The Death of the Classical World: Reading The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The destroyers came out from the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness had been terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire.

Thus starts the controversial new history of the pagan/Christian transition by Classics scholar Catherine Nixey. Making a deliberate parallel between the early Christians and ISIS is a bold move, intended to shock and turn our historical and cultural presumptions upside down.

It’s only the first of many. For 250 pages, Nixey makes a full-on assault against the dominant narrative that Christians were brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire, before peacefully taking over by winning the debate against an exhausted and decadent paganism.

In Palmyra c. AD 385, a horde of black-robed monks swarmed out of their desert caves and crude shelters to break into the city’s temple of Athena. There they came upon a graceful, larger-than-life statue of the goddess. They hacked the head from its shoulders, then battered at the head where it lay on the ground. When they left, their rage satiated, the head lay where they had left it for centuries until uncovered by modern archaeologists.

All across the Late Roman Empire, this scene was played out again and again with increasing frequency as Christians grew in number and confidence.

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Traces of Byzantium in Florence

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The dome of the Baptistry of St. John, Florence

When we think of Italian art, we tend to think of Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and forget the periods in between. Considering the achievements of those two high points of human civilization, that’s hardly surprising, but the Middle Ages contained the inspiration of Renaissance art, and much of that inspiration came from further east–from the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantium owned parts of Italy until 1071, and left a legacy of beautifully decorated churches and public buildings. These influences endured, and can be found in some of the most famous buildings and art collections of the Renaissance. This interesting article from Oxford University goes into greater depth about specific important influences.

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The Gorgeous and the Grotesque: The Ceilings of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


As I mentioned in my last post, I got to explore Florence for a few days, absorbing as much of the Italian Renaissance (and modern pizza) as I could.

So of course I went to the Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy’s most renowned museums. While I knew I would be seeing a treasure trove of Da Vincis and Caravaggios, I didn’t realize that portions of the building itself are a work of art.

Specifically, the ceilings of the upper Eastern Corridor. These are decorated with bright, lively frescoes painted by Alessandro Allori in 1580 and 1581. Each section is a different theme or subject such as military affairs or exploration, and taken together they act as a window into the thoughts and imagination of Florence in the late Renaissance.

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Pickpockets and Stendhal Syndrome: First Impressions of Florence

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The fortified palace of the Medici

I love being married to a scientist.

My wife was giving a seminar at Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence last week and instead of staying home and writing like I probably should have, I decided to tag along. It was my fourth time in Italy and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Four days in Florence didn’t change that.

The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance is a visual overload of beauty, so much so that when I gave a talk yesterday on using setting in writing, I gave Florence as an example of a place that’s impossible to describe without having an intimate knowledge of it. The entire trip I suffered from Stendhal Syndrome, a condition named after the 19th century French author who fell into a swoon from all the beauty he was exposed to in Florence. It was impossible to take it all in.

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Goth Chick News: Visiting Chicago’s Own Masters of Disguise

Thursday, September 20th, 2018 | Posted by Sue Granquist

Zagone Studios-small

We first became acquainted with the gents at Zagone Studios way back in 2012 when Tony Kosart (champion of the SyFy channel’s show Face Off) brokered an intro. At that time Tony was using Zagone’s latex prosthetics in his special make-up effects and we were thrilled to learn Zagone creations had a storied history right here in Chicago.

Over 40 years ago, Chicagoland brothers Phil and Bob Zagone realized that nothing ruined the chances of picking up a date on Halloween with a fantastic costume, faster than the sweaty mess you became under a rubber mask.

That — and there was no way to consume adult beverages while wearing one.

Committed to solving this age-old dilemma the brothers started working on several solutions which they eventually proposed to the Godfather of Halloween himself, Don Post of Don Post Studios in California.

Unfortunately (or rather fortunately), Mr. Post was too busy to consider their ideas, but advised the Zagones that if they were so keen to improve the mask industry, they were welcome to start their own company and have at it.

Which was precisely what Phil and Bob did in 1974, here in their hometown of Chicago.

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Magical Tomes and Witch Hunting Manuals at the Ashmolean Museum

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Last week I looked at the new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft. It’s such a compelling collection of folk magic through the ages that I wanted to look a bit more in detail at a few of the magic books that were included in the exhibition, along with some of the art that belief in witchcraft inspired in pre-modern times.

Microcosmic man (c) Wellcome Library, London

The “microcosmic man” in a German manuscript, c. 1420. © Wellcome Library,
London. The idea that man is a smaller reflection of the greater universe
goes back to Plato and Aristotle, and in the Middle Ages was developed by
astrologers into a system in which certain parts of the body correspond
to signs of the Zodiac. Medical texts used these charts to know whether
or not to bleed a patient. If the moon was in the sign corresponding to
the body part, it was unhealthy to bleed them.

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Magical Items at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

 Bull's heart (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Bull’s heart pierced with iron nails and thorns as a protection
against witches. Found in a chimney at Shutes Hill Farm, Somerset,
date unknown (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

A new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum showcases 180 real-life magical items.

Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft explores the history of magic from the early modern era to the present day through objects ranging from Renaissance crystal balls to folk charms against witchcraft. It looks at basic human needs such as fear of death and desire for love, and how people have used magic to try to get what they need.

The exhibition also turns the question of magic and superstition back on the viewer. In the entrance hallway, you are invited to step under a ladder or go around it. The museum is counting how many people dare to tempt fate. I did, and I hope they post the statistics when the exhibition is over!

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Tolkien Manuscripts and Artwork On Display in Oxford

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

bilbo-comes-to-the-hut-of-the-raft-elves-recoloured - 300 dpi

Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves, a watercolor Tolkien
painted for the first edition of The Hobbit, published in 1937.
Bilbo is seen sitting astride a barrel floating down the forest river,
having helped the dwarves (who are hidden inside the wine barrels) to
escape from the dungeons of the Elvenking. This was Tolkien’s favorite
watercolor and he was disappointed to find that it had been omitted from
the first American edition. Credit: © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937.

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library has launched the largest exhibition on J.R.R. Tolkien in a generation.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth showcases the library’s extensive collection of Tolkien’s papers, manuscripts, letters, and artwork, the largest of its kind in the world. The exhibition, which includes some 200 items, also brings together items from private collections and Marquette University’s Tolkien Collection.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) spent most of his adult life in Oxford. He came to Oxford University in 1911, aged nineteen, to study Classics at Exeter College, but later switched to English. After serving in France during World War One, he returned to Oxford to work on the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary), while tutoring in English. After five years at Leeds University as Reader and then Professor of English Language, he returned to Oxford in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his working life, first as Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925 to 1945, and later as Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959. He is buried with his wife, Edith, in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford.

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Mel Hunter and Hal Clement’s Needle

Friday, August 17th, 2018 | Posted by Doug Ellis

hunter clement needle unpublished-small

The Monday before this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I drove up to LA to visit a longtime SF fan and art collector. Among the two dozen pieces of art I picked up from him is this painting by artist Mel Hunter. Hunter was active in the SF field, contributing cover art to paperbacks and digests, as well as digest interiors, primarily from the early 1950’s until the early 1960’s, though he was still contributing an occasional cover into the early 1970’s. From December 1955 through December 1957, he also was the art director of If (the sister magazine to Galaxy). Over time, the painting has suffered some damage along the edges, so this image is a bit cropped.

Written on the back of the illustration board is a note stating that this painting is an unpublished illustration for Needle by Hal Clement, and that Hunter gave this painting to Edward Everett Evans and Thelma Evans. Another note below that mentions that the collector I bought it from purchased this from the estate of E.E. Evans (who passed away on December 2, 1958) for $25. Not surprisingly, I paid significantly more for it!

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Music in Antiquity on Display in Madrid

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Attic red figure cup of a female musician playing at an altar, c. 480 BC.

It’s the summer art season here in Madrid, and tourists, locals, and immigrants like me are fleeing to the air conditioned sanctuaries of major exhibitions to avoid heat stroke and see some culture.

One of the more interesting exhibitions is at the Caixa Forum, an exhibition space run by one of Spain’s major banks. Music in Antiquity traces the development of various musical instruments in Europe and the Middle East, and looks at how music was used in various ancient cultures.

About 400 artifacts from the Louvre, the National Museum in Athens, Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions trace some 3,000 years of history.

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