Longmen Grottoes

The Longmen Grottoes, a Buddhist cave complex located 13 kilometers south of Luoyang in China’s Henan province, form some of the most significant and exquisite representations of ancient Chinese stone art. Created over the course of approximately five centuries beginning in 493 CE, these grottoes, along with the statues and inscriptions carved within, provide a window into the political, cultural…

The 1st photographs of a total solar eclipse

It’s been far too long since I indulged in a theme post. As total eclipse of the sun mania has struck the US, I’m jumping on the bandwagon too. The subject covers three of my favorite obsessions: the history of photography, the history of astronomy and historical firsts, all accompanied by that greatest of all obsessions, great high-resolution pictures.

William and Frederick Langenheim were born in Schöningen, Germany in 1807 and 1809 respectively. The were from a prominent family — their father Friedrich Wilhelm was mayor of Schöningen from 1808 until 1813 — but left what was then the Duchy of Brunswick in the 1830s. They immigrated to the United States and carved out careers as journalists. By 1842, they had opened a photography studio in Philadelphia.

The Langenheim daguerreotype studio quickly rose to preeminence in the city, thanks to the brothers’ great talent, inventiveness and embrace of new technology. In 1850 they debuted a new projectable photographic slides they called Hyalotypes. The device used to project them was a better-mousetrap version of the magic lantern which projected small drawn or painted images onto large screens. The stereopticon, as the Langenheim’s device became known, was a huge leap forward because it projected photographic images, not drawings, and because daguerreotypes capture even the most minute detail that cannot be seen with the naked eye, they could be magnified onto a screen at enormous dimensions, large enough that an auditorium of thousands could see spectacular images of, say, Niagara Falls or St. Peter’s Basilica without loss of resolution.

The brothers’ stereopticon had another feature that would prove momentous: a twin lense system that allowed the images to be faded one into the other, a smooth transition that far outshone the magic lantern’s choppy switch-overs. When they conceived of showing slides in an orderly progression, one dissolving into the other in a chronologically rational sequence, they unwittingly introduced the forerunner to the moving picture. The Langenheims charged people a dime to see pictures of natural, historical, architectural, artistic and scientific wonders projected on the big screen and the device was a huge hit.

A perfect subject for the stereopticon appeared in the skies over North America on May 26th, 1854. It was a total eclipse of the sun, the first one in the US since Louis Daguerre announced his new image-fixing process in 1839. The Langenheim brothers took eight daguerreotypes of the eclipse as it progressed. Only seven of them have survived. They are now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although six other daguerreotypists and one calotypist are known to have documented the event, only these seven daguerreotypes survive. In the northern hemisphere, the moon always shadows the sun from right to left during a solar eclipse; these images therefore seem odd because they are, like all uncorrected daguerreotypes, reversed laterally as in a mirror.

It is noteworthy that these daguerreotypes are quite small, three exceptionally so. In order to produce any kind of image at all, the Langenheims were forced to use the smallest cameras available, since smaller cameras require proportionally less light and there was virtually no available light when the disk of the new moon eclipsed the largest part of the sun. The missing eighth image was probably made on the smaller plate size and showed nothing at all-a total eclipse.

As for our eclipse, now so easily captured by terrestrial and satellite technology, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is going all out. They have secured safe solar telescopes from the National Air and Space Museum and will make them available to the public between 1:00 and 4:00PM so people can watch the eclipse up close and in total security. They’ve also created an exhibition, Solar Eclipses: Past and Present, from their pictures and records of other eclipses.

For all you eclipse watchers out there, don’t forget your protective eyewear. If you don’t have the opportunity to view the eclipse in person, you can follow its whole extraordinary path on NASA’s website.

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The Unique History and Exquisite Aesthetic of Japan’s Ethereal Woodblock Prints

Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Print History

Celebrated for their one-of-a-kind process and distinctive aesthetic, woodblock prints have become a widely recognized and iconic form of Japanese art. Along with paintings, prints produced from the 17th century through the 19th century captured the spirit of ukyio-e, a genre that presented “pictures of the floating world” to the public.

Here, we explore these Japanese woodblock prints, paying particular attention to their fascinating history, age-old techniques, recognizable style, and lasting legacy.

History

Introduced during China’s Han Dynasty (a period lasting from 206 BC–220 AD), the art of woodblock printing was not popularized in mainstream Japan until its Edo period (an era from 1603–1868). Initially, the woodblock printing process was used to reproduce traditional hand-scrolls as affordable books, but it was soon adopted as a means to mass-produce prints.

While woodblock printing was eventually replaced by methods of moveable type (in terms of text), it remained a preferred and popular method among Japanese artists for decades—namely, those working in the ukiyo-e genre. Japanese masters like Andō Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, and Kitagawa Utamaro helped elevate the practice with their “floating world prints,” which are considered world-class works of art today.

Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints Japanese Prints History

‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Katsushika Hokusai (ca. 1829-1833)
Photo: Katsushika Hokusai [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Technique

Much like western woodcut processes, the Japan-based method revolves around relief carvings and conscious color application.

To create a woodblock print in the traditional Japanese style, an artist would first draw an image onto washi, a thin yet durable type of paper. The washi would then be glued to a block of wood, and—using the drawing’s outlines as a guide—the artist would carve the image into its surface.

The artist would then apply ink to the relief. A piece of paper would be placed on top of it, and a flat tool called a baren would help transfer the ink to the paper. To incorporate multiple colors into the same work, artists would simply repeat the entire process, creating separate woodblocks and painting each with a different pigment.

 

Stylistic Characteristics

Rich Color Palette

While producing prints was a quick and seemingly mechanical process, it culminated in rich hues reminiscent of meticulously hand-colored paintings. Radiant reds, vivid blues and greens, and even stark blacks are prevalent in the most celebrated woodblock prints, like Hiroshige’s The Plum Garden in Kameido.

Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints Japanese Prints History

‘The Plum Garden in Kameido’ by Andō Hiroshige (1857)
Photo: Utagawa; Hiroshige (I) , Utagawa died 1858; Uoya Eikichi Hiroshige (I) [Public domain, Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these impressive color palettes are first evident in pieces produced during the late 1700s, when artists advanced their processes with new tools and materials. “To print with precision using numerous blocks on a single paper sheet, a system of placing two cuts on the edge of each block to serve as alignment guides was employed. Paper made from the inner bark of mulberry trees was favored, as it was strong enough to withstand numerous rubbings on the various woodblocks and sufficiently absorbent to take up the ink and pigments. Reproductions, sometimes numbering in the thousands, could be made until the carvings on the woodblocks became worn.”

 

Flat Compositions

While most artists working with paper aim to achieve realistic senses of perspective, those specializing in woodblock prints were less concerned with depth and dimensionality. Instead, they favored strong shapes, graphic designs, and bold lines.

Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints Japanese Prints History

‘Bathhouse Women’ by Torii Kiyonaga (c. 1780)
Photo: Library of Congress

This stylistic preference is evident in Kiyonaga’s Bathhouse Women, where the artist’s preference for pops of color, beautiful subject matter, and even compositional geometry dominate any interest in achieving accurate perspective.

 

Bold Lines

Given the nature of the printmaking process—especially when prints were monochromatic—thick, obvious outlines were both inevitable and embraced aesthetic features.

Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints Japanese Prints History

‘Kanbara’ by Andō Hiroshige (1833-1934)
Photo: Hiroshige [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These exquisite black lines contrasted the colorful, watercolor-like nature of the paints, giving the pieces an illustrative quality and emphasizing their flat nature. “The soft, water-soluble colors, which were until the late nineteenth century derived from plant and mineral sources, were applied in relatively large flat areas bordered by the fine line drawing of the design,” explains San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. “Even when artists borrowed shading techniques from the West, the woodblock process still created an essentially flat image, one of the special characteristics of Japanese prints.”

The post The Unique History and Exquisite Aesthetic of Japan’s Ethereal Woodblock Prints appeared first on My Modern Met.

Dutch shipwreck yields more treasures

Divers exploring the wreck of the Rooswijk, an 18th century Dutch ship off the coast of Kent, England, have discovered a sealed seaman’s chest whose contents are unknown but could be actual treasure. The largest of several chests recovered from the wreck, it is about one meter long and could contain objects like sabre blades (known to have been on board) that need a long container. Or, like other chests previously recovered from the wreck, it could contain silver ingots and coins, a conventional treasure as well as a historical one.

Of course, any contents at all would be archaeologically precious, but archaeologists dare not open it for risk of damaging the chest and/or its contents.

It may never be possible, or even desirable, to open the mystery chest. Conventional x-rays often don’t reveal much of heavily concreted objects. Angela Middleton, a conservation expert at Historic England, hopes to persuade the customs authorities to bring along one of the scanners they use at the port to check for people and goods hidden in lorries, and see if it shows up anything.

“We might find out it is impossible to open the chest without destroying it. Or we might find out what is in it and decide it’s just not worth even trying to open it,” she said.

The Rooswijk, a three-masted Dutch East India (VOC) trading ship, had just set off from Amsterdam on its way to Jakarta with a hold full of silver bullion and coins to buy spices when it was blown off course in a storm and sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands off Kent in January of 1740. Known as the Ship Swallower, the Goodwin devoured the Rooswijk and all 250 crew and passengers on board.

The ship was so heavily laden it went down in a flash. British newspapers reported on the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship in the storm. Letters and debris washed ashore. It’s not clear whether the VOC was made immediately aware of these reports. The voyage to Jakarta was so long Dutch East India officials wouldn’t have had reason to worry until after the ship failed to reach its scheduled stop at the Cape of Good Hope, months after its departure and sinking.

Whatever was left of the Rooswijk and its very heavy, very valuable cargo was covered over by the Goodwin Sands and its location remained a mystery for centuries. After years of documentary research and a magnetometer survey, a diver found the wreck and in 2005, a team of underwater archaeologists explored it. They recovered more than 1,000 artifacts, including musket parts, knives, sword blades, hilts and scabbards, pewter dinnerware, silver coins, more than 500 four-pound silver ingots. Because the wreck is owned by the Dutch government by virtue of its having absorbed the Dutch East India Company in 1798, the artifacts recovered from the wreck are property of the Netherlands and were returned to it. Some of them are now on display at the Maritime Museum in Vlissingen.

Because of its historical importance and rarity — just a third of the 250 known VOC wrecks have ever been found and the Rooswijk is the only one of them to be scientifically investigated — in 2007 the site was designated a protected wreck. The designation made any unauthorized interference with it a crime. Still, the location was kept under wraps to discourage treasure hunters from trying their luck.

Last year, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Historic England launched a new excavation of the Rooswijk. There was an urgent need to survey the site because changing tides had drastically shifted the deep silt layers, exposing timbers that have long been shielded under the sediments. This not only triggered precipitous decay, but it made it more likely that looters might find the ship.

Working with the divers who first explored the wreck in 2005, archaeologists have recovered pewter tankards and spoons, glass brandy bottles, elaborately carved knife handles, shoes, wine glasses with twist stems, an onion jar, cooking tiles, Mexican silver dollars and cut up pieces of eight. All of the artifacts have been taken to a huge warehouse in Ramsgate to be recorded and receive any emergency treatment they require. They will then be moved to a Historic England facility for further conservation before being returned to the Netherlands.

There will be an open day at the Ramsgate warehouse on September 16th to give the public what may be their only chance and seeing some of these finds before they leave the country.

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Five centuries of history unearthed in Roman villa

An international team of archaeologists, students and volunteers excavating the Roman villa of Durreueli at Realmonte in Sicily have unearthed evidence of habitation and usage from a much broader period than previously realized.

Through a month of excavations, they determined the villa was consistently occupied between the 2nd and 7th century CE and reconfigured to settlement in the 5th century Common Era (CE). That conclusion comes following the discovery of new walls, floor levels, staircase and water channel.

The team found cookware and lamps along with a large quantity of African Late Roman pottery and related materials such as kiln spacers. This leads researchers to believe an important function of the village was to produce pottery, bricks and tiles in industrial scale, helping explain the economic history of Late Antique Sicily.

One of Sicily’s largest Roman villas covering 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) in area, the Durreueli remains were first discovered in the early 1900s during railroad construction. They weren’t professionally excavated until 1979 when a team of Japanese archaeologists explored the site for six years. They unearthed important parts of the villa, including its baths and exceptional mosaics dedicated to the deities of the sea the structure so dramatically overlooks, but nowhere near the wide range of dates that the current excavation has encountered.

After Japanese excavation ended in 1985, the site was closed the public and all but ignored, even though it is just a hop, skip and a jump from the area’s preeminent tourist attraction, the Scala dei Turchi (the staircase of the Turks), a limestone rock formation that looks like gigantic steps built on a golden beach. The city of Agrigento with its exceptional Doric temple is just six miles to the east.

Dig director Dr. Davide Tanasi, assistant professor in History at the University of South Florida, sought to rectify this unfortunate neglect of such significant archaeological remains. Working with the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage of Agrigento, Tanasi not only excavated the villa this season, making important finds that vastly expanded its chronology, he enlisted USF’s state-of-the-art Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST) to thoroughly scan the site and create 3D views that will prove invaluable in determining the best approach to ongoing excavations in interpreting the phases of construction.

There aren’t any really good pictures of the excavation (not by my standards anyway), but Dr. Tanasi’s YouTube channel steps into the breach. There are super-short videos of the excavators in action:

Charming testimonials from participants in the project:

And the greatest gems in the collection, aerial and terrestrial 3D scans of the whole villa which are extremely cool views for we civilians as well as and essential tools for archaeologists.

The USF team will return to the villa next summer for a second season of excavations.

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