One of the Oldest Buddhist Manuscripts Has Been Digitized & Put Online: Explore the Gandhara Scroll

Buddhism goes way back — so far back, in fact, that we're still examining important evidence of just how far back it goes. Take the exhibit above, which may look like nothing more than a collection of faded scraps with writing on them. In fact, they're pieces of the laboriously and carefully unrolled and scanned Gandhara Scroll, which, having originally been written about two millennia ago, ranks as one of the oldest Buddhist manuscripts currently known. You can read the scroll's story at the blog of the Library of Congress, the institution that possesses it and only last year was able to put it online for all to see.

"The scroll originated in Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist kindgom located in what is today the northern border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan," writes the Library's Neely Tucker. "Surviving manuscripts from the Gandharan realm are rare; only a few hundred are known to still exist." That realm "was under the rule of numerous kings and dynasties, including Alexander the Great, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka and the Kushan emperor Kanishka I," and for a time "became a major seat of Buddhist art, architecture and learning. One of the region’s most notable characteristics is the Hellenistic style of its Buddhist sculptures, including figures of the Buddha with wavy hair, defined facial features, and contoured robes reminiscent of Greco-Roman deities."

Written in the Gandhari variant of Sanskrit, the "Bahubuddha Sutra" or "Many Buddhas Sutra," as this scroll has been called, constitutes part of "the much larger Mahavastu, or 'Great Story,' a biography of the Buddha and his past lives." Here Tucker draws from the scholarship of Richard G. Salomon, emeritus professor of Sanskrit and Buddhist studies at the University of Washington, another institution that holds a piece of the Gandharan Buddhist texts. Many more reside at the British Library, which acquired them in 1994. The Library of Congress bought its Gandhara Scroll from a British dealer more recently, in 2003, and it arrived in what Tucker describes as "an ordinary pen case, accompanied by a handwritten note: 'Extremely fragile, do not open unless necessary.'"

So began "several years of thought and planning to devise a treatment strategy," an effort that at one point saw the Library's conservator practicing "her unrolling technique on a dried-up cigar — an item that only approximates the difficulty of working with a compacted birch bark scroll." Then came "gradual humidification over a few days, careful unrolling by hand with precision tools on a sheet of inert glass, followed by placing another sheet of glass on top once the scroll was completely unrolled," a "dramatic and silent affair" described in greater detail by Atlas Obscura's Sabrina Imbler.

The result was six large fragments and more than 100 smaller ones, together constituting roughly 80 percent of the scroll's original text. You can see all those fragments of the Gandhara Scroll, scanned in high resolution, at the Library of Congress' web site. This will naturally be a more edifying experience if, like Salomon, you happen to be able to read Gandhari. Even if you can't, there's something to be felt in the experience of simply beholding a 2,000 year old text composed on birch bark through the digital medium on which we do most of our reading here in the 21st century — where interest in Buddhism shows no signs of waning.

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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.

The Flying Train: A 1902 Film Captures a Futuristic Ride on a Suspended Railway in Germany

We’ve been focusing a lot recently on old films from the turn of the century that a small group of enthusiasts have been “remastering” using AI, smoothing out the herky-jerky framing, upping the frame rate by interpolating between-frames, and more.

So what a surprise to find a recent look at a film in the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection from 1902 that already has the fidelity and smoothness, no AI needed.

The above footage is taken from the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn, the suspension railway built in the German city of Barmen in 1901. The Biography production company—best known to film students as the place where D.W. Griffiths got his start—was one of the most popular of the early film companies, and produced mini-docs like these, called Mutoscopes.

The Mutoscope used 68mm film, a film stock twice as large as most films at the time. (70mm film really only came into its own during the 1950s.) The 30 frames per second shooting rate was also faster than the usual 18fps or 24fps, which means the illusion of reality is closer to the video rate of today. The Mutoscope was also the name of the company’s viewer, where the frames were printed on cards and could be watched through a viewfinder. So we are watching a film that was never meant to be projected. (If you’re thinking that the Mutoscope was also used for private viewings of What the Butler Saw, you are correct.)

Despite the fidelity our favorite upscaler Denis Shiryaev still had a go at improving the footage and adding color and sound. (There’s also a competitor working on their own upscale and colorization version called Upscaled Studio). Which one is better, do you think? And how much was the experience improved?

And in case you’re wondering, the Wuppertal Schwebebahn still operates to this day, looking very much like it did back in 1902. The total route is just over eight miles long and follows the river Wupper for a lot of it, and services 82,000 commuters a day. (Less so during COVID of course.) You can check out footage below. It definitely looks fun fun fun on the Schwebebahn.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

The Strange Costumes of the Plague Doctors Who Treated 17th Century Victims of the Bubonic Plague

In the 17th and 18th centuries, what we know of as The Age of Enlightenment or early modernity, Europeans traversed the globe and returned to publish travel accounts that cast the natives they encountered as childlike beings, destitute savages, or literal monsters. Unable to make sense of alien languages and cultures, they mistook everything they saw.

Meanwhile, the bubonic plague swept Europe, and plague doctors wandered towns and countryside in a “fanciful-looking costume [that] typically consisted of a head-to-toe leather or wax-canvas garment,” writes the Public Domain Review, “large crystal glasses; and a long snout or bird beak, containing aromatic spices (such as camphor, mint, cloves, and myrrh), dried flowers (such as roses or carnations), or a vinegar sponge.”

Moreover, the plague doctor—as you can see from illustrations of this bizarre character—also carried with him a wand, “with which to issue instructions,” one scholar writes, “such as ordering disease-stricken houses filled with spiders or toads ‘to absorb the air’ and commanding the infected to inhale ‘bottled wind’ or take urine baths, purgatives, or stimulants.” The wand was also used to forcefully fend off patients.

Visiting travelers from elsewhere might be justified in thinking the plague doctor represented some strange, primitive religious custom: perhaps a monstrous—and mostly ineffective—exorcism ritual. The “early-modern hazmat suit” is perfectly reasonable, of course, if you understand the reigning theory of “miasmas,” which posited that disease is spread through “bad air.” Not entirely wrong, as our current masked existences show, but in the case of the plague, miasma theory was only very partially explanatory.

Which is to say the costume wasn’t entirely useless. “The ankle-length gown and herb-filled beak… would also have offered some protection against germs,” especially since its herbs were sometimes lit on fire and allowed to smolder, sending billowing smoke from the plague doctor’s face. (The satirical engraving above from 1700 mocks this practice.) “The appearance of one of these human-sized birds on a doorstep could only mean that death was near.”

This particular design has been credited to a French doctor, Charles de Lorme, said to have invented it in 1619. “De Lorme thought the beak shape of the mask would give the air sufficient time to be suffused by the protective herbs before it hit the plague doctors’ nostrils and lungs.” Often mistaken for Medieval or Renaissance garb, the plague doctor costume is, in fact, a modern piece of kit.

Much has been made of the bird mask, but as one skeptical history writer has effectively shown, there are good reasons to doubt the widespread adoption of the beak. It may have been a rarity; most plague doctors probably wore what would look to us today like Klan robes and hoods. All the more reason for plague doctor costumes to seem shocking once again, as a British teen discovered when he decided in May to dress the part of the classic beaked figure. (Residents found it “terrifying” and police offered stern “words of advice.”)

No matter how widespread the beak was historically, its iconic status as part of the plague doctor costume remains inscribed in art and culture. “The look was so iconic in Italy that the ‘plague doctor’ became a staple of Italian commedia dell’arte and carnival celebrations,” Erin Blakemore writes at National Geographic. Given the associations a more authentic costume would evoke, no one seems to be clamoring to replace beaked masks with pointed hoods in representations of plague doctors. The beak also symbolically conveys an important fact about plague doctors: they were not healers—they were mostly witnesses of death.

Few of their remedies had any effect. Rather, on the government’s payroll, plague doctors—often second or third-rate practitioners attempting to build a career—recorded demographic data, witnessed wills, and performed autopsies. They were like weird avian aliens come to observe the customs of a continent’s dying population, appearing in what came to be widely understood as the “costume of death,” as the illustration above puts it. See more representations of the plague doctor costume at the Public Domain Review.

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

The Wine Windows of Renaissance Florence Dispense Wine Safely Again During COVID-19

Everything old is new again and Tuscany’s buchette del vino—wine windows—are definitely rolling with the times.

As Lisa Harvey earlier reported in Atlas Obscurabuchette del vino became a thing in 1559, shortly after Cosimo I de’ Medici decreed that Florence-dwelling vineyard owners could bypass taverns and wine merchants to sell their product directly to the public. Wealthy wine families eager to pay less in taxes quickly figured out a workaround that would allow them to take advantage of the edict without requiring them to actually open their palace doors to the rabble:

Anyone on the street could use the wooden or metal knocker ... and rap on a wine window during its open hours. A well-respected, well-paid servant, called a cantiniere and trained in properly preserving wine, stood on the other side. The cantiniere would open the little door, take the customer’s empty straw-bottomed flask and their payment, refill the bottle down in the cantina (wine cellar), and hand it back out to the customer on the street.

Seventy years further on, these literal holes-in-the-walls served as a means of contactless delivery for post-Renaissance Italians in need of a drink as the second plague pandemic raged.

Scholar Francesco Rondinelli (1589-1665) detailed some of the extra sanitation measures put in place in the early 1630s:

A metal payment collection scoop replaced hand-to-hand exchange

Immediate vinegar disinfection of all collected coins

No exchange of empty flasks brought from home

Customers who insisted on bringing their own reusable bottles could do self-serve refills via a metal tube, to protect the essential worker on the other side of the window.

Sound familiar?

After centuries of use, the windows died out, falling victim to flood, WWII bombings, family relocations, and architectural renovation.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has definitely played a major role in putting wine windows back on the public’s radar, but Babae, a casual year-old restaurant gets credit for being the first to reactivate a disused buchetta del vino for its intended purpose, selling glasses of red for a single hour each day starting in August 2019.

Now several other authentic buchette have returned to service, with menus expanded to accommodate servings of ice cream and coffee.

Given this success, perhaps they’ll take a cue from Japan’s 4.6 million vending machines, and begin dispensing an even wider array of items.

They may even take a page from the past, and send some of the money they take in back out, along with food and yes—wine—to sustain needy members of the community.

The Buchette del Vino Associazi Culturale currently lists 146 active and inactive wine windows in Florence and the surrounding regions, accompanying their findings with photos and articles of historical relevance.

Via Atlas Obscura

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Golden Age of Berlin Comes to Life in the Classic, Avant-Garde Film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)

The rediscovery of Berlin began thirty years ago this November, with the demolition of the wall that had long divided the city's western and eastern halves. Specifically, the Berlin Wall had stood since 1961, meaning the younger generation of West and East Berliners had no memory of their city's being whole. In another sense, the same could be said of their parents' generation, who saw nearly a third of Berlin destroyed in the Second World War. Only the most venerable Berliners would have remembered the social and industrial golden age the undivided city enjoyed back in the 1920s — an age exhilaratingly presented in the film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis.

An early example of the silent-era "city symphonies" that showed off the capitals of the world on film (several of which you can watch here on Open Culture), Berlin takes the viewer along streets and waterways, through parks, onto trains and elevators, on roller coasters, and into factories, building sites, cabarets, and skies. Shot over a year and compressed into less than an hour, this avant-garde documentary captures the experience of Berlin in the 1920s — or rather it captures, in that mightily industrial age, experience at the intersection of human and machine. Director Walther Ruttmann "charts the movements of crowds of children, workers, swimmers, rowers, and so on," writes Popmatters' Chadwick Jenkins, "but only occasionally focuses on a person as an individual. Moreover, many of the most striking scenes in the film avoid the intrusion of people altogether, concentrating instead on the operation of mechanical devices."

Absent explanatory narration or title cards, the film invites a variety of readings. Chadwick sees it as "the defamatory dehumanization of the human, the derogation of human autonomy and dominion over a world of indifferent matter, a reduction of the divine spark in humankind to the status of another mere thing." This same quality drove away one of Ruttmann's key collaborators on Berlin, the writer Carl Mayer. Ruttmann, for his part, described his own motivation as "the idea of making something out of life, of creating a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city."

A primary interest in movement itself is perhaps to be expected from a filmmaker who had previously distinguished himself as an abstract animator. (What his later work as an assistant to Leni Riefenstahl on Triumph of the Will indicates is another matter.) But if Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis "dehumanizes," writes Jenkins, it does so as a deliberate artistic strategy to show that "the city is more than its various components, including its human components," and to "provide an insight into the emergent qualities that make a city what it is, beyond being a mere composite of the elements within its geographical boundaries," however those boundaries get drawn and redrawn over time.

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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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.

Divine Decks: A Visual History of Tarot: The First Comprehensive Survey of Tarot Gets Published by Taschen

The cards of the tarot, first created for play around 600 years ago and used in recent centuries for occult divination of truths about life, the universe, and everything, should by all rights be nothing more than a historical curiosity today. Yet something about the tarot still compels, even to many of us in the ever more digital, ever more data-driven 21st century. Taschen, publisher of lavish art and photo books, know this: hence, as we featured last year here on Open Culture, products like their box-set reissue of the tarot deck designed by Salvador Dalí. (There must be a meaningful overlap between Taschen's demographic and Dalí's fans, given that the publisher more recently put out the most complete collection of his paintings between two covers.)

Dalí isn't the only artist whose interpretations of the Fool, the Hierophant, the Lovers, the Hanged One, and the other arcana have graced a tarot deck. H.R. Giger, the artist responsible for the biomechanical creepiness of Alien, designed one in the 1990s; more recently, we've featured decks illustrated with visions inspired by the novels of Philip K. Dick and David Lynch's Twin Peaks.

But all these together — even including the "Thoth deck" designed by occultist Aleister Crowley and the Sola-Busca deck, the earliest known complete set of tarot cards — represent only a small fraction of the story of tarot's place in the past six centuries of civilization. That story is told, and more importantly shown, in Taschen's new book Divine Decks: A Visual History of Tarot.

The first volume in Taschen's "Library of Esoterica," the book "gathers more than 500 cards and works of original art from around the world in the ultimate exploration of a centuries-old art form." An image gallery on Taschen's web site gives a small sampling of the range of tarot decks found within, including ones created in 1930s England, 1970s Italy, and 2010s Brooklyn. One was intended as a promotional item for an American paper company in the 1960s; another, with different purposes, announces itself as the "Black Power Tarot." This in addition to such well-known examples as Crowley's Thoth deck and the venerable Sola-Busca, both lushly reproduced in its pages. And the tarot lives on, as I'm reminded whenever I pass one of the many storefronts here in Seoul offering tarot readings. In any case, it's certainly come a long way from 15th-century Europe. You can get a copy of Divine Decks: A Visual History of Tarot on Taschen's website.

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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.

Get the Ancient Roman Look: A Hair & Makeup Video Tutorial

Remember early April, when we threw ourselves into the Getty Challenge, turning ourselves into historic art recreations in lieu of climbing the walls?

Seems like ages ago, doesn’t it, that you wrapped a shower curtain around your head and rifled through the button box, rabid to make yourself into a masterpiece.

While it’s not accurate to say we’ve collectively settled into a new normal, many of us have accepted that certain alterations to our everyday lives will be prolonged if our everyday lives are to proceed.

First it was depressing.

Now it’s just boring (with the occasional thrum of anxiety).

Perhaps it’s time to shake things up a bit, and Crows Eye Productions’ tutorial on achieving an Ancient Roman look using modern hair and beauty products, above, is an excellent place to start.

While Crows Eye specializes in building historically accurate period dress from the unmentionable out, it’s worth noting that stylist Liv Free takes a few liberties, adding a bit of mascara and lipstick despite a dearth of evidence that Roman women enhanced their lips or lashes.

She also uses curling irons, ponytail holders, and a hair donut to create a crown of ringlets and braids.

If you’re a stickler for authenticity who won’t be able to live with yourself if you’re not sewn into your hair style with a bone needle, you may be better off consulting the YouTube channel of hair archeologist Janet Stephens.

But, if your goal is merely to wow your co-workers with a full-on Flavian Dynasty look during your next Zoom call, by all means grab some pale lead-free foundation, some expendable Hot Buns, and some light blush.

Don’t worry that you’ll appear too done up. Free notes that Roman women of both high and low birth were devoted to makeup, but in deference to their men, limited themselves to the natural look.

That’s a tad anachronistic, huh?

These days, anyone who wants to remake themselves in the image of Empress Domitia Longina should feel free to take a crack at it, irrespective of gender, race, or extra hands to help with the parts of the hairstyle you can can’t see in the mirror (or a Zoom window).

Once we have mastered our new look, we can see about another museum challenge. Here’s some inspiration to get us started.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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