25 May 2009

The Last of Zenobia's Line?

Happy St. Zenobius Day!

Today the city of Florence celebrates one of its patron saints, St Zenobius (ca. 337-424/429), supposedly the founding father of the Florentine church, with lots of miracles to his name.

Zenobius? Zenobia?

What has he to do with our Palmyran Queen?

First things first. Here's what you need to know about Zenobius.

In Renaissance Florence, St Zenobius was second only to the city's principal patron saint, John the Baptist. His prominence in their ample pantheon was due to his miracles, including a proven ability to bring the dead back to life, and his stout defence of the city in times of political and military crisis.

In the 'Life of St Ambrose', the great bishop of early Christian Milan (337-397) -- written after Ambrose's death by his secretary Paulinus -- we first hear of Zenobius. Paulinus tells us that Ambrose visited Florence in one of his multiple postmortum apparitions:

In Tuscany, too, in the district of Florence where the holy man Zenobius is now bishop, Ambrose -- because he had promised that he would visit more frequently those seeking him -- was seen praying at the altar which is in the Ambrosian Basilica he built [the church now called San Lorenzo, consecrated by Ambrose in 393]. This we learned from the report of the holy Bishop Zenobius himself.

These are the only certain facts about St Zenobius: he was a good bishop -- and, at least, he did exist (which is more than some saints can claim). Not much data, really. But medieval chroniclers could make bricks with just this little bit of straw.

In the late 9th century, on a 26th of January, the saint's body was carried from the old Ambrosian Basilica and interred anew in the cathedral of Santa Reparata (later to become Santa Maria del Fiore, the current Duomo). Despite it being the middle of winter, as the procession passed alongside a dead tree -- an elm, I believe -- the saint's body accidentally touched it -- and MIRÁCOLO! it burst into green leaf and flowered (as shown on this wooden panel by Ghirlandaio). We know this happened because the Archbishop Lorenzo di Amalfi (d. 1049) recorded the story a century later, with the saint's name given as Zanobi (the Italian version of Zenobius).

Then, for almost 250 years, our sources are silent. Some more miracle-making was undoubtedly bubbling away beneath the surface, but only comes into view in the 13th century, when someone in the Florentine clergy created a whole new 'Life of St Zenobius'. This Vita Zenobii was spread about under the name of Bishop Simpliciano (Ambrose's successor as bishop of Milan), giving it an entirely spurious antiquity and authority.

All in a good cause, of course. Raising a local saint to prominence gave a big boost to the prestige of Florence and its bishopric:
He was a citizen of Florence and a most holy man. And God granted him many miracles, he revived the dead and it is believed because of his merits our city was liberated from the Goths.
In 1331, the body of St Zenobius was exhumed from the crypt of the early Duomo and re-entombed in a sepulcher in the middle of the central nave (he will be moved again in 1439, finally coming to rest in a chapel directly behind the main altar, known today as the Tribuna di San Zanobi). Anyway, digging down under the altar, they found the saint's relics, and
... removed some of the saint's skull and , and had it nobly placed in a head of silver, made in the likeness of the face and head of the saint , so that each year on his feast day it could be shown to the people with great solemnity.
That's the silver reliquary bust (signed by the Florentine silversmith Andrea Arditi) pictured at the top of this post.

Generally, the mid-14th century was a time of great renewed interest in the Florentine bishop-saint. Fittingly, a new life of Zenobius was composed by a monk named Biagio, and it was stuffed full of miracles.

St Zenobius brought back to life five dead people, we are told, including the child who was run over by a cart as he played in front of the cathedral. His distraught mother (a widow, of course) wailed and groaned until St Zenobius' prayers revived him -- a miracle pictured left by the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli.

None of this is surprising. Florence, to be sure, was not alone in so blatantly manufacturing miracles performed by its local bishop-saint. Many other Italian cities did the same. But Florence shows itself to be more imaginative -- and perhaps more agressive -- in displaying its civic pride.

Even so, what happened next is a surprise.

From Zenobius to the Girolami

If you look carefully at the shoulders of the reliquary bust of St Zenobius (top left), you will see both are marked with the same coats of arms -- argent, a sable saltire, with a bishop's mitre above. These coats of arms belong to the Girolami family, a rich Florentine clan of merchants (wool, silk, linen) and international bankers. Their presence there indicates that a member of the Girolami family -- and not the church -- was responsible for the manufacture of the reliquary and, also, that the Girolami claimed the saint as a member of their family!

The Girolami arms and the arms of St Zenobius are identical because the family traced its lineage back to the saint's father, Lucianus. Indeed, the family was known as the "Girolami of the Bishop" because of its special relationship with the early bishop. The relationship grew stronger over the years: in 1475, a Filipo Girolami commissioned a new 'Life of Zenobius'. Just two years later, his brother Francesco paid for the translation of the Latin 11th-century 'Life of Zenobius' into Italian. Both made clear that the saint was Girolami born and bred.

From Zenobius to Zenobia

Not to mention, this being the early Renaissance, that some clever Girolami had been reading his Latin Historiae Augustae and pondered the triumph of the Emperor Aurelian over Queen Zenobia:
And so [Zenobia] was led in triumph with such magnificence that the Roman people had never seen a more splendid parade. For she was adorned with gems so huge that she laboured under the weight of her ornaments. Her feet were bound with shackles of gold and her hands with golden fetters, and even on her neck she wore a chain of gold. Her life was granted her by Aurelian, and they say that thereafter she lived with her children in the manner of a Roman matron on an estate that had been presented to her at Tibur, which even to this day is still called Zenobia....
All that gold must have impressed the bankers. So, it took no great leap of Girolami faith to extend the family's ancestry back through Zenobius to Zenobia's children -- who had, presumably, lived happily-ever-after in Rome. Why else would the names be so similar? Zenobius, male. Zenobia, female. A perfect match. And Florence isn't all that far from Rome. So, the Girolami family claimed that they -- and St Zenobius alike -- were the descendants of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.

But were they even descendants of St. Zenobius?

The early 'Lives' state only that Zenobius was born into a noble Florentine family without specifying the Girolami. It is only in 1286 that a history of Florence provides the first known reference to the relationship between the family and the saint. But it was a fact that they did boast two bishops of nearby Fiesole, who were truly family members -- Bishop Zanobi Girolami (890-909) and a second Zanobi Girolami (966-984). That was just about the time that St Zenobius' body was being moved to Santa Reparata and the miracle of the flowering elm.

The stage was set.

What could be simpler, more natural, and more prestigious, than to conflate the bishops of Fiesole with the founder bishop-saint Zenobius? Thus, not very much later, the Girolami coat of arms appears on the saint's silver reliquary -- and the rest is history.

The head reliquary is the first, but far from the only example of the of the Girolami's patronage of the saint. They regularly and publicly advertised their ties to his cult -- a tradition that lasted well into the 20th century. Among other things, it earned them the privilege of following trumpeters, communal heralds, and a banner painted with the Girolami arms in a procession on the feast of St Zenobius each 25 May.

But there will be no such Girolami procession today.

The family died out in the 18th century. The last of the Girolami, Piero di Zanobi (d. 1786), bequeathed his property and possessions to the Covoni family, to the sons of his sister Virginia, who married Francesco Maria di Marco Covoni in 1737. The last Covoni to honour St Zenobius in public was the Princess Borghese Covoni who spent 50 lire (a tidy sum) on a garland to be hung on the 12th-century Girolami tower in the Via Por Santa Maria in Florence on 25 May 1940.

Alas, just as there are no Girolami, there is now no tower either. The German forces destroyed the ancient building when they mined this historic part of the city before retreating from Florence in 1944.

And so ends today our celebration of St Zenobius.

Although he wasn't a true descendant of our Zenobia (not even close), we're not quite finished with Zenobius. He owned a magic ring, you see. And that will be the subject of our next post.


Upper left: Andrea Arditi, Reliquary bust of St Zenobius, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence. Credit: Alinari/Art Resource, New York.

Upper centre: The Burial of St. Zenobius by Ghirlandaio (ca. 1479). Credit: MMA Francis L. Leland Fund, 1913, Accession Number 13.119.2

Left: St. Zenobius Resuscitating a Dead Child by Benozzo Gozzoli (Florentine, ca 1420-1497). Credit: MMA Rogers Fund, 1915, Accession Number 15.106.3

Lower centre: Three Miracles of St. Zenobius by Botticelli (1444/45–1510). Credit: John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911, Accession Number11.98

Lower left: Girolami tower (12th-c), Florence. Credit: Alinari/Art Resource, New York

14 May 2009

The Newest Uppity Stone-Age Venus

This lovely lady, we're told, was produced at least 35,000 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest known examples of human sculpture anywhere. She is tiny (only 6 cm [2.4"] tall) but, close-up, she sure packs a punch.

The World's First Uppity Venus?

Digging in a cave in southwestern Germany last fall, University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard unearthed this new Venus -- named the Hohle Fels Venus after the cave where she was found. Conard tells the story of the discovery in this week's Nature magazine (behind the subscription barrier, but they do offer a tempting pair of video's to the public, cutely entitled Prehistoric pin-up) and it has already been widely picked up by the news media.

With headlines exactly as you'd expect:

Excavation in Germany turns up paleolithic porn: Welt Online English News

Sexy "Venus" may be oldest figurine yet discovered: Reuters Science News

PREHISTORIC PORN: The Huffington Post

Busty Figurine Likened to 'Paleolithic Playboy': Discovery Channel

The Earliest Pornography? by ScienceNOW Daily News -- who really should know better. Oh well, at least, they did put in a question mark.

But did they put the question mark in the right place?

Is the Hohle Fels Venus, as Dr Conard claims, the most ancient representation of the human form yet discovered?

And, thus, one of the oldest pieces of sculptures ever found?

If she is truly over 35,000 years old, that early date -- and her dramatically exaggerated breasts, big buttocks, and detailed, enlarged vulva -- would place her at the very beginning of the Venus line (see my earlier posts, with lots of illustrations: Uppity Stone-Age Venus I, Venus II, and Venus III).

This Venus, unhappily, never had a head, but instead has a carefully-carved ring on top which suggests that the tiny figurine may have hung as a pendant from a leather thong or cord. While most Venus statuettes have only the sketchiest extremities (arms, hands, legs, feet), her arms are solidly fleshy and her hands even have precisely carved fingers, with five digits clearly visible on the left hand and four on the right hand. Deeply incised horizontal lines mark the arms and bulging abdomen which might represent clothing or straps or (if I may suggest it) possibly tattoos.

She is carved from a single piece of mammoth-tusk ivory which the team put back together again from six broken pieces (only the left arm and shoulder are still missing). At the same cave site, the archaeologists had previously found miniature statues of a horse, diving waterfowl and a human-like lion with male sexual features. The bones of various animals, including cave bears, deer, rhinoceroses and horses, were also excavated. They attribute all of these finds, including the ancient Venus, to one of the earliest human populations in Europe — the Aurignacian culture (37,000-27,000 BP)— which would mean that figurative art is a phenomenon that arose soon after modern man arrived in Europe (and before Neanderthals went extinct).

"This confirms figurative imagery is part of the Aurignacian from day one," Conard says, and "it will radically change our view of the origins of Palaeolithic art." Before this, he noted, most carvings and cave drawings were of mammoths, horses and other animals. "It is the oldest example of figurative art in any class, making it all the more surprising that the figurine presents such a powerful, sexually aggressive image." And he explained:

'Before this discovery ... female imagery was entirely unknown. The figurines enlarged breasts, bloated belly and thighs also make clear that sexual symbolism was alive and well tens of thousand of years ago, Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge, wrote in the [Nature] commentary. 'The feature of the newly discovered figure that will undoubtedly command most attention is its explicitly, almost aggressively, sexual nature, focused on the sexual characteristics of the female form, he wrote. 'Whichever way one views these representations, it is clear that the sexually symbolic dimension in European (and indeed worldwide) art has a long ancestry in the evolution of our species.

"It's at least as old as the world's oldest cave art," Mellars added, saying that viewers "can't avoid being struck by its very sexually explicit depiction of a woman. The breasts really jump out at you."

So, who should win the oldest crown?

Round One: Hohle Fels versus Willendorf

The find came almost 100 years to the day after the discovery in Austria of the "Venus of Willendorf," perhaps the most famous example of so-called Venus figurines that proliferated across Europe 20,000 to 25,000 years ago.

The Willendorf Venus was made of stone and about twice as big, but it also emphasized large breasts and a clearly carved vulva. Conard argues that his statuette is about 10,000 years older than the Willendorf piece and places it at the very start of the human advanced symbolic communication system -- a system which otherwise is known as 'art'.

Not only Willendorf. If Conard's dating is right, the Hohle Fels Venus was almost alone for at least 5,000 years. With one exception, all other Venus statuettes come from the Gravettian culture (27,000-23,000 BP). Conard admits that there are striking similarities between the Hohle Fels figurine and the later Venuses, which may be due to "a shared cultural tradition".

As archaeologists should remind themselves more often -- 5,000 years then is as long as 5,000 years now. A vast length of time.

So this cultural tradition would have had to span an immense number of actual years.

Round 2: Toppling "Dancing Fanny" from her throne

Until today, this 7.2 cm [2 1/2"] high green serpentine carving of a nude woman from Stratzinger Galgenberg (Lower Austria) was crowned as the "world's oldest sculpture of a woman".

Found in 1988, this extraordinary figurine, more formally known as the Galgenberg Venus, is posed as though in a ritual or dance position -- with one breast jutting out to the left, the other facing frontward; the vulva clearly indicated, the left arm raised, and the right hand resting on the thigh. Because of its moving, dancing attitude -- and not, I presume, because of its vulva -- its discoverers christened her "Fanny", after the famous Viennese dancer Fanny Elssler (pictured below).

She was discovered during rescue excavations of a camp site of palaeolithic hunters. Bones of horses and mammoths as well as antlers were found which yielded radiocarbon dates of approximately 32,000 years for the level where Fanny was found.

Round 3: The Chauvet Cave Pubic

Another ex-record-holder for the oldest female image is this drawing (left) on a cave wall from the Chauvet Cave in southern France, dated at about 30,000-32,000 years old -- a cave thought to be the very "Birthplace of Art".*

This composition links the lower part of a woman's body with the head of a bison with a human arm and hand (I've put in red arrows to mark those hard-to-see human elements). The bison figure has been described as "half-man, half-animal" and is nicknamed 'The Sorcerer' since its discovery.

Needless to say, I wonder how you sex a bison's head -- and why archaeologists are so sure this is a 'Sorcerer' and not a 'Sorceress'? But that's another story.

Back on topic, there may have once been a little more to the woman's body: the buttocks, too, might have been at least begun, and then deliberately obliterated by the superimposed bison being. Whatever was originally intended, a more emphatic statement of womanhood would be hard to find. And the same image -- pubic triangle with vulva -- is repeated five times in the Cauvet Cave, and these are the only indisputably human depictions in a cave otherwise filled with vivid pictures of mammoths, rhinoceroses, lions, bears, horses, and bisons.

What's wrong with this picture?

To put it mildly, the three supposedly earliest depictions of a woman -- Hohle Fels, "Dancing Fanny", and the pubic triangles of Chauvet Cave -- could hardly be more different one from another. The only one I'd put my money on, in truth, is the cave drawing. Why? Because it is notorious in archaeological excavations how easily such tiny objects as the two Venuses can slip down levels -- through snake holes, animal burrows, or because of later human activity -- to end up far below, in a level much earlier than when they were actually made.

I can't prove it, of course. Only ScienceNow put in a word of caution, citing archaeologist João Zilhão of Bristol University, who says "Conard is cherry-picking the best dates to reinforce his case that modern humans began creating art almost as soon as they arrived in Europe." On the contrary, he argues, the Hohle Fels figurine seems likely to be from about the same period as the other artifacts found in the German caves -- 5000 years after humans arrived in Europe.

For what it's worth, I agree.

In other words, and given the imprecision of our dating techniques, at roughly the same time when the whole line of Venuses began.

And maybe not even at the very starting line.

* Jean Clottes (ed.), Return to Chauvet Cave. Excavating the birthplace of Art: The First Full Report, Thames & Hudson, London.

This image of the famous Viennese dancer Fanny Elssler shows graphically why she was thought of when the excavators found the Galgenberg Venus. Even the pose is the same.

Photo from: http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/delarue/Htmls/printsE.html

My thanks to Dienekes' Anthropology Blog for first alerting me to the new Hohle Fels figurine.

Photo credits

Hohle Fels Venus: H. Jensen/©University of Tübingen via ScienceNOW Daily News

Galgenberg Venus: Don Hitchcock 2008via Donsmaps.com

Chauvet Cave drawing: Return to Chauvet Cave, Ill. 162

10 May 2009

Hatshepsut's Unfinished Obelisk

Ordered by Pharaoh Hatshepsut to commemorate her 16th year on the throne, this obelisk would have been by far the largest ever erected in ancient Egypt.

Not Exactly An Uppity Obelisk

Sadly, it was never finished but remains in situ attached to the rock on one side. Situated in the northern part of the Aswan quarries, this gigantic single piece of speckled red-and-black granite is attributed to Hatshepsut, very similar, in fact, to her twin obelisks in the Temple of Karnak. If the dating to her 16th year is correct, it must have been the last building order she ever gave. And, certainly, one of her most ambitious.

When finished, the obelisk would have measured around 42 m (120 feet) and weighed nearly 1,200 metric tons.
O ye people who see this monument in years to come and speak of that which I have made, beware lest you say, "I know not why it was done". I did it because I wished to make a gift for my father Amun, and to gild [it] with electrum.
It would appear that the stone developed a flaw during quarrying and was never completed.

It couldn't draw cosmic energy down to earth (as a kind of godly antenna) if it were cracked, so it was left in the quarry, still attached to the rock, for the next 3,500 years.

It has been a tourist attraction for almost as long.

Above, is a stunning satellite picture of this "Unfinished Obelisk" (click to enlarge) -- with tourists duly dwarfed by the immensity of the stone -- taken from Google's Earth From Above series (collected and posted in La Terre vue du Ciel by Yann Arthus-Bertrandt). You can find it at 24°01’ N, 32°58’ E.

Not a successfully uppity obelisk, I must admit, but you can't fault Hatshepsut for trying. It would have been one of the Wonders of the World, and I bet she knew it.

My thanks to Andie Byrnes at Egyptology News for signalling Yann Arthus-Bertrandt's website. While visiting Yann's site, you can add your own gadget "Earth From Above" to your iGoogle page. Really, that's the point of this post. I'm gobsmacked.

If you want to know the detail possible from the 'spy in the sky' satellite, how about this:

Spot the fox trotting across the pyramid's stones, near Cairo -- at 29°58’ N - 31°07’ E, to be precise.

Gobsmacked, as I say.

02 May 2009

World's First Uppity Mosque (Updated)

Next week, the world's first uppity mosque will open in Istanbul.

In a country where most mosques are variations of the classical designs of Sinan, the 16th-century Ottoman master architect, and where women have commissioned mosques before, but never built them, both the design and the designer of the Sakirin Mosque are a departure from the norm.

In fact, practically everything about the Sakirin Mosque in Istanbul is different from other mosques.

Its walls are almost completely made of glass decorated with wrought-iron mesh. The mihrab -- usually a modest niche indicating the direction of Mecca -- is tulip-shaped and dramatically arched in bright blue. Colours running through the mosque range from turquoise to coral pink to gold and silver. The main element of the fountain in the middle of the courtyard is a sphere made of stainless steel, symbolising the universe.

And the mosque’s main designer is a woman.

Zeynep Fadillioglu, an award-winning designer who made her name with the interiors of fancy bars and restaurants, has created little short of a revolution by her interpretation of a modern place of worship.

With her blonde hair, designer glasses and elegant clothes, Ms Fadillioglu may not look like the obvious choice for a mosque designer: newspapers called the Sakirin Mosque a “high-society mosque” because Ms Fadillioglu is known for creating some of the most stylish lounges and nightclubs in Istanbul as well as hotels and homes for the super-rich, from Turkey to Europe, India to the Middle East.

The fact that Ms Fadillioglu, 53, is the first woman ever to be in charge of the design of a mosque is about to spark world-wide headlines about the project.

“It was very exciting but also seriously scary,” Ms Fadillioglu said of the time when she was asked to take part in the building.

But Ms Fadillioglu, who describes herself as "not really a practicing Muslim", said that the work on the mosque had been a spiritual as well as an artistic experience for her. “If I weren’t a Muslim, I could still have designed it, but there would have been less feeling in it,” she said. She and her team worked closely with theologians and experts on Islamic art. Fadillioglu says, I’m not here to redefine Islam. I’m here to reinterpret the aesthetic part in my own language of design.

The children of Ibrahim and Semiha Sakir, a wealthy Turkish-Arab couple known for their philanthropy, are having the mosque built in honour of their parents. The mosque's name obviously reflects the family name but it also has the literal meaning in Arabic of "Those who are thankful (to God)". It is located at the entrance of the Karacaahmet Cemetery, one of Istanbul’s oldest, in the ultra-pious district of Uskudar on the Asian side of the city -- the last home of at least a million souls, from Ottoman bureaucrats to modern day artists. And now, among the tall cypress trees that grow above them, there also rise two minarets and a dome whose style is as new to the living as it is to the dead.

Into the 21st Century

When Ms Fadillioglu went to work with her 18-strong design team, the main structures of the mosque -- such as the 44 metre-diameter (130') dome coated in aluminium composite, which gives the sphere the look of a spaceship -- had already been built by the architect Husrev Tayla. She decided to put in glass walls entwined with a wrought-iron mesh. The effect is that the main prayer room of the mosque is flooded with the sunlight that falls in through the walls.

Fadillioglu brought in nine artists to work on different aspects of the mosque, and extended the entrance area to create an “easy approach” that makes the whole complex more welcoming, she said.

She is putting a contemporary spin on religious art from the Ottoman era.

The minbar (pulpit), which in most Turkish mosques is made of carved wood or stone, is an ivory-coloured stairway made from acrylic and decorated with a leaf motif. The facilities for preprayer ablution have blond-wood and Plexiglas lockers. In the main hall hangs a bronze chandelier, dangling with thousands of hand-blown glass raindrops — a visual allusion to the Koranic verse that says Allah's light should fall on believers like drops of rain.

The iron on the mosque's enormous iron and glass facade was hand-crafted by specialists in Istanbul. She says, "The glass etching has got different layers of gilding on it, which is from verses of the Koran. We wanted people to feel more left alone with God in this place, rather then being distracted by too much ornamentation. I think that makes it more contemporary at the same time."

An airy and luxurious sensibility pervades the structure. The glass panels with golden etchings reinforce the effect of being surrounded by light. The 400 square metres (135 sq.') of the prayer room can accommodate about 250 worshippers, with room for an additional 100 people on the spacious balcony, the only place where women may pray.

A Woman-friendly Mosque?

Traditional mosques tend to keep women hidden by walls or curtains . Even in newer, more progressive buildings, prayer areas for men and women remain separate — but supposedly equal. Well, Americans know all about "separate but equal", which usually means a small, dark place in the back, while the men kneel in front on a vast carpet enjoying an unobstructed view of the mosque. Ms Fadillioglu said she hoped that religious authorities would one day allow women to pray in the main room as well.

"In the Prophet's time, men and women prayed next to each other," she says. "Lately, with the rise of political Islam everywhere, the women's sections have started to be covered up and boxed off. I've been in mosques like that, and I felt very uncomfortable."

Fadillioglu's women's section is an expansive balcony overlooking the central hall and divided only by criss-crossed railings. And she's made it every bit as beautiful as the men's part of the mosque.

That’s why the mosque might be a good step to change some established prejudices. "This mosque has all the Western and Eastern values nicely blended," Fadillioglu says.

A mosque designed by a woman, as she proudly noted, will be more welcoming to women. “Certain things can be done differently. There is so much creativity in this country.”

Uppity, that's what I call it.

Have a look.


Yesterday, on Friday the 8th of May, the Sakirin Mosque opened for prayer.

Outdoors, the metal spherical fountain designed by the British artist William Pye dominates the entrance (Pye's website , for some unfanthomable reason, does not picture the Sakirin fountain -- nor does a search bring it into view).

Left: Some of the crowd of worshippers at the newly-opened mosque are reflected on the metal structure of the fountain.

Left: Indoors, an early worshipper basks in the sunshine in the main prayer room. The wrought-iron grills on the windows throw shimmering patterns on the floor.

Left, a radiant Zeynep Fadillioglu chats with visitors during the opening. Alongside, worshipping women on their way to test out the women-friendly balcony.

If I find pictures of the women's section, I'll post them later.

Photo credits: Murad Sezer via Reuters.

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