Fashion Fights In The 1600s: Parents Just Don’t Understand Their Kids’ Clothing Styles

Fashion trends come and go but one thing stays the same: Kids and parents often don’t see eye-to-eye on style. Even in 17th-century Amsterdam. A great example of this was recently unearthed by University of Delft researcher, Margriet van Eikema Hommes, when she took a closer look at paintings by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck. Flinck was a pupil of Rembrandt, but he had more commercial success than his teacher. Case in point: When Amsterdam’s new town hall was built in the mid 1600s, it featured several Flinck works but only one by Rembrandt, and this lone Rembrandt painting was removed after a year, van Eikema Hommes says. Flinck’s success was probably due to his strong familial connections to Amsterdam’s wealthy Mennonite community, who became his regular patrons. And therein lies the interesting historical fashion-friction. It turns out that Amsterdam’s Mennonite community favored solemn, dark outfits. Meanwhile 17th-century cool kids wore colorful tights. (Much as modern-day hipsters opt for brightly colored stockings…) In fact, some members of the Mennonite congregation would strike out against members who wore less conservative, fashionable clothing—clothing that the Mennonites considered indecent, van Eikema Hommes explains. Against this cultural backdrop, Flinck was asked to paint a portrait of his young Mennonite nephew Dirck. If you look at the final version of the portrait from 1636, the nephew looks pretty much like a conservative young Mennonite. But looks can be deceiving. When van Eikema Hommes started to analyze the portrait with X-rays, she discovered that beneath the painting was another portrait of Dirck (see the black and white image). The original portrait has Dirck in a left-foot-forward, aristocratic posture (compared to Dirck’s more somber pose in the final version), and the original has Dirck wearing substantially less conservative clothing. In particular, Flinck initially painted his nephew in a wider brimmed, fashionable hat, wearing a shirt with a wider, stylish collar and red tights instead of black ones. You can tell the tights were red in two ways, van Eikema Hommes says. First, you can actually see the red paint shimmering through the top layer of the artwork. But more conclusively, using X-ray fluorescence, she detected mercury on the artwork right where the legs were initially painted… and a common red paint of that era was vermillion, a mercury-based paint. So why did Flick paint over the original, fashionable portrait of Dirck? Probably because Flinck, Dirck or both men got cold feet about offending their Mennonite family members—and Flinck’s patrons. In the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Parents just don’t understand.” “There was nothing I could do, I tried to relax I got...

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100-Year-Old Sacred Congolese Statues Have Digestive Tracts

The headline pretty much says it all. If you aren’t a regular reader of the Indianapolis Star, you may have missed this awesome article about how sacred statues sculpted by the Songye people contain carefully dug out digestive tracts. The Songye people, who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, use the statues in fertility and war ceremonies. Experts had long known that the priests inserted materials in to the statues’ mouths and other orifices “to enhance the figures’ magico-religious powers,” said Richard McCoy, a conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to the Indy Star. For example, McCoy said the statues had food, dirt struck by lightning and the teeth of albino men stuffed in their orifices. But nobody expected a fully carved digestive tract inside the figures, McCoy told the Indy Star.  “We were blown away.” McCoy made the discovery when he put a 100-year-old Songye figure in an X-ray machine. After the initial discovery in 2006, he started visiting other museums to see if these digestive tracts are common. And indeed they are: He discovered that some 42 Songye statues have carved out digestive tracts. McCoy has now graduated from studying the digestive tracts in two-dimensions (using X-ray images) to studying the figures in three-dimensions (using computer tomography, or CT scans). It’s not the first time conservation scientists have used CT to look at artifacts. They’ve used the technique for years to investigate cultural heritage objects ranging from ancient Egyptian cat mummies to 17th century globes of the...

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Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It

Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it. Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks. In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.) For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi. Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick. That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors. Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device. With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.) Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye. It’s worth pointing out that even if mold is kept at bay, old degrading film produces its own special brand of harmful flatulence. The first kinds of film were made from cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate. In addition to being flammable, these kinds of plastic degrade in the presence of light, heat and air to produce nitric acid and acetic acid. Both of these molecules can become airborne, where they float around and catalyze degradation in nearby, otherwise unsuspecting film. It’s what conservators call the “vinegar syndrome” – primarily because acetic acid is vinegar and degrading film smells like a salad freshly tossed in vinaigrette. Conservators try to delay film breakdown in two ways. First, by keeping film archive temperatures low, which slows down degradation reactions. Second, by keeping archives well aerated and/or by capturing acetic and nitric acid. Now it seems, conservators will have a third way to help keep old film by being destroyed. Here’s what amuses me: Film is a form of art that appeals to our eyes (and sometimes) ears, but it is our noses that are petitioned when film is under...

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Banking On A Bunker To Save Britain’s Film

If I had to marry an inanimate object, I would not choose the Berlin Wall as Eija-Riitta has, but I might be tempted by a bunker, possibly the Boros bunker, whose dark history has been reclaimed by great art. So you can imagine that I was super interested in a recent Guardian article about a new archive for the British Film Institute, which will be located on top of the site of an old nuclear bunker. The BFI is facing what’s already a become a major problem for many who possess collections of early cinema: How do you keep 450,000 cans of film from breaking down, particularly when the film is made of cellulose nitrate, a plastic not known for its longevity? When cellulose nitrate breaks down, it causes the release of nitric acid, which can accelerate degradation in nearby film. Eventually all the degradation results in a gooey or powdery mess where there was once a fantastic film. The BFI’s spokesperson Brian Robinson told me that in the new archive, fragile film will be kept at -5 C, which is “down a notch” from the previous temperature (3-4 C) that the film was stored at. According to studies done at the BFI, Robinson says that the cellulose nitrate degradation will “be arrested.” I can’t imagine that it’s ever possible to completely arrest degradation, but I’m guessing the drop in temperature seriously decreases the rate of chemical breakdown. Finally, Robinson says the new £12 million facility will be well-ventilated, which I presume will suck away any amount of nitric acid that has managed to percolate off the valuable...

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Are Crop Circles Made By Microwaves?

If you believe that crop circles are a form of art made by rogue (human) sculptors, then you’ll probably want to read Richard Taylor‘s fascinating piece in Physics World about the science of making these curious farmland imprints. If you can’t get past the PW paywall, check out my column in this week’s Newscripts about his quirky work on crop circle science. In particular, Taylor thinks artists are using hand-held microwave magnetrons (I kid you not!) to make modern-day crop circles and he comes up with a pretty convincing argument to back up his sci-fi-sounding theory. Conspiracy theorists may not buy Taylor’s logic since it doesn’t involve aliens (they’ve already accused Taylor of being in cahoots with US, UK and German spy agencies). But I like the microwave theory as much as the one proposed by Australian’s attorney general: that stoned wallabies are making crop circles in poppy fields down...

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A Short Summer Sabbatical

This post comes from Whitehorse, in the Yukon (that’s in Canada, folks), where I’m about to embark on a two-week, 400-km canoe trip along an old gold rush route to Dawson City. This means Artful Science will have a two week hiatus while I avoid getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and bears. I thought I’d say au revoir with an image from Yukon-based artist, Daphne Mennell. See y’all in...

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