former empire are lousy with stone toilet seats, but this is the first wooden one known to have survived thanks to the waterlogged soil of Northumberland. There’s an update to this story that is almost as awesome as the original. Tosca and Willoughby, makers of very upmarket custom toilet seats for the discerning and well-moneyed butt, pledged to create a special edition of their luxury Thunderbox line of wooden toilet seats and donate some of the proceeds to the Vindolanda Trust to help defray the cost of preservation.

“We are absolutely fascinated by the discovery of a perfectly-preserved ancient loo seat,” said James Williams, the Director of the company whose money will maintain the chemical conservation of the artefact.

“As our own seats are handcrafted, we admire the Roman craftsmanship which, in this case, has certainly stood the test of time.”

There is not one part of that I don’t love, and it’s a fine thematic companion to the barrels of 700-year-old human excrement excavated in Odense, Denmark.

In the fever dreams caused by excessive viewings of Antiques Roadshow category, you can’t beat the midwestern scrap metal dealer who found a lost Fabergé Imperial Eater Egg, bought it purely for its precious metal content and then refused to melt it down when everyone told him he’d overpaid. If he hadn’t been so stubborn, and if he hadn’t happened to have Googled the Vacheron clock inside the egg which led him to a 2011 article about a newly rediscovered auction photograph of the egg from 1964, this priceless historical artifact would have been converted into a few thousand dollars worth of molten metal and disappeared forever.

I also loved seeing the replica of a 24-pound bronze cannon from the Vasa, the Swedish warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, shot. The smoke, the recoil, the sound, the exploding wood fragments when the ball makes contact with the replica section of the Vasa‘s hull, brings to vivid life the chaotic scariness of 17th century nautical battles. As if that weren’t neat enough, Fred Hocker, Director of the Vasa Cannon Project, popped into the comments to answer people’s questions and generally be the coolest guy in the house.

It was a great year for textiles. There was the recreation of the Iron Age woolen tunic found in a melting glacier in Norway, the altar frontal hand-embroidered by World War I soldiers as occupational therapy during their convalescence, the oldest known trousers found in China, the return of the 2,000-year-old Paracas textiles from Sweden to Peru, and the gloriously beautiful Veldman-Eecen Collection of 18th century Indian chintz garments acquired by the Peabody Essex Museum.

It was a great year for hoards, too. There was the hoard of Byzantine gold coins found in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province, the jewelry hoard hidden in Colchester to keep it safe from Boudicca’s army descending upon the city, the Dumfries Viking Hoard and its fascinating Carolingian pot stuffed with additional treasures, and the gorgeous pyramid-and-leaf late Roman gold fittings from a ceremonial robe that were confiscated from a looter in Germany. The United States got into the game in a big way this year, thanks to the discovery of the Saddle Ridge Hoard of mint-condition gold coins from the mid-to-late 1800s.

I think my favorite overall post of the year was the interview with maker of historical fonts Brian Willson of Three Island Press. He’s as generous and he is brilliant, his work is exceptional and if the New Year brings us a Nestler font, then I will consider it to have been one of the greatest on record.

Thank you once more for reading and commenting and emailing me tips to juicy history stories. Truly you are the bestest. May all your 2015s be replete with metaphoric (or literal!) gold hoards, shorthand mysteries and buffet tables groaning with fudge and almonds.

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Købke’s romantic sunset is actually a sunny day

December 29th, 2014

Conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) have discovered that View of Lake Sortedam, an 1838 landscape by Christen Købke that was thought for decades to depict a romantic sunset reflected in the russet lake waters, is in fact a bright sunny day over blue lake waters. Two women standing on a jetty seeing off a party in the rowboat on a summer evening at sundown is a wistful, melancholic scene. Make it high noon and the romantic theme of separation is distinctly less emphatic.

The artist painted the lake, which was then outside the old city of Copenhagen in a liminal suburb between the city and the rural country, with the express goal of getting it into the yearly exhibit of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Rumor had it the Danish King was interested in acquiring the painting for the Royal Picture Gallery (now absorbed into the National Gallery of Denmark), and indeed, after the landscape was exhibited at the Royal Academy show in 1839, it was purchased by the monarch. View of Lake Sortedam was the first painting by Christen Købke in the Royal Picture Gallery.

That proved to be the pinnacle of his career during his lifetime. At the end of 1838, flush with a travel stipend from the Royal Academy, he traveled to Italy. Upon his return in 1840, he abandoned the romantic nationalism of his earlier work in favor of scenes based on sketches from his travels. These were not well received. He submitted one of those Italian landscapes in his application to become of a member of the Academy in 1846 and was rejected. Two years later he died of pneumonia at the age of just 37.

The importance of View of Lake Sortedam, in terms of subject matter, execution and period, was not recognized for more than a century after his death. In 1841 the King had the painting moved to his private apartment in Christiansborg Castle where it remained for 25 years. It only went on public view in 1864 when it was returned to the Royal Picture Gallery. When the National Gallery was established in 1896, Lake Sortedam moved there with the rest of the Royal Collection of Paintings, but as recently as the 1970s it was hanging above a door, not a location commensurate with its significance.

In the 1980s, art historians began to recognize the piece was one of Christen Købke’s most important paintings and it took a prominent place in exhibition of the artist’s work at home and abroad. It is now considered one of the signature Danish Golden Age paintings in the collection.

With little attention paid to it for a century and a half after it was painted, View of Lake Sortedam changed without people noticing it. The contrast between the pale blue of the sky and the red of the lake had caused some art historians to wonder if it was a natural phenomenon — the sun setting out of frame to the right could make the lake red while the sky was still light — or if perhaps the color had shifted over time.

Conservators at the SMK took small samples of paint from the lake and sky both in areas where they had been protected from the sun and exposed to it. The samples were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy to identify the chemical components of the paints Købke used.

The colours have changed due to a chemical reaction in the blue pigment, which is known as Prussian blue. The colour changes have been exacerbated by 176 years of exposure to light.

The sky has become paler and lighter. And the lake, which was painted using a mixture of red, blue, and white pigments, was originally a bluish grey. Now, however, it has taken on a reddish, purplish hue. The frame in which the work is set has protected the original colours out at the very edge – and this difference in colour piqued the conservator’s curiosity.

Kasper Monrad, senior researcher at the SMK, states that this new discovery completely changes how we should look at this painting. Up until this point the work was believed to be a romantic sunset scene. In the mid-1830s Købke painted many romantic artworks – and this work has been regarded as part of that group. In light of the new knowledge – that the scene actually shows a bright summer’s day – the work must be regarded as far less romantic in scope.

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Charlottenburg Palace’s New Wing reopens after restoration

December 28th, 2014

Charlottenburg Palace, home of King Frederick the Great’s first court after he ascended the throne in 1740, reopened on December 26th after two years of renovations. It started out as a small private retreat in Lietzow, a village a mile or so west of Berlin, commissioned in 1695 by Electress Sophie Charlotte, sister of British King George I and wife of Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg. In 1701, Frederick would declare himself “King Frederick I in Prussia” (the “in” was to assure the Holy Roman Emperor that his aspirations to kingship would not bleed across the boundaries of the empire into his role as Prince-elector of Brandenburg).

Once her husband’s promotion made her a queen, Sophie Charlotte hired Swedish builder Johann Friedrich Eosander to expand her little country retreat into a Baroque palace modeled after Louis XIV’s Versailles. There she collected poets, painters, scholars, theologians and musicians around her, creating a vibrant cultural community at her Lietzow court. She died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1705. She was just 36 years old. In her honor, Frederick renamed the palace and the town that grew up around it Charlottenburg.

Charlottenburg Palace was the original home of the fabled Amber Room. It was designed by Andreas Schlüter, the German baroque sculptor and architect who helped complete the palace after Johann Arnold Nering died in 1695, and built by Danish amber master craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Frederick I commissioned it in 1701 in the afterglow of his coronation in Königsberg, a Baltic port city that had been famous for its amber artistry since the Middle Ages. Königsberg amber of every shade was pieced together into mosaic panels that were installed on the walls of a small game parlour in Charlottenburg Palace. Construction took a decade, from 1701 to 1711.

Tsar Peter the Great remarked on the room’s beauty during a visit to the palace. Recalling the tsar’s appreciation, in 1716 King Frederick William I of Prussia gave the room to Peter as a diplomatic gift marking Brandenburg-Prussia’s 1715 alliance with Russia against Sweden in the Great Northern War. He received “55 very tall Russian soldiers” in return. Frederick William shared little of his parents’ interest in the arts; expanding Prussia’s military was his thing, which is why he was more than willing to strip the amber off the walls to seal a military alliance and secure an elite cadre of leggy troops.

Charlottenburg, palace and town, were neglected under Frederick William’s reign. He stopped all building projects and even tried to revoke the town’s charter, although he did use the palace to receive state visitors and host grand family affairs. It wasn’t until his son Frederick II of Prussia, later dubbed Frederick the Great, came to the throne in 1740 that Charlottenburg was returned to its former prominence. Construction resumed and Frederick commissioned the Superintendent of all the Royal Palaces, Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, to build a new east wing following Eosander’s design from four decades before.

The New Wing was lavishly appointed in rococo style. Rooms included the First and Second apartments of the King, the White Hall, the Banqueting Hall, the Golden Gallery and the Throne Room. Frederick housed his extensive collection of French paintings in the palace and later kings added a collection of marble and plaster sculptures that are excellent illustrations of the development of Berlin sculpture heavily influenced by classical Greece and Rome.

The palace was severely damaged by Allied bombing raids in 1943 and 1945. After the war it was rebuilt, unlike many other war-damaged palaces, making it the largest surviving Hohenzollern residence in Berlin. There were additional renovations in the 1950s and 60s, but the systems installed then are now outdated, inefficient and not in compliance with energy consumption, accessibility and fire safety regulations. In 2008, a major program of refurbishment began to address all the issues of Charlottenburg Palace in a comprehensive manner. The program has been divided into 10 parts so that visitors can continue to enjoy much of the palace even as work makes some areas inaccessible.

It’s the restoration of the New Wing that has just ended and while some of the biggest upgrades are unseen — new insulation between roof and ceiling, new climate control systems for the White Hall and Golden Gallery, a basement full of new fire monitoring technology — the entire envelope of the building has been carefully restored, from plaster and masonry elements of the façade to the windows, doors, wrought iron railings, external paint and roof tiles. With restoration complete, the sculpture and French painting collections are again on display in the newly reopened wing.

The two phases of the New Wing restoration cost €4.5 million while the entire project is expected to cost €14.3 million and will be completed in 2017.

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Artifacts from Scotland Yard’s Black Museum to go on public display

December 27th, 2014

In 1869 the passage of the Prisoners Property Act had made it legal for the police to use the property of prisoners for instructional purposes, so when the Central Prisoners Property Store was created at London’s Metropolitan Police headquarters in April of 1874, one Inspector Neame began to put together a small collection of objects to train recruits on the detection of burglary using the tools of the burglar’s trade. From that kernel the collection grew over the course of a year into a permanent museum of evidence from a range of crimes housed in the Met’s headquarters at 4 Whitehall Place whose back entrance, No. 1 Great Scotland Yard, became a metonym for the force itself.

For the first two years of its existence there are no records of the museum having any special visitors. It performed an educational function training police and Inspector Neame made certain it stuck to its purview. When a reporter from The Observer newspaper asked to be granted access to the museum, Neame refused spurring the reporter to print an article dubbing it “the Black Museum.” The first officially recorded visitors were police bigwigs in October of 1877. After that, the museum’s visitors book records a parade of celebrities including Gilbert and Sullivan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, all keen to take a gander at the first museum dedicated to the tools of crime and its perpetrators.

As Scotland Yard (figurative) moved from Scotland Yard (literal), first to the other end of Whitehall Place in 1890 and then to Victoria Street in 1967, the museum moved with it. The current iteration dates to 1981 and is on the first floor of New Scotland Yard on Victoria Street. It has two rooms. The first is a replica of the original 1875 museum in Whitehall and contains weapons used to kill or cause serious injury in London (walking swords were very popular), objects from some of the Yard’s most notorious 19th century cases — Jack the Ripper’s “From Hell” and “Dear Boss” letters, Charles Peace’s burglary kit/violin case — full-head death masks of convicts hanged at Newgate Prison that were used in the Victorian era for phrenological study of their criminal skull bumps, hangman’s nooses labelled with the name of the person who swung from them until dead.

The second room covers 20th century crimes and has display cabinets dedicated to Famous Murders, Notorious Poisoners, Murder of Police Officers, Royalty, Bank Robberies, Espionage, Sieges, Hostages and Hijacking. Dennis Nilsen, serial killer of at least 12 boys and young men, is eerily represented by the small white stove and stock pot he used to boil the flesh off the bones of his victims before disposing of them. There’s the oil drum John George Haigh used to dissolve his six victims in concentrated sulfuric acid and the gallstone that survived the acid bath to help identify the victim. The museum has the ricin pellet used to assassinate Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov and a replica of the umbrella used to fire the pellet into him as he waited at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge on September 7th, 1978.

The museum’s macabre displays and exclusivity have inspired documentaries, a radio show hosted by Orson Welles and the 1959 horror classic Horrors of the Black Museum (in HypnoVista!) whose producer and writer, Herman Cohen, finagled a pass to visit the Black Museum via an inspector friend. It’s still part of the Met’s Crime Academy, mainly used today as a lecture theater, and you still have to make an appointment to see its collection of 20,000 objects. Appointments are very hard to come by; even serving police officers have to book a date.

Every once in a while there has been talk of the museum opening to the public to raise money for the police in this age of budget cuts, but nothing’s ever come of it. Now it seems something might. The Mayor’s Office and the Metropolitan Police are negotiating with the Museum of London to put some of the Black Museum’s artifacts on public display.

Stephen Greenhalgh, deputy mayor for policing and crime, confirmed the meetings with the museum “about how the fantastic story of the Met Police can be told in their museum,” adding the talks were ongoing and they were looking for sponsorship.

Despite anticipated interest, few exhibitions make money and no decision has yet been made whether visitors will be charged to see the planned exhibition. Curators are currently visiting the historical sites to identify the items they want to display. Officials will then discuss the ethical considerations of putting them on show.

The ethnical considerations primarily being the impact on the families of the victims (or of the criminals, for that matter). I wager they’ll stick to the historical crimes, the developement of modern policing, etc., things that are distant enough not to be horrific reminders to anyone connected with the many tragedies on display.

While the parties sort out the details, you can virtually experience a visit to the Black Museum of yore, courtesy of Hargrave L. Adam’s 1914 book Police Work from Within. (Scroll back to chapter two if you want to enjoy Adam’s extra-special thoughts on how the “education” and “emancipation” of women, scare quotes original, inevitably lead to criminality and death. Sneak preview: the ladies ruined America.)

Also, the full 1954 The Black Museum radio series is available at the Internet Archive. It’s rather fabulous, replete with classic radio dramatic music and re-enactments of the crimes. Each episode covers one particular artifact and tells its story. I’m embedding the playlist below because I can.

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