Archive for February, 2013

A team of Spanish maritime historians will build a full-size, seaworthy replica of the San Juan, a Basque whaling galleon that sank near the shore of Red Bay, Labrador, in the autumn of 1565. The wreck of the 52-foot, three-masted, 250-ton ship was discovered in 1978 by Parks Canada divers working on clues unearthed in documents found in Valladolid and Oñate by federal archivist Selma Huxley Barkham. It’s the oldest shipwreck ever discovered in Canadian waters and an invaluable source of information about Basque shipping in general and the Basque presence in Canada in particular.

Canadian archaeologists will meet with Spanish experts this week to share all the information on the ship’s construction they’ve accumulated over the decades.

“Right from the start, we thought this was a really, really great idea,” said Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada’s chief of underwater archeology. “For archeologists, this is basically the ultimate final product. You’re taking all of the research from a site that’s been excavated, then you take it to the maximum in experimental archeology,” physically recreating “what is lost.”

The replica will take several years to build. It’s scheduled to be up and running by 2016 in time to be a part of the celebrations in the Basque city of San Sebastian which has been designated by the Europe Council of the European Union as a European Capital of Culture for 2016. San Sebastian is on the southern coast of the Bay of Biscay and was an important capital of shipping during the Middle Ages and Age of Discovery. Many of the whaling expeditions to Labrador (known as the Carrera de Terranova or Newfoundland Run) in the 16th century departed from San Sebastian and were funded by its financiers.

The Terranovan whaling voyages were as profitable as the Carrera de Indias (Indies Run) which transported massive quantities of gold and silver to Spain. The earliest Spanish records on Labrador whaling date to the 1540s and they document extensive trade in “lumera” (whale oil used for lamps which burned brighter than vegetable oils), and blubber that was used in the construction of ships, the manufacture of soap, pharmaceutical products and in the textile industry. The Basque shipping industry had extensive experience in whaling closer to home, so when the new market opened in the New World, their expertise ensured big profits from day one. Even during war between France and Spain and outbreaks of piracy in the 1550s, Basque ships carried whale products to England, Flanders and Spain.

An average of 15 Basque ships a year did the Labrador-Europe run, each of them carrying at least 1,000 400-pound barrels of whale oil and blubber. That’s a conservative estimate. Many years production exceeded 15,000 barrels per year. The number of whales killed in the Strait of Belle Isle averaged 20 per ship. The San Juan was carrying almost 1,000 barrels of whale oil when she went down. Most of that was salvaged from the wreck and sent to its destination.

Although Basque whalers were a major presence in the Labrador straits from the 1530s to the early 17th century, they haven’t gotten much attention because they didn’t put down roots. Their interest in Canada was purely commercial; there was no attempt to colonize it. They summered on the coast, building camps and red-tiled huts over cauldron furnaces which boiled for days, rendering the whale blubber. Those curved red tiles are highly distinctive, a characteristic element of Basque architecture and one of the few pieces of physical evidence the Basque crews left behind. They were also used to roof the cooperage cabins in which all those thousands of barrels needed to transport the whale oil were made.

One of the most exceptional Basque artifacts ever recovered in Labrador’s Red Bay was a nearly complete whaling rowboat known as a chalupa. Sounds delicious, I know, but it’s actually a small vessel used to chase, harpoon and tow whales. It was found pinned beneath the collapsed side of a 200-ton whaling ship and was excavated and re-assembled board by board. It’s now on display at the Red Bay National Historic Site visitor’s center, along with reconstructions of the red-tiled rendering cauldron huts, models of the San Juan and a replica of a section of a whaling hull that shows how the barrels were packed.

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And will giving back land lead to a just and lasting peace? If you look at the situation as it is, you will discover that never in the history of Israeli-Arab relations have concessions led to an attitude of conciliation and peace. Just the opposite. Initial concessions  have only served to communicate feelings of insecurity and weakness which are capably exploited by the Arabs who are emboldened and encouraged to make further and more excessive demands.

Every retreat before pressure has called forth greater pressure to retreat even further. It all amounts to coercing Israel to take risks when lives are at stake. By not being concerned with their own priroities, Israel lends a certain logic to the Arab arguments: Once Israel has accepted the basic premise that it is proper to compromise its security to placate the Arabs, it is hard to draw red lines. If danger to life is no longer a reason to say “No more,” then what is?

Meeting of Jacob and Esau....Origin: Flanders, 1620s, Francken, Frans II Source of entry: Purchasing Commission of the Experts of the State Hermitage Museum, 1963 School: image for source...

Meeting of Jacob and Esau….Origin: Flanders, 1620s, Francken, Frans II
Source of entry: Purchasing Commission of the Experts of the State Hermitage Museum, 1963
School: Flemish…click image for source…

(see link at end)…The weekend’s events in the West Bank have brought Israel and the Palestinians closer to the boiling point than they have been in many years. The escalation of violence in the weekly demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israel does not bode well.

But the report Saturday evening of the death of a Palestinian detainee at the Megiddo Prison is even more serious. According to the first report by the Shin Bet security service, the detainee, Arafat Jaradat, from the village of Sair near Hebron, was not involved in the hunger strikes underway in the prisons, which have been stirring foment in the West Bank over the past few weeks.

Jaradat’s death will have to be thoroughly investigated. The timing is very bad and the way all the parties act in the next few days will be critical in determining whether or not a third intifada erupts.

The trouble is that for the first time since 2007, it seems that the Palestinian Authority has an interest in making waves, even if the leadership in Ramallah does not want to see long-term bloody clashes. Firstly, diverting attention away from the PA’s ongoing failure to reach a reconciliation agreement with Hamas to the plight of the Palestinian prisoners creates a much needed issue of consensus. That is apparently why PA-affiliated groups like the Prisoners Club and senior Palestinian officials like Qadura Fares and Jibril Rajoub are active behind the scenes in the current protests.

Secondly, in light of the PA’s worsening economic situation, controlled clashes with Israel could persuade the Arab world, preoccupied with the civil war in Syria and other crises, to renew donations to the PA.

--- The First Passover Feast by Huybrecht Beuckelaer, 1563 This painting by Huybrecht Beuckelaer from 1563 is an early depiction of a biblical scene from Exodus 12. It is not meant to show a contemporary 16th century Passover Seder.---click image for source...

— The First Passover Feast by Huybrecht Beuckelaer, 1563
This painting by Huybrecht Beuckelaer from 1563 is an early depiction of a biblical scene from Exodus 12. It is not meant to show a contemporary 16th century Passover Seder.—click image for source…

A third issue is the upcoming visit by U.S. President Barack Obama. Leaks from Washington indicate that Iran and Syria will be major subjects of discussion. Widespread protests could persuade the administration to re-engage in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Read More:

It’s a fair question to ask if the Arabs really want peace, and whether they take it seriously, or whether its just a means of waging war from increasing positions of strength. The average Arab is not opposed to violence against Israel and they can’t really b

amed or responsible for these attitudes and feelings. They are the values from which they have been raised on for years. For them to defy them would mean challenging society’s entire hierarchy. Ultimately, from the heads of state to the ordinary man in the street, the Arab world’s attitude toward Israel is one of hatred and contempt; never have there been any serious attempts toward coexistence.

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Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Woman in Blue Reading a Letter that was restored to its original beauty before going on a tour of Asia last year has touched down in the United States. From February 16th to March 31st, it will be on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, its only stop in North America before it returns to the Rijksmuseum in time for the museum’s grand reopening on April 13th.

“This truly represents an extraordinary opportunity for Southern California,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Vermeer’s Woman in Blue is one of his greatest and most famous masterpieces. It has very rarely traveled outside of Amsterdam and this is the painting’s first visit to the West Coast. Vermeer’s paintings of women reading letters and engaged in other private, domestic activities have a unique intimacy and reality to them that can only be fully appreciated in the flesh. His finest works, like the Woman in Blue, have a magical immediacy that has never been rivaled.”

Taking advantage of the rare presence of such a great example of an interior subject from the Dutch Golden Age, the museum is exhibiting a number of other pieces along with the Vermeer which focus on people engaged in private moments inside the home. Works from the Getty’s permanent collection include Gerard ter Borch’s Music Lesson, Jan Steen’s Drawing Lesson, Pieter de Hooch’s Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy, and Frans van Mieris’s The Doctor’s Visit. An additional piece, An Elegant Lady Writing at Her Desk with a Dog beside Her, has been loaned for the exhibition from a private collection in New York. I love the geometry in Hooch’s painting and I can’t help but wonder what the doctor is peering at in his balloon flask in the Mieris work.

This is a great time to be on the West Coast if you’re a fan of Vermeer and other Dutch masters. The de Young Museum in San Francisco is currently hosting what is probably Vermeer’s most famous work, Girl with a Pearl Earring, as part of an exhibition of 35 important paintings from the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis in The Hague. Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis features 35 important works by Dutch Golden Age masters like Vermeer, Rembrandt and Jan Steen. A companion exhibit at the de Young, Rembrandt’s Century, will be centered on Rembrandt’s etchings and those of other artists who preceded and followed him.

Girl and friends will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta next, where they will be on exhibit from June 22, 2013 to September 29, 2013. The last stop before they return to the Netherlands will be Frick Collection in New York City. You can catch them there from October 22, 2013 to January 12, 2014.

Again we have a major renovation to thank for this artistic bounty. The Mauritshuis is also closed right now while the space is being renovated and expanded. It will remain closed until mid-2014 after which it will have a grand reopening of its own.

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Blue Plaque Hoo-Ha

Posted: February 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

Many were up in arms last week when English Heritage announced that, apart from existing commitments, it would be suspending its blue plaque activities. It was reluctantly taking this step, we learned, because of the severe cut in its grant from Westminster. It had “stood down” its advisory team, comprising Stephen Fry, Andrew Motion and Bonnie Greer (yes, I wondered too!). Much gnashing and wailing of teeth ensued in the press (kicked off by the Guardian, who got its sums completely wrong. Bless), and also on Twitter and Facebook. You’d have thought that all the EH blue plaques were to be torn off the very walls they adorned.

I don’t think we should be overly concerned.

First, it could be argued that we have too many plaques on our streetscape already. If it pleases your worship, I offer you this:

Blue Plaques English Heritage

Further comment superfluous. But in case you’re in thrall to the miracles of Homeopathy, it’s very near South Kensington tube station.

Second, English Heritage don’t have a monopoly on memorial plaques. Just some of the organisations which have put up plaques over the years include London County Council, Greater London Council, Dead Comics Society, City of Westminster, Mayor of London, Hayes Literary Society, The Corporation of the City of London, National Art Collections Fund, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charities Foundation, London Borough of Southwark, John and Ruth Howard Charitable Trust. And on and on. What’s more, attractive as the EH plaques are, some of the others are equally and indeed more so. And in a variety of shapes, colours, sizes. We need variety, and London does higgledy-piggledy rather well.

London Plaques

I’m particularly fond of this world-weary item, provenance apparently unknown.

London Plaques

Third, if we have to have new plaques, it doesn’t have to be English Heritage who takes care of matters. Its ugly sister, the National Trust, is apparently willing to step into the breach. Furthermore, subject to listing, ownership and possibly by-laws I’m not aware of, you can do your own plaques if you have a mind to. Just last summer, the Historic Kilburn Plaque Scheme, led by Ed Fordham (LH Member) put up a plaque to George Orwell.

Finally, I’d like to point out that I’m a fan of English Heritage, in fact I’m a very recent joiner. They run their properties well and have delightful staff. I can see that George Osborne’s Big Cut will give them a nasty headache. But we don’t really need new English Heritage blue plaques particularly urgently one way or another in my view; I suspect they have used this suspension as much as a publicity stunt as anything, and rather successfully, so it would seem. We needn’t get our knickers in a twist.

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Conservators at Madrid’s Prado Museum have uncovered a rare portrait of Louis I, Duke of Orléans, son of Charles V of France and brother of Charles VI, hidden under overpaint in The Agony in the Garden, a 15th-century French painting depicting Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while Peter, John and James slumber. The museum first encountered the work in February of 2011, when the private owner offered it to the Prado for study and potential acquisition. The lab gave it the full analytical monty: ultraviolet photography, X-rays, Infra-red reflectography, tests on the pigments and the panel.

They found that the painting was an extremely high quality piece. The pigments contain large amounts of expensive lapis lazuli painted on a Baltic oak panel. Tree ring analysis of the oak indicated the tree was felled in 1382. The X-rays and Infra-red reflectography revealed the artist had painted two figures on the bottom left which were later painted over with a thick layer of brown. The standing figure is clearly a saint, identified by the lamb at her feet as Saint Agnes. At her feet, a male figure kneels holding a scroll and looking at the scene in the garden. The man is dressed in sumptuous clothes that were fashionable around 1400. According to painterly convention, his posture and position indicates that he was included in the painting because he or his family commissioned the work.

Conservators could not identify the kneeling figure from the X-rays. The pattern on his sleeves was a likely clue — they could be a family emblem — but it wasn’t clear what they were. Saint Agnes was another clue. She takes a protective posture in the painting so could be the patron saint of the man kneeling in front of her. Researchers looked for someone in the upper ranks of French nobility with a connection to Saint Agnes and Louis of Orléans came up. Agnes was the patron saint both of his father King Charles V, to whom he was devoted, and of his wife Valentina Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan.

There are only three extant portraits of Louis, all of them manuscript illuminations. If the Donor could be confirmed as Louis of Orléans, this painting would be the only one of him ever found. Restorers decided to attempt to remove the overpainting to reveal the figure if it could be accomplished without damaging the original paint. The top layer was a natural resin varnish, easily removed using a light solvent. There were two layers of overpainting, the most recent applied in the 19th century or later. The overpainting was separated from the original paint by an isolating layer of varnish, but because the original paint is a very fragile egg tempera, it was too risky to use any solvents. Instead, restorers removed the overpaint with scalpel, looking through a stereoscopic microscope at the highest magnification so they could identify non-original pigment not visible to the naked eye.

Once liberated from their brown prison, the figures were revealed in all their brilliant glory. The colors were far brighter and richer than the colors on the saints and Jesus. The Donor’s scroll was found to be inscribed with the first words of the Psalm 50, aka the Miserere mei. The decorations on the sleeves turned out to be gold nettle leaves and they looked like appliqué rather than a fabric print.

The nettles were the key to the identification of Louis of Orléans. The nettle leaf was one of the duke’s emblems, one he particularly favored from 1399 until his death in 1407. Inventories of his possessions have survived and the 1403 inventory list “LXV feuilles d’or en façon d’orties,” meaning 65 gold leaves in the shape of nettles. He would have used these to decorate his clothes, like the dramatic fur-lined batwing houppelande the Donor wears in the painting.

Comparisons with the manuscript depictions of Louis support the identification. The distinctive nose and chin are similar in all the images, but his bald pate is only visible in the painting because Louis wears a hat in all three illuminations. He can’t wear a hat in Gethsemane, however, because he’s in the presence of God, Father and Son, no less. That makes this portrait even more remarkable.

Once Louis’ identity was pinned down, researchers were able to extrapolate from that the possible artist. There are very few surviving panel paintings from this period, and the style and quality of this one is unique so there is no means to devise attribution by comparing techniques. Louis of Orléans had painter in his household. Colart de Laon worked as a painter and as personal valet to the duke from 1391 until Louis’ death. He then did the same work for Louis’ son Charles until 1411. Contemporary sources praise him as one of the most significant artist of the day, but none of his work has been known to survive.

This painting is a small piece, probably intended for a use in a private chapel rather than a large church. The Gethsemane theme and the Miserere mei were usually included in funerary artworks, and since Louis’ family is not included in the panel, it’s likely that it was commissioned by his wife or son after his assassination.

Louis I, Duke of Orléans, Count of Valois, Duke of Touraine, Count of Blois, Angoulême, Périgord, Dreux, and Soissons, regent of France when his older brother Charles VI, aka Charles the Mad, went insane, was assassinated by his cousin and co-regent John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. John’s courage against Ottoman forces in the Battle of Nicopolis (1396) earned him his nickname and his bullheaded vanity helped ensure his side was utterly routed. You can read all about it in one of my favorite books of all time, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Many of these events are covered in Book IV of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, which sadly I cannot find for free online, but here’s a full version available for 90 cents.

The Prado decided to purchase the painting, needless to say. They cleaned the entire thing, removing the overpaint that had darkened and dulled the rest of the figures and revealing the original brilliant color. The Agony in the Garden is now on display in Room 58A of the Villanueva Building. For more about the painting and restoration, watch these subtitled videos on the Prado’s website.

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Published on February 15th, 2013 | by Sevaan Franks


Excavations have revealed that the site of a new development in England has actually been home to people dating back 9,000 years.

“We’re only just finding out about this, and you blink and more houses have gone up,” she said.

“We’re losing our history just as we’re finding out about it.”

Grain storage pits were later used for ritual feasting and many animal bones were found
But Mr Masefield said although the site was the largest and “most significant” dig in recent years in Oxfordshire, there was nothing of “schedulable value” – so important that it could be legally protected.

He said it was so significant because it “allows the interpretation of a large area of landscape through the ages”.

[Full story]

Story: Eleanor Williams, BBC News | Photo: BBC News

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We’ve spoken before of the difficulty of getting back on horses. Even once the decision to re-mount the damn things has been made, there’s no guarantee the redoubled attempt will turn out any differently. So learned a certain marginal denizen, found in Bibliothèque Mazarine MS 520 and pictured hyeah:

Moments before this image was illuminated, I’m pretty sure we heard a certain now-mounted marginal man exclaim, “Oh, yeah, horse? Well I’ll show you…” Once more, the horse, he has done the showing.Though to his credit, the rider-now-ridden does seem pretty blasé about the whole turn of events:

Were it The Flintstones, I’d expect a closeup and a shrugged out “It’s a living!” to follow–though perhaps it’s just the smoothing from the image enlarging software I used that makes him seem so mellow.

One final thing. For those who follow this blog regularly, be on notice: horse-based-allusions are the closest I plan to come from here forward to apologizing for my lack of activity. I’m done with explaining why I haven’t done stuff. I’ve decided just to do stuff.

Strangely enough, you can thank my occasional co-blogger* Reynard for my new resolve. I’ve been pretty low lately, so low that talking my problems over with anthropomorphic twelfth-century rapist fox** didn’t seem like it could make things any worse. After much time spent insinuating impotence, incontinence, impiety, insolence–you know, basically the whole im/in- section of Roget’s Thesaurus for Bastards–even Reynard could see that there wasn’t much point. “The chump’s gotta have dignity, else it’s just sad, man,” he said, uncharacteristically thoughtful. He then added, “When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True story.”***

It didn’t matter much to me that he’d tried to fob a two year old How I Met Your Mother bit off on me as some sort of hard-won wisdom, because, well–what the hell? Seems worth a try. Not like not not being sad has been working out for me.

I went to thank my inadvertent balm, but found he was already off being awesome himself:****

Fly on, Reynard, Fly on to great justice.*****

  1. * And more than occasional footnote taunter. []
  2. ** Who is himself likely the symptom of a more serious mental decline. []
  3. *** Then he left and sodomized my mom with a recently used plunger. Rubber end first. True story. []
  4. **** This picture was taken pre-revenge sodomy. But what am I saying–with Reynard, it’s never truly pre-revenge sodomy, just pre-his latest revenge sodomy. What a stinker! []
  5. ***** I’m assuming the giant eagle can still fly all yoked up like that. Otherwise, seems like he’d be better off employing something from the normal range of draft animals. But never mind me. I’m just here in the footnotes over-analyzing my own jokes. Maybe it’s best if you just show yourselves out. I may be some time. []

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