Templar Mystery Unlocked by Golden Coins


A hoard of 30 golden coins helped archaeologists to date a recently-uncovered shipwreck in the Bay of Haifa, near the ancient city of Acre. The wood of the ship dated to the years between 1062 and 1250 AD, but there was no way to tell when the ship actually sank until the coins were identified. These coins were golden florins, produced in Florence, Italy, starting in 1252. The ship, then, could not have sunk earlier than 1252.


17159334_1701542823194558_8763100412882119563_o.jpgIn fact, most archaeologists believe the ship sank nearly 40 years later, when the Christian European occupiers fled the city when Egyptian sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil invaded with 100,000 men. International trade through the city abruptly ceased as the European forces struggled to escape the city. A group of Templar Knights found to hold their ground against the invasion, while merchants and civilians escaped. The recently found shipwreck appears to be one of the vessels that fled Acre in 1291.


The gold florins are the main link to the Crusaders; witnesses of the Siege of Acre reported that the wealthy attempted to buy and bribe their way to safety with gold and other valuables. Of course, it is not known who was actually aboard the ship when it went down; whoever it was, they succeeded in escaping Acre only to perish at sea, going down with their gold.

When Mail Delivery Was A Series of Tubes


The line associated with the United States Postal Service is well known: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But what happens when those legendary couriers are replaced by a vast interconnected system of tubes?


Pneumatic-tube-mail.pngIt’s mostly been forgotten, but mail was delivered via pneumatic tubes in some urban areas beginning in the 1890’s. Congestion in city streets, with the mixing of cars and horse-drawn carriages, often delayed mail delivery; underground tubes could deliver letters quickly and efficiently. The pneumatic tube canisters, similar to the ones still used in modern banks, could hold up to 600 letters, and sped under city streets at about 35 miles per hour. In 1893, these mail tubes were installed in Philadelphia, with Brooklyn, Chicago, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and New York City following soon after, with over 56 miles of pneumatic tubing in total.


This service was put on hold during World War I, and only restored in New York and Boston after the war. By the middle of the 20th century, the increase in mail volume as well as the explosive growth of urban areas had made the pneumatic delivery system impractical as well as expensive, and it was phased out.



Several European cities used pneumatic mail delivery systems as well; such a system was in limited use in Prague until 2002, and was only closed at that time due to flooding. Berlin, Munich, and Paris all had pneumatic mail delivery, and Italy actually issued stamps specifically for the service; 23 pneumatic mail stamps were issued in Italy between the years of 1913 and 1966. (You can see excellent pictures of the stamps here.)




The most definitive pneumatic mail system in the United States was, unsurprisingly, the one in New York City. The pipes were buried about 6 feet below the city streets, and the workers who operated the tubes were known as “Rocketeers.” In its heyday, the system handled 30% of New York City mail, about 95,000 letters daily.


Pneumatic-tube-mail-apparatus.pngHowever, the temptation to send non-traditional items through the tubes proved too much for some. When the tube mail system had its grand opening in 1897, the Rocketeers sent a Bible wrapped in a flag, as well as a copy of the Constitution. They also sent a cat. Yes, that’s right, a live cat (the cat was fine, if a little disorientated.) In one documented instance, a sick cat was sent via pneumatic tube to a veterinarian. Kenneth Stuart, in an article titled “Pneumatic Mail Tubes and Operation of Automatic Railroads,” writes that “other animals that were reportedly shot through the underground tubes included dogs, mice, roosters, guinea pigs, and monkeys. And also: fish. At a 1908 demonstration convened to celebrate the opening of a new tube line from New York’s Broad Street Station, postal workers loaded a tube canister with ‘a glass globe containing water and live goldfish.’ To prove, basically, that they could. And they could. The makeshift tank, luckily for its inhabitants, was sent through the tubes without incidence.”


11237633933_8c65cc51e0_h.jpgMichelle Young, writing for the Untapped Cities blog, notes that “In its full glory, the pneumatic tubes covered a 27-mile route, connecting 23 post offices. This network stretched up Manhattan’s east and west sides, from Bowling Green and Wall Street, all the way north to Manhattanville and East Harlem. Anecdotal stories indicate that the system may have extended into the Bronx, with sandwich subs reportedly being delivered via pneumatic tubes from a renown subway shop in the Bronx to downtown postal stations. The system even crossed boroughs into Brooklyn (using the Brooklyn Bridge), taking four minutes to take letters from Church Street near City Hall to the General Post Office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza).”


Today, very few remnants of any of these systems can be seen, save for the pneumatic tubes in parts of Prague and the series of Italian pneumatic mail stamps. The reliability and flexibility of automobiles and human mail carriers won out over the shiny new pneumatic technology.


Traveling with Art: The Island of Capri, Italy


Capri is a stunning island in Italy on the south side of the Gulf of Naples. The island was especially made known in the 19th century through its favorable depiction from artists and writers.


The painting you see above shows the brilliant teal waters surrounding the island. It was painted by Giuseppe Salvati, an artist born in Naples in 1900. Capri has a rich history, including settlement in the Roman era and possibly before then in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. In the Middle Ages the island experienced various pirate raids.


Capri especially gained popularity from a mid-1800’s book called “Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri” by August Kopisch, in which Kopisch favorably describes his stay on the island. Various artists and writers soon came to stay on the island, creating an artist culture that also helped promote the place through works of art and stories.



Portrayal of the Blue Grotto by Jakob Alt.

Today, Capri is a popular destination visited by both Italian and foreign tourists.Capri’s Blue Grotto is its most visited attraction. The Grotto is a sea cave that sunlight shines into from an underwater cavity and through the water, making the cave glow with blue light. Roman sculptures of Neptune and Triton have been found inside the cave, likely from the time of Emperor Tiberius. The discovery of the sculptures made the cave an especially significant emblem of Capri.


Tourists swarm Capri during the summer over its peak times of May through September, and locals have the island mostly to themselves for the rest of the rainy year.

Traveling with Art: The Grand Canal in Venice, Italy

If you know Venice, Italy, you know the plight it faces today: rising water levels threaten to overtake the city.

So it’s all the more reason to enjoy the views of Venice while we can.

This postcard shows a view of the Grand Canal of Venice, one of the main means of traffic in the city. It snakes through the city for over two miles. Some believe that the canal goes the same route as an ancient river.

A painting of the Grand Canal by the artist Canaletto, an 18th century Italian artist.

A painting of the Grand Canal by the artist Canaletto, an 18th century Italian artist.

The Canal is lined with over 170 buildings that are over 200 years old. Many of these structures come from show-off noble Venetian families with huge amounts of money during the Republic of Venice, and they are certainly structures to admire. Check out the various styles – you can spot Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance style buildings.

One can do so by riding through the canal on the tourist favorite gondola, or on a more practical public water bus (cars are highly restricted and mostly banned from the city)

Il Molo, as pictured on this postcard, acts as a quay that is an entrance to the Grand Canal.

Il Molo, as pictured on this postcard, acts as a quay that is an entrance to the Grand Canal.

Only four bridges cross the canal. Until the 19th century, there was only the Rialto Bridge, a beautiful classic stone bridge that had to be rebuilt twice after collapsing under the weight of crowds (the most recent rebuild has not given any foot traffic a surprise canal bath).

Clearly, the canal is a place of deep and complex history, just like the rest of Venice. Although much of the city has been taken over by the tourism industry, plenty of its history is still maintained and ready to be discovered.

Make sure to check out our other Italy articles on Rome and Mount Vesuvius!

Traveling with Art: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy

One of the most stunning architecture masterpieces in the world resides in Rome.

Worked on by such famous figures as Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael, and Donato Bramante, St. Peter’s Basilica is the pride of the Renaissance.


Photo credit to Wikipedia user Jraytram under CC 3.0.

The structure can be seen in the above and below pieces by an artist named Bolteau. These watercolors work together in a set with very similar colors of gold, orange, and blue, and they both feature the basilica.

The bridge in the painting above resembles the Pons Aemilius, or by its modern name the Ponte Rotto, which was damaged and repaired multiple times in history before a flood carried away one half of the bridge in 1598. “Ponte Rotto” means “broken bridge.”

This other painting has a more prominent view of St. Peter’s Basilica. The basilica was built in the Late Renaissance and is considered to be one of the holiest Catholic churches.

The many parts to St. Peter’s have all been designed with great detail and care. Its dome was designed by Michelangelo, and his famous statue “Pieta” is housed inside the basilica.

This watercolor features St. Peter’s Square, or piazza, which stands directly in front of the basilica. The square contains a 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk as well as a granite fountain constructed by Bernini.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described St. Peter’s as “an ornament of the earth…the sublime of the beautiful.”

Another visitor wrote, “St Peter’s Basilica is the reason why Rome is still the center of the civilized world. For religious, historical, and architectural reasons it by itself justifies a journey to Rome, and its interior offers a palimpsest of artistic styles at their best…”

High praise for this architectural marvel!

What do you think of St. Peter’s Basilica? Have you ever been there yourself? Let us know in the comments!


Other articles in the “Traveling with Art” series:

The Arc de Triumph in Paris, France

Bamberg, Germany’s witch trials and pubs

Prague Castle and Charles Bridge

Mount Vesuvius and Naples, Italy

You’ll Never Look at Books the Same Way Again

There’s an art to books that even most book-lovers don’t know about.

Do you know those gold gilded edges found on many old books? In some cases these exist to hide something remarkable: a painting on the edge of the book, only viewable when you fan out the pages.

No one really knows why these exist, which adds to the mystery. Few readers have seen them much less heard of them, despite them being beautiful works of art.

Trojans Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs, painted on Jerusalem Delivered. (via Wikimedia user Dorieo, CC)

Trojans Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs, painted on Jerusalem Delivered. (via Wikimedia user Dorieo, CC)

Fore-edge paintings began to appear in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy. But these were painted on the edges of the book, seen directly without fanning them out or hiding them behind a shiny gold paint. The hidden, fore-edge version formed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Tower of London, painted on an edition of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (via the Boston Public Library)

The Tower of London, painted on an edition of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (via the Boston Public Library)

As if the practice isn’t already impressive enough, there is such a thing as a double fore-edge. Outlines from the Figures and Compositions upon the Greek, Roman and Etruscan Vases of the Late Sir William Hamilton (a rambling title if I ever saw one) has two hidden fore-edge paintings, a difficult task to achieve. In either direction that you fan the pages, you will find a different image.

There’s even such a thing as a triple fore-edge. In this case, two of the paintings are hidden and one is painted directly on the edge for all to see.

Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, painted on an accounting book (via Boston Public Library)

Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, painted on an accounting book (via Boston Public Library)

How are these paintings created? It’s a process for a master watercolor artist with a very steady hand. The edges of the book must first be perfectly smooth. Then the book has to be fanned out and held in the correct position between boards while it’s painted. When it’s dry, the edge must be painted with a special mixture and applied with gold leaf.

Surprisingly, these paintings are still made today, primarily by an artist named Martin Frost. In 1980 Frost got a commission for a number of book paintings, and after that decided to do fore-edge paintings full-time. He has created over 3,000 fore-edge paintings since then, plus portrait miniatures.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to double-check any old books with gold on the edges from now on. Just to be sure.

Traveling with Art: Mount Vesuvius and Naples, Italy

The legendary Mount Vesuvius sits nearby Naples, Italy, and has inspired both horror and awe in its nearby residents.

The painting you see above shows a Southeastern view of Naples, with the Vesuvius volcano in the background behind the Tyrrhenian gulf.

In the mythology of the labors of Hercules, Hercules finds a place called “the Phlegraean Plain” or “plain of fire” “from a hill which anciently vomited out fire … now called Vesuvius.” Historians suggest that Hercules may have been considered a patron of the volcano.

Someone's having a bad day

An 1872 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Despite the cheeriness of the painting, Mount Vesuvius is the volcano famous for its eruption in 79 AD that buried and destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in layers of ash. Since then, it has erupted 50 more times.

The city Herculaneum was buried in 75 feet of ash!

Pliny the Younger provided a valuable first person witness of the 79 AD eruption. Twenty-five years after the eruption, he wrote an account to his friend describing Pliny the Elder, his uncle’s, death through the burying of Pompeii. Pliny the Elder commanded a fleet of warships and attempted to use the ships to save the people on the shores of Pompeii. But his attempt was unsuccessful, as Pliny the Younger describes:

“. . . the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up . . . then [he] suddenly collapsed . . . his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.”

At the time, Pliny the Younger was 18 miles away and fled with his mother as far away as possible from the eruption.


A modern view of the sunset over Mount Vesuvius and Naples.

Vesuvius had erupted before 79 AD, about every century until 1037 AD, when it quieted for 600 years. But it woke up once again in 1631 and, since the area had grown around the sleeping mountain, killed about four thousand people.

How’s that for some cheerful history?

Today, the city of Naples, Italy looks out on its beautiful gulf. The city has issues with homelessness and keeping clean, but inhabitants will tell you that it’s like no other city in Italy in its environment and culture. Naples does not have a huge influx of tourists, thereby allowing visitors to really get to know the place by admiring the beautiful gulf of Naples and exploring its many pizzerias. 745px-Partenope_Street_Naples_Italy

Naples has a special population, too. Many stray dogs live there, but they are better cared for than any stray dogs you’ll find elsewhere. The tour guides to the ruins of Pompeii regularly pool together money to feed the dogs. And the dogs have reportedly fine-tuned their begging performance to tourists in restaurants. Visitors report that the dogs seem happy and friendly, and that they have become a part of the city’s culture.

Naples truly has an aura unlike any other city in Italy, and with Mount Vesuvius looking down on the city, it’s an unforgettable place.


Pliny the Younger’s account

Naples tourism

The Wiki