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Gold, alchemists, nanospheres: How the mystery of the Alhambra’s purple stains was solved | Culture

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Some parts of the Alhambra, the world-famous medieval Islamic monument in Granada (southern Spain), feature purplish smudges. And nobody has ever been sure exactly why, nor what caused them, or by what process they came to be there. But now two scientists from the University of Granada, Carolina Cardell and Isabel Guerra, have untangled the mystery. Their investigation, which has been published in Science Advances, has all the ingredients of a good detective novel: an apparently unfathomable mystery in which the protagonist is gold, an accidental discovery in a Florence library, and the presence of a 17th-century alchemist, Cassius, at the story’s every turn. And behind it all there was science. A lot of it.

It all began in the 1990s. “We identified purple stains at the Alhambra that weren’t due to any added pigment, and we didn’t know what had caused them. So we decided to investigate,” says Cardell, a professor at the department of Mineralogy and Petrology at the University of Granada. “Shortly afterwards we went to a conference in Florence and spent an afternoon in a library. And there the penny dropped because we found information on what we needed to look for: the purple color could have been caused by particles of gold.”

Seeking out these gold particles was not difficult. Guerra, head of the scientific instrumentation center at the University of Granada, is an expert in electron microscopy and she used that expertise to trace the gold particles in the purple stains. “There they were. I call them stars because gold shines very brightly under the microscope. I remember that day perfectly, I’ll never forget it.” The scientists had made a huge step forward in their work: they now knew that the purple stains at the Alhambra were caused by gold particles. But in science that doesn’t count for much. What was important was to discover by what process the particles had been produced.

“Gold is a very noble material, it cannot be altered, that is precisely what gives it such great value,” says Guerra. And yet, however, something had altered the gold at the Alhambra. “We thought about going public with the information that the stains were particles of gold, but that we did not know how they had formed. At the end of the day, the Alhambra is hundreds of years old and it was very difficult to pinpoint the explanation. But we are both very stubborn, very tenacious, and so we kept on investigating.”

A detail of the plasterwork at the Alhambra, showing blue and purple smudges.
A detail of the plasterwork at the Alhambra, showing blue and purple smudges.UGR

The purple stains of the Alhambra are not everywhere, only in some of the gilded portions of the monument that are outdoors or exposed to humidity. And then again, not on all the golden surfaces in those areas. “The type of gilding in which we found the stains is the one in which a very thin sheet of gold was applied to a sheet of tin,” explains Cardell. “In other words, the starting point is a bimetallic structure. It was done this way because the gold leaf was very thin, about 2 microns thick [a millimeter is a thousand microns, a hair is 150 microns] and the tin foil gives the gold more shine and improves handling.”

There is another fact that is also key in this story: Granada sits 50 kilometers in a straight line from the Mediterranean, exposing it to salt from the sea spray. “And that means that the Alhambra is exposed to marine aerosols that contain chlorides,” says Carolina Cardell. The researchers discovered that, due to humidity, the tin sheets had oxidized and the by-products of this oxidation had begun to come out through the pores and fissures of the gold sheets and had partially covered the noble metal. They had taken another step, but not the definitive one because neither of these compounds can alter gold to form the particles that cause the purple stains.

“What happened”, continues Isabel Guerra, “is that these by-products did not completely cover the gold sheets; there were areas that were covered and others that were not.” And that meant that there were areas of the sheets that were still exposed to oxygen and others that had ceased to be so because they were covered. This fact caused the formation of some electrochemical microcells, which they call “differential aeration nanocells”, because some are exposed to oxygen and others are not, “and these nanocells can dissolve gold”, concludes Guerra.

The two researchers had always had in mind what is known as Cassius purple. “Gold particles are widely used in microbiology,” says Isabel Guerra. “For example, the first pregnancy tests used them and that’s why the result looked pink.” There is a great industrial technology dedicated to producing gold nanoparticles and its historical antecedent is the work of a medieval alchemist named Cassius. He discovered that gold only dissolves if you add hydrochloric and nitric acid to it and then it forms a yellowish solution. “If you add tin oxide to that yellowish solution, you have a purple precipitate made up of tiny gold particles, known as Cassius purple, which was a highly coveted pigment in the Middle Ages,” she adds.

When Isabel Guerra and Carolina Cardell reached that point, they already had it all: they had found the explanation for the purple stains in the Alhambra, which are due to a mixture of elements: the tin sheets behind the gold leaf, the humidity of the environment and the aerosols that the wind brings from the Mediterranean, which dissolved the gold in the sheets. “Gold nanospheres are one color or another depending on their size,” explains Cardell. “The 30-nanometer ones are reddish in color and as their size increases they acquire shades that go from light blue to purple or brown. Most of the ones in the Alhambra are 70 nanometers, and that’s why they’re purple.”

The discovery that the purple stains of the Alhambra are nothing more than dissolved gold has practical applications, as Carolina Cardell explains: “On the one hand, it has advanced basic research on gold alteration processes, but it also provides clues so that conservators and restorers can choose the most advanced intervention methodologies. The different heads of conservation of the Alhambra are enthusiastic about the information that we have given them”. And adds Isabel Guerra: “Once we have trained our eyes to see those bruises, we have observed that they are in many other places. For example, we have seen them in a monument in Toledo and in another in Seville.”

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Jennifer Lopez thought she was ‘going to die’ after her breakup with Ben Affleck | Culture

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The story of Jennifer Lopez, 53, and Ben Affleck, 50, is still providing new twists and turns after more than 20 years. When it seemed that one of the most famous couples in Hollywood had made as many headlines as possible with their reconciliation and subsequent marriage, the singer has made the news again by sharing more details about how they got together in 2002 and why they broke up two years later.

Reflecting on their relationship, Lopez said that it wasn’t a case of love at first sight. “I think what happened is, as we worked together, we became such good friends,” she said in an interview with Apple Music. The two met while filming the movie Gigli (2002), but at the time, Lopez was married to choreographer Chris Judd. The chemistry between the two, however, was undeniable. “We realized that we were crazy about each other […] It’s like you just knew it. It’s just like, ‘This is the person I want to be with.’ And that happened over a period of months.”

And then, from one day to the next, it was over. “It was so painful after we broke up. Once we called off that wedding 20 years ago, it was the biggest heartbreak of my life. I honestly felt like I was going to die,” she said. In the interview, Lopez said she even stopped performing songs inspired by their relationship because it was too painful. “It was a part of me then that I had to put away to move on and survive. It was a survival tactic, for sure.”

“It sent me on a spiral for the next 18 years where I just couldn’t get it right,” she continued. “But now, 20 years later, it does have a happy ending.”

During their separation, Lopez starred in dozens of movies, performed at hundreds of concerts (including the Super Bowl halftime show) and found love with singer Marc Anthony (with whom she has two children) and former baseball player Alex Rodriguez, with whom she was briefly engaged.

In April 2021, Lopez and Affleck confirmed they were back together after the singer broke up with Alex Rodríguez, and Affleck ended his relationship with actress Ana de Armas. A year later, the two were engaged and just a month later they were married in Las Vegas. Another month after that, they held a three-day wedding with friends and family.

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck on their wedding day, in September 2022.
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck on their wedding day, in September 2022.OnTheJLo

Last Friday, Lopez announced she will be releasing a new album, This is Me… Now, on the 20th anniversary of her 2002 record This is Me… Then. The focus of the new album is love, she said. “We captured me at this moment in time when I was reunited with the love of my life and we decided we were going to be together forever. The whole message of the album then is this love exists. This is a real love,” she said. “If you have, like me at times, lost hope, almost given up, don’t. Because true love does exist and some things do last forever and that’s real.”

“I want to put that message out into the world and that does take a lot of vulnerability,” she continued. “But I couldn’t stop myself and some parts of it scare me. And I think parts of it scare Ben too. He’s like, ‘Oh, do you really want to say all this stuff?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know how else to do it, baby.’”

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Unko Museum: Tokyo opens first poop museum to explore a taboo topic among Japanese youth | Culture

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Among the many synonyms for excrement that exist in the Japanese language, the founders of the Tokyo Unko Museum chose the most candid one, unko, to name an irreverent space designed for female Instagram users. “My goal was for poop to stop being a taboo subject for young girls,” explains its creator, Masaru Kobayashi.

With Japanese influencers in mind, Kobayashi filled the museum’s rooms with toilets and poop-shaped pieces in shades of turquoise, fuchsia and lemon yellow. The colors follow the palette of the Japanese kawaii aesthetic, which combines the cutesy and the grotesque. Kobayashi explains that, far from being a cultural fad, kawaii is a natural extension of traditional Japanese culture. “At the pinnacle of world-famous kawaii culture is poop, a fragile material that disappears down the drain shortly after being brought into this world,” reads a sign at the museum entrance.

To revive the scatological enthusiasm of childhood, visitors are welcomed into a room equipped with nine colorful toilets, whose arrangement evokes the communal toilets of ancient Rome. A museum guide invites them to sit down, clench their fists and, after counting one-two-three, imagine that they are releasing a symbolic dump. When they get up, they find in their respective receptacles pieces of plastic poop, which resemble the poop emoji in striking pastel colors.

There are neon signs with the word poop written in 16 languages. A tearoom serves huge cakes topped with golden feces. Another room features colorful droppings that move when stroked like furry animals. Video games include flying poops. On small toilet-shaped blackboards hung on the wall, visitors are invited to make their own poop drawings.

Although there is a Japanese term for museum, Kobayashi chose the English “museum” to describe a thematic venue whose sole function is to create entertaining environments. Instagram is full of photographs of absurd and witty scenes from the exhibits: couples play-acting, sitting on separate toilets, young parents with blue poop on their heads, or the typical tourist photo featuring a huge illuminated poop. Kobayashi confesses that at first he feared that the unusual concept would be rejected. He felt better when older people started to visit, many of whom saw a generational change in the fact that young girls were openly talking about poop.

In the past three years, Kobayashi has created six such museums across Japan. He has received invitations to open another in Singapore and is in talks with several Asian countries where the subject of human poop lacks the taboo it has historically had in the West.

Classics authors in Japanese literature, such as Natsume Soseki, coined memorable phrases about poop’s “physiological pleasures,” and Junichiro Tanizaki devoted a long passage from his well-known essay Praise of the Shadow to the traditional toilet set in the middle of a garden, which is where “poets of all times have found abundant material for their haikus.”

Many Japanese children learn to write the complicated characters of their language with a series of popular books called Poop Exercises, which contain more than 3,000 humorous phrases related to the subject. For 17 years, Toto, which manufactures high-tech toilets, has held a poetry contest inspired by the subject in the senryu style, which consiss of a short humorous poem and is a relative of the haiku.

For Kobayashi, the evolution of the museum’s audience is apparent in their gradual migration from Instagram to TikTok. His intention, he says, is to continue creating playful spaces that provide moments of relaxation to contrast with typically Japanese solemnity. His next project is a railway museum where, unlike the rigorous Japanese rail schedules, no trains arrive on time.

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The medieval monks who forged a nobleman’s will to appropriate a valuable church | Culture

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The monks of the San Pedro de Cardeña monastery, in Spain’s Burgos province, had long had their eye on the Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco church in Segovia. But the substantial inheritance that the Count of Castile, Asur Fernández, and his wife Guntroda, bequeathed them made no mention of this Romanesque church surrounded by beautiful vineyards.

Such was the ambition of the monastery to own the church that two hundred years after the death of the Count, they forged the parchment on which his will was written. Their only mistake was an omission to remove all the copies of the authentic will. Now, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the University of Burgos have been able to demonstrate that the fraudulent document, considered until now to be the oldest of those kept in the Historical Nobility Archive in Toledo, is in fact a forgery from the 12th century, and not from the year 943, as it claims.

The document faked by the monks – officially known as OSUNA, CP.37, D.9 – is a parchment on which round Visigothic script records a donation from the Count of Castile to the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. Until now, the document was thought to be somewhat unique as hardly any original documents from the 10th century survive in Castilian Spanish. However, research has shown that it was actually drawn up two centuries later.

The research, to be made public shortly in the Medieval Studies Annual Report, has revealed which procedures were employed to doctor the will, as well as the motives that led the monks to do so. The forgers based their work on an authentic document stipulating a donation from the Count, inserting elements that were not in the original, in order to use it as evidence in potential lawsuits, two of which were subsequently filed and won by the monks.

Drawing by Zix of the looting of El Cid’s tomb in San Pedro de Cardeña.
Drawing by Zix of the looting of El Cid’s tomb in San Pedro de Cardeña.

The analysis of the document, carried out by Sonia Serna from the University of Burgos, has exposed anomalies both in its preparation and its writing. Serna explains that the scribe was accustomed to working with the 12th century Carolinian script, and made an effort to imitate the round Visigothic script typical of 10th century Castile. But anachronistic features crept into his work, such as the use of the Carolinian system of abbreviations and the adoption of anomalous solutions to abbreviate some words, elements that would not have existed in the 10th century. All the same, the forgery proved effective enough to win two court cases.

The forged document included a clause that ceded the church to the Burgos monastery

The original document used by the monk as a model for his forgery was lost. However, a copy survived in the collection of charters, known as Becerro Gótico de Cardeña and kept in the Zabálburu Library in Madrid. By comparing both texts, Julio Escalona from the CSIC History Institute verified that the monk copied the wording and appearance of the authentic will, but inserted a clause assigning the church of Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco to the monastery of San Pedro.

In 1175, the church of Santa María de las Cuevas was the subject of litigation between the monastery of San Pedro and the councils of Peñafiel and Castrillo de Duero. The Burgos monastery finally won by presenting the false parchment document and getting two monks to testify its authenticity. According to the experts, that document was the will filed in the Toledo archive, whose anomalous paleographic features are consistent with an elaboration in the second half of the 12th century, taking the original as a model.

“Its value does not lie in the anecdotal fact of its being or not being the oldest document in the archive [as was believed until now], but in showing how technical skills and moral and religious authority combined in this case to build a credible truth, capable of triumphing in a judicial scenario,” states the CSIC and University of Burgos study. “Ultimately, it reminds us that to fully understand any historical period, it is essential to understand how each period rewrites and manipulates its past.”

The monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, where the forgery was made, was completely plundered by the Napoleonic troops during the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. The monks fled in terror and had to abandon all the treasures they had been guarding for centuries. One of the desecrated tombs was that of El Cid – or Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, with Napoleon’s soldiers selling off his weapons and remains throughout Europe. They even made engravings reflecting the plundering of the tomb of the legendary warrior. Today, a plaque states that although the remains of the Castilian hero are no longer here, his horse is buried in the monastery’s garden, though this may be no more than a myth.

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