Bologna's leaning tower might collapse

The famous 48 metres high Garisenda Tower (that's the smaller tower on the left in the image) is one of two towers that dominate the skyline of the Italian city of Bologna. The other, the taller Asinelli Tower, is more than twice the height (97.2 metres) and also leans, though not so dramatically, and is usually open for tourists to climb.
[The Garisenda Tower is the (short) one on the left]

The structures were built between 1109 and 1119, though the height of the Garisenda Tower was reduced in the 14th Century because it had already begun to lean. The towers were mentioned several times by Dante in his Divina Commedia ('Divine Comedy'), published in 1320.

But time has not been kind to the Garisenda Tower. The tower now tilts at a four-degree angle, and monitoring has found shifts in the direction of the tilt.

The site was first closed in October 2023 after sensors picked up the changes in the Garisenda's tilt and inspections revealed deterioration in the materials that make up its base.

Authorities have begun constructing a 5 meters high barrier around the 12th Century Garisenda Tower to contain debris in the event that it falls.

It said that as well as containing debris, the barrier would protect surrounding buildings and people in the event of a collapse. Metal rockfall nets will also be installed around the tower. Construction of the barrier will be completed early in 2024, while the tower and the plaza beneath it are expected to remain closed for a number of years while restoration work is carried out.

Calcata: Where's the Holy Prepuce?

Precariously nestled on the edge of a cliff, the medieval village of Calcata in Italy is not your typical picturesque Italian town. It is a small, picturesque village located in the province of Viterbo, in the Lazio region of Italy, some 50 kilometres north of Rome. It is known for its interesting architecture, stunning views of the surrounding countryside, and a rather unusual historical claim to fame: the relic of the Holy Prepuce, or the foreskin of Jesus Christ. Prepuce is a Latin word from prae- ('fore-') and pūtos ('penis').
The story of Calcata’s claim to the Holy Prepuce can be traced back to the Middle Ages. According to local legend, the relic was brought to Calcata in the 16th century by a soldier who participated in the Crusades. The soldier claimed to have acquired the relic from a monk in the Holy Land. Another legend, somewhat less heroic, claims that in AD1527, a soldier in the German army was helpful in looting the Sanctum sanctorum (the Temple of Jerusalem). Not much of a provenance, I agree.

The Holy Prepuce was then placed in the Church of San Pietro in Calcata, making the town a destination for pilgrims. The Holy Prepuce was considered a rare and significant relic in the Catholic Church. However, its authenticity was a subject of controversy and skepticism, and many other churches also claimed to possess the Holy Prepuce. The relic was essentially forbidden from being worshipped by a papal decree issued in 1900 by Pope Leo XIII, and eventually faded into obscurity.
In defiance of the papal decree, Calcata continued to stage an annual procession on the Day of the Holy Circumcision to honour the relic. In 1983, however, parish priest Dario Magnoni had to announce: "This year, the holy relic will not be exposed to the devotion of the faithful. It has vanished. Sacrilegious thieves have taken it from my home."

He had reportedly kept the sacred relic in a shoebox in the back of a wardrobe. Conveniently citing the Vatican's decree of excommunication, Magnoni refused to further discuss the event, as does the Vatican.

As a result, theories of the crime vary from theft for lucrative resale to an effort by the Vatican to quietly put an end to the practice it had attempted to end by excommunication years ago. Its current location is a mystery.

Nowadays, Calcata is home to a thriving artistic community.

Venetian Ceruse

Venetian ceruse was a 16th-century cosmetic product used as a skin whitener.
[Queen Elizabeth I in her later years]

Not surprisingly, the Romans had already invented a similar product, which they called bianca ('white'). It predates ceruse by several centuries. Both bianca and ceruse were lead pigments. The pigment led an uneventful life for centuries. However, the Venetians found a new market it and launched an even more potent version with the highest content of ceruse in 1521.

The recipe for basic ceruse is white lead powder and vinegar heated together in a furnace for three to four days. In Venice, glassmaker's furnaces served a dual purpose: producing glass and ceruse. The Venetian version had the highest concentration of the whitest lead powder. The resulting concoction was then mixed with the ashes of burned green figs and made smooth with a little distilled vinegar. The finished paste was opaque. When spread on the face, it made a satin finish that covered unevenesses of your facial skin, such as smallpox marks, scars or other skin problems. Women never wiped it off, but added layer upon layer.

Over time, a woman's face took on a grey cast. The skin dried out, wrinkled, and aged prematurely. The skin changed colour from yellow, green to purple. Teeth and gums started to rot, followed by bad breath, hair loss, acute abdominal pain, chronic kidney disease, muscle paralysis, mental confusion, uncontrollable convulsions, and eventually death by lead poisoning.

Everyone knew (or should have known) the dangers: people were warned of its evils by physicians, and the church said that women were punishing their vanity with the product. Pliny the Elder (AD24-79) already called bianca a deadly poison.

So, why on earth would you want to have a ghostly white skin that would eventually kill you? The usage of Venetian ceruse in the pursuit of a fair complexion was largely driven by its associations with high status and wealth. This was because everyone who performed outdoor work under direct sunlight often had a tanned skin, whereas individuals in higher positions within society had the luxury of staying indoors and would not be 'tainted' by direct sunlight.

Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) was always depicted with fair white skin. Which was the result of Venetian ceruse, and it emphasised her nobility and high status.

Upon her death, a post-mortem was performed. Elizabeth’s make-up was said to be more than two centimeters thick.

Tutankhamun's Meteoric Iron Dagger

In 1922, a team led by archeologist Howard Carter (1874-1939) finally discovered the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled during the end of the 18th dynasty. The tomb revealed more than 5,000 exquisite items, that ranged from the solid gold coffin (with his body covered with the famous golden funerary mask) to fresh linen underwear (even in the afterlife you needed a change of underwear).
But among these artifacts was an enigmatig iron blade in a stunning ornamental golden sheath. Howard Carter described the dagger as having a finely manufactured blade made from a homogeneous metal, while the handle is made of fine gold and is decorated with cloisonné and granulation work, ending with a pommel of rock crystal. On one side of the golden sheath is a floral lily motif, while on the other is a pattern of feathers terminating with a jackal’s head.

Examples in Egypt of contemporary smelting during the 18th Dynasty to produce iron are very rare, and likely just produced low-quality iron to be forged into precious objects. As the other blades found in the tomb are relatively crude, many scholars have suggested that the ornamental dagger was imported to Egypt, perhaps as a royal gift from a neighbouring territory or kingdom.

The so-called Amarna letters, diplomatic documents, that date from the 14th century BC mention royal gifts made of iron given to the pharaohs of Egypt from before Tutankhamun’s reign. Interestingly, one of these documents notes that Tushratta, King of the Mitanni (now identified as the Medes), sent iron objects to Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun’s grandfather. Among the lists are iron blades.

Since the 1960’s, researchers suggested the nickel content in the blade was indicative of meteoric origin. The results from a more recent study in 2016, derived from an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer analysis, indicated that the blade’s composition is mainly iron (Fe), 10.8% nickel (Ni) and 0.58% cobalt (Co)[1].

This study compared the blade's composition to 11 meteorites of well-known compositions and 11 certified steel reference materials, concluding that the blade composition and homogeneity, closely correlates with a meteorite composition.

This conclusion was further supported by a study published in 2022, which conducted a non-destructive two-dimensional chemical analysis, and suggests that the source meteorite of the blade is octahedrite, one of the most common structural classes of iron meteorites[2].

Ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects. Moreover, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun's dagger blade, in comparison with other simple-shaped meteoritic iron artifacts, suggests a significant mastery of ironworking in Tutankhamun's time.

[1] Comelli et al: The Meteoritic Origin of Tutankhamun’s Iron Dagger Blade in Meteoritics and Planetary Science – 2016.
[2] Matsui, et al: The manufacture and origin of the Tutankhamen meteoritic iron dagger in Meteoritics and Planetary Science – 2022. See here.

The Death of Lord Carnarvon (1866-1923)

Just five months after Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, his benefactor, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon, died. He was just 57. His rather unexpected death within weeks of the tomb's official opening, coupled with the fertile imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lead to speculations of a curse.
At the time, the cause of the Earl's death was reported as 'pneumonia supervening on [facial] erysipelas'. In normal modern medical terminology, this means 'a streptococcal infection of the skin and underlying soft tissue'.

Pneumonia was thought to be only one of various complications, arising from the progressively invasive infection, that eventually resulted in multiorgan failure.

But Lord Carnarvon wasn't a particularly healthy man. Left a semi-invalid by a near fatal car accident in 1903, he was prone to frequent and severe lung infections. The general belief at the time was that one acute attack of bronchitis could have been the end of him.

In such a debilitated state, Lord Carnarvon's immune system was easily overwhelmed by erysipelas. On March 19, 1923, he suffered a mosquito bite on his cheek which became infected by a razor cut. He was diagnosed with 'erysipelas and streptococcic blood poisoning'.

After much suffering, Lord Carnarvon died in the early morning of April 5. He suffered from a high fever, severe pain, pneumonia in both lungs, and eventually heart and respiratory failure.

Recently, however, feeble-minded documentary makers have tried to link Lord Carnarvon's death to exposure to Aspergillus, which is a group of fungi that produce a mycotoxin when allowed to germinate on certain food products.
[Aspergillus under a microscope]


For Carnarvon to have been exposed to the mycotoxin, he would have had to have entered the tomb. The Times of London reported that he did so on the day of its official opening on February 17, 1923 - a few weeks before he became sick.

However, Howard Carter noted in his diary that Carnarvon first entered the tomb already on November 26, 1922.

During his first ingress into the tomb, Carter described an escape of hot air after he broke through the second sealed door and, in one instance, Carnarvon is described as having crawled along the tomb's floor.

Exposure to mycotoxins can cause a form of pneumonia to which immunocompromised individuals are particularly susceptible, and the contact Lord Carnarvon would have had with the toxic mold, by crawling along the floor and inhaling the hot air, certainly would have proved fatal for a semi-invalid extremely vulnerable to lung infections. But there is no mention in Carter's diary of Lord Carnarvon being ill until March of 1923, four whole months after his initial entry (as well as successive entries) into the tomb.

Furthermore, of the 44 Westerners present at the time, just 25 actually entered the tomb. Lord Carnarvon was the only one to become ill or died soon after its opening.

That Carnarvon's death had anything to do with Tutankhamen's tomb (or curse) is, therefore, highly unlikely.

Rome before the Romans

The legend of Romulus and Remus explains the origin of the ancient city of Rome. Romulus founded the city on the Palatine Hill after he and his brother had been left to die on the bank of the River Tiber by their uncle King Amulius.
[Ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome]


But there is another legend about the origins of Rome. An even older legend tells us that there was a Greek city which existed in the same place.

In Book VIII of the epic poem 'Aeneid', written in the first century BC by Virgil (70-19 BC), Prince Aeneas of Troy is described as sailing to Italy and visiting the region where Rome would later be established. But when he arrived in the area, there was already a Greek city on the site. It was the city of Pallantium.

The ruler of the city was a king named Evander who 'chose (honoring Pallas, their Pelasgian sire), the name of Pallantium'. That means they honoured the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus explained that Evander grew up in the city of Pallantium (from Ancient Greek Pallántion (Παλλάντιον) in Arcadia, Greece. When he moved to Italy and founded a new city, he decided to name it after his home city. According to the same writer, Evander founded the city sixty years before the Trojan War.

Some ancient writers did not consider Pallantium to be a Greek city that came before Rome. Rather, they viewed it as actually being the original Rome. For example, the Greek historian Strabo (64 BC-24 AD) wrote that Rome was originally founded by Arcadians from Greece. This is obviously a reference to the legend of Pallantium. Yet, Strabo does not call it ‘Pallantium’ – he simply calls it ‘Rome’.

Another historian of the first century BC, Ateius Philologus, agreed with this view. He wrote that the city which existed on the site of Rome was actually called ‘Rome’ in Evander’s time. Interestingly, he also wrote that Evander’s Rome was not the original settlement either. Rather, a settlement called Valentia existed there first, and then Evander changed its name to ‘Rome’ when he moved there.

As early as the fifth century BC, the reliable historian Antiochus of Syracuse referred to a Rome that existed before the Trojan War. This supports the story that Virgil presents in the Aeneid, which is based just after that war. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of written information available about the Greek city of Rome that existed before the Romans. Nonetheless, this evidence from Antiochus of Syracuse shows that the legend dates back to at least the fifth century BC.

Archaeologists did find evidence of what might be a Greek colony just next to the Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill was where the earliest part of Rome was founded, so this is significant. Note the similarity with the Palatine Hill, where Rome was supposedly founded. This evidence of a possible Greek colony dates back to about the middle of the eighth century BC, which is very early in the history of Rome. In fact, this is before there was any major settlement on the Palatine Hill.

Could this have been Evander’s city, the ‘Rome before the Romans’? It is certainly possible. The earliest records of the founding of Rome usually make Romulus a son of Aeneas rather than a distant descendant. This would mean that Evander’s city would have existed fairly soon before Romulus lived, and since Romulus is usually placed in the eighth century BC, the chronology works well with these archaeological findings.


Alexandria is sinking

Some cities have a great future behind them and are now facing oblivience. Venice is sinking (see here) and so is Alexandria.
Of course, some blame the rising sea levels as a result of global warming, but, just like Venice, most of its peril is man made.

Alexandria dates back to 331 B.C, when Alexander the Great chose to build a city surrounded by two bodies of water: the Mediterranean Sea in the north to make it a trade center, and Lake Mariout to the south, where he directed the Greek architect Dinocrat to design “Alexander’s Harbor.”

But the location was a barren area. So the engineers needed to establish a complex, intelligent system to supply water from the Nile through canals, and then distribute water through a branched pipeline system and store it in underground tanks.

Parts of this old pipeline system still exist but are not functioning, as the new city is built on the top of the many ancient cities that came ahead of it. And this is in itself another cause of subsidence.

Every year the city sinks by more than three millimetres, undermined by dams on the Nile that hold back the river silt that once consolidated its soil, and the problem is exacerbated by gas extraction offshore. Add to that the unchecked building of ever larger (and thus heavier) constructions that force out groundwater.

Even by the United Nations' best case scenario, a third of the city will be underwater or uninhabitable by 2050, with 1.5 million of its six million people forced to flee their homes. Already hundreds of Alexandrians have had to abandon their apartments weakened by flooding in 2015 and again in 2020.

Even without a possible rise in seal levels, a third of the highly productive agricultural land in the Nile Delta could be inundated by salt water.
Across the Delta, the sea has already advanced inland more than three kilometres since the 1960s, swallowing up Rosetta's iconic 19th-century lighthouse in the 1980s.

All this is happening as Alexandria's population is exploding, with nearly two million more people arriving in the last decade, while investment in infrastructure, as elsewhere in Egypt, has lagged. The city's governor, Mohamed al-Sharif, weakly said that the crumbling drainage system for its roads was built to absorb one million cubic metres of rain. But with the more violent storms that have come with climate change, "today we can get 18 million cubic metres falling in a single day".

"Yes, the threat exists and we don't deny it, but we're launching projects to attenuate it," the head of the authority protecting Egypt's coastline Abdel Qader said. A huge belt of reeds is being planted along 69 kilometres of coastline. "Sand sticks around them and together they form a natural barrier," he said.

It all seems a bit too little too late. As the Chinese philosopher and politician Confucius (ca. 551-ca. 479 BC) once said: "A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door.”

Remember that the lost tomb of Alexander the Great must be located somewhere in Alexandria, and that the tomb of Cleopatra (and Mark Anthony) is possibly also nearby in Taposiris Magna. They could be lost forever.