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Holy of Holies: The Tribuna of the Uffizi

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Today's "Feel Art Again" is a double-header. First up was a post on the German-English artist Johann Zoffany (1733-1810); now this post delves into his painting "The Tribuna of the Uffizi." Read both to get the full story on this talented artist.

In the summer of 1772, Johann Zoffany was sent by Queen Charlotte to Florence with £300 and a letter of introduction. He was to paint highlights of the Grand Duke of Tuscany's collection as they were displayed in the Uffizi Palace's Tribuna. The result: "The Tribuna of the Uffizi."

1. In Italian, tribuna refers to the semi-circular or semi-polygonal domed end of a basilica. The Tribuna at the Uffizi is an octagonal domed room that was intended as "a sort of Holy of Holies within the palace." Designed for Francesco I de'Medici in the late 1580s, the Tribuna is the display room for the most important of the Medici collection of antiquities and paintings.

2. Zoffany's painting may have been inspired by Jacob de Formentrou's "Cabinet of Paintings" (at the time attributed to Gonzales Coques), which hung in Queen Charlotte's workroom. "The Tribuna of the Uffizi" takes "Cabinet of Paintings" to the next level with almost twice as many paintings and people, plus the addition of sculptures.

3. Although Zoffany has been praised for his accurate reproduction of the Tribuna, he actually brought in art from elsewhere in the Medici collection, re-arranged works, and adjusted the perspective of the interior. Zoffany arranged the paintings and sculptures in his depiction of the Tribuna so that the stylistic, historical, and thematic relationships between artists could be appreciated. The perspective—which may not have been exactly intentional, but of which Zoffany was aware—is more like that of a cut-away model or a stage viewed from the back theater. The altered perspective enabled Zoffany to fit more of the works of art and the people, and to better group them.

4. The people interspersed throughout the room are art connoisseurs, diplomats, travelers, and Zoffany himself. (See the painting's silhouette key or zoom key for the name of each person.) The painting was said to be "too much crowded with (for the most part) uninteresting portraits of English travelers" by Horace Mann, who was himself depicted in the painting. Zoffany was warned of the "impropriety" of filling the Queen's painting with "a flock of travelling boys."

5. "The Tribuna of the Uffizi" serves as a gallery of sorts, but also as an advertisement. George, the 3rd Earl of Cowper, and Sir Horace Mann assisted Zoffany in gaining access to many of the works that were not normally displayed in the Tribuna. Zoffany thanked the men by painting their portraits into the scene. Cowper is shown viewing Raphael's "Niccolini-Cowper Madonna," which he had recently acquired and hoped to sell to George III. (Zoffany is shown holding the painting for Cowper.) Sources are unclear as to whether this product placement resulted in King George's acquisition of the painting.

6. Zoffany spent 5 years in Italy working on "The Tribuna of the Uffizi" and was paid well by Queen Charlotte, but the royal family wasn't exactly pleased with their final product. According to Joseph Farington, "The King"¦expressed wonder at Zoffany having done so improper a thing as to introduce the portraits of Sir Horace Mann"¦ & others." He also wrote that "The Queen wd. not suffer the picture to be placed in any of her apartments." Zoffany never again worked for the royal family.

A larger version of "The Tribuna of the Uffizi" is available here.

Fans should check out the collections of Zoffany's works in the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Norfolk Museums, and the Art Renewal Center; and his biography by Lady Victoria Manners and Dr. G.C. Williamson.

"Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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