We Need A New Phrase

September 21, 2019

 

Why do they call it “rush hour” when all the traffic stops moving?

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Image: Door In Tel Aviv

September 21, 2019


Five Hundred Years Ago ….

September 20, 2019

…today, Ferdinand Magellan, in command of 5 ships and 270 men, sailed from Spain and headed west. The plan was to reach the Pacific spice islands and thus thwart the Portuguese who controlled the eastern routes to southern Asia.

Since the end of this voyage, almost three years later, Magellan has been credited with the first complete circumnavigation of the globe. However, it needs to be remembered that he himself died along the way in a battle in the Philippines when a group of islanders objected to his attempts to convert them to Christianity.

Just one of his ships and barely 20 crewmen eventually made it back to Spain in April 1521. The captain of this ship, Juan Sebastian Elcano, is barely remembered.


An Extraordinary History: Prussian Blue

September 20, 2019

For anyone who paints today, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the beautiful, versatile, and stable Prussian Blue pigment did not exist. But the fact is it is just a few hundred years old.

It was discovered, by accident, in the first decade of the 1700s in Berlin by a colour-maker called Diesbach.  Prior to that time, blue pigments had been sourced from “indigo, smalt, azurite and ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, which was expensive.”  The new process was cheap and easily manufactured. Its first verifiable use in an artwork was in “The Entombment of Christ” by Pieter vander Werff in 1709.

entombment

I didn’t know any of this until I read a fascinating article called “Prussian Blue and Its Partner In Crime” by Philip McCouat in Journal of Art In Society.  The article goes on to describe the pigment’s use in European art and, notably, in the creation of an entire genre of Japanese painting.

The second part of McCouat’s article (“…Partner in Crime”) takes the story into even more interesting ground once a Swedish chemist discovered that by mixing Prussian Blue with diluted sulphuric acid he could create the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide, a favourite of poisoners ever since.  This section of the essay details the first murderer caught by telegraph, and the use of cyanide and its derivatives both by US gas chambers and by Nazi mass executioners.

Who knew that such a beautiful colour could have such a blotchy history? Mix up your favourite beverage, settle back, and enjoy this fascinating long read.

 


Image: Hangers On

September 19, 2019


Diaries As History

September 19, 2019

Dr. Irving Finkel is one of my favourite scientists. He is an Assyriologist and a senior curator at the British Museum. His daily work involves the translation of 5,000 year-old cuneiform tablets from ancient Iraq. He is an elegant, impassioned, and amusing speaker, helping to popularize what might otherwise be a rather mysterious period of history. He is perhaps most famous for having found and translated a Sumerian text detailing the Flood story written thousands of years before the same story was adopted in the Bible.

Following another of his interests, in 2007, Dr. Finkel founded the Great Diary Project which collects, preserves, and publicizes diaries of all kinds.

“Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage. People in all walks of life have confided and often still confide their thoughts and experiences to the written page, and the result is a unique record of what happens to an individual over months, or even years, as seen through their eyes. No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence. The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

Dr. Finkel can explain the importance of diaries to the historian better than I can:

 

As a social and cultural historian, I would be ecstatic to find the diaries of one or more of the characters who have enlivened Commercial Drive over the last 120 years.  In some ways, the Highland Echo which thrived on the minutiae of local activity acted as the diary of our neighbourhood. But to read the actual diaries of the local players would be so much more valuable in understanding, for example, motivations and prejudices.  I live in hope that some may eventually emerge.


Surviving School In America

September 18, 2019