Gaugin exhibition includes $300 million painting

February 8th, 2015

The principles are being cagey about the details, but it seems that a real live Swiss private collection has sold Paul Gaugin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? or When Will You Marry? to Qatar for something in the neighborhood of $300 million. The 1892 painting of two young Tahitian women was sold by Rudolf Staechelin, a former Sotheby’s executive in Basel, Switzerland, who runs the family trust of 20 Impressionist and Post-Impressionists paintings collected by his grandfather, also named Rudolf Staechelin. He would neither confirm nor deny that the buyer was Qatar, but that’s what inside sources have claimed, and the oil-rich state has been famously snapping up artworks for record prices over the past years in its quest to develop a world-class museum collection. The previous record price for a painting was set when Qatar bought Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players for $250 million in 2011.

The grandson said that the works had never been hung in his family’s home because they were too precious and that he saw them in a museum along with everyone else. He has decided to sell, he said, because it is the time in his life to diversify his assets. “In a way it’s sad,” he said, “but on the other hand, it’s a fact of life. Private collections are like private persons. They don’t live forever.” [...]

“The real question is why only now?” Mr. Staechelin said of the Gauguin sale. “It’s mainly because we got a good offer. The market is very high and who knows what it will be in 10 years. I always tried to keep as much together as I could.” He added, “Over 90 percent of our assets are paintings hanging for free in the museum.”

“For me they are family history and art,” he said of the artworks. “But they are also security and investments.”

The Gaugin painting and the rest of the Staechelin collection has been on long-term loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel since the death of the first Rudolf Staechelin in 1946. The main building of the Kunstmuseum is closing this month for a major refurbishment. A selection of its masterpieces will be shown at other museums in Basel and Spain until it reopens in April of 2016. This temporary closing spurred Staechelin to seek a new loan contract with the canton. Talks did not go smoothly, and although the canton tried to get the collection back for the reopening, Staechelin cancelled the loan by invoking a provision that required the works be on public display at all times.

Now Rudolf Staechelin is looking for a new museum in which to house the collection. It has to be a top museum that can afford the security and insurance and that will accept the works on loan without a lending fee. They must also promise to blend the paintings into their permanent collection instead of grouping them together.

As for the $300 million Nafea Faa Ipoipo?, the buyer won’t take ownership until January of 2016. For now it is still in Basel, on display at a Gauguin exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation from today until June 28th. This special exhibition brings together 50 paintings and sculptures by Gaugin from museums and private collections in 13 countries. It took the museum six years to arrange so broad a show that covers Gaugin’s entire output but focuses on his work in Tahiti and the Marquesas (1891 – 1903). In returned for a loan of Picasso works, they secured a spectacular work from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: the monumental D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), which at 4’7″ high and 12’3″ wide almost never travels.

Another star of the show is a 1902 sculpture called Thérèse which disappeared from public view in 1980. It turns out to have been unpublished in a private collection in London. The director of the Beyeler Foundation saw it at the Lefevre Fine Art in London last October and arranged a loan of the figure for the exhibition. Thérèse is a notorious figure from Gaugin’s life. Depicting a Polynesian woman who worked for the Catholic Bishop of the Marquesas Islands Joseph Martin, Thérèse was displayed in front of the artist’s home along with a companion piece: Père Paillard, or Father Lechery. It was no mystery who those sculptures were meant to represent. Père Paillard is written clearly across its base and Monseigneur Martin had a servant named Thérèse who was one of several reputed to have been the recipient of the bishop’s sexual advances. Since the bishop repeatedly admonished Gaugin for his sexual relationships with local women, the artist expressed his opinion of the priest’s moral consistency with this pair of sculptures. Père Paillard is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and will not be part of the Beyeler exhibition with its newly rediscovered mate, alas.

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Codebreaking notes, Banbury sheets found in Bletchley hut

February 7th, 2015

After a year of raising £7.4 million from private donors and a large Heritage Lottery Fund grant, in fall of 2012 the Bletchley Park Trust began Project Neptune, a program of restoration on the derelict structures in which Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park team worked to break the German Enigma Code during World War II. Phase One of the project was focused on the restoration of Huts 3 and 6, used to break German Army and Air Force codes, and Block C, an open-floorplan building that held the Hollerith punch-card machines which analyzed encrypted messages. The aim was to restore the Huts and Block to their wartime condition, not new as they were when first constructed in 1939 and 1940.

Block C was used by various government departments for decades after the war and had been divided with internal walls. It suffered significant water damage since it fell into disuse and trees were growing out of the roof. More than 5,000 of the original acoustic ceiling tiles were recovered and another 8,000 period tiles found in the United States to rebuild the roof. The walls were all knocked down to return it to its original floorplan and the water damage repaired. Block C is now a visitor center.

Hut 6, where the Enigma messages were decoded and translated, and Hut 3, where the translated message were analyzed for their intelligence, were close to crumbling. They were built to be temporary structures easily demolished after the war and the fact that they survived at all is a miracle. Hut 6 was particularly battered by decades of weather, with its west side almost entirely rotted. The gutters and downspouts were so damaged rain water soaked into the walls for decade. The rotted wood boards were replaced with floorboards from Fawley Court in Henley on Thames, a historic country estate requisitioned for use as a military intelligence school during the war. Fawley Court also supplied shiplap boarding to replace the siding on the exterior of the huts. The original radiators were restored and reinstalled (connected to new pipes, of course) and paint colors were precisely matched to the original wartime colors.

Block C and Huts 3 and 6 opened to the public in June of last year. Hut 11A, one of the huts that housed the Bombe machines developed to decipher the Enigma code, has been restored and is being outfitted for display. Hut 11, the other Bombe hut, is currently in the process of restoration. (Turing’s office in Hut 8 was restored a decade ago.)

During the work on Hut 6 in September of 2013, restorers discovered crumpled sheets of paper under the roof. In remarkable condition considering the walls around them were falling apart, the notebook pages had been stuffed into the notoriously drafty, uninsulated walls of the hut. All notes related to codebreaking were supposed to be destroyed as per wartime regulations, so it underscores the rudimentary conditions in the huts that the cryptographers violated security protocols to keep out the cold. The papers were immediately frozen to keep them from decaying and then cleaned and conserved for display. The discovery of the documents has been announced now that the conservation is complete.

Bletchley Park’s Director of Learning and Collections, Victoria Worpole, said in a statement:

“It’s quite rare for us to find new paperwork because any that survived is in either our archive, at GCHQ or the National Archive so to find actual materials that were used by the Codebreakers, shoved between beams and cracks in the woodwork is really exciting. We’ve had a conservator work on the materials to make sure we preserve them as best we can. It’s quite interesting to think that these were actual handwritten pieces of codebreaking, workings out. There are some pieces of paperwork that we can’t identify. Nobody seems to be able to work out what they are – we’ve sent things off to GCHQ — and there are a number of items that we’ve yet to understand properly. We’re unveiling a mystery.”

Among the documents were Banbury sheets, used in a system Turing devised to take advantage of a fault in the wheel design of the Enigma. Cryptographers punched holes representing different ciphers in two sheets of paper. They would then put the sheets on top of each other until the holes aligned. This helped reveal the daily rotor setting of the very challenging naval Enigma machine. Turing called the system Banburismus and the papers Banbury sheets after Banbury, Oxfordshire, where the stationary was made. The Banbury sheets found in Hut 6 are the only examples known to survive.

The codebreaking documents and other assorted discoveries made in Hut 6 — parts of an Atlas, a pinboard and an article about fashion — and elsewhere on the property — a fragment of a teapot, glass bottles, bricks from the demolished Block F and a time capsule left inside a door in Hut 11A — are going on display in an exhibition, The Restoration of Historic Bletchley Park, in Hut 12.

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St. Louis Society board resigns over artifact sales

February 6th, 2015

Last fall, the St. Louis Society (SLS) of the American Institute for Archaeology (AIA) caused a stir when it put the Treasure of Harageh up for auction at Bonhams, London. The collection of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and vessels were unearthed by a British School of Archaeology team excavating in Middle Egypt during the 1913-14 season under the direction of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. As the St. Louis Society had contributed to the funding of the dig, in return they received an exceptional group of artifacts from the reign of Pharoah Senusret II (1897-1878 B.C.). The Society had tried to place the objects from Tomb 124 at Harageh in the Saint Louis Art Museum and in the Washington University museum, but were not successful, so most of the time the artifacts were kept in a safety deposit box. The steep costs and suboptimal conservation conditions of the storage and the desire to fund a community archaeology program ultimately spurred the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure.

Most of it was saved at the last minute, taken out of the auction the day before thanks to a private sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest was bought at the Bonhams auction by an anonymous buyer for $44,000. Undeterred by the outcry, the SLS then offered two Mesoamerican artifacts — a Maya effigy vase (550-950 A.D.) from the Quirigua, Guatemala, and a Zapotec seated figural urn (550-950 A.D.) from Monte Albán, Mexico — they received as recompense for funding the fieldwork of American archaeologist and groundbreaking Maya scholar Sylvanus Morley in the 1910s. The effigy vase sold to a university museum for $21,250, the figural urn to an unknown private buyer for $3,750.

The AIA is opposed to the sales of antiquities, believing they should be curated for the public good, conserved by experts and made available for study, but its charter with the St. Louis Society only explicitly prohibits the sale of ancient artifacts of dubious, undocumented origin. The origin of these objects was clear and unblemished. Still, the AIA released a statement expressing its concern over the pending sale and promising an urgent investigation into the situation. The SLS board held there was nothing wrong with the sales, ethically or legally. Obviously the AIA disagreed on the ethics of auctioning off archaeological material, and pointed out that the board had acted unilaterally without consulting the SLS membership which was at the very least divided on the question.

On January 10th, the Council of the AIA held its annual meeting in New Orleans. They discussed the SLS sales and decided on a strong course of action: if the SLS board didn’t resign in its entirety by February 1st, the AIA would revoke the St. Louis Society’s charter. You can read SLS President Michael Fuller’s statement at the meeting here. I’m not prone to agree with cultural heritage organizations selling ancient artifacts to the highest bidder, but I think he made some excellent points, particularly about how the AIA needs an actual policy on the sale of documented artifacts and how the national society could have helped them place the artifacts in museums and prevented this mess from happening in the first place instead of reacting after the fact.

Three days after the AIA passed its resolution, the St. Louis Society held an extraordinary meeting attended by two thirds of the membership. After a vigorous debate, a narrow majority of the members voted to retain the board. On January 25th, the SLS board met again and decided to comply with the AIA resolution. All nine of the board members resigned effective Monday, January 26th. An interim board is in place until new elections are held at the next annual meeting. The AIA is satisfied and the St. Louis Society will remain a chapter in good standing.

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Winchester Cathedral opens mortuary chests

February 5th, 2015

The great Gothic Cathedral of Winchester, in Hampshire, England, is traditionally held to be the final resting place of some of the earliest kings of Wessex and England. The remains of kings and bishops from as early as the 7th century are said to be contained in decorated mortuary chests in the church’s Lady Chapel. The chests are inscribed with names, crowns, shields identifying the remains kept in them, but they were made hundreds of years after the original burials in the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster (the original cathedral on the site of the current one from 660 to 1093) so it’s not certain they were ever accurate. On top of that, the chests were interfered with by Parliamentarians in 1642. When the cathedral authorities put the bones back, they were so jumbled up there was no way to separate out individuals.

Over the years the chests have been cleaned and restored, but the human remains and artifacts within have not been examined in forensic detail. As part of a new development program aimed to promote and preserve the Cathedral and to create a better exhibition space in the south transept for the gem of its collection, the 12th century Winchester Bible, the Dean and Chapter of Winchester have commissioned experts to study and document the contents of six of the chests for the first time.

Because modern technology allows for radiocarbon dating of very small samples, Winchester officials decided to date select bone fragments, something they’ve declined to do until now because it would have required the destruction of a some of the remains entrusted to Winchester’s eternal care. The results from the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit found that the tested bones date to the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.

Speaking of this discovery, and the coming project, The Dean of Winchester, The Very Revd James Atwell, has this to say. “This is an exciting moment for the Cathedral when we seem poised to discover that history has indeed safeguarded the mortal remains of some of the early Saxon Kings who became the first monarchs of a united England. Winchester holds the secrets of the birth of the English nation and it does seem that some of those secrets are about to be revealed as future research continues. The presence of the bones in the Cathedral, where they would have been placed near the High Altar and the relics of St Swithun, remind us just how significant the inspiration of the Christian faith was for the foundation of our national life.”

Researchers will also try to separate the jumbled bones to count the number of individuals. Once the remains have been collated, archaeologists hope to be able to determine their age at time of death, sex, stature and physical characteristics of each person. It’s possible that there will be enough circumstantial evidence to be able to loosely match the bones to the royalty and clergy that the chests and the Cathedral’s burial records claim were interred at Winchester. Possible candidates include: Cynegils, King of Wessex (611–643), Cenwalh, King of Wessex (643–672), Cynewulf, King of Wessex (757-786), Ecbert, King of Wessex (802–839), Ethelwulf, King of Wessex (839–856), Eadred, King of England (946–955), Eadwig, King of England and later Wessex (955–959), Cnut or Canute, King of England (1016–1035), Denmark and Norway, his wife Emma of Normandy (d. 1052) (also queen consort to Ethelred II, King of England), William II ‘Rufus’, King of England (1087–1100), Wini, the first Bishop of Winchester (d. 670), Alfwyn, Bishop of Winchester (d. 1047) and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1072).

If any one of these, particularly the early Anglo-Saxon kings, pan out forensically, Winchester Cathedral would be confirmed as the first national mausoleum, akin to the cathedrals of St. Denis and Reims in France.

There’s an intriguing little throw-away line with no follow-up in the press materials.

We have discovered in the chests some unexpected contents which are not mortal remains, and one of the aspects of the next stage of analysis will be to discover why they are there.

Ooh, unmentionable objects of mysterious origin! I’m looking forward to the explanation.

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Remains of ancient mound in Ohio found during mall construction

February 4th, 2015

In 2008, a small mound on North Bridge Street in Chillicothe, Ohio, was bulldozed by commercial developers. There was no archaeological survey of the site, despite Ohio’s rich history of ancient Native American mounds, because sadly there are no laws even slowing people down from destroying ancient remains on private property. Whatever development plans were in the works in 2008 never came to fruition and the property lay fallow until this year.

A few weeks ago, Guernsey Crossing LLC began building a mall on the 13-acre site. This time people concerned about the late lamented mound reached out to archaeologist Dr. Jarrod Burks, president of the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, who contacted the developers and struck up a deal: Burks and a team of volunteers would be given three weeks to excavate the site where the mound had once been. They started out with a magnetic survey of the site to identify the perimeter of the mound and the best areas to excavate.

After two weeks, they’ve found a cluster of burned bones that are most likely from a cremation, Burks said, and another set of unburned bones and teeth. In addition, after painstakingly and carefully feathering away the soil a few specks of dirt at a time, they’ve uncovered shards and pieces of prehistoric pottery and a great deal of burned wood that will be able to be dated by its carbonization.

Burks, whose paying job is with Ohio Valley Archaeology in Columbus, said the mound probably dates from between 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Before flattening, it was about 2 1/2 feet high. The area is about 80 feet in diameter.

Archaeologists can’t tell if the burned bone fragments are human or animal, but the uncharred bone discovered next to the burned pieces are human, so it’s likely the burned ones are too. The pottery fragments are the source of the preliminary dating based on design and style.

Basically what’s left is a thin layer of the mound floor, still intact after bulldozing just below the surface. Floors may not sound glamorous, but they’re extremely important archaeologically speaking. These postholes are unusually large, one wide enough to hold a post six to eight inches in diameter. The hole seems to have been deliberately filled in after the post was removed, perhaps during the construction of the mound.

That they’ve been able to find postholes is highly significant because they impart a great deal of information about the construction of the site, and since so many of Ohio’s ancient mounds were destroyed long before archaeological practices paid much attention to, well, holes, this little ex-mound may teach us new things about the architecture of these structures.

The mound is going to be a mall parking lot soon, so the team has to clear out everything they find for further study. The Native American tribes would prefer that human remains not be disturbed, but unfortunately that’s not an option here. Burks is working with the developers to ensure the area isn’t entirely bereft of recognition of its ceremonial and historical importance.

While we’re on the subject of ancient Native American mounds in Chillicothe, things are going gangbusters at the Junction Group Hopewell Earthworks. After a frantic two-week period of fundraising last March, the earthworks, none of which are visible above ground but their foundations are still extant underground, were saved when heritage and ecological preservation non-profits including the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy and Arc of Appalachia rallied to raise funds to buy the archaeological and environmentally important parts of the Stark family farm. Almost 1,000 individual donations were raised in that fortnight of mad activity, enough to allow the coalition to buy 193 acres — earthworks, woodlands and a 1.25-miles stretch river corridor — at auction for $1.1 million.

Most of that purchase price, 75% of it, came from a matching Clean Ohio Fund grant which wasn’t actually granted yet when they bought the land. Arc of Appalachia noted at the time that “we raised roughly $375,000 through the generosity of over 900 donors, funds which we will use to leverage a Clean Ohio grant to pay the remaining balance of acquisition funds needed.” They seemed confident but I was concerned about whether the grant was a sure enough thing to consider the Junction Group Earthworks well and truly saved.

Well, I’m delighted to report that the Clean Ohio Fund matching grant came through and in July of last year, Arc of Appalachia Preserve System director Nancy Stranahan and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy director Bruce Lombardo officially closed on the property. They’re wasting no time on their goal of making the site a public park. The new Junction Earthworks Archaeological Park and Nature Preserve is slated to open this year, perhaps as early as this spring. There are tons of additional expenses involved in making it a proper park facility so donations are still very much open. Click here to donate to the Junction Earthworks Park Development Fund online.

Meanwhile, the same Jarrod Burks mentioned above, who happens to have done the first magnetic survey of the Junction Group site in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the earthworks were was still left undergound, has returned to make a more detailed survey. The original scan covered about 15 acres and with a single hand-held magnetometer, produced relatively low density data. This scan is being done with a four-probe magnetometer on a rolling cart which will collect far higher density data over the same ground thereby identifying smaller features (cooking pits, burials, postholes) the first machine couldn’t detect, and will eventually cover the entire 89-acre field.

Dr. Burks began scanning in November and is still doing it whenever weather permits, which isn’t often this winter. They only had two weeks and three weekends to complete the project in 2005. Now that they own the land, they can afford to take their time. You can see Jarrod Burks at work with his neat four-magnetometer scanner in this aerial footage by drone photographer Tim Anderson. The enclosure ditches, which are not visible above ground, have been marked out by mowing the soybean stalks left after harvest.

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Have only surviving Michelangelo bronzes been found?

February 3rd, 2015


A pair of bronze statuettes known as the Rothschild Bronzes have been attributed to Michelangelo by an international team of multi-disciplinary experts at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. The bronzes are 16 inches wide by 2 feet 7.5 inches high and depict heroic male nudes riding panthers, likely a Bacchic procession theme. They are not a matched pair — one of the men is a bearded mature figure, the other a clean-faced youth — but they are part of a set. If the attribution is accurate, these statues will be the only known surviving bronzes by a sculptor whose works in marble have become icons of Western art.

As always in cases of disputed authorship, conclusive evidence is hard to come by and these bronzes have already been attributed to a variety of artists known and unknown. The Rothschild Bronzes are so named because they were first recorded in the art collection of Swiss banker Baron Adolphe de Rothschild published in 1878. The works were attributed to Michelangelo at that time, but it was immediately disputed. The undeniably high quality of the bronzes and their style pointed to a 16th century Italian Renaissance origin. With no signature or mark that could resolve the issue, other possible authors like sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino and Tiziano Aspetti, known particularly for his bronze sculptures, were mooted.

After the flurry of interest after the 1878 publication, the pair sank into relative obscurity, remaining in the Rothschild collection until in 1957 they were sold to French collector. They returned with a huge splash at Sotheby’s European Sculpture and Works of Art 900-1900 auction on July 9th, 2002. Attributed non-committally to the “Florentine School, mid-16th century,” the pre-sale estimate of £1 million – £1.5 million ($1.5 million – $2.25 million) suggested strongly that Sotheby’s had an inkling that Florentine school might turn out to be a very prestigious one indeed, although the buzz was more Cellini than Michelangelo. The pair sold to a British collector for £1.65 million ($2,478,000).

They weren’t the only softly attributed sculptures to sell big at that auction. A terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Piazza Navona stole the show. Even though Bernini’s direct authorship was uncertain (one of his students is known to have carved the final marble piece), it was purchased by New York art dealers Salander-O’Reilly Galleries for £1.9 million ($2.85 million), more ten times the pre-sale estimate of £120,000-180,000 ($180,000 – $270,000), because they believed it was so finely figured that it bore the hand of the master himself. The next year Salander-O’Reilly sold the statue to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth where it is currently on display as the work of Bernini.

In 2003, the pair of bronzes were loaned to the Frick Collection in New York City where they were attributed not just to another artist, but a Dutch one at that. The Frick exhibited them as the work of Willem van Tetrode, a 16th century sculptor who studied in Italy and took the Italian Renaissance sculptural approach back home with him. They appeared at the Royal Academy of Arts in London’s Bronze exhibition in 2012 with a new attribution. This time they were 16th-century Italian again, but the work an unknown Roman sculptor in the “Circle of Michelangelo.”

Cambridge stepped into the fray in the autumn of 2013 when art history professor emeritus Paul Joannides noticed that a page of drawings (“Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus” now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier) done in 1508 by an apprentice of Michelangelo’s copying his master’s works featured a drawing of a male nude astride a panther. To investigate further, Joannides collaborated with Fitzwilliam curator Victoria Avery, conservation experts Robert van Langh and Arie Pappot from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Warwick University Medical School anatomy professor Peter Abrahams, art historian Charles Avery, Verrocchio specialist Andrew Butterfield and art critic Martin Gayford.

The team looked into every aspect of the bronzes. Oxford University scientists confirmed using thermoluminescence dating that the statues were cast between 300 and 500 years ago. The Rijksmuseum conservators sent samples from the bronzes’ cores to a neutron imaging lab in Switzerland which found that the thick walls of bronze were typical of 16th century Florentine casting. Dr. Abrahams’ examination of the nudes’ bodies found them anatomically correct down to the peroneal tendon and the transverse arch of the foot. He also found the anatomical detail of the nudes — navels, back grooves, abs — corresponded exactly with features from other Michelangelo sculptures and preparatory drawings from 1500-1510.

The investigation is ongoing, but the findings thus far are strong enough to undergird an attribution to the young Michelangelo, made after he completed the David in 1504 and as he began work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The final report of the research team will be presented at a conference on July 6th of this year. The bronzes will be on display in the Italian galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum from February 3rd through August 9th. There’s a book detailing the research on the figures available at the museum gift shop.

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Only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell on display

February 2nd, 2015

The only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice is going on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., along with other early experimental recordings from Bell’s Volta Laboratory Associates. The exhibition “Hear My Voice”: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound opened on January 26th and runs through July 1st.

Alexander Graham Bell recorded himself rattling off numbers and concluding with an appropriately historic sign-off (“In witness whereof, hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”) on April 15th, 1885. His voice was engraved on a wax-on-composition-board disc at the Volta Laboratory in D.C. where Alexander, his cousin Chichester A. Bell and scientific instrument maker Charles Sumner Tainter experimented in the early recording and transmission of sound. Bell used prize money he had won from the French Government for the invention of the telephone to found the Volta Laboratory in 1880-1. The work they did for the next six years, much of it improvements in existing technology rather than brand new inventions, resulted in several patents.

To ensure they had incontrovertible evidence of the process should anyone contest a patent, the Volta Laboratory deposited their recordings, documents and devices at the Smithsonian almost as soon as they were made. After the Volta Laboratory patents were transferred to the Volta Bureau where Bell focused on the study of deafness, the original Volta Lab archive remained at the Smithsonian. For more than a century, the Institution had more than 400 of the earliest sound recordings in its archives but because these experimental media and technologies were so delicate they were unplayable, they had no way to figure out what was on the records.

That changed in 2011 when curator Carlene Stephens at the National Museum of American History read that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California was successfully recovering sound from damaged, unplayable early recordings using an optical scanner and digital audio software. The scanner creates a digital map of the surface of a record. The map is cleaned of scratches and skips and then run through software that replicates the movement a stylus would make through the grooves of a disc or cylinder to reproduce the audio on the digital map. The result is a digital sound file of the recording made without adding any trauma to the original medium.

Stephens set up a collaborative project between the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History to scan six of the hundreds of recordings from the Volta collection. That was expanded in 2013 to include another three recordings. The wax disc with Alexander Graham Bell’s voice was one of the three. A written transcript of the contents of the record signed and dated by Alexander Graham Bell confirmed that it was the man himself reciting those numbers.

This video shows the Bell transcript scrolling along with the recording:

The exhibition will place the delicate experimental recordings on display in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. The diverse media Bell experimented with — a glass disc, a green wax disc on a brass holder, a tiny green disc — will be seen in public for the first time. They will be accompanied by original documents, notes, Volta Laboratory technology like the graphophone and sundry objects like the cover of a tin box Bell used to deposit some of his earliest experiments at the Smithsonian in October of 1881.

When the exhibition closes on July 1st, 2015, the National Museum of American History will launch its new space dedicated to the history of American invention. It will open “42,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, hands-on programs, performance spaces and an education center on its first floor.”

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Sketch of Van Gogh found in friend’s scrapbook

February 1st, 2015

Bernard's sketch albumA previously unknown sketch of painter Vincent van Gogh has been found in an album of drawings by his friend Emile Bernard. The album, a collection of the French artist’s sketches cut out of other books and then pasted into a used accounts ledger, has been in the archive of the Bremen Kunsthalle museum in Germany since they bought it from Bernard’s son-in-law in 1970. Even though it’s been in the museum archives for 45 years, the notebook hasn’t been published or even thoroughly researched until now because making heads or tails of it was an immense challenge. The scrapbook is a jumbled mixture of 858 works in a variety of styles, techniques and media, the earliest sketch done when Bernard was 13 years old, the most recent when he was in his sixties.

The subject of the sketch was identified as Van Gogh by Bremen Kunsthalle curator Dorothee Hansen during research for the upcoming exhibition Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity (pdf), the first large retrospective of the artist’s work covering all stages of his output and including works by friends, collaborators and contemporaries like Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh.

Sketch of Vincent van Gogh by Emile Bernard, winter of 1886-7Bernard’s hasty sketch captures Van Gogh in a Parisian café, probably in Montmartre. He is drinking with two women, most likely prostitutes. Van Gogh has a short beard, moustache and slightly receding hair. Most noticeable are the piercing eyes. The sketch has spontaneity, suggesting that Bernard drew it while they were out for an evening.

Van Gogh has two bottles prominently placed before him, probably of wine (it is possible that one is absinthe and the other the accompanying water, although this was normally served in a carafe). The Dutchman appears to be clutching a glass. Soon after his departure for Arles, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo: “I’m better than in Paris, and if my stomach has become terribly weak that’s a problem I picked up there, probably due mainly to the bad wine, of which I drank too much.”

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, winter of 1886-7Hansen identified him from his features which while roughly sketched are still recognizably comparable to van Gogh’s self-portraits. As no photographs of him as an adult have survived, those self-portraits are our main visual resource for the Dutch artist’s appearance. The face, hair and intense, unsmiling expression in the sketch are very much in keeping with the self-portraits Vincent van Gogh made in the winter of 1886-7, which is when Hansen believes the sketch was made.

Bernard met Van Gogh in March of 1886 at Atelier Cormon, the Paris studio of painter Fernand Cormon who aimed to prepare his students for acceptance into the annual Paris Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This institution was on its last legs in the 1880s, pummeled by two decades of rejecting Impressionists and avant-garde works. The official Salon with its traditional realism and historical/mythological themes was far behind the times and would close in 1890, but even so cutting edge artists like Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard went to Cormon’s school for a while.

Van Gogh and Bernard became good friends. The worked and played together, painting together and hanging out in bars with cheap wine and cheaper women. Other luminaries of the era participated as well. Notes in the ledger indicate there were portraits of two other famous artist friends of Bernard’s — a profile of Pointillist Paul Signac and two caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec — but they were removed and sold privately to collectors before the 1970 sale to the museum. The postcard-sized pen-and-ink sketch of Van Gogh, the wine and the ladies is the only one left in its original context in the scrapbook.

Portrait of Vincent van Gogh by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887As small and dashed-off as it is, its importance belies its size because there are very few portraits of Van Gogh made by someone who was not Van Gogh. Six others are known:

These are a pastel by Toulouse-Lautrec; an oil painting and a sheet of sketches by the Australian artist John Russell; and sketches by Lucien Pissarro, the English artist Horace Livens and the Scottish artist Archibald Hartrick (the latter probably not done from life, but in the 1930s).

The Bernard album will be on display at the Kunsthalle exhibition starting February 7th, but it won’t be opened to the Van Gogh sketch until March 31st. Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity closes two months later on May 31st, 2015.

 

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British Columbia library acquires 13th c. Papal bull

January 31st, 2015

University of British Columbia history professor Richard Pollard with the Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.The University of British Columbia Library has acquired what may be the oldest document of its kind in Canada: a Papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. The ink on parchment manuscript was signed by the Pope and 13 cardinals, among them Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, recently appointed Cardinal-Deacon of the titular church of St. Nicola in Carcere and future Pope Nicholas III. Accompanying the parchment is the lead seal (bulla in Latin, which gives the decree its name) at the end of a tassel of blue ribbon and red and yellow silk cords. It’s no longer attached to the document, but it’s otherwise in excellent condition.

The bull is a beautiful document. It’s 2 by 1.8 feet in dimension and penned in a glorious hand on sheepskin or calfskin parchment.

Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem.

Detail of first line. Image by Don Erhardt. Rota detail and monogram for 'Bene Valete' or farewell. Image by Don Erhardt.

It was purchased last year from London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for $15,000 to strengthen the library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. These documents are invaluable teaching tools for the university’s English and History departments because, in addition to the information they contain, they give the students a tangible connection to the past they’re studying. Although it was in good condition when it arrived, the bull

had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama with humidification chamber used to treat Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

You can see the difference by comparing the photographs in this post to the digitized version of the document.

Papal seal obverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The First Council of Lyons was the least attended church council yet with 150 bishops, but that sparse attendance was actually a ramification of how politically significant it was. Pope Innocent IV was on the run from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, stupor mundi, whose troops were besieging Rome. He escaped through Liguria reaching Lyons, which was conveniently located just outside of Frederick’s territory, in December of 1244 and in the beginning of the new year called an ecumenical council for June. Although Frederick sent three representatives of his own, many of the prelates from his German and Sicilian territories were too intimidated to attend. Turmoil in the east kept many others away. In the end attendants were primarily from France and Spain.

On the agenda at this council was the dignity of the Church (the rule that cardinals had to wear red hats was first promulgated at Lyons), reconquest of the Holy Land, dealing with the Mongol Empire’s invasions of eastern and central Europe, and last but most certainly not least, addressing the conflict between papacy and empire. On July 17th, the council issued the bull Ad Apostolicae Dignitatis Apicem which excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II on the grounds that he’d broken oaths he made to the Church, forcibly detained delegates on their way to an earlier council and was probably a heretic anyway, complete with a harem, eunuchs and Saracen guards.

Papal seal reverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The bull at the UBC Library was issued on July 30th, three days after the pope excommunicated and deposed the Holy Roman Emperor. It confirmed the benefices and properties of the Poor Clares in the church of Saint Michael in Trento, placing them under the direct protection of the Holy See. As minor an issue as this may seem compared to the excommunication of an emperor, it was all part of the rich tapestry of flipping Frederick the bird.

In 1027 Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II had established the Bishopric of Trent, an area roughly equivalent to the modern autonomous region of Trentino, as an ecclesiastical principality. Conrad deemed bishops less likely to cause trouble than German princes and Trentino was strategically important because two transalpine Roman roads connecting what is today southern Germany to northern Italy crossed through it. The Bishops were strong allies of the Emperor against local lords for two centuries. In 1236, Frederick II deposed the bishops and reclaimed direct imperial authority over Trento, appointing his personal friend Ezzelino III da Romano as viceroy.

Meanwhile, Abbess Palmeria of the Poor Clares had received the church of Saint Michael in Trento and its associated benefices from Bishop Gerald Oscasali in 1229. In 1237, the year after Frederick deposed the Bishop of Trent, Pope Gregory IX wrote to the secular authorities in Trento to complain about them harassing the sisters and levying taxes on donations to the convent. By placing the Saint Michael convent under the protection of the Holy See, the 1245 Papal bull was drawing yet another line in the sand between Church and State: this is ours and your laws/taxes/claims don’t apply.

As an aside, the question of donations was a thorny one from a religious perspective as well, since whether the Poor Clares could own property was a raging debate. Clare herself was still alive and not yet a saint when all this was going down. There was no Rule yet. The Clares lived according to strictures drawn up by Gregory when he was bishop. Innocent IV’s bull asserted their right to financial self-sufficiency, to possessions, one of a series of similar decisions from a number of popes that would materially alter the original brief of the mendicant orders.

 

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Ancient Siberian trepanation recreated

January 30th, 2015

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Russian Academy of Science’s Siberian branch, have recreated the ancient trepanation technique of the nomadic people who inhabited the Altai region of western Siberia between the 6th and early 2nd centuries B.C. A neurosurgeon, a radiologist, anthropologists and archaeologists examined three skulls with antemortem trepanation holes excavated from grave mounds in the Altai mountains and then attempted to perform comparable surgeries using a period-accurate tool on a modern cadaver’s skull.

Skull from Bikeh III, male 50-60 years old, 5th–4th centuries B.C.All three skulls were unearthed from humble graves. The grave goods and associated burial rites indicate the interred were of relatively low social status, which means at least some of the poorer Altai nomads had access to quite high level health care. The types of graves and funerary rituals are all different, suggesting the subjects came from diverse cultural groups. One of the skulls was excavated from mound three at the Bikeh III burial ground. It belonged to a male between 50 and 60 years old and dates to the 5th–4th centuries B.C. A second skull, excavated from a cyst grave in Kyzyl-Dzhar IV mound two, is that of a woman who died at around 30 years of age. The last is from an undercut, timber-frame grave in Kyzyl Dzhar V mound three and is the skull of a man aged 40-45. Both date to around the 4th-3rd centuries B.C.

Using multi-slice computer tomography scans, researchers first examined the skulls in minute detail to identify any damage or defect that led to the surgeries and to analyze the methods and tools used by the ancient surgeons.

TSkull from Kyzyl-Dzhar-V, 40-year-old man, 4th-3rd c. B.C.he skull of the 50-60 y.o. male showed no visible evidence of head trauma, but rather that he suffered from a congenital skull deformation — a flattening of part of the occipital bone caused by an improper closing of the lambdoid suture. This was not a dangerous or painful condition at this point in his life and there’s no sign of trauma or tumors, so it’s not obvious why surgical intervention was attempted. Whatever was ailing him, it didn’t leave tell-tale signs on the cranium. The skull of the woman bears evidence of severe trauma: fractures in the right temporal bone and at the base of the middle cranial fossa, possibly caused by a fall from a height. The skull of the 40-year-old man indicates he suffered significant head trauma causing damage to his left temporal and parietal bones. That injury resulted in a hematoma — bleeding in the brain that forms a clot — which would have inflicted a variety of painful symptoms including headaches, vomiting and difficulty moving his right limbs.

Both men had pieces of their left parietal bone removed. The older gentleman’s skull has a semi-oval hole that is 45 by 52 mm (1.8 by 2 inches) at the outer perimeter with an inner hole of 22 by 34 mm (.87 by 1.34 inches). The younger fellow’s skull has a round hole that is 63 mm by 64 mm (2.5 inches) on the outside, 40 mm by 41 mm (1.6 inches) on the inside. The young woman’s skull has an irregular round trepanation hole in the back of the parietal bones centered on the sagittal suture. It’s 39 mm by 36 mm (1.5 by 1.4 inches) on the outside, 23 mm by 16 mm (.9 by .6 inches) on the inside. The inner and outer measurements are a result of a two-stage process: first a larger surface layer of bone was cut out with a sharp tool leaving a thin layer of skull, then a hole was cut into the thinned out bone with short, frequent movements.

Skull from Kyzyk-Dzhar-IV, 30-year-old woman, 4th-3rd c.The men’s skulls both have extensive bone regrowth at the surgical sites, which means they survived and went on to live for years after the operation. The woman was not so lucky. She died either during surgery or right after it, and little wonder since her surgeon did an atrocious job. The surgeons who operated on the men cut holes that were just large enough to address the problem (remove the hematoma from the younger man; possibly remove parasites from the older one) and at a safe distance from the sagittal sinus, into which all the major veins from the top of the skull open. The woman’s trepanation hole is right above the superior sagittal sinus, so it’s a fair assumption that she died from massive bleeding.

The two successful surgeries were performed with distinct finesse by knowledgable surgeons. They may have developed this knowledge independently, perhaps developed from expertise in embalming, from the fast and thorough butchering of stock and game that a nomadic existence requires, or from making objects out of animal bone, a craft that was extensively practiced by the Altai nomads in the 5th century. There’s also a chance they may have had contact with western medical practices during war, trade or travel. Hippocrates wrote the treatise On Head Injuries in the 5th or early 4th century B.C. which specifically addressed the importance of avoiding the blood geyser areas of the brain when digging holes into the skull.

Knives (a-e) and saw (f) from Minusinsk MuseumSince even with today’s technology scraping or cutting or grinding bone leaves particles from the tool on the bone, the team tested the new bone growth on the two men who survived the operation for material that would identify which kind of tool was used. X-ray fluorescence and mass-spectrometric analyses discovered particles of copper and tin, which means the skulls were cut with a bronze instrument. The lack of arsenic further narrows it down to stannic bronze which at the time of the burials was being used in the Minusinsk Basin. The Martyanov Museum in Minusinsk has a large collection of stannic bronze tools — knives, saws, lancets, tweezers, probes — that archaeologists have posited had a surgical purpose. Unfortunately they were not excavated in context (looters sold them to the museum in the late 19th, early 20th century), so it’s hard to pinpoint a date of manufacture.

Experimental brass knifeNeurosurgeon Dr. Aleksei Krivoshapkin first tried to use one of the blades from the museum on a skull, but it was too soft and couldn’t get purchase on the bone. Archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky made an experimental knife out of a brass alloy of copper, tin and zinc. That addition of zinc made for a functional skull-cutting tool that the team could test on a cadaver skull.

Trepanation experiment on modern cadaver skullHere’s the most amazing part of this fascinating foray into ancient brain surgery: the operation took 28 minutes. Using a freaking brass knife and Altai cutting techniques, it took Dr. Krivoshapkin less than half an hour to make a two-inch hole in a skull. I was just reading the other day about how Cervantes’ father was a surgeon and it was seen as a low job, akin to a butcher, but look at the incredible skills that butcher heritage brought to the surgical table. I hope Cervantes Sr. was all “Yeah, that’s right. I’m an amazing butcher. You wish you could do with living tissue what I can do in 28 minutes. Haters to the left.”

 

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