Magnificent Ancient Roman Mosaic Floor Unearthed in Verona, Italy

One often hears about renovation projects that tear up linoleum, shag carpet, or some equally unappealing flooring to discover a pristine (and now much more attractive) layer of hardwood or tile beneath. Any building of sufficient age becomes a palimpsest, a collection of era upon era of trends in architecture and design: a look under a floor or behind a wall can potentially become a trip back in time. The same holds for the land itself, at least in the parts of the world where civilization arrived first. "In former Mesopotamia there are hills in areas that should be entirely flat," writes Myko Clelland, better known as the Dapper Historian, on Twitter. "They're actually remains of entire towns, where residents built layer after layer until the whole thing became metres tall."

Or take Negrar di Valpolicella, home of the eponymous wine varietal, one of whose vineyards has turned out to conceal an ancient Roman villa. The discovery at hand is an elaborate mosaic floor which The History Blog reports as "dating to around the 3rd century A.D." So far, the dig under the Benedetti La Villa has revealed "long uninterrupted stretches of mosaic pavements with polychrome patterns of geometric shapes, guilloche, wave bands, floral vaults and the semi-circular pelta."




Though the floor's brilliance may have been unexpected, its presence wasn't: that a Roman villa had once stood on the grounds "was known since the 19th century. Indeed, the name of the winery is taken from the name of the contrada (meaning neighborhood or district), evidence of culturally transmitted knowledge of a grand villa there."

Announced just last week by Negrar di Valipocella, the discovery of this mosaic floor comes a result of the most recent of a series of archaeological digs that began in 1922. "Numerous attempts were made in subsequent decades to find the villa," says The History Blog, "and another smaller mosaic was discovered in 1975 and covered back up with soil for its preservation." Though interrupted by budgetary limitations, the work cycle of the still-operational vineyard, and this year's coronavirus pandemic, the project has nevertheless managed to turn up a strong contender for the archaeological find of the year. With luck it will turn up much more of this 1,800-year-old domus, giving us all a chance to see what other unexpectedly tasteful design choices the ancient Romans made. The images in this post come via Myko Clelland, Dapper Historian on Twitter.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram

12 Famous Frank Lloyd Wright Houses Offer Virtual Tours: Hollyhock House, Taliesin West, Fallingwater & More

One might, it seems, be almost anywhere in the U.S. and only a few hours drive from a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The “Wisconsin-born Wright’s portfolio,” writes Jess Hoffert at Midwest Living, consists “of about 500 structures, a good portion of which still stand in the Midwest.” Wright houses span the West Coast and nestle in the suburbs of Washington, DC. As millions of visitors see up close every year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Frank Lloyd Wright Room, Wright’s style permeated every part of his designs, inside and out.

But there’s no talk of travel these days. The Wright-designed homes and museum exhibitions that were open to the public have closed their doors to visitors “just when they were gearing up for the spring touring season to begin,” announced the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. To make sure the public still has access to twelve of those famous works, the Conservancy—along with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation—have launched #WrightVirtualVisits, which offers virtual tours of 12 iconic houses.




The delivery method is “a touch confusing,” Matt Hickman comments at The Architect’s Newspaper. Tours kick off at 12:00 Central every Thursday “for six weeks (and maybe more). Each week, the conservators of a specific Wright site will share a short yet intimate video tour on its website and associated media pages of another Wright site…. Each week, two fresh Wright properties will partake in this virtual tour swap.” This does require a close reading of the instructions, and requires one to keep a date, as it were, for a Wright tour.

Given the houses on display, you might not find this too troublesome.

Buildings that have been featured already or are up to bat in the coming weeks include the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; the Hollyhock House, recently named as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Los Angeles; Chicago’s Prairie School stunner, the Emil Bach House; Taliesin West, home of the (possibly) defunct School of Architecture at Taliesin, in Scottsdale, Arizona; the stunning yet often-overlooked Graycliff estate outside of Buffalo, New York; Samara, a pristine Usonian design in West Lafayette, Indiana; the Gordon House, the only Wright building in Oregon, and, of course, Fallingwater.

That last house must surely be Wright’s most famous, an exemplar of his “Usonian” style. But no matter what particular idiom he chose, the Midwestern aesthetic values that shaped his early Prairie Style carried through into all of his later work. In her short guide to ten of the most well-known Prairie Houses, Wright expert Carla Lind describes his visual philosophy as representative of “ideals in which midwesterners believed.”

The seeds of the Prairie Style were rooted in an appreciation for nature and a dedication to the freedom and individuality inherent in democracy. To that Wright added his own experiences and influences: his mother’s teaching via the Froebel gifts, that natural law could be understood through geometric abstractions; his father’s passion for music, which introduced him to composition and harmony; the literature of the day that informed him about the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements and transcendental writers such as Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau… the Japanese art and architecture at the World’s Columbian Exposition….

The price of admission—free for as long as it lasts—makes this opportunity to see, from a safe social distance, how Wright balanced these influences well worth the virtual trip.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Take a 3D Tour Through Ancient Giza, Including the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx & More

Imagine the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and a vivid image comes right to mind. But unless you happen to be an Egyptologist, that image may possess a great deal more vividness than it does detail. We all have a rough sense of the pyramids' size (impressively large), shape (pyramidical), texture (crumbly), and setting (sand), almost wholly derived from images captured over the past century. But what about the pyramids in their heyday, more than 4,500 years ago? Do we know enough even to begin imagining how they looked, let alone how people made use of them? Harvard Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian does, and in the video above he gives us a tour through 3D models that reconstruct the Giza pyramid complex (also known as the Giza necropolis) using both the best technology and the fullest knowledge available today.

"You'll see we've had to remove modern structures and excavators, debris dumps," says Der Manuelian as the camera flies, dronelike, in the direction of the Great Sphinx. "We studied the Nile, and we had to move it much closer to the Giza pyramids, because in antiquity, the Nile did flow closer. And we've tried to rebuild each and every structure."




Of the Sphinx, this model boasts "the most accurate reconstruction that has ever been attempted so far," and Der Manuelian shows it in two possible colors schemes, one with only the head painted, one with the entire body painted in "the reddish brown reserved for male figures." He also shows the pyramid temple of Khafre, both in the near-completely ruined state in which it exists today, and in full digital reconstruction, complete with seated statues the Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh Khafre himself.

The model accommodates more than just the built environment. Der Manuelian shows a model bark with another statue being carried into one of the chambers, explaining that it allows researchers to determine "whether or not it's big enough or small enough to actually fit between the doors of the temple." Elsewhere in the model we see a re-enactment of the "Opening of the Mouth ceremony," the "reanimation ceremony for the deceased king, meant to magically and ritually bring him back to life for the netherworld." The rendering takes place inside the temple of the Pyramid of Khufu, peopled with human characters. But "how many should there be? What should they be wearing? Where are the regular Egyptians? Are they allowed anywhere near this ceremony, or indeed are they allowed anywhere near Giza at all?" The greater the detail in which researchers reconstruct the ancient world, the more such questions come to the surface.

In the video just above, Der Manuelian explains more about the importance of 3D modeling to Egyptology: how it uses the existing research, what it has helped modern researchers understand, and the promise it holds for the future. The latter includes much of interest even to non-Egyptologists, such as tourists who might like to familiarize themselves with Giza necropolis in the days when the Opening of the Mouth ceremonies still took place — or any era of their choice — before setting foot there themselves. These videos come from "Pyramids of Giza: Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology," Der Manuelian's online course at edX, a worthwhile learning experience if you've got your own such trip planned — or just the kind of fascination that has gripped people around the world since the Egyptomania of the nineteenth century. The technology with which we study Egypt has advanced greatly since then, but for many, the mysteries of ancient Egypt itself have only become more compelling.

via The Kid Should See This

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

See How Traditional Japanese Carpenters Can Build a Whole Building Using No Nails or Screws

If it came down to it, most of us could hammer basic shelter together with enough wood and nails. But what if we just had the wood? And what if we needed to make not just a hut, but a full-fledged building: a livable house, or even a house of worship? That may well sound like an impossible task — unless, of course, you've trained as a miyadaiku (宮大工), the class of Japanese carpenter tasked with building and maintaining buildings like shrines and temples. Without a single nail or screw, miyadaiku join wood directly to wood — a method of joinery know as kanawatsugi (金輪継)  — and in so doing manage to build some of the world's longest-lasting wooden structures, just as they've done for centuries upon centuries.

Back when this style of carpentry first developed in Japan more than a millennium ago, "it was difficult to acquire iron." And so "people tried to build buildings only with wood," making up for what they lacked in tools with sheer skill. So says Takahiro Matsumoto, a miyadaiku carpenter based in the city of Kamakura, in the Great Big Story video above




Japan's de facto capital from the late 12th to early 14th century, Kamakura is still filled with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some built more than 1,200 years ago. To build new temples and shrines, or to provide the existing ones with the repairs they need every century or two, a miyadaiku must master a host of differently shaped wooden joints, each of them developed over generations to hold as tightly and solidly as possible.

For another view of kanawatsugi, have a look at The Joinery, a library of explanatory animations previously featured here on Open Culture. You can see exactly how each of these joints are cut and assembled for real-life projects — as well as every other aspect of how miyadaiku put together a building — at the Youtube channel Japanese Architecture: Wisdom of Our Ancestors. The channel is aptly named, for only with a high regard for the carpentry knowledge gradually built up, tested, and refined by their predecessors could today's miyadaiku do their work. "Advanced skills are needed, but we work with the old buildings built by our ancestors," says Matsumoto. "Today, we also learn from the ancestors' skills, since the old buildings themselves are standing documents of those skills." Each and every one testifies to how, for want of a nail, some of the most admired architecture in the world was born.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the Sound of the Hagia Sophia Recreated in Authentic Byzantine Chant

Audio technology has made many exciting advances in the past few years, one of which enables recording engineers to capture the sound of a specific space and recreate it elsewhere. Through a process called “convolution reverb,” the sound of a concert hall or club can be portable, so to speak, and a band or group of singers in a studio can be made to sound as if they were performing in Carnegie Hall, or inside a cave or grain silo.

Also being recreated are the sounds of gothic cathedrals and Byzantine churches—acoustic environments being preserved for posterity in digital recordings as their physical forms decay. This technology has given scholars the means to represent the music of the past as it sounded hundreds of years ago and as it was originally meant to be heard by its devout listeners.

Music took shape in particular landscapes and architectural environments, just as those environments evolved to enhance certain kinds of sound. Medieval Christian churches were especially suited to the hypnotic chants that characterize the sacred music of the time. As David Byrne puts it in his TED Talk on music and architecture:

In a gothic cathedral, this kind of music is perfect. It doesn’t change key, the notes are long, there’s almost no rhythm whatsoever, and the room flatters the music. It actually improves it.

There’s no doubt about that, especially in the case of the Greek Orthodox cathedral Hagia Sophia. Built in 537 AD in what was then Constantinople, it was once the largest building in the world. Though it lost the title early on, it remains on incredibly impressive feat of engineering. While the structure is still very much intact, no one has been able to hear its music since 1453, when the Ottoman Empire seized the city and the massive church became a mosque. “Choral music was banned,” notes Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, “and the sound of the Hagia Sophia was forgotten until now.”

Now (that is, in the past ten years or so), well over five centuries later, we can hear what early medieval audiences heard in the massive Byzantine cathedral, thanks to the work of two Stanford professors, art historian Bissera Pentcheva and Jonathan Abel, who teaches in the computer music department and studies, he says, “the analysis, synthesis and processing of sound.”

Now a museum, the Hagia Sophia allowed Pentcheva and Abel to record the sound of balloons popping in the space after-hours. “Abel used the acoustic information in the balloon pops to create a digital filter that can make anything sound like it’s inside the Hagia Sophia,” as Weekend Edition guest host Sam Hartnett explains.

Pentcheva, who focuses her work “on reanimating medieval art and architecture,” was then able to “reanimate” the sound of high Greek Orthodox chant as it would have been heard in the heart of the Byzantine Empire. “It’s actually something that is beyond humanity that the sound is trying to communicate,” she says.” That message needs a larger-than-life space for its full effect.

Hear more about how the effect was created in the Weekend Edition episode above. And in the videos further up, see the choral group Capella Romana perform Byzantine chants with the Hagia Sophia effect applied. Just last year, the ensemble released the album of chants above, Lost Voices of Hagia Sophiausing the filter. It is a collection of music as valuable to our understanding and appreciation of the art of the Byzantine Empire as a restored mosaic or reconstructed cathedral.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Conquer Your Vertigo and Watch this Dazzling Footage of Construction Workers Atop the Chrysler Building in 1929

Paris has the gargoyles of Notre Dame.

New York City has eight art-deco eagles protruding from the Chrysler Building’s 61st floor.

These mighty stainless steel guardians seem impressively solid until you watch construction workers muscling them into place on April 3, 1930 in the Fox Movietone newsreel footage above.




Forget being sturdy enough to serve as a time travel diving board for a very freaked out Will Smith in Men in Black III

It now seems a miracle that no unsuspecting pedestrians have been crushed by an art-deco eagle head crashing unceremoniously down to Lexington Avenue in the middle of rush hour.

Also that no workers died on the job, given how quickly the building went up and the relative lack of safety equipment on display… no word on amputated fingers, but it’s not hard to imagine given that only one of the guys helping out with the eagle appears to be wearing gloves.

In fact, as author Vincent Curcio describes in Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius, the job site boasted a number of innovative safety measures, such as scaffolds with guardrails, tarpaulin-covered plank roofs, wire netting between the toe boards, a hospital on-location, and a bulletin board for safety-related updates. Founder Walter Chrysler was as proud of this workplace conscientiousness as he was of the 4-floors per week speed with which his building was erected:

In an article called “Is Safety on Your Payroll?” He spoke of staring up at workers on the scaffolding with a friend on the street below. “‘My, that’s a risky job,’ my companion remarked. ‘A man just about takes his life in his hands working on a building like this.’”

“‘I suppose it does seem that way,’ I replied, ‘But it’s no so dangerous as you think. If you knew the precautions we have taken to protect those workers, you might change your mind… not a single life has been lost in constructing the steel framework of that building.’” To give an idea of how much of an achievement this was, it should be noted that the rule of thumb at that time was one death for every floor above fifteen in the construction of a building; by this measure the Chrysler Building should have been responsible for sixty-two deaths.

By contrast, the guys Fox Movietone filmed seem happy to play up the vertiginous nature of their work for the camera, edging out onto girders and conversing casually atop pipes, as if seated astride a 1000-foot tall jungle gym:

“Gosh, that’s a long way to the street, boys.”

“How’d ya like to fall down there?”

“Whaddaya think, I’m an angel?

“Well, you’re liable to be an angel any minute."

“You’ll break the altitude record going down-“

“Ha ha, yeah, maybe!”

While our appetite for this vintage bluster is bottomless, it’s worth noting that Movietone usually issued those appearing in primary positions a couple of lines of scripted dialogue.

What would those workers think of OSHA's current safety standards for the construction industry?

Fall protection is still the most commonly cited standard during construction site inspections.

Falls claimed the lives of 338 American construction workers in 2018, the same year a construction worker in Kuala Lumpur used his cell phone to film a coworker in shorts and sneakers erecting scaffolding sans safety equipment, whilst balancing on unsecured pipes some 700 feet in the air.

Watch it below, if you dare.

via Boing Boing

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The City of Nashville Built a Full-Scale Replica of the Parthenon in 1897, and It’s Still Standing Today

Photo by Mayur Phadtare, via Wikimedia Commons

A recent executive order stating that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for federal buildings in the U.S. has reminded some of other executives who enforced neoclassicicism as the state’s official aesthetic dogma. In the case of the U.S., however, neoclassical building does not draw from ancient sources, but from “a 19th century interpretation of what people were doing in Rome and Athens millennia ago,” as Steve Rose writes at The Guardian.

In other words, contemporary “classical architectural style” in the U.S. is a copy of a copy. Kitsch. But maybe the creation of simulations is what America does best, though not typically under threat of government sanction should one do otherwise. “Living in the relatively youthful country that’s a mere 241 years old,” Isaac Kaplan wrote at Artsy in 2017, “it’s understandable that some Americans might decide to import a little extra history from abroad,” by making versions of ancient monuments in their backyard.




Such buildings span the country, from offbeat roadside attractions to the most expensive and elaborate recreations. “There is a faux-Venice in Las Vegas, and a Stonehenge II in Texas.” And in Nashville, Tennessee: a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, built in 1897 for the Centennial Exposition celebrating the state’s 100th anniversary. The detailed re-creation went further than imitating a ruin. It “restored the aspects of the original Parthenon that were lost or damaged” in an interpretive re-creation of what it might have looked like.

The building held the Exposition’s art gallery and “spoke to the city’s self-declared reputation as the ‘Athens of the South.’” (Memphis countered the grand architectural gesture by building a pyramid; Athens, Georgia, however, did not respond in kind.) Constructed out of concrete, and not built to outlast the celebrations, the replica began to fall apart soon afterwards, prompting a restoration effort in 1920 aimed at making the Nashville Parthenon as “enduring and as historically true to the original Parthenon as possible.”

The Great Depression halted plans for an enormous statue of Athena, meant to recreate one that once stood inside the original Parthenon, but after decades of donations it was finally unveiled in 1990. Standing 42 feet high, the massive figure holds a 6-foot-4-inch statue of the goddess Nike in her hand. Unlike 19th century neoclassical recreations, Athena “boasts a major historical detail: polychromy,” painted in bright greens, reds, and blues, righting “the long-held and historically incorrect view of the ancient past as one dominated by whiteness.”

Image by Dean Dixon, via Wikimedia Commons

See more photographs from 1909 at the Library of Congress digital collections, of the replica of a temple originally dedicated to honoring the female personification of wisdom. And at the top, see a much more recent photo of the restored building. The Nashville Parthenon is still in business, charging reasonable admission for a view tourists could never get in Athens, as well as a permanent collection of 63 paintings by American artists and galleries housing temporary shows and exhibits.

via @DaveEverts

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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