Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Bog people invade Canada

By Lucianne Poole

A photo of the reconstructed face of Yde Girl, a 16-year-old redhead whose body was preserved in a bog 2,000 years.
Yde Girl, a 2000-year-old found in a bog.
I pitched this story about 10 years ago to the National Post, but they turned it down. I first got interested in the subject of mummies after interviewing author Heather Pringle about her excellent book, The Mummy Congress.

The bog people are coming.

No, it's not a bad movie, but rather the culmination of years of archaeological research and an international (dare I say it?) love affair with human corpses found in European bogs. The Mysterious Bog People, an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, features bodies mummified in peat bogs – wet, dead vegetative matter.

Yde Girl

In fact, you may be familiar with the exhibition’s poster girl, a 2000-year-old red head known as Yde (pronounced Yidda) Girl. Her international popularity generated books, songs, poems, stories and two TV documentaries.

In 1897, two Dutch peat cutters dragged her leathery, withered corpse from a small bog in the northern Netherlands. A seven-foot-long banded wrapped three times around her neck indicated an untimely end. Yde Girl ended up in the Drents Museum in Assen, which now has one of the largest bog body collections in Europe. She was pretty much forgotten until almost a century later when she sparked the curiosity of an archaeologist interested in “bog bodies”.

Who are the bog bodies?

When Dr. Wijnand van der Sanden, a specialist in Iron Age Dutch villages, arrived at the Drents Museum in 1987, he realized that although the human remains on display drew a lot of interest from the public, very little was actually known about the bodies. Who were they, where did they come from, when did they die and above all, how did they end up in the bogs?

“When I joined the museum in ‘87, I soon found out that Dutch bog bodies had never been studied in a thorough way,” says the matter-of-fact van der Sanden, 49, one of the world’s five bog body researchers. “I very quickly took interest in bog bodies, also in response to the public’s questions. I couldn’t answer their questions.”

Digging up answers

Van der Sanden, who became fascinated with bog bodies as a teenager after reading The Bog People by P.V. Glob, started doing research on bog bodies. He called human geneticists, blood-typing specialists, textile experts, anthropologists, pathologists and forensic experts.

They learned that Yde Girl had died as about age 16. She had been wearing a woolen cloak and the band knotted around her neck was probably a waistband. A sliding knot had been tied beneath her left year and tightened until she asphyxiated. Her hair had been cut off on the right side of her head, and she had possibly been stabbed under the collarbone.

Bringing Yde Girl back to life

Eager to learn as much as he could about the only bog body at the Drents Museum with a head, van der Sanden contacted British medical artist Richard Neave about reconstructing Yde Girl’s head. Neave also reconstructed the head of Lindow Man, an Iron Age Briton found in a British bog in 1984.

“I also thought it would be a good way to make bog bodies more relative to visitors,” says van der Sanden, who left the Drents Museum five years ago to continue his bog body research as the county archaeologist for the Dutch province of Drenthe. “If you look at the remains, it is very difficult to imagine once-living people.”

He was right, Yde Girl was a huge hit. International interest in her and bog bodies climaxed with the release of two films (one by the Discovery Channel in 1997 and the other in 1998 by the BBC) and an exhibition of bog mummies from the Drents Museum.

A case of human sacrifice

Van der Sanden says it was quite likely that Yde Girl was sacrificed to the bogs: “The bodies are a part of the bigger picture of sacrifice, and the exhibition tries to show that.”

Van der Sanden explains that in prehistoric times, northwestern Europe became increasingly wet and peat began to form, eventually the areas were covered by bogs. People living on the high dry land between the bogs believed that the dangerous, foggy areas were inhabited by gods and spirits who controlled daily life. To keep on good terms with the gods, people deposited offerings in the bog. Written evidence from the medieval period, as well as the writings of Romans, including Tacitus, support the human sacrifice theory.

“Yde Girl is a part of a pattern of human sacrifice, but why sacrifice her?” asks van der Sanden “I don’t know. That goes for all bog bodies.”

The Mysterious Bog People exhibition closed in 2005 after appearing in five countries, but you can still view it online. Yde Girl is now back home at the Drents Museum if you feel like paying your respects.

This will be my last post for 2012. Back in January. Happy holidays and see you next year!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Home for the holidays . . . after a few centuries

By Lucianne Poole

A photo showing a bridge and clouds reflected in the Arno River in Florence, Italy.
The Arno River, Florence, much like it was in the 16th century.
Here's a feature about a centuries-old Italian art mystery. I wrote it in 2010 and sold it to the Globe and Mail, but they never got round to publishing it. So here it is for the first time!

A mysterious couple with a Canadian connection have been reunited in Italy after a 200-year separation.
You can find the aristocratic man and his pale wife side-by-side in an art exhibition in their home town of Florence. The 450-year-old portraits are considered masterpieces by Italian Mannerist painter Bronzino. It is the first time the elegant paintings have appeared together since the 1824 sale of one of them, the Portrait of a Lady.

This historic occasion has revived a centuries-old question: who are the man and the woman?

A banker and his wife

Their identities have been long debated. The National Gallery of Canada, which bought the Portrait of a Man in 1930 from a Berlin art dealer, recently identified the man as Pierantonio Bandini, a wealthy and influential banker born in Florence in 1514. According to the gallery, the woman in the Italian-owned Portrait of a Lady is Bandini's wife Cassandra de' Cavalcanti.
The Medici theory

Other experts say that the couple are Duke Cosimo I de' Medici and his wife, the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, who ruled 16th-century Florence. In 2004, Janet Cox-Rearick, an American academic, and Mary Westerman Bulgarella, a textile and costume conservator based in Italy, linked the pattern on the couple's clothing to that worn by the duke and duchess' son. As court painter to the Medici, Bronzino painted official portraits of Cosimo I, his family and the Florentine nobility.
What Vasari said

Giorgio Vasari, Bronzino's contemporary and famous for his biographies of Italian artists, noted that Bronzino painted portraits of Bandini and his wife. But these paintings were believed lost.

Then Catherine Johnston started researching for an essay on the Portrait of a Man, now named Pierantonio Bandini in the National Gallery of Canada's collection.
"I started researching the Bronzino in 2004, and I thought everything was known," says Johnston, now retired as curator of European Art. "I was reading Vasari again and again, and finally I thought of Pierantonio Bandini and the missing portraits. 'Could it be them?'"

Portrait listing found

At that time, an Italian researcher discovered a listing for the 1904 sale of the Portrait of a Man from Palazzo Giugni in Florence. The palace was once home to Cassandra Bandini, granddaughter and principal heir to Pierantonio Bandini. She married into the Giugni family, bringing her belongings and, plausibly, Bronzino's portraits.
Johnston acknowledges that her identification of Bandini and his wife is not universally accepted. Nonetheless, she continues to research the paintings, even travelling to Florence to see them at their temporary home in Palazzo Strozzi, close to the magnificent Renaissance palaces where the Bandinis and the Medici once lived.
What do you think?

Do you think the National Art Gallery correctly identified the sitters in the paintings or are they actually of Medici and his wife? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

This exhibition, Bronzino. Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici, ended in 2011. But you can still visit it online (see room VIII), buy the catalogue and see the paintings in person: Pierantonio Bandini at the National Gallery of Canada and Portrait of a Lady in Turin, Italy at Galleria Sabauda

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Writing contest mania continues

By Lucianne Poole

Have your say in the novel-writing contest I entered!

A sketch of a woman writing with an old-fashioned quill pen and ink.
With your help, I may inch closer to landing an agent for my novel.

Miss Snark's First Victim's Baker's Dozen novel writing contest is now open to critiques. This means you can have your say in the contest I mentioned in an earlier post, and in which I was chosen as a finalist. Yay!

Past winners have gone on to successful careers as novelists (hopefully, I'll be among the ranks).

How does this writing contest work? On Dec. 4, 2012, 15 agents will place bids on the finalists' entries (short description and first 250 words), with requested material going to the highest bidder.

Critiquing opened Nov. 30, 2012 and continues til Dec. 5, 2012. If you're interested, please provide feedback on any of the 60 entries (two categories).

These contests help "new" writers like me to find out if they are on the right track (whether we "win" an agent or not) and what you, the reader, are looking for. The genres range from young adult (YA) to women's fiction, romance and thrillers.

At 250 words, they are quick reads and, as finalists, these entries have all been pre-screened. So they are good to amazing. The entries are also anonymous, so I won't tell you which is mine, except to give you two hints: all entries are numbered and mine is between 1 and 12. and it is not paranormal romance!

If you would like to provide critique, here are some guidelines from Miss Snark's First Victim:
  • Please use a screen name instead of "Anonymous". Using a screen name does not require that you have a Blogger account, or any other account. Simply choose the "Name/URL" option for signing in, and type whatever screen name you'd like to use. The URL part isn't necessary.
  • Your critique should focus on the actual writing. 
  • As always, a mixture of tact and honesty is the best approach.
  • Please DO NOT CRITIQUE during the auction (Tuesday, Dec. 4, 11 a.m. EST to Wednesday, Dec. 5, 11 a.m. EST).
Nov. 30: 60 winning entries posted on Miss Snark's First Victim

Dec. 4: auction is LIVE at 11 a.m. EDT (agents will place bids)

Dec. 5: auction closes at 11 a.m. EDT and critiquing continues

Dec. 6: winners announced

Ready to critique? Go to the excellent blog of Miss Snark's First Victim.

How do you feel about critiquing? Ever done it before? Tell me about yourself. Please comment below.

Since I've blogged twice this week (phew!), there will be no blog for Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012.