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Visual Arts

Finding layers of 'Secrets' below the obvious

By Mike Giuliano

12:11 PM EDT, October 25, 2011

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The ugliest exhibit in town just now is at the Walters Art Museum. Let me explain. "Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes" is a fascinating show capping 12 years of scholarly research into a rare book that contains texts by that ancient Greek mathematician.

It's the book itself that is a wreck.

What's nearly miraculous is that the book survived at all. The story of how it survived is as striking as the texts it contains.

Archimedes, who lived in the Greek city of Syracuse in the third century B.C., had long passed from the scene when a 10th-century scribe in Constantinople copied some of his math-related treatises onto goatskin parchment. Over time, the parchment came to be more valued than those treatises. That's why a 13th-century monk actually rubbed off the Archimedes texts and used the parchment for Greek Orthodox religious texts.

The book had become a palimpsest, meaning one layer of writing in effect being placed atop another.

Condensing a history of use, abuse and alteration that's byzantine in its complexity, the so-called Archimedes Palimpsest was rediscovered by a 19th-century Biblical scholar, and then an early-20th-century classics professor rediscovered the largely erased Archimedes texts hidden beneath the Christian prayers.

The book's tangled 20th-century history included somebody painting forgeries of saints on some of the pages, as if crassly trying to enhance the book's financial value. Skipping ahead to recent decades, an anonymous American collector bought the battered book for two million dollars at a Christie's auction in New York in 1998. That collector lent the book to the Walters in 1999, where it has been studied ever since, and now is being exhibited along with the results of all that scholarship.

Will Noel, the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters, and Abigail Quandt, the Walters' senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books, collaborated with more than 80 international experts to decipher this book's long-concealed original texts.

Their challenge extended far beyond the fact that the original math texts had been erased and then covered over with Christian prayers. The parchment was disfigured by wax drippings from the candles by which those Christian prayers were read. It also had water-induced mold damage and, of course, there were the forged medieval paintings on some of the pages.

Wait, there's more. An earlier owner's misguided attempt to hold the book together meant that its pages were discolored with the sort of white glue you would have used for an elementary school art project. Hence, the wrecked book whose disassembled pages are now on display at the Walters.

After spending years stabilizing the damaged book, the team probed its content by deploying a sophisticated array of X-ray beams that looked beneath the Christian prayers and discovered traces of Archimedes' texts and related illustrations. To use the word famously associated with one of Archimedes' own scientific discoveries, that truly qualifies as a "Eureka!" moment.

The installation at the Walters presents pages from the book that are flanked by X-ray images and other didactic material that lets you share in the process of rediscovery. Perhaps fittingly for an exhibit that is built around a single book, this is a text-intensive museum show that requires serious viewing done at a deliberate pace. I'm not saying you need to spend 12 years going through the show, but give yourself the time to learn about the beautiful insights found in that ugly book.

Although it's a bit puzzling that this exhibit devotes relatively little attention to the mathematical content of the Archimedes Palimpsest, it does have enough such material to put you back in math class.

The exhibit closes with a section about totally unrelated objects in the Walters collection that also prove challenging for restorers and researchers. Again, you're pulled into the process of unlocking the mysteries of art and preserving the art itself for future generations to enjoy.

And, who knows, the next time you're perusing through junk at a weekend flea market, you might pause for more than a moment when you see a box filled with moldy old books.

"Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes" remains through Jan. 1 at the Walters Art Museum, at 600 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Admission to this special exhibit is $10, $8 for seniors, $6 for students and young adults (ages 18- 25), and free for those 17 and under and members. Call 410-547-9000 or go to http://www.thewalters.org.