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Witchcraft and the Art of Winemaking

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Maybe you’ve heard a bad bottle of wine being described as “corked.” This is the fault of TCA, a chemical compound that contaminates wine barrels and corks, giving vino an odor similar to Grandma’s dirty basement or a wet dog. Corked wine isn’t pleasant, but it certainly sounds more appealing than a bottle filled with witch pee—reportedly a common problem in 16th century Italy, when people thought that witches, after retiring from their midnight parties on the Satanic Sabbath, would break into wine cellars and urinate and defecate in the bottles and casks after drinking their fill. Villages would regularly toss out barrels of wine, convinced they’d been contaminated with unholy excrement.

The northern province of Friuli had some help with the problem. The Benandanti, or Good Walkers, were members of an ancient agrarian cult that believed themselves to be practitioners of white magic, and used their powers to protect vintners and farmers.

Membership in the Benandanti was an accident of birth. Children who emerged from the womb with their faces wrapped in a caul, or a piece of amniotic membrane, were thought to have healing powers and the ability to see witches, making them prime candidates to join the group. As children like this grew, they were said to go into a trance and experience strange visions on specific nights. Around the time a benandante turned 20, another benandante would come to visit them during one of these visions and show them the purpose of the trances. Their spirits would reportedly leave their bodies and ride roosters, goats or other animals through the sky, drinking the neighbors’ wine and joining other Benandanti in the woods.

But that's not all they did: The Benandanti would also battle the witches during their Satanic Sabbath by flanking them and attacking them with stalks of fennel. The witches fought back with stalks of sorghum. If they won the battle, crops would wither, children and animals would get sick, and the town's wine casks would become toilets. If the Benandanti won, though, the nearby villages would be safe and prosperous for the season. The fields would be fertile, the animals healthy, and the wine clean and delicious.

Unfortunately, the Benandanti were active during the Roman Inquisition, which prosecuted scores of people for heresy, blasphemy, sorcery, and witchcraft. Inquisitors investigated the Benandanti and at first claimed them heretics, but ultimately decided that their activity was “benign magic” and not Satanic.

No Benandanti were executed, but the Inquisition’s initial denounciation of them left unpopular with the villagers. They became synonymous with the very witches they fought against, and the cult declined and disappeared, leaving the wine to fend for itself.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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