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A quick artistic post today: this is “Ein Augur erklärt Numa Pompilius nach dem Orakel des Vogelfluges zum König” by Bernhard Rode. It is an engraving made between 1768-69. Look at how beautifully it evokes the mystery of the classical world and reflects the Rococo German fascination with lovely melancholy classical ruins. Also notice the augur’s trademark lituus.

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There’s exciting news in the, um, news: French archaeologists have discovered brand-new ancient ruins! The beautifully preserved Roman town were discovered in Sainte Colombe, a contemporary French town next to the Rhône River (as an aside, Sainte Colombe was named after a famous Baroque-era master of the viola da gamba). The ruins, which date back to the second and third century AD, are currently being excavated. So far the researchers have discovered the shops of various artisans and metal workers, a wine warehouse, a temple to an unknown deity, and two luxury houses which belonged to wealthy Romans. The ruins are being dubbed a new Pompeii, since fire caused them to be abandoned and forgotten until present (and left them much more intact than other such discoveries. I love Roman ruins and I am looking forward to seeing more of this ancient town!

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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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One of the most popular and instantly recognized symbols of classical antiquity did not make it through the millennia.  The lituus was a spiral wand which looked a bit like a bishops crozier which was the symbol of augurs, diviners, and oracles in the Roman world.  If you waved one around today, people would think it was an obscure prop from PeeWee’s Playhouse or a messed-up art student’s idea of a fern frond.  Yet the lituus was everywhere in ancient Rome—it was on murals, and carved in statuary, and on the money.  Musicians even developed a great brass trumpet to look like the sacred symbol (or possibly it was the other way around—the Etruscans had a war-trumpet which looked a great deal like the littuus and possibly gave its name to the scrying instrument).

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Whatever the history and etymology, the Romans of the Republic and the Empire loved the lituus–and the whole world of divination, magical prophecies, and mystical portents which it represented.  The littuus itself was seemingly used to mark a section of the sky to the eye of the interpreter of signs.  Whatever birds flew through this quadrant represented what was to come.  Obviously, there was just as much fraud, skullduggery, and flimflam in Roman divination as there is in modern tealeaves, horoscopes, tarot, and other such bollocks—but at least the Roman art had the grace of the natural worlds (as well as the raw violence which was stock and trade of all aspects of society in the ancient world).

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Of course, it could be argued that the lituus isn’t quite as fully vanished as I have made it out to be.  Scholars of comparative religion see the same shape in the Bishop’s curling crozier (bishops seem to have stolen the hats of Egyptian priests as well).  To my eye the shape looks like a question mark, and has a similar meaning.  I wonder where question marks came from.

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(Crozier from Northern Italy in the early 14th century, bone and paint)

Musicians also owe fealty to the lituus, both as a symbol of otherworldly arcane spirit-knowledge and as a sort of ancient brass instrument.  Modern horns evolved, to a degree, from the lituus and I wonder if it found its way into the “fiddle heads of rebecs and violins (although I am not going to research those connections today).  Whatever the case, it is a lovely and interesting symbol for a branch of magical thought which the Romans held extremely dear and it is worth knowing by site if you plan on casting an eye on the ancient Mediterranean world.

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Here is a fresco of the Cumaean Sybil by Andrea de Castagno from his “Series of Illustrious People for the Villa Carducci.” In case you were curious, the other illustrious people were Boccachio, Petrarch, Dante, and Pippo Spano (who was apparently a confidant of of King Sigismund of Hungary).  This is sort of a strange group, but the oddest figure is the quasi mythical sybil from ancient Rome.  When we have more time to write a , we are going to come back to the Cumaean Sybil.  I need to write more about Apollo (a god who has been perplexing me more and more) and the Cumaean Sybil was one of the foremost priestesses of Apollo. In this picture (which dates from around 1450), she is dressed as a beautiful Renaissance noblewoman with a diadem and a regal purple gown.  Yet her book, her orator’s pose, and her sharp clever features clearly indicate her status a wise oracle.  Del Castagno was something of a sphinx among Florentine artists (all of Vasari’s juiciest details about his life are demonstrably wrong) yet the Cumaean Sybil here looks like she knows something.

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A popular luxury item of the ancient Mediterranean world was the unguentarium–a little glass container which contained perfume, salve, balm, or suchlike precious unguents (the purpose is right there in the name, people).   Today we would probably keep such cosmetics or medicines in a hermetically sealed plastic containers vacuum sealed by machines with metal or foil tops, but the Romans did not have such materials or technology. In order to keep their basalms fresh, they used the glassblower’s art.  The jalop was put in the container during manufacture and the glassmaker sealed it in.

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In order to use such a material, the buyer would snap the glass and break the seal (and alas, the vessel).  Dove-shaped unguentariums (or whatever the English plural of that word is) were particularly popular because the shape was beautiful and effective. A user could break the beak for getting small amounts or snap off the tail if she wanted to use all of her lotion at once.  Additionally, doves were sacred to Venus–a particular favorite goddess of the Romans.  I wonder what sort of lubricious lotions and potions were in these lovely glass doves.  In some cases we could perhaps find out.  Some of these were never broken by the people they were made for, now dead for more than a thousand years.  We could break them and find out what the contents were with our machines…but after so long it seems like an unimaginable shame.

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I colored a flounder drawing I made last Halloween with watercolor and colored pencils.  This is “The Sole and the Souls” (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper).  It features a sole covered with parti-colored fungi swimming through a Roman cemetery of late antiquity.  I think those might be Charun’s snakes in the sky (and his servitor dragging the gladiator into the darkness).

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Here is a marble vase crafted by unknown Roman master artisans in the latter half of the 2nd century A.D.  Two beautiful sinuous snakes coil around the edges of a sumptuous ogee shaped body.  The snakes’ bodies form the handles for the vase which is covered in lovely double “S” curves (as is the lid which is surmounted by a finial).  There are no inscriptions on the vase, so it is unclear if it was a funerary vessel, but the shape was a characteristic one for cremated remains.  Likewise, snakes had a religious significance in classical society. They were regarded as sacred to the gods below the Earth.  These serpents certainly have knowing expressions appropriate for chthonic intermediaries who know the secrets of the underworld.  However snakes have always looked like that to me.  Can you imagine carving this…out of stone…by hand?  I am pretty good with my hands, but the idea of all these perfect matched curves is beyond me.  Whoever this vase was originally meant for, it is now a monument to the master makers who lived nearly two thousand years ago.  It is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right here in New York–hopefully it will there sit on an elegant plinth while adoring crowds coo at it for another 2,000 years…yet the future has a disturbing way of eluding our hopes.

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The ancient Babylonians looked up at the glittering night stars and saw the shapes they knew from nature and from the myths of Mesopotamian civilization: a lion, a maiden, a scale, a scorpion, a centaur archer, a water goat (?),  a water bearer, a pair of fish, twins, a ram, a bull, and a solipsistic crab.  For thousands of years, these ancient emblems fascinated the imagination and represented the changing influence of the heavens upon humankind throughout the year.   Roman astronomers and calendar makers formally enshrined the twelve symbols as a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude: a calendar for the whole year.  This zodiac has been with us for a long time. The twelve figures lie at the center of the fun pseudoscience of astrology (which has no rational validity but which is a great way to strike up conversations and analyze the most fascinating subject of our times: the self).

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But what if the Babylonians and the Romans got it wrong?  There was always some awkward wiggle room in their calculations.  Was there a 13th zodiac sign which ancient magi/natural philosophers skipped out of ignorance, fear, or fascination with the number 12?  This is the provocative but largely meaningless question posed by NASA in a spectacular announcement of a newly found thirteenth constellation!  Well actually they have not so much found this constellation Ophiuchus, as reinstated it in the circle of the night sky as illustrated in the stunning graphic below.

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Orpiurchus, “The Snake-bearer” has long been in the heavens—although it is hard to see from northern latitudes–and astrologists and iconographers have flirted with the idea of including him in the classic zodiac (which kind of only works in the northern hemisphere anyway).   The snake bearer does have an emotional resonance with Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, AND Judaeo-Christian cultures, all of which have intense snake-themed myths about knowledge, hubris, and humankind’s uneasy place in the cosmos.

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ZodiacBooks.com presents us with an overview of the emotional traits of these new snake carriers as, “spirited, magnetic, impulsive, clever, flamboyant, and at times jealous, power-hungry, and temperamental [people born in this sign] want to heal the world of all ills and bring everyone closer together.” Hmm, it sort of sounds like everyone I know except for my crabby Cancer friend.  Obviously shoehorning a whole 13th symbol into the calendar has moved everything around, so here are the new dates, if you are afraid you might actually have some other personality than the one you have always had:

Capricorn: January 20-February 16

Aquarius: February 16-March 11

Pisces: March 11-April 18

Aries: April 18-May 13

Taurus: May 13-June 21

Gemini: June 21-July 20

Cancer: July 20-August 10

Leo: August 10-September 16

Virgo: September 16-October 30

Libra: October 30-November 23

Scorpio: November 23-November 29

Ophiuchus: November 29-December 17

Sagittarius: December 17-January 20

Of course a cynical natural scientist might surmise that random patterns of stars (which lie many many light years from each other) have no influence whatsoever on our little lives.  NASA, which deals in real science and engineering, but which desperately needs ATTENTION to thrive in our chaotic late-stage democracy says as much on their website.  They have essentially slapped a “for novelty purposes only” asterisk on this entire story (AND on astrology). We will see if Orpiurchus becomes a lasting part of the heavens or if he slinks back into dark obscurity like he did in the 1970s (or in this beautiful Rouseeau painting below which has nothing to do with this attention-seeking story). In the meantime, this is a fine opportunity to talk to people about their personalities and their birthdays and about what they want from the world. Whatever his nature, the snake-bearer can thus help us fulfil the true purpose of astrology!

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When scanning over the (dreadful and upsetting) news this morning, a wacky and funny story jumped out at me from amidst all of the grim happenings: fruit merchants in Japan auctioned off some grapes for a record high price!  A bunch of approximately 30 “Ruby Roman” grapes sold for 1.1 million yen (which is equal to approximately $11,000.00).  Even considering today’s high food prices and Japan’s astringent import rules (aka crooked tariffs), $365.00 per grape is an appallingly high price!  What is going on? And what are “Ruby Roman” grapes?

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Paying astronomically high prices for high-status foods is sort of a Japanese food tradition—like hotdog contests or giant pumpkin weighing in America. Merchants or wealthy patrons buy up ceremonial first fish or crops in order to gain prestige and whip up public attention (from all the way across the ocean in this case). The buyer of these particular grapes, Takamaru Konishi, plans on showing the expensive fruit in his shop before parceling them out to special customers and patrons.

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Ruby Roman grapes are a special Japanese variety of red grape which each grow to the size of ping pong balls. Viticulturists began developing this new variety of grapes in 1992 by hybridizing and selecting certain strains of Fujiminori grapes.   In 2008 the new giant red grapes hit shops…provided the fruit met the hilariously strict Japanese agricultural guidelines for what constitutes “Ruby Roman.”  To quote Wikipedia:

Every grape is checked strictly to guarantee its quality, with certification seals placed on those thus selected. The Ruby Roman has strict rules for selling; each grape must be over 20g and over 18% sugar. In addition, a special “premium class” exists which requires the grape to be over 30g and where the entire fruit bunch must weigh at least 700g. In 2010, only six grapes qualified for premium status while in 2011, no grapes made the cut.

Wow! Maybe these grapes are worth $365.00 each! Or maybe this is another goofy publicity stunt for lazy reporters.  If so, count me in!

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