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Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

As everyone knows, the Statue of Liberty (which is actually properly titled “Liberty Enlightening the World”) is a colossal neoclassical sculpture which stands in the harbor of my beloved home city, New York, New York. This is the 130th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York from France. The 93 meter tall statue was a lavish gift from the French people, who obviously know how to give astonishing amazing beautiful presents!  I won’t get into the elaborate political, engineering, and fundraising history behind the statue’s conception, fabrication, and construction: suffice to say, it has a very complicated story (as one would expect in a monumental joint artistic venture between two of Earth’s greatest nations).

the-statue-of-liberty

I will note that the statue has greatly overshadowed its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi—which seems inconceivable today when most art is an afterthought to the virulent self-aggrandizement of art world personalities.  If something similar were attempted now we would probably end up with a 90 meter tall statue of Jeff Koons…or of some part of his anatomy (though I shudder to write that down, lest I give him any ideas).

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

Bartholdi was an Alsatian and a freemason.  He studied architecture and then served in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (a conflict when the excesses of the Second Empire came back to haunt France—and a war which provided dark foreshadowing for the great industrial wars of the twentieth century).  Bartholdi conceived of the statue as a tribute to democracy and freedom just after the American Civil War—when France was under the dictatorial regime of Napoleon III.  Because of the authoritarianism and inequality of the time, the idea was shelved until after the Prussians drove this second Napoleon into exile and ushered in the third republic.

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal...

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal…

The Statue of Liberty is so universally iconic that it is hard to look at as a work of art—which is a shame because it is very lovely.  The fluid Roman robes belie the practical architecture beneath.  Atop the statue is a glowing crown of radiant beams—the neoclassical symbol for divinity. The enigmatic face is simultaneously stern and compassionate (though it is said that Bartholdi based it on his mother which might explain these juxtaposed emotions—and the very human tenderness with which the artist wrought the giant metal face).

Head_of_the_Statue_of_Liberty_1885

It is frustratingly difficult to find pictures of other Bartholdi sculptures.  I see here that he created a work titled “Genius in the Grasp of Misery” which sounds incredibly relevant and germane as I scrabble piteously for rent, but sadly I can’t find any photos of it.  He designed a fountain “The Little Vintner of Colmar” which features a handsome youth drinking a never-ending stream of wine.  The statue is as delightful as its description and was a gift from the city of Colmar to the city of Princeton New Jersey…What was going on in the nineteenth century that cities were all giving art to each other? It seems like an amazing trend which has passed.

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

Speaking of which, it occurs to me, that I have never thanked the French people for their far-sighted generosity.  Allow me to do so now!  Everyone here loves the statue and we deeply love our beautiful exasperating intelligent friends across the Atlantic (even if it sometimes seems like we are at odds).  Vive la France et merci pour le cadeau magnifique!

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber...Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France--it's even on a miniature island.

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber…Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France–it’s even on a miniature island.

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

I was a bit hard on China in yesterday’s post about toxic sludge left over from refining rare earth elements (I was actually angry at myself for not being a natural businessman, not at the Chinese for ruining the Earth with industrial poisons). Today, therefore, let’s cleanse our palettes by looking at some exquisite treasures which were found in a medieval Chinese tomb! The grave was discovered by construction workers in Nanjing in 2008, but is just now being showcased to the world. It belonged to “Lady Mei” a noblewoman who died in 1474—just 18 years before Columbus discovered the new world. Lady Mei was 45 when she died. Her epitaph reveals that she was a concubine who was married off to the Duke of Yunnan when she was an “unwashed and unkempt” maiden of 15. Lady Mei outshone the Duke’s two senior wives by bearing a son, but her biography also indicates she had a lively mind and no small share of strategic and political genius. Reading between the lines, it seems like she ran the Duke’s vast household (and possibly Yunnan) for twenty years (during the strife and court turmoil of the feuding Zhengtong and Jingtai Emperors and the mad incompetence of the Chenghua Emperor no less).

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

You can read what is known about Lady Mei’s fascinating life here, but for today’s purposes let’s look at some of the otherworldly jewelry found in the tomb.

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Ming dynasty art is my favorite Chinese art! The artists of the Song dynasty were more inventive (and perhaps had greater raw talent). The artists of the Ching dynasty had a more eye-popping palette and crafted designs with more ornate flourishes. The artists of the Tang dynasty were more cosmopolitan and outward looking. The artists of today certainly know how to make ugly wretched junk which celebrates the dark magic of marketing. But the artists and artisans of the Ming era were unsurpassed at finding perfect proportions and color combinations. They blended the diverse regional and international elements from around all of China into a perfect lavish synthesis of styles which is instantly and indelibly Chinese.

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (“lotus petal” decorations and Sanskrit in gold with sapphires, rubies, and one turquoise. (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Look at how Central Asian decorative motifs mix with Southern Asian religious designs all within a rubric of ancient patterns from the Yangzi heartland! The bold yellow of the jewels is perfectly matched by the equally rich colors of carved rubies, sapphires, cats’ eyes, and turquoises.

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei's Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei’s Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Each of the pieces of jewelry looks like something the queen of heaven could be wearing in a Chinese myth. These pieces are hairpins, bracelets, and a perfume box, but they have the splendor and unrivaled workmanship of crowns. Indeed, Lady Mei might as well have been a sovereign. Contemporary Yunnan has approximately the same population as contemporary Spain. The Yunnan of Lady Mei’s day was likewise probably about the same size as Spain just before it unified and took over the Americas.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

It is astonishing that these treasures have been lying in the earth, waiting for some developer to build a supermarket or condominium. Lady Wei’s opulent grave goods are exquisite—the undying glory of Ming craftsmanship still dazzles like nothing else.

Yesterday’s post concerned smallpox, one of the most dreadful scourges to ever afflict humankind.  I shied away from writing about the physiological aspects of the disease–which is caused by two viruses, Variola major and Variola minor–because the symptoms are absolutely horrible (as I can fervently attest after some internet research involving photographs which were apparently taken in the cruelest depths of hell).  Smallpox was badly named.  It should have been called “deathrash” or “bloodskin” or “face-melt-fever”, but apparently Roman stoicism came to the fore and the Latin name merely means “spotted” or “pimple.”  Not only did smallpox effectively kill off the native population of the new world (and later of Australia, which experienced a similar plague), but for thousands of years it regularly culled a sizable hunk of humanity from Africa, Asia, and Europe.  Like influenza, the smallpox co-evolved in response to our immune reactions to it, so, even in parts of the world where people had inherited some resistance, the pestilence sometimes flared into a full scale pandemic.

Death and the Child (Sebald Beham, woodcut, early 16th century)

But smallpox is gone (almost)!  Humankind joined together and beat one of the most horrible things we have ever faced.  Today the last remaining live smallpox viruses are imprisoned in laboratories in Atlanta and Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast.

In grade school, we were taught that this stunning victory came about when an English physician named Edward Jenner realized that milkmaids who contracted a mild rash called cowpox became immune to smallpox.  By deliberately giving people cowpox, Jenner found a way of protecting them from the fatal smallpox.  Jenner thus invented immunology, one of the most useful and inexpensive forms of medicine.  His great work was taken up by subsequent generations of immunologists and physicians in allied fields who improved upon his findings.  Together they used national and international resources to immunize the world.  Smallpox was officially proclaimed to be eradicated in 1979.

Yet Jenner had antecedents who were not well appreciated because of the preconceptions and prejudices of the day, (also, by necessity, he worked with human subjects whose bravery went unheralded).  Jenner’s greatness is not diminished by looking back at the others who were involved in an epic struggle against history’s greatest killer.  There are descriptions of smallpox avoidance techniques in ancient Sanskrit texts from India dating back to 1000 BC, however scholars do not agree on whether these texts describe inoculation or not.  What is certain is that a medical text from Ming dynasty China does indeed describe an effective inoculation process.  The Douzhen xinfa  published in 1549 was written by Wan Quan, a pediatrician who believed that sunlight and fresh air were good for children (and that overfeeding and overmedicating were bad). Wan Quan described a method of variolation—by which means a healthy person was purposely infected with Variola minor, the less dangerous o the two forms o smallpox.  By the time of the Lonquing Emperor who reigned from 1567–1572 (and was the son of the addled Jiajing emperor) variolation was widespread–powdered smallpox scabs were blown up the noses of healthy children so that they would contract Variola minor.  This was effective in preventing smallpox, but it had a fatality rate of .05% to 2%–a dreadful margin (though nothing like the 30%+ mortality rate of smallpox pandemic).

Variolation gradually spread through the Chinese empire and through the Turkish and Islamic world, but it did not reach the attention of western medicine until the early 18th century.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1716 to 1717 (as well as a sort of feminist pioneer, poet, and adventurer). After losing a brother to smallpox (and being disfigured by the disease) Lady Mary was eager for a means to protect her children from the scourge.  In 1718, the embassy surgeon inoculated her son and, based on the success of this procedure, she arranged for her daughter to be inoculated in 1721 (when the family was back in England).  The procedure attracted the attention of the medical establishment and the royal family.  Although many doctors were aghast at an “Oriental” procedure (which was being popularized by a woman, no less) the royal family intervened directly in the controversy when a smallpox epidemic swept England in the 1720s.  In order to fully test the safety of the inoculation, the King offered a full pardon to six (or seven?) condemned prisoners in exchange for undergoing variolation.  Not surprisingly the condemned prisoners chose an unknown medical procedure instead of the hangman’s rope, and when they survived they were duly freed.  Variolation was also tested on six orphan children–who also survived.  After these human tests, the royal children were inoculated against smallpox.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants (Jean Baptiste Vanmour, ca. 1717, oil on canvas)

Inoculation spread quickly among the rich and powerful of Europe, but it was staunchly opposed by reactionaries and by churchmen (who believed it was contrary to God’s will).  Against such a background, came Jenner’s discovery of a cowpox based vaccine which was vastly safer than using live smallpox.  But even with the much safer vaccine, it was a long time before the immunologists started to win over many ignorant and superstitious people to the life-saving virtues of the vaccine (and nearly two hundred more years before they stomped out the loathsome blight of smallpox).

The Sole Extant Specimen of the parasitoid wasp Aleiodes gaga

Voila, allow me to present Aleiodes gaga, a parasitoid wasp, which along with 178 other species, was discovered in the cloud rain forests of Thailand as part of a new biological survey seeking new life forms.  The drab little 5mm wasp is named after the flamboyant New York singer songwriter Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (who rose to international superstardome under the stage name of “Lady Gaga”.  The science/futurist website i09 somewhat cynically remarks, “As to why the researchers chose to “honor” Lady Gaga in this way is not entirely clear (they’re likely seeking attention — in which case the name is wholly appropriate).”

Lady Gaga

The remarkable aspect of the survey is that the new species were swiftly identified and categorized by DNA barcode rather than through traditional taxonomic means.  The team used a fragment of mitochondrial DNA to identify the various invertebrates which it discovered.  However, the new methodology has critics in the world of scholarly taxonomy, who lament that spotting arbitrary genetic differences is replacement for actually understanding a creature’s morphology, anatomy.

Scientists do not know about the habits of the gaga wasp, but they know that it is a parasitoid wasp, a class of hymenopterans which provide a useful biological check against various diseases, blights, and swarms.  When malicious insects attack certain plants, the plants release specific chemicals which attract particular species of wasps (which then prey on the offending beetle, ant, larva, or whatever).  A great many species of plants have particular wasps affiliated with them (since the wasp and the plant coevolved to meet each other’s needs).  Although such wasps provide an incalculable boon for both domestic and wild plants of all sorts, they are also the fodder for horrified screaming (since they tend to use mind control to render victims into zombies, which the wasp larvae then devour from within).

A Parasitoid Wasp injecting eggs into a paralyzed Hoverfly Larva

Most likely the wasp finds some local caterpillar, paralyzes it with a sting to the head, and lays its eggs inside the hapless victim.  When the wasp larvae awake they devour the still living caterpillar.  So to recap, this wasp 1) was discovered by means of a controversial technique; 2) was named in a naked bid for publicity; and 3) lays eggs inside its prey’s head which subsequently cause aforementioned head to explode.

Lady Gaga wearing a red gothic crown and…um…a damask table cloth I guess.

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