Showing posts with label catacombs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label catacombs. Show all posts

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wherefore art thou, Dario?

In the catacombs and crypts of Sicily, of course! My friend Dario Piombino Mascali is an Italian anthropologist and bioarchaeologist who is coordinating the Sicily Mummy Project. He is pictured here nose to nose with one of the mummies in the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo (click for excellent slideshow by photojournalist Fabrizio Villa), where little Rosalia Lombardo lies. Funded by National Geographic, Dario discovered the embalming formula used to preserve her body so perfectly. Other more typical Sicilian mummies Dario has examined include R. Stancanelli (1868) and J.B. Racuja (1873) in Novara di Sicilia and several 18th c. mummies in a crypt in San Marco d'Alunzio. Mummification and exposure was a privileged form of burial in southern Italy and was achieved by placing the corpse in a colatoio, which translates as a colander, but refers to a room or fixture in which the remains were drained of fluids. Placement on a horizontal colatoio such as a wooden dessication rack (2nd image) favored mummification, while being propped up in a sitting colatoio like a dehydration niche (3rd image) favored skeletonization, so that skull and bones could be stored in ossuaries. Visitors report that the draining room (where the liquids of the bodies were naturally wicked away by the well-ventilated conditions) and the drying room (where they were cleaned and dressed) are both on the guided tour of the Capuchin crypt. National Geographic Magazine writes:
"No one knows exactly what started the mummification; probably by chance it was discovered that a body left in a crypt with a particular atmosphere of coolness and porous limestone would actually dry out rather than rot. Then a system was devised. The newly dead were laid in chambers, called strainers, on terra-cotta slats over drains, where their body fluids could seep away and the corpses slowly desiccate, like prosciutto. After eight months to a year, they'd be washed with vinegar, put back in their best clothes, and either placed in coffins or hung on the walls."
As I was writing this post, I was imagining the odor of the galleries. According to National Geographic, they are cool and dank and smell of sour, spiced dust and rotting...cloth.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

St. Paul stares back

Beneath an ugly office building (photo here) lies a Roman time capsule. The catacombs of St. Tecla contain a tiny basilica where early Christians would celebrate Mass, corridors lined with niches for simple burials, and cubicles where the families of the wealthy were interred. One of these last is the frescoed tomb of a noblewoman now known as the "Cubicle of the Apostles," which has just been restored and represents some of the earliest evidence of devotion to the Apostles in early Christianity.

Outside, not far from the catacombs, is the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls, where the bones of the apostle are entombed. Inside the catacombs are the earliest known images of Saints Paul, Peter, Andrew, and John - icons 50cm in diameter dating to the 4th c. St Paul's wrinkled and elongated forehead, balding head, and pointy beard (1st image), indicate that these portraits may have set the standard for later artists' depictions.

During the 2-year restoration, technicians used a laser as an "optical scalpel" to detach a thick patina of powdery calcium carbonate caused by extreme humidity and lack of air circulation (3rd image). The images that were blurry and opaque were revealed with stunning clarity. "As far as paintings inside catacombs go, we are used to very faint paintings, usually white, with few colors. In the case of the St Tecla catacombs, the great surprise was the extraordinary colors. The more we went forward, the more surprises we found," said Barbara Mazzei, who headed the project. She explains that the white crust of the calcium carbonate was in some places 4-5cm thick when they began their work in 2008, but they knew from 19th c. watercolors and diary entries that there were paintings underneath.

The restored paintings were shown off to journalists in June by Fabrizio Bisconti (2nd image), who says they show "the genesis, the seeds of Christian iconography." Bisconti is the superintendent of the catacombs for the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, and notes that the Vatican has no plans to open up these catacombs to the public.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Creative cremains The company that makes diamonds out of human cremains can also make them out of human hair, and has announced plans to produce and sell diamonds from a lock of hair that belonged to the recently deceased Michael Jackson.

Maps featured in paintings I received an e-mail reply from Jonathan Janson after featuring his site in this post. He thanked me for the citation and words of enthusiasm, and mentioned that his own work will be in a show at the O.K. Harris Gallery in New York in October. In other map news, Danish experts have declared that the Vinland Map , the first known map to show part of America before Italian explorer Christopher Colombus (c. 1451-1506) landed on the continent, is genuine.

Steampunk design Follower Carrie Hoggan loved this post and was pleased to link me to this site by a man who does impressive steampunk modifications and breeds cuttlefish! (Like the octopus, the cuttlefish is a cephalopod.)

Pangolins Reader Kathleen Kotcher visited China in 2008 and reports that she did not see anyone eating a pangolin. She sent along this photo and writes, "It would be difficult to eat this pangolin...but I too share the love."

Oscar Mayer dies In a follow-up to this post, I noted that the wienermobile had been in an accident. Less than a month later, Oscar Mayer has made the news 3 more times! The company violated a state ban on vehicular advertising when they sent the wienermobile to Hawaii for 2 weeks. They were named in a lawsuit by the Cancer Project, a vegan advocacy group that wants warning labels placed on hot dogs. And they have received a letter from PETA encouraging them to bury the wienermobile with Mr. Mayer...

Madame Tussaud Members of the African-American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha are suing to oust their president Barbara McKinzie for misappropriating funds, including commissioning a $900,ooo wax figure of herself. This amount seemed excessive to me, and I was right - Madame Tussaud's wax figures cost between $200,000 and $300,000 each to produce.

Believe It or Not! Readers may not be aware that there is an on-line contest called You Bet Their Life, in which participants win a share of a cash prize based on the celebrities they correctly guess will die during the coming year.

Happy Father's Day! Since hanging up the birdfeeder I sent my Dad for Father's Day, he hasn't seen any finches. He references this story about the bust of a finch-fighting ring and the siezure of as many as 150 birds, and asks, "Maybe that's where my finches are?"

OldtimerHenry Allingham, featured in this post, passed on his title of "World's Oldest Man" when he died earlier this month. The honor now goes to Montana resident Walter Breuning, age 112.

Elusive animals The New York Times reports that although humans are the cause of mass extinctions, we are also in the middle of the age of discovery for mammals, with 400 or so new species described and added to the list just since 2005.

Clown's funeral Members of the San Francisco Clown Conservatory have posed in the nude for a calendar that is being sold to help fight Multiple Sclerosis (the disease that I have). They hope to raise $1 million.

Whales, articulated and dismantled This story of a cruise ship docking in Canada with a dead whale pinned to the bow was all over the weird news last Sunday, but I have found 2 other incidences in Alaska - one a cruise ship and the other an oil tanker - plus the statistics of whales being struck by ships.

Scrabble creator When I was looking at these creative gravestones, I thought that a similar Scrabble marker (pictured) ought to mark the grave of the game's inventor, Alfred Butts (1899-1993). Note that there is also a gravestone with a crossword puzzle theme.

Chihuahuas in the weird news Yet more chihuahua news to report... "Gidget," who became famous for her appearance in a series of Taco Bell commercials, has died at the age of 15. Her trainer said, "She always knew where the camera was." And in Dearborn, Michigan, 112 live chihuahuas were rescued from the home of a hoarder, who had 150 dogs in his freezer.

Accidental fossil discoveries A flurry of fossil news: Researchers have identified a 260 million-year-old fossil found in Russia in 1994 (pictured) as the earliest tree-dwelling creature. Scientists studying the Yangtze Gorge in China have determined that the oldest fossils are found in lakes, rather than oceans - where lifeforms were believed to have evolved. Fishermen trawling off the coast of the Netherlands hooked a bone that came from the forehead of a caveman. And the fossils of extinct birds have been found in Hawaii.

Animals and lightning I received a viral video of a group of musicians simulating a thunderstorm and was very impressed, but the performance was not identified in any way. I managed to find the entire video and information about the choir, Perpetuum Jazzile, which is from Slovenia.

Robo-animals An orphaned baby Asian elephant named "Chhouk," crippled by a poacher's snare, has been outfitted with a prosthetic foot and can now walk again because of his discovery and care by a Cambodian rescue center.

Big fish, big snake A snake named "Ann" - who was fed a whole hog every 2 or 3 months - has died at the Memphis Zoo. Her feedings drew many visitors during her 10-year tenure. Ann was a reticulated python captured in Indonesia.

Stonework I love environmental art like that of American artist Andy Goldsworthy. Here are some beautiful works created at the beach in San Francisco by another American artist Andres Amador.

Disturbing decapitations It was reported earlier this month that the Dutch have repatriated the severed head of a Ghanaian chief. Leader of the Ahanta tribe, King Bada Bonsu II had been decapitated 171 years ago by Maj. Gen. Jan Verveer in retaliation for the killing of 2 Dutch emmissaries.

Auroras Norwegian researchers have proved by examining NASA images that the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis, which were thought to be mirror images of one another, can be completely assymmetrical.

Birds and dogs Joggers on holiday in Helmsford, Cornwall, U.K. - 36-year-old Stuart Urquhart (pictured) and 19-year-old Eleanor Dennis - have been attacked by a buzzard while on their runs. In other big bird news, India has become the first country to successfully breed the endangered slender-billed vulture in captivity.

Happy Thanksgiving! The look of this rare albino turtle found on the shore of China's Yellow River has been compared to a plucked turkey. Unlike in parts of Africa superstitious and discriminatory toward albinos, they have a special place in Chinese culture. Meanwhile, some of the albino-murderers in Burundi have received prison time.

Italy itinerary If you follow the link to La Specola on this post, you will see the most famous collection of anatomical waxes. In this audio slideshow, you will see and hear about the anatomical wax models and moulages in the Wellcome Collection in London.

The Raft of the Medusa If you have a weak stomach, read no further. Cannibalism is supposedly the newest trend to sweep across Japan. This goes beyond shaping food into a body that can then be eaten and involves preparing meals that include human tissue obtained - with the government's stamp of approval - from hospitals.

Nadar and the Paris Catacombs The Exeter City Council in Devon, U.K., identified the catacombs at St. Bartholomew's Cemetery - a popular tourist attraction - as a potential temporary mortuary for victims of the H1N1 virus should the need arise.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Nadar and the Paris Catacombs

In the research paper for Jim Schaefer's photography class (see below), I wrote about the depiction of hermaphrodites by 19th-century French photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon Nadar and contemporary American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. I first learned of Nadar when seeking out information about the Paris catacombs. In 1861-2, he took a series of 100 photographs of the ossuary, and in doing so was one of the first photographers to use artificial light. (I later learned that he also pioneered aerial photography, taking pictures of Paris from his balloon.)

In 1999, my friend Cris Hastings and I went to Paris, first and foremost to tour the catacombs--a self-guided tour through a mile of galleries that begins and ends with an intimidating spiral staircase. This was the swansong of my walking ability (you can see the cane in the photo of me) and I was thrilled to have seen the catacombs in person (you can also see the smile on my face), even though Cris had to haul me up that last staircase by my belt loops!

HALLOWEEN-Click for captions