Monday, March 26, 2007

Rare exhibition of 2000 yr old frescoes

Here's an exhibit not to miss if you can hie thyself to Madison WI between now and June 3rd, '07 ... Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite. The Chazen Museum of Art has mounted an extremely rare exhibition of 2000 year old frescoes that have never before this tour been seen in the US.

In the first centuries BC and AD, the sumptuous villas dotted all around the Bay of Naples served as summer residences for leisure and political entertaining . In the hot months Rome was empty of the rich and powerful, and the area surrounding the Bay of Naples became the virtual capital of the Empire.

The villas were designed to provide fabulous views of the Bay and also contained serene garden courtyards. According to , the exhibition features twenty-six remarkably well-preserved fresco wall paintings and eleven wall reliefs made of stucco among the more than seventy works of art and artifacts recovered from five partially-excavated ancient Roman villas located in Stabiae.

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 a.d. destroyed a wide swath of populated territory, bringing an end to the area's era of affluence. But the thick layer of ash and pumice functioned exceptionally well as a preservative, and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation has as its mission the excavation and conservation of at least two of the enormous villas and the transformation of the site into one of the largest archaeological parks in modern Europe. The site of Stabiae (Castellammare di Stabia) is 2.5 miles from Pompeii and is currently open to the public.

The four-year tour of this exhibition represents the first long-term loan of major cultural treasures from Italy to the U.S. After Madison, it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX (July 8 – October 7) and then to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, FL (November 7- Feb 3, 2007/08).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Celebrating Easter on the Wrong Date?

For many of us it’s just one of those bits of knowledge that we absorbed somewhere along the way: Easter falls on different dates for the Latin and Greek Orthodox churches. We know it, and it never occurs to us to wonder about it, until someone asks the question – a child, maybe, or a Jeopardy contestant.

The Pope endorses his scientific advisors’
GregorianCalendar Reform
Detail from Gregory XIII tomb
by Camillo Rusconi, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

Why does Easter fall on different dates in the Latin Church and the Greek Orthodox Church? And which one’s the “right” one? Until the latter part of the 16th century, all Christians celebrated Easter on the same date. So what happened? The answer is found in a fascinating little slice of history.

Ancient calendars were based on the lunar cycle until around 45 BC, when Julius Caesar decided that his vast Roman Empire should adopt a new calendar, one based upon the earth's revolution around the sun. By giving up a link with the moon, the Julian calendar – so-called in honor of Caesar -- gained about three days every 400 years. By the 16th century, this error had accumulated to 10 days, and the discrepancy between the calendar dates of the solstices and the actual occurrence of the solstices had become a real concern to the Roman Church.

The long-standing formula for dating Easter depended upon the lunar cycle and the vernal equinox. Easter was being celebrated on the wrong date!

A solution challenged astronomers and mathematicians until 1582. Pope Gregory XIII endorsed their recommendations to modify the calendar and the new Gregorian Calendar changed leap-year rules to synchronize with the solar year -- to an accuracy of about 1 day in 2500 years!

To adjust for the discrepancy that had accumulated since 45 BC, the year 1582 was shortened by 10 days. The days between October 4th and 15th were abolished. So that the last day of the Julian calendar, October 4, 1582, was followed by the first day of the Gregorian calendar, October 15! Roman Catholics and Protestants use the Gregorian calendar, while Greek Orthodox Christians base their liturgical dates on a much older calendar.
How come?

The 16th Century was the era of the Protestant Reformation, and papal decrees carried little weight with non-Catholic Christians, so Gregory’s calendar reform was not soon adopted in Protestant countries. By the time Britain adopted it in 1752, an eleventh day had to be dropped. Russia didn’t adopt it until the 20th C. That’s why the October Revolution of 1917 actually occurred in November!

The Greek Orthodox Church has never endorsed the Gregorian Reform of the Calendar, so Orthodox Easter (and Christmas) falls some days later than the same celebrations in the Latin Church.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Seeing ancient structures as they were

"The aqueducts had to drop the width of a finger every 100 yards -- any more and the flow would rupture the walls; any less and the water would lie stagnant ...

Their greatest glories, such as the triple-tiered bridge in southern Gaul, the highest in the world, that carried the aqueduct of Nemausus, were frequently far from human view. Sometimes it was only the eagles, soaring in the hot air above some lonely mountainscape, who could appreciate the true majesty of what men had wrought. " Pompeii, by Robert Harris

As isolated as it was then, these days the Pont du Gard attracts well over a million visitors a year! I am often struck by how hard it is for us to imagine the original context of historic sites while one's senses are being assaulted by the jostle of fellow tourists, the babel of languages, the din and smell of tour buses.
Parenthertically: This speaks to one of the benefits of audio guides: Headphones help blockout distracting sound, and an engaging narrator can bring the original context into the present, and convey the true meaning of the site.
According to Wikipedia, the Pont du Gard was designed to carry water across the small Gardon river valley. It was part of a nearly 50 km (31 mi) aqueduct that brought water from springs near Uzès to the Roman city of Nemausus (Nîmes). The full aqueduct had a gradient of 34 cm/km (1/3000), descending only 17 m vertically in its entire length and delivering 20,000 cubic meters (44 million gallons) of water daily.

How hard it is for us to apprehend the magnitude of the accomplishments of Roman engineers! The aqueduct was constructed entirely without the use of mortar, probably during the 1st Century. The stones – some of which weigh up to 6 tons – are held together with iron clamps.
And still it stands! In 1998 the Pont du Gard was hit by a major flood which caused widespread damage in the area. The road leading up to the bridge and neighboring structures were badly damaged, but the aqueduct itself was not seriously harmed.