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Italian circa 1500

By Jonalee A. Crabb known in the SCA as Roxelana Bramante

 Never again! I had no idea the amount of work this project would require.  While I'm happy with the results, I cant believe how much I put into this one project.
 It all started innocently enough when I was reading The Flowers of Venice, a new book I purchased in February. I was thrilled to read on page 20:
     The most ancient Venetian documents with detailed descriptions of glass-bead flowers is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; a book printed in 1499 by Aldus Manutius the Elder.  This unusual text approaches garden design as if it were an architectural element, worthy of the house it was meant to beautify, and where vegetation was used as if it were a material such as marble or stone.  The garden, which contained topiaries as well as statues, was designed according to rigid geometric patterns and could include fountains, arbors, flowerbeds, and mazes.
     A scale model in silk and Murano conteria  was made of this garden; unfortunately, it has not survived, and all we are left with is its description.  Clearly, the book and the model demonstrate that there was a lively dialogue and an exchange of ideas at the time among the various crafts such as garden design, glass making, and weaving.  It must have been magic to see a whole garden made of glass. 
     The uniquely Venetian art of miniature garden design became popular in European countries such as France, Germany, and England.  Unfortunately, very little documentation has survived, especially because these pocket gardens were usually created behind castle walls and inside convents.  We can still see some significant examples of glass bead creations at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, though they are mostly bead-trimmed clothes and precious jewelry boxes.
These items are used to document the existance of beaded flowers prior to 1600.

Silk Gardens of 1480ce

More Silk Gardens

Kunigunde Reliquary Crown

What a find! I played with the idea in my head for a week or so could I make a beaded garden, in miniature, in the next two months? What kinds of flowers go in an Italian garden and what, exactly, did a garden in Italy look like in 1500? There was a lot to think about if I was going to undertake such a project.
First though I wanted to see this text which described the original beaded garden so I went to the library and ordered myself a copy.  Then I started to think about garden designs in the same time period so I ordered every book on historical Italian gardens that the library had in its system.  And in that same swirl of thought I had decided the garden was going to need walls to contain it so I went and ordered some hydrocol cast brick panels from a model train distributor.  At that moment I realized that I had actually decided to make a miniature garden.

Historical Items on which I based this Garden.
 Until I read the Flowers of Venice I had only ever considered doing a bead garden in the form of a Paradise Garden. Paradise Gardens were created in convents (I have pictures of several dating to 1480) and took the form of kneelers on which nuns took their vows. They were made to represent the garden of heaven.  Another group of nuns, the Dominican nuns of Alsace, had an exercise involving a garland for St. Barbara made/paid for with prayers. It consisted of different varieties and colors of flowers which were paid for with prayers. A periwinkle cost thirty Our Fathers, a daisy a hundred Hail Marys, and so one. The garland had several layers of symbolic meaning and the individual flowers related to the various virtues practiced by St. Barbara that were worthy of imitation.  The reason I mention this is because the names of bead types and the names of prayers were the same through most of the Middle Ages (paternoster for instance) and the word for prayer was the same as the word for bead. Both were called bede. So these garland flowers could have been created for prayers in the same way one prays the rosary one could pray a flower. The flowers also could have been created using real beads and the manuscript is just the instructions for what beads are required for each type of flower. Since the first documented bead-flowers were associated with the church (decorations and processions) and funerals (grave wreaths) it is very likely that beaded flowers were a fancy type of rosary and each bead was a prayer. We may never know for sure but I continue to research this angle. What we do know is that nuns in convents created many different kinds of Art Flowers. 
 In addition I have finally (after looking for several years) found a picture of the Kunigunde reliquary crown on it you will see beaded flowers. The picture isnt very good (the original is 2 inches square and B&W) but it does show actual beaded flowers.
 The text of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, written by Francesco Colonna and published in Venice in 1499, contains several gardens.  There is one of glass, one of silk, and another of gemstones. I have provided the entire text related to the beaded garden.
 The silk garden is similarly described but throughout the book there are many descriptions of gemstone flowers to lead me to several conclusions.  I have an example of a silk garden, a paradise garden, created in a convent in 1480; it follows the description in the book in that the flowers are created of silk and studded with beads and pearls.  I found a picture of a small crown of the fifteenth century, which may have been buried with Saint Henry and contains beaded flowers.  It would seem, from the books comparison with the works one could find in Murano, that beaded flowers were known and that these in the garden far surpassed those.  It would be much easier to describe something such as a beaded garden if one already knew that beaded flowers existed.  From the example of the crown we know beaded flowers did exist in some form.
 I felt that at this point I had certainly made a case for making a miniature beaded garden. So the only other thing I needed to document this beaded garden was to know what gardens in general looked like in Italy around 1500. For this I read several books on medieval gardens, used period botanical books, and studied paintings.
1) The text of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, written by Francesco Colonna and published in Venice in 1499, contains several gardens. There is a garden of glass, a garden of silk, and gardens of gemstones. There is also a maze with water passages.  On pages 123-124 is the description of the glass garden. 
2) The Kunigunde reliquary crown.  Described in the History of European Crown Jewels. Probably in the XVI century, four arches were added, made of brass with green silk wound around them. These arches have beaded
flowers on them. The rest of the crown is made with pearls, jet, and brass spirals.      
3) Italian Garden designs around 1500.
4.) Paradise and pocket gardens. Made throughout the Middle Ages, these gardens were mostly the work of nuns in convents. The ones I have pictures of were made in 1480 and contain flowers made with silk thread wound around wire frames. These silk and bead flowers fit the description of the silk garden in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili which was published just twenty years after these were created. 

 Materials Used:
Plywood and wood scrap wood used for the foundation so the garden would be portable and contained. Support for the walls. There are four pieces of wood hammered and screwed together. Wood is period but if the garden didnt need to be transported it would not need these supports. Wood is period, plywood is not but I emphasize this was scrap wood and not necessary to the project.
Styrofoam for the base and flower beds. Styrofoam is not period but the period method of using clay would be cost prohibitive and far too heavy to make the garden portable. Clay is period.
Clay clay pots and clay in the pots to plant the flowers. I know clay was used to make vessels of all proposes but as to the design of these particular clay pots, they were the only pots in this size available to me. Clay pots havent really changed much through the years. This Flemish painting from1525 shows plants in similar pots.
Moss to line the planting beds. Moss is period. Today it can be collected or purchased in bags. Because it was winter I didnt collect the moss from my yard as I have in the past.
Hydracol cast brick walls and walkways - Purchased from a train modeling supply place on-line. Hydracol is fancy plaster. Other options were dollhouse walls, which were cheap plastic, or wood neither of which I thought would look right. Since this type of garden was always enclosed I went with the most period option available. I do not have the skills to make my own walls.
Paints for the walls and walkways. The red brick is done with brazilwood ink wash (ink and water) which is period. The back wall is a mix of lampblack and titanium white with gum ammoniac as the binder. I also used Sepia, Sienna, and Ochre pigments and gum arabic. The back wall alone took three days (28 hours) to paint. Because it took so long I used a three-color wash on the rest of the walls and walkways. The back wall is meant to represent the building and the other two walls are garden walls. The front has no wall so the garden can be viewed easily (the wall is implied).
Wire  - in gauges 12 to 34 and colored gold, brass, and silver. The wire is as period as is available today in period sizes. Wire in period was available in tin, copper, iron, brass, gold, silver, and zinc.
Beads size 11 to 20 in the most period colors available. Beads smaller than size 15 have not been made in years. See the separate page on beads.
Sand paper for the additional walkways because sand or gravel would be too messy to transport. After the garden finds its permanent home I will put model train gravel in it to raise the level of the sandy areas.
Silk wrap I used cotton embroidery floss, which is what I had on hand. I didnt think it differs enough from silk to justify the added cost since the wrap dont figure into the project to greatly. 
Trellises and bed surrounds little wood art sticks glued together. Period glues like sap, egg glare, and malt are messy so I used wood glue, which dries clear and quickly.
Central pot a reproduction of a sixteenth century Italian design, which I picked up at Pennsic last year. Who knew? It works for me and has that fortuitous quality about it.

Tools used:
Knife to cut wood sticks, Styrofoam, and the walls/walkways.
Scissors to cut small wires, moss, and everything else.
Pliers with wire clipper for larger gauged wire I couldnt cut with the scissors. Also used to pull tight beads over the wire and break bad beads.
Needle and thread for woven flowers though I only did one of these.
Paint brushes for the walls.
Saw for the wood frame.
Tweezers to plant really small flowers and reach places my hand couldnt.
Glue to secure the walls.
File to sand the rough edges off the walls.

Plants of this garden:
1. Flowery mead with grass and trees.  The flowers here are Periwinkles using exactly thirty beads each because of a manuscript dating to about 1500 which involved making a flower crown for St. Barbara out of prayers.  Prayers and beads were both termed bede at the time so it is unclear if the flowers were imaginary or actually made of beads.  There is high grass near the wall and under the tree. Both trees I did not classify because to me a tree is a tree. 2. Vines on the wall.
3. Jonquil. Also called Daffodil. I am most proud of this flower.  The cups are woven on wire. The stems are wrapped and the little cellophane looking pod thing on daffodil stems has been replicated. The leaves are just twisted loops.
4. Ivy on the wall.
5. Heather.
6. Lavender.
7. Gillyflower. Also called Carnations, a larger variety of Pinks.
8. Anemone. I only made one because the center is woven on thread and I just didnt think it looked like an Anemone. The contrast between the two shades of red wasnt great enough and the flower took way to long to make.
9. Rose bushes on trellises.  I love these. The colors work so well together. The red is gold-dust red (made with real gold) and these beads are antiques. The outer petals of the roses are all woven while the inner parts are looped. The leaves are all woven.
10. Bushes. As with the trees I didnt assign a specific type to this bush. Many different varies are this color, many more so in the spring or fall. When I was growing up there was a bush-thing in the corner of our yard - it looked like wild celery but was a deep mauve color. I never found out what it was but, to me, it needs to be there!
11. Primulas. The leaves on these are French-beaded.
12. Daisies.
13. Poppies.
14. Fern bush.
15. Flowering bushes again, many varies flower in the spring.
16. Topiaries. Looped on wire and molded into clay.
17. Buttercups.
18. Clover. These are the smallest beads. I inserted a four-leaf clover can you find it?
19. Bellflower.
20. Musk roses.
21. Madonna Lilies. A central fountain would have been out of the question.
22. Irises.
The Beads Used
Glass beads. I wish I could leave it at that but
Glass seed beads had been produced at various times throughout Europe.  In Nuremberg, Germany beads were produced from 1000ce to 1340ce. Why they stopped is unknown. Venice started producing beads during Roman times stopped for awhile (reason not specified) and were fully producing again (according to documents) before 1200ce. The glass industry itself is fairly well documented in Venice and Murano (the island off the coast of Venice) continuously after 1200ce.  France produced beads though the quantity produced is unclear. There is no doubt that glass seed beads are period. What is not so clear is what all the beads were used for since few beaded items exist today.
Color was another thing to consider.  Beads do not come in the exact same colors as plants and the beads available today resemble period beads but the colors are all different.  In Venice there is a wall the size of a set of double doors which is full of small samples of all known discontinued colors.  Glass recipes have always been well-guarded secrets so if a master glass worker died before the secret was passed along then the color was discontinued the recipe lost.  There were an abundance of colors available in 1500, as there are an abundance today.  As an example, the roses are made using gold-dust red a color that is no longer made because it contains gold and the cost is prohibitive. This color has not been made for years (these beads are over 100 years old) though the recipe has not been lost.  Transparent red is one of the hardest colors to make and there are three ways to make it: Selenium, gold, or copper. Gold was used by the Romans for beads, and there are copper red beads in China which date to 1003ce.  I have no proof that transparent red was used in making beads in Europe in 1500 but it is possible that it was.  This was the only real color concession I made.  Theophilus, who wrote out glass color recipes in the 1120s, lists white, black, green, yellow, blue, red, and purple opaque colors but doesnt mention beads. Looking at period stained-glass windows will give you some clues as to the vast numbers of transparent glass colors available. Early beads were probably wound but at some point the Venicians learned to make drawn beads a method that greatly increased the number beads produced and allowed beads to be made much smaller. The glass is pulled into long canes and then the canes are sorted and cut into bead size pieces. Beads then could be tumbled with sand to smooth the rough edges, (which makes them donut shaped and useful for embroidery projects) or left as is. The rough edges on non-tumbled beads would make them suitable only for projects on wire because the edges would saw threw threads.
As for the size of the beads I used the smallest beads I could find.  They range from size 11 which are an average size and used for the trees, to size 20 for the clover which is so small that each bead is about the size of a grain of sand.  Beads smaller than size 15 are no longer produced so all of the smaller beads I used are antiques, most over a hundred years old.  Beads in size 14 and 15 come in a very limited range of colors.  I feel the beads I used were as close to period as possible.  Period beads also came in these very small sizes.  Most smaller beads can not even be strung over a needle and were therefore useless for general embroidery projects.   I feel certain this was a factor in making bead flowers in the first place what else can you do with a large quantity of beads when they dont fit over a needle?
The wire I used was all gold, silver, or brass/copper in color.  The wire was as similar to period wire as is available today.  I lined the planting beds with moss though the foundation is Styrofoam rather than clay.    I would hate to have to transport it if it were all clay because it would weigh a ton.  The hydrocal walls I painted myself (they arrived plaster-white) and cut to size.  There is no reason why a similar appearance could not have been achieved in period but I just didnt have time to investigate and I probably would not have had the skill to manage it anyhow.  I like the way the walls look but I could have easily skipped the walls or used plain wood, or wood painted to look like brick (but Im not that good a painter).

Making the Plants
Before the books even arrived, I had started working out miniature versions of plants I knew would be in an Italian garden, namely lilies and irises.  I finished both and realized they still looked too big.  If I stayed with this scale (which was roughly 1:6) my garden would be the size of my dining room table and take years to complete.  And so I worked smaller and smaller until I determined I would lose all detail if I continued the final scale is approximately 1:12 though it varies slightly from flower to flower.  My rationale for the difference is because this garden is more of a visual rather than a scientific thing.  While scale is important I didnt want it to rule the project.  Exacting the scale would have been more work than I could imagine.  I would have to acquire live examples of each plant so I could measure it and study its details (shape, depth, height) and then I would need to compare current plants to period herbals to see what, if anything, had changed in the past 500 years.  What I did instead was to read the books on Italian gardens to find a flower I could replicate in beads and then check to see if I could find a period picture of the flower and compare that to what my plant dictionary had to say as to size and colors.  Toward the end though, with the trees and bushes, I have to admit to being a lot less methodical and more interested in getting plants in there which looked like plants available to or native in, the Italian area in 1500.  I think I did pretty well considering I knew nothing about Italian gardens when I started this project.
 And then, after the regional A&S my book arrived.  I was pretty disappointed because the garden wasnt very well described but elated because, without a clear description, I didnt make my garden wrong and it was a point in my favor that I didnt decide to wait to see the book before I started my garden.
 I started making the flowers on March tenth after having spent several days purchasing small size beads, including every shade of green I could find.  Up until then I had completed one tree, the back wall and my scale work.  I had done nothing except make garden plants for a full three weeks.  The garden took over 500 hours which to me explains why there arent any around.  Examples of the time involved:
  A daffodil just the flower, no leaves = hour * 11 daffodils  = 5 hours
  A rose with two leaves   = 1 hours * 16 roses  = 24 hours
  An iris     = approx. 45 minutes each
  A daisy or a poppy   = just under a hour each
  The trees    = 40 and 45 hours
  Laying out and painting the back wall = 3 days
  The ivy on the back wall   = 8 hours
These times dont include how long it took to design the plants.  Since I have never seen gardens this small I had to create every pattern for every plant.  I had to create new stitches so leaves would look like leaves (the ivy for example) because none of the books currently on the market had what I needed though Im sure I didnt invent anything new because there are only so many ways you can put beads on wire.
 The only pattern I did use was for the roses. While the centers are
looped, most of the roses have two outer petals using the Hobby Models pattern on the right. You will notice that wires weave back and forth through a number of beads and it is this same basic weaving that allowed the ivy to have pointed leaves and the ferns to look like ferns.  The same can be said for grass spikes in that the wire goes back down through all except the top bead.  All this weaving means the beads have to be counted or measured.  It is a very time consuming process.
There are three methods for making beaded flowers: the Continental, the French, and the English.
The Continental is most certainly the oldest of the three.  It involves looping beads on wire, weaving on wire, as in the above diagram, and other simple techniques like spikes and the ladder stitch.  Most of my plants were done in this method.  The French method is unique in that a wire never has to go through the same bead twice. Through a series of twists, any regular petal or leaf shape can be replicated. The French method is very useful if the bead hole is to small to accommodate more than one wire and was most likely used in period (its hard to tell which method was used in the only picture I have). The English method, almost certainly out of period, shows the English preference for needlework and English flowers are frequently woven on thread (the Anemone), sometimes with a metal frame to support the petal or leaf.

Period Miniature Gardens
 Artificial gardens in general were around in 1500.  I have pictures of the paradise gardens from a convent in France, which were created with silk wrapped wire and beads.  And Therle Hughes writes:
 Perhaps the most intriguing applications of beadwork in seventeenth century England are the frivolous little gardens very occasionally found inside the caskets and the more usual baskets, hair ornaments, sprays and vases of flowers, even mirror frames and candlesticks, built up in full relief.  The tiny beads are threaded on stiff wires and these built up into petals, leaves and so on, supported on twisted ropes of thicker bead-covered wire.  Roses, forget-me-nots, blackberries, well-padded peas and acorns, catkins, veined leaves and more may be presented with considerable realism; such posies and baskets returned in Victorian days.  A basket with a linen canvas ground couched with strings of beads at the Victoria and Albert Museum is signed and dated Sarah Gurnall August 24 Anno 1659.  Beadwork in Lady Richmonds collection includes a four-wheeled chariot in translucent white and colored glass beads over a modeled framework of wire, rare and early in the seventeenth century manner.
It should be noted that England did not start domestic production of glass seed beads until the 1630s and it is shortly after that date we start seeing an abundance of beadwork in England.  My study of 25 beaded items from Germany (dating from 996 to 1600) show seed beads used during the same time period that the production of glass seed beads in Nuremberg was occurring.  When the production stopped in 1340 the artifacts stop using glass beads and show an almost exclusive use of pearls.  If you have to have beads to have beadwork then one has to wonder what they were doing with all the beads in Venice before they started exporting them to the colonies.  If the art of making beads went from Venice to England, and at the same time the English start making beaded flowers, then it would stand to reason that the art of making beaded flowers went to England also.  English flowers are woven on thread for the most part, showing the English preference for needlework.  Beads and beadwork go hand in hand.  If one has beads than it would be natural for there to have been something made with those beads and yet there are no surviving examples of what was made with all the beads produced in Venice and Murano prior to 1600.  Wire based beadwork deteriorates much faster than embroidery based beadwork.  And if the beads used were considered common, as surely they must have been because of the constant production over long periods of time, than the items created would hold no special value once they started to deteriorate.  Even this garden will become very fragile over time, in a hundred years many of the wires will be brittle and the beads will have dropped to the ground there is nothing I can do to stop it.  I know this because I created a rather small garden (just a group of miniature flowers really) 20 years ago and it is already showing wear.  It would be much worse if I tried to keep it dusted besides.  English flowers look as if they had been created based on a description of beaded flowers rather than by seeing an actual beaded flower, and there are a remarkable variety of techniques used for the English to have created this art form.  Plus there are several examples of these flowers (perhaps a dozen I have photos of eight to ten such flower groupings) for them to have been spontaneous they all look like they came from the same instruction manual.  Added to that are one or two surviving examples created in the United States at the same time.
 I only have one (very bad) picture of a pocket garden, under the lid of a casket, which was created in the mid-1600s in England.  I have no other knowledge of what these pocket gardens looked like but they occasionally show up in inventories.  I offer this one bad picture because it is very possible the idea for these pocket gardens came to England with the knowledge of making beads.  Certainly it takes a great number of beads to make one of these gardens and the only place that had great numbers of beads prior to 1600 was Venice. Once England started to produce beads, they too had a great number of beads, and gardens start to appear.

Italian Gardens in 1500
 I wish I had seen the book the original idea came from right away, but in the mean time I researched gardens.  The majority of what was written pertained to the giant maze gardens that comprised the front lawn of the larger estates. The gardens I wanted were the side gardens, the small plots on the side of the house, which were common to monasteries, convents, and large estates.  These were small walled-in flower gardens and there is little written about them.  What I based the basic design on is the generic description of Medieval gardens in the book Plants from the Past.  The description was easy to understand, conscience, and didnt contradict anything else I had read.  The planting of the flowers was entirely my thing since theses plants dont need sun and arent subject to the weather I wasnt worried about what it would look like through the seasons and these plants wouldnt all be in bloom at the same time anyway.
Period gardens seem to have had many different plants mixed in the same bed but when I tried that it was difficult to tell what the plants were.  My thoughts on mixed planting beds is that they look wonderful with real plants, look pretty good with beaded plants, and look terrible with miniature beaded plants this small. The garden doesnt look very full either but I ran out of time and I dont think it will ever look full regardless the number of flowers I put in it.  I went through vast quantities of beads too, far more than I had anticipated.  I went through so much green I almost ran out, and towards the end, I had to consider my available color selection when choosing plants to make.
Pleasure gardens were always enclosed (the front wall of my garden is implied so the garden can be viewed) and stone or brick walls were the most popular. Raised planting beds were popular as they helped with drainage and offered turfed seating.  Flowery meads were popular.  Many climbing plants were trellised so much so often an entire wall was comprised of latticework.  Walkways were of grass, gravel, or brick. Plants in pots were frequently seen in the garden.   And most gardens had a central fountain, statue or tree. A fountain would have been impossible to transport and difficult to come by in such a small format so I used a very nice, decorative pot of lilies central since they were a must have plant in every garden.
Another feature of this garden is framing. Framing is the ability to look through an entranceway or portal and see a perfect picture. Looking through the archway you will see the decorative pot centered with the irises and roses surrounding the lilies. A view through one window frames the iris bed.  Framing seems to have been a feature of gardens starting around this time.
 Would I do it again?  Not a chance once is enough.  Would I do anything different? If I decide to change a plant or add to the garden at a later date thats not difficult.  I can even move all the plants (or remove all the plants, which I jokingly refer to as winter) around without too much trouble so there isnt much room for unchangeables.  I think it turned out pretty darn nice.  The original garden of 1499 was not well described.  By creating my garden to look like a typical Italian garden of 1500 I think it has greater appeal and I was able to include a different sort of knowledge. 


Brickell, Christopher (ed) Encyclopedia of Garden Plants MacMillan Publishing Co. New York NY 1992

Chatfield, Judith The Classic Italian Garden Rizzoli International Publications New York, NY 1991

Colonna, Francesco and Godwin, Joscelyn (translator) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in A Dream Thames and Hudson New York, NY 1999 ISBN 0500019428

Hay, Roy and Synge, Patrick M. Color Dictionary of Flowers and Plants Crown Publishing Inc. New York, NY 1969

Hobhouse, Penelope Flower Gardens Little, Brown & Company Boston, MA 1991

Hughes, Therle English Domestic Needlework Abbey Fine Arts, London (no date given)

Landsberg, Sylvia The Medieval Garden Thames and Hudson New York, NY 1996

Lazzaro, Claudia The Italian Renaissance Garden Yale University Press New Haven, CT 1990

MacDougall, Elizabeth Blair Fountains, Statues, and Flowers: Studies in Italian Gardens of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Dunbarton Oaks Research Library Washington, DC 1994

Marchesi, Giovanna Poggi The Flowers of Venice Beadsmith/ Helby Import Co. Carteret, NJ 2002

Stemler, Dorothy Roses of Yesterday Hallmark Cards, Inc. Kansas City, MO 1967

Stuart, David and Sutherland, James Plants From the Past Viking Penguin Inc. New York, NY 1987

Talbot, Rob and Whiteman, Robin Brother Cadfaels Herb Garden Little, Brown & Co. Boston, MA 1996

Van Oz, Henk The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300-1500 Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ 1994

Wilkins, Eithne The Rose Garden Game: The Symbolic Background to the European Prayer-Beads Victor Gollancz Ltd., London 1969

Winston-Allen, Anne Stories of The Rose: The Making of The Rosary in The Middle Ages Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania 1997

Wolters, Natacha Les Perles Syros, Paris, France 1996


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