“Mona Lisa model” to be exhumed

Mona LisaScientists are opening the grave of a nun to see if she was the model for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

The 16th century tomb of Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo is being explored in the hopes of finding her skull. With modern facial reconstruction techniques, it’s possible to tell what she looked like, and this will confirm or deny a popular theory that she was the model for the famous painting.

Archaeologists are using subsurface imaging to probe the area under a crypt and staircase they’ve uncovered inside an old convent where the women is presumed to have been buried. They believe that several tombs lie at the bottom of the stairs.

Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo was the wife of a wealthy merchant and when her husband died she became a nun at the convent of San Orsula in Florence, where she died in 1542. It was common in those days for women to join a convent when they were widowed. One has to wonder what Sister Del Giocondo thought of being the subject of the most talked-about portrait in history.

The Mona Lisa has been argued about for generations. Some researchers say the model was Da Vinci’s gay lover, while others say it’s Da Vinci himself in drag.

The lower tombs will be opened in the next few days. Stayed tuned to see if the team finds Mona Lisa’s celebrated head among the remains.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

England plans to sell all its public forests

forest, forests, sherwood forestEnglish environmentalists, hikers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and pretty much everybody else is up in arms about a UK government plan to sell off all the woodlands managed by the Forestry Commission in England, the BBC reports.

The Forestry Commission manages 18 percent of all England’s forests, some 2,500 sq km (965 sq miles). A portion of the forests are already being sold to raise £100m million ($159 million).

A public poll this week found 75 percent of the public against the move.

The plan will not affect forests in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

This is the dumbest idea the UK government has come up with since selling the Royal Mail. Forests are a national heritage, not something to be sold off by privileged members of government to their old classmates from Eton. The government says that environmental and public use rights will be protected but, to use an English phrase, that’s a load of bollocks. Once the forests are in private hands, it will be much easier for private interests to undermine the laws governing them, or simply ignore the laws if the fines come out to less than they’d make turning the forests into shopping malls and housing developments. This is already standard practice in Spain, and it has ruined some of the best stretches of the Mediterranean coastline.

As a hiker who loves England’s woodland, I have grave concerns over what this will mean for people from England and around the world who go to the woods to see some of England’s most beautiful spots. A few hundred million pounds in the government’s pocket will not solve the economic crisis, or save national health care, or pay off the national debt, but it will mean that the heritage of the English people may disappear forever.

[Image courtesy user ntollervey via Wikimedia Commons]

Roman ruins in Turkey to be flooded by dam project

One of the most important Roman archaeological sites in Turkey will soon be underwater.

The Roman spa town of Allianoi will be submerged beneath a reservoir once the nearby Yortanli dam becomes operational. The town was built in the second century AD near Bergama (ancient Pergamon) and has remained remarkably preserved. Archaeologists have uncovered baths, sculptures, artifacts, and elaborate mosaics that are giving them insights into Roman medicine and culture.

The site has become a battleground between archaeologists and European Union cultural officials on one side, and the Turkish government and farmers on the other. Local farmers are eager to see the dam finished because it will irrigate almost 20,000 acres of land. The EU has weighed in on the controversy because Turkey hopes to become a member state, yet the construction goes against both EU and Turkish heritage preservation laws.

Ironically, the site was only discovered because of an archaeological survey conducted in anticipation of the dam’s construction.

Only a quarter of the town has been excavated so far. Workers are currently burying the site in sand in order to protect it when it gets inundated.

[Photo courtesy Cretanforever via Wikimedia Commons]

Controversy over Spain’s reopened Army Museum

Spain has reopened its Army Museum after moving it from Madrid to Toledo, but some Spaniards aren’t happy with the choice of buildings.

The Museo del Ejército is housed in El Alcázar, a fort overlooking Toledo. When the fascists rebelled against the Second Spanish Republic and started the Spanish Civil War, Toledo was controlled by the Republican government, but the fort was in the hands of an army garrison who threw their lot in with Francisco Franco and the other fascist leaders. The defenders held out for two months against overwhelming odds until Franco’s army took the town. Franco went on to defeat the Republic and rule Spain as dictator until his death in 1975. Spain quickly switched to democratic rule after that.

The siege was a rallying cry for the fascists during the war and a major propaganda tool throughout their rule. Many on Spain’s left don’t like the symbolism of putting a military museum there. Some on the right are upset too, because a planned exhibit dedicated to El Division Azul, Spanish volunteers who fought for Hitler on the Russian front, was left out. Some artifacts from the division are on display in the World War Two section.

Another lingering controversy is the cost–€101 million ($129 million), almost four times its original budget. The museum was four years late in opening.

The museum itself is an interesting addition to any already much-visited city. With 21 rooms and 8000 square meters of exhibition space, it displays thousands of items from the early days of Spain’s military might up to the present day. While the displays tell the story of the Spanish army, the controversy over the museum says a lot about Spain’s struggle with its past.

Photo courtesy Rgcamus via Wikimedia Commons.

Pittsburgh restaurant features ‘conflict cuisine’

Most American travelers will never set foot in Iran, but at least now if they make it to Pittsburgh, they can enjoy some of the country’s delicious cuisine. It’s the idea behind a new take-out restaurant called Conflict Kitchen, a new eatery that’s attempting to feature cuisine from countries the United States is in conflict with.

Conflict Kitchen might serve food, but it’s hardly your normal carry-out joint. The project, which was started by artist Jon Rubin, will regularly shift themes to feature a different “conflict country” and promote cross-cultural understanding. The first four months are devoted to a collaboration with Pittsburgh’s Iranian community. In addition to delicious food like the Kubideh Sandwich, Conflict Kitchen also plans to host events, performances and discussion surrounding this much discussed Middle Eastern country. Though there’s been no announcement on the project’s website, chances are good that other “rogue states” like North Korea, Venezuela and Afghanistan will get similar treatment.

The Conflict Kitchen project raises an interesting question. Who are we demonizing when we disagree with a country’s politics? Is it the government of that country? Or is it also the people who live there, many of whom have nothing to do with the policies we dislike? Perhaps by traveling and through projects like Conflict Kitchen we can learn to better differentiate between the two.