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Month: May, 2018

BIKERS AND CENTAURS

Milan, 26 May 2018

A week or so ago, my wife and I were at our place at the seaside near Genova; my next to last post was about one of the walks we did in the hills while we were there. One morning, being sore of leg from our walks and uncertain as to what walk to do next, we decided to go down into the village centre instead to have ourselves our morning cappuccino. Being in no hurry, we dawdled along looking in shop windows and at anything else that caught our attention. One such thing was the door of the local police station, which was festooned with various notices about Important Local Things. As I idly scanned the notices, one caught my attention in particular. It stated, in Italian of course, something to the effect that the part of the main road lying between km X and km Y was particularly risky for centaurs, and that the public authorities were devoting their attention to how to minimize the risks.

Centaurs??

Puzzled, I turned to my wife to ask for elucidations, and she informed me that this was a term used in Italian to describe motorcyclists. What a wonderful idea! What, I wondered, had led an Italian at some point in recent history to make this connection? I mean, early motorcyclists didn’t really much look like centaurs, although with a bit of poetic fancy once could sort of see a human torso on top of a beast on wheels.

For once, the internet was not of great help. One thread suggested that it had to do with the huge amounts of horsepower in the engines, allowing the rider to roar off much as a horseman could gallop off. Another thread claimed it had to do with fanatical motorcyclists hardly ever getting off their bikes and thus being seemingly welded to them much as centaurs were human torsos welded to a horse’s body.

Of course, either or both of these explanations could be correct. I can think of another, which has to do with the Bad Boy reputation of both motorcyclists and centaurs. For most Ancient Greeks, who invented centaurs, these creatures were the epitome of barbarism. They were wild, lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, violent when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents, living on the edges of the civilized world and needing to be kept under control. Greek myths were replete with stories of heroic warriors taking on centaurs and beating the shit out of them. Greek sculpture and painting naturally followed suit. Here, from a pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, we have a representation of the story of the centaurs fighting with the Lapiths (a popular story in which centaurs are invited to a wedding, get drunk, and one of them tries to rape the bride, with – as may be expected – mayhem ensuing). The calm fellow in the middle is the god Apollo.

Here, we see the right hand part of the pediment showing more clearly the naughty centaur carrying off a woman and a noble Greek warrior about to make him pay for it.

Here, to equal things up a bit, we have the same story from a frieze at the temple of Apollo in Bassae, with the centaur seemingly the one winning.

Here, we have a more humble piece of Ancient Greek art, a painting on a vase, showing the same story.

Here again, to equal things up, is a painting on another vase where the centaur seems to be besting his opponent.

Just in case readers are thinking that the fight between centaurs and the Lapiths is the only Greek story about the centaurs, I throw in here a picture of a vase painting showing Hercules fighting with a centaur (the centaur was a certain Nessus, who carried away Hercules’s wife Deianeira, and Hercules killed him).

In any event, whatever the medium, I think we can all agree that the centaurs are made to look fairly rough types. The centaurs’ bad reputation and the need to beat the shit out of them pursued the poor beasts into the Roman period and on into Europe’s medieval period and beyond. This sculpture from the early 1800s by Antonio Canova greets us every time my wife and I climb up the grand staircase at Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum. It shows Theseus about to brain a centaur – for some reason, Theseus was at the Lapith wedding feast.

This sculpture, on the other hand, depicts Hercules about to brain Nessus.

It was sculpted in 1599 by the Flemish Jean Boulogne, known to the world as Giambologna. It graces the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

Painting also got into the act. Here, we have a painting by Sebastiano Ricci from 1705 showing the brawl at the Lapith wedding.

Perhaps some classics-loving Italian saw similarities between these badly behaved centaurs and the badly behaving modern bikers – at least as they were often represented in popular culture. Think of the 1953 film “The Wild One”, in which Marlon Brando is the leader of a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town.

Or consider the 1966 film “The Wild Angels”, in which Peter Fonda is the nihilistic leader of a chapter of the Hell’s Angels causing mayhem in some small town.

Or more extremely, we have the 1973 film “Psychomania”, where a gang of bikers kill themselves, only to become alive again as zombies and go around wreaking havoc on the living.

Personally, and without a shred of evidence to back me up, I prefer to think that the Italian who gave bikers the new title of centaurs made quite another connection between the two: the fact that both are gentle, peaceful souls. On the centaur side, there was a view, an admittedly minority view, in Classical times that centaurs – at least some of them – were wise and noble creatures. The centaur Chiron was particularly famous in this regard. It was said that he was so wise that had taught great heroes like Achilles, Ajax, and Jason. This fresco from Hercolaneum, destroyed like Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, shows him teaching Achilles how to play the lyre.

This strand of thinking which saw centaurs as wise and gentle beasts was taken up with enthusiasm by C.S. Lewis in his children’s books about Narnia, and it was in my reading of these books as a child that I first got to know of centaurs. I still remember with fondness the wise and noble centaurs which peppered the Narnia books. Here, for instance, is Roonwit, who graces the pages of “The Last Battle”, talking strategy with Prince Tirian and the unicorn Jewel.

Given my age, I think it no shame to admit that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books (although I did accompany my daughter to a few of the films when she was young). I understand, though, that J.K. Rowling also included wise and gentle centaurs in her books (confirmed through WhatsApp by my daughter). This is the centaur Firenze with Harry in (I think) the Forbidden Forest.

As for bikers, there are those who argue forcefully for a gentle, peaceful, soulful side to motorcycling. Many is the motorcycling writer who has written lyrically about the joy of being out on the open road, with the wind in your hair and your thoughts your only company. My most recent read in this vein was Oliver Sack’s autobiography, “On The Move: A Life”, where he writes about the long motorcycle rides he took in the American West in his early days in California. Appropriately enough, the cover photo is the author on his beloved bike.

There is even a semi-serious book of philosophy, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which, according to Wikipedia, “is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey the narrator made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son. … The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science”.

(I must confess that although I have started the book a couple of times I have never finished it).

Films, too, have played their part in depicting the lyrical side of motorbiking. We have the 1969 film “Easy Rider”, in which Peter Fonda stars once again, but this time accompanied by Dennis Hopper. The two set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans on Harley Davidsons to discover America (and get killed by rednecks in the process).


Or there is the 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries”, about the bike journey which Che Guevara and a friend made in the 1950s across Latin America, and which opened his eyes to the poverty, hardship, and political oppression experienced by many on that continent.

As I said, I have not a shred of evidence that gentleness, nobility, peacefulness, wisdom, etc. etc. were the common threads that some Italian of yesteryear saw between bikers and mythical centaurs. But it pleases my contrarian spirit for it to be so, and so it shall be.

_________________

Early biker: https://rocket-garage.blogspot.com/2011/08/pionieri-del-xx-secolo.html
Centaur fighting Lapith – Bassae: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Bassai_sculptures,_marble_block_from_the_frieze_of_the_Temple_of_Apollo_Epikourios_at_Bassae_(Greece),_Lapiths_fight_Centaurs,_about_420-400_BC,_British_Museum_(14073581678).jpg
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia: http://dtcox.com/report-on-ancient-corinth-ancient-olympia-ancient-sparta-byzantine-mystra-monemvasia-greece-oct-30-2015/centaur-lapith-woman-west-pediment-temple-of-zeus-battle-be/
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia-2: https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/politics/images_authority_2_greek.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-1: https://www.myartprints.co.uk/a/red-figurevasedepictingth.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-2: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/O12.10.html
Hercules fighting Centaur: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/423268064950273744/
Canova-Theseus fighting the centaur: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Canova_-_Theseus_defeats_the_centaur_-_close.jpg
Giambologna-Hercules fighting Nessus: https://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com/2015/09/Giambologna-Sculpture.html
Sebastiano Ricci-Lapiths and Centaurs: By The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=158347
“The Wild One”: https://www.jpcycles.com/product/712-685/the-wild-one-fight-poster
“The Wild Angels”: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/112308584430632278/
“Psychomania”: http://theggtmc.blogspot.it/2011/09/psychomania-1972.html
Chiron and Achilles: By upload by muesse – http://www.focus.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8328492
Roonwit: http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Tirian,_Jewel_and_Roonwit.jpg
Firenze: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/File:Firenze_harry_ps.jpg
Oliver Sacks, “On the Move; A Life”: https://medium.com/@PunkChameleon/book-review-on-the-move-a-life-by-oliver-sacks-93bb828fb85b
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780061907999/zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance
“Easy Rider”: http://flavorwire.com/472622/boomer-audit-despite-the-self-indulgence-and-the-cliches-easy-rider-retains-its-pulse
“The Motorcycle Diaries”: http://www.moviepostershop.com/the-motorcycle-diaries-movie-poster-2004

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GERANIUMS – SORRY, PELARGONIUMS

Sori, 14 May 2018

I’ve written about cacti in an earlier post. In that case it was in a plug for more cactus growing in LA. The micro (really micro) climate on the balcony of our apartment at the sea, coupled with the long periods when no-one is here to water plants, also makes this an ideal space for cactus growing. My mother-in-law introduced cacti to the balcony several decades ago, and my wife expanded the collection by borrowing a few cacti from our next-door neighbour. However, I am saddened to report that a particularly harsh winter this year, when Jack Frost managed to lay his bony fingers on the balcony, has put paid to some of the cacti. We were faced with blackened cacti corpses when we arrived a few days ago and have been mournfully wondering what to do ever since. As part of this wondering, we visited the local flower shop, to see if they had any suggestions about how we might be able to breathe some life back into our blackened cacti – and to see if they sold any cacti should we decide that there was nothing for it but to replace them. The answer was negative in both cases.

In any event, as is usual in these cases the discussion went off on several tangents. For reasons which I can no longer remember now, one of these tangents was geraniums. I’m rather fond of geraniums. My mother had large beds (or what I remember as large beds) of geraniums in her garden in Eritrea, which the memory bank of my mind suggests looked something like this.

The bright red of the flowers pleased me no end – I suppose bright primary colours appeal to five and six year-olds – and I really liked the scent which emanated from broken leaves and stems. I must confess to having been a terror in the garden. I was not above decapitating flowers or casually tearing off leaves and stems. I must have driven my mother wild with my antics.

But coming back to our local flower shop: the lady in charge said that geraniums had a hard time in this climate because it was too humid. This rather surprised me, I thought that all geraniums needed was a lot of sun. I started looking around, and I discovered that it was indeed rare to see geraniums around here. Her comments also got me to engage in my favourite pastime: surfing the web to find out more about geraniums. I am ready to report back.

The first thing I discovered is that geraniums should not actually be called geraniums. Their correct name is pelargoniums. It seems that when the first pelargoniums were brought back to Europe in the 17th Century, gardeners thought they were cousins to the geraniums already present here. By the time botanists realized their mistake, it was too late. The name geranium has stuck. To make up for this mistake, let me throw in a picture here of one of the many real geraniums, the Geranium platypetalum.

The introduction of pelargoniums to Europe is the story of European colonization of the rest of the world. It was the Dutch who first brought pelargoniums back to Europe, after they had established themselves in what was to become Cape Town.

They, like European colonizers everywhere, looked around to see what plants they could find that might have a utility back home – and this included selling them to wealthy individuals who cultivated large gardens full of exotic plants. Over the years, they and the English who came after them found many different species of pelargonium in South Africa – some 90% of the 300 or so species in the family are to be found in South Africa. But I will concentrate here on the three pelargoniums which are the ancestors of pretty much all the pelargoniums we grow today.

There is Pelargonium inquinans, seen here in the wild

and here somewhat closer up.

There is Pelargonium zonale.

These two, hybridized together, have formed all the “common geraniums” or “zonal geraniums” which you will find in flower beds. My mother’s geraniums must have been of this type.

Then there is Pelargonium peltatum

which is the ancestor of all those “ivy-leaved geraniums” which trail delightfully from balconies such as the ones we shall shortly be seeing in Vienna and in every Austrian town and village.

As I said earlier, it was wealthy individuals with a passion for gardening who in the early decades of European colonization drove the domestication and spread of the myriad foreign plants which poured into Europe from every corner of the globe. In the pelargonium story, two in particular stand out. The first is the Right Reverend Henry Compton, Bishop of London.

Compton was born in 1632 into an aristocratic family, being the sixth and youngest son of the 2nd Earl of Northampton. At the age of 43 he was appointed, in short order, Lord Bishop of London, Dean of the Chapel Royal, and member of the Privy Council, and he was entrusted with the education of the two royal princesses, Mary and Anne, nieces of the King, Charles II. He clearly moved in high circles! His career suffered a dip when, ten years later, Charles’s brother, James II, acceded to the throne. Compton was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism. Consequently, James, a Catholic convert, relieved him of all his political positions. Luckily for him, James II lasted a mere six years before being ousted during the “Glorious Revolution” by James’s daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange (great-grandson of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, whom I mentioned in an earlier post). As might be expected, Compton fervently embraced the cause of William and Mary; in fact, he was one of the “Immortal Seven” who invited William to invade England. In recognition of his support, he got to perform the ceremony of their coronation (normally, this duty falls to the Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the-then Archbishop refused to take the oath to the new monarchs, so he was “deprived of his office”, i.e., was kicked out). The new monarchs also restored Compton to all his old political positions. And so Compton lived out the remaining 24 years of his life holding high religious and political offices (although, to his bitter disappointment, his hopes to become the Archbishop Canterbury were twice dashed). He died in 1713 at the ripe old age of 81.

Throughout all this political ferment, Compton managed to maintain a 36-acre garden at Fulham Palace, the country home of the Bishops of London, which stood on the edges of the Thames River.

The building still exists. The garden also still exists, though much reduced, and is a lovely corner of London.

Compton was an avid plant collector and was the first in Britain to grow many imported species. Because his diocese included the American colonies, his focus was very much on North America. He used his parish priests and missionaries in the colonies to send home seeds. Among other North American plants, he was the first in Europe to grow the Virginia Magnolia

the jacaranda

and the catalpa.

But Compton also built up a large collection of the-then rare pelargoniums, including Pelargonium inquinans pictured above. He probably was able to do this because through his support for William and Mary he had built up a good network of contacts in the Netherlands – remember that it was the Dutch, first settlers in Cape Town, who had sent the first pelargonium species back to Europe.

The second important early cultivator of pelargoniums was Mary Capell, daughter of Sir Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham, who through marriage became first Mary Seymour, Lady Beauchamp, and then, after her husband’s death and her remarriage, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. She was born two years before Henry Compton, in 1630. Here we have her with her sister Elizabeth – Mary is on the left of the painting.

Mary’s political vicissitudes started somewhat earlier than Henry Compton’s. Her father supported Charles I and lost his head for it, while her first husband, also a Royalist, was imprisoned. Her second husband successfully navigated the politically choppy waters of Cromwell’s Protectorate, during which he lost his titles, and ended up supporting the successful restoration of Charles II. The King eventually rewarded him with a Dukedom. He loyally supported James II but managed to avoid exile for this when William and Mary took the throne. He died in 1700 with his head still on his shoulders and none of his estates forfeited, which was pretty good going for a highly political man such as he. Mary was a loyal wife throughout all this, following him through all the twists and turns of his political fortunes and all the while bearing him six children. She survived her husband by fifteen years, dying in 1715 at the seriously old age of 84.

Mary began serious plant collection some ten years before her second husband died, and her interest in gardening intensified in her widowhood. She gradually accumulated one of the largest collections of exotic plants in England, with the support, it must be said, of some well-known gardeners. Through her aristocratic circles she traded and swapped in seeds (much like I did, in far less hallowed circles at primary school, in stamps). For instance, Compton sent specimens to his sister-in-law, Mary Compton, Countess of Dorset, who passed them on to Mary. But she also managed to have seeds sent to her from all the corners of Britain’s growing empire and trading interests: the West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan. In the specific case of pelargoniums, she too, like Compton, built up a large collection of them. She is credited with introducing into British gardens the other two pelargoniums of major interest which I mentioned above, Pelargonium zonale and Pelargonium peltatum. She did her plantings in the gardens of two houses owned by the Duke, Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. The Duke was rich enough and high enough in the aristocratic hierarchy to have Badminton House painted by Canaletto

although this more humble picture shows the all-important gardens as well as the house.

Badminton House still exists. Beaufort House does not. It was a large property in Chelsea, right on the Thames River – no doubt Mary could have gone to visit Henry’s garden by boat if she had wanted to (and maybe she did, for all I know).

Later urban developments wiped out the house and gardens, although Mary might be pleased to know that the Chelsea flower show takes place not too far from where she was – with the help of her gardeners – busily growing wondrous plants come from far and wide.

Well, while I have been whiling away my time researching this post, my wife has been busy and pulled out the dead cacti which started this post. We now have to decide what to put in the gaping holes which have been left. Not geraniums –  sorry, pelargoniums – dear! It’s too damp.

_____________________________

Red “geraniums”: http://www.parkswholesaleplants.com/spring-plants/annuals-ai/geranium-zonal-americana-dark-red/
Geranium platypetalum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geranium#/media/File:Geranium_platypetalum1.jpg
Cape Town 1790s: http://www.artvalue.com/auctionresult–english-school-18-united-kingd-view-of-cape-town-with-table-m-1538907.htm
Pelargonium inquinans: http://natureswow2.blogspot.it/2013/10/scarlet-pelargonium-pelargonium.html
Pelargonium zonale: http://www.africanbulbs.com/page67.html
Pelargonium peltatum: https://kumbulanursery.co.za/plants/pelargonium-peltatum
Ivy-leaf “geraniums”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/226094843769770841/
Henry Compton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Compton_(bishop)
Fulham Palace: http://www.fulhampalace.org/palace/history/
Fulham Palace Gardens: https://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/2016/05/15/five-fabulous-london-gardens-to-visit-this-spring/
Virginia Magnolia: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/413627547007792612/
Jacaranda: https://www.pinterest.com/royaljewel36/jacaranda-trees/
Catalpa: http://www.7arth.com/?product=50-%D8%A8%D8%B0%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%A7
Mary and Elizabeth Capell: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Lely_portrait_of_Mary_and_Elizabeth_Capel.jpg
Badminton House by Canaletto: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canaletto_-_Badminton_House,_Gloucestershire.jpg
Badminton House: https://landscapenotes.com/2015/10/31/book-review-a-natural-history-of-english-gardening-by-mark-laird/
Beaufort House: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463518986626622713/

WALK THROUGH THE FIVE SORROWFUL MYSTERIES

Sori, 12 May 2018

As we usually do when we go down to the sea from Milan, we went for a walk yesterday up into the hills which in this part of the coast fall precipitously into the sea. This time, we decided to follow in our son’s footsteps who, when he had been here a couple of weeks ago, had climbed the hill behind the apartment up to the Chapel of the Holy Cross perched at its top. The chapel itself is not much to write home about, it’s actually closed most of the time. But from the little piazza in front of it one has a magnificent view over the sea, from Genova to the right to the Monte di Portofino on the left.

Suitably prepared, we made for the path which runs behind our apartment and takes the walker up to the small village of Pieve Ligure. After a last backward look down to our village

we headed up along the well-kept path that wended its way among houses

and small olive groves hugging the hill’s countours

(and, sadly, abandoned olive groves as well, one of which was the subject of a previous post)

to arrive finally in Pieve Ligure, whose little church with its baroque façade is always a pleasure to contemplate.

There, we had ourselves a well-earned cappuccino before heading on out of the village, past the butcher

and the baker

past the memorial to a Resistance fighter, who was captured near here by the Nazis and who died in a concentration camp (these hills crawled with Resistance fighters in the last years of the war).

Up to now, the walk had been a stroll, with the path only rising gradually as it snaked along the side of the hill. But now it was time to head pretty much straight up the hill. Up we toiled, as the houses alongside slowly disappeared to give way to olive groves. Finally, we left even these behind. We entered woods and the path finally became a real path of the hills, rocky, muddy, difficult to navigate.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, once upon a time in Italy paths like this leading to tops of hills, especially if chapels crowned them, were turned into Vie Crucis, Ways of the Cross. Pious villagers, with their parish priest at their head, would have climbed the paths at certain opportune moments in the liturgical calendar, like during Lent before Easter, and stopped to offer prayers at each of the fourteen Stations of the Cross built along the path (they would normally have enjoyed a nice picnic once they had reached the top of the hill). In this case, the path had been dedicated to the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and five memorials had been duly erected along the path. This is one of them.

At each of these, the parish priest would have announced the mystery to be contemplated and then led his parishioners in reciting the “Our Father”, ten “Hail Marys” and the “Glory be to the Father”, before moving on to the next memorial.

In my previous post on this topic, I had been happy to insert photos of the scenes beautifying the stations, prepared in ceramic in a slightly naïve style. But the scenes tacked onto these five memorials were horrible: plasticized posters of sucrose paintings. I will therefore replace them with five paintings by various Italian painters:

The Agony of Jesus in the Garden, here painted by Giovanni Bellini

The Scourging of Jesus, painted by Caravaggio

Jesus is Crowned with Thorns, painted by Orazio Gentileschi

Jesus Carries the Cross, painted by Tintoretto

Jesus Dies on the Cross, painted by Andrea Mantegna.

On we toiled up the hill

taking in the views across the valley

until we finally reached Santa Croce, the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

Having enjoyed the view

we settled down to a picnic. After which, we headed down the path on the other side of the hill

this time decorated with a standard stations of the cross (in this case the eleventh)

until we reached the even smaller village of San Bernardo, where we had a well-earned café macchiato.

______________________

Photos: mine (and one our son), except for:

Agony in the Garden, by Giovanni Bellini: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/giovanni-bellini-the-agony-in-the-garden
Scourging of Jesus, by Caravaggio: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2012/04/the-scourging-at-the-pillar.html
Crowning with Thorns, by Orazio Gentileschi: http://www.artfixdaily.com/artwire/release/6811-with-new-partners-and-expanded-purview-master-drawings-new-york-r
Jesus carries the Cross, by Tintoretto: https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Trial-of-Jesus-Carrying-the-Cross
Jesus dies on the Cross, by Andrea Mantegna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion_(Mantegna)

ORANGE CARROTS

Istanbul airport, 5 May 2018

I was in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, over the last few days, working with some old colleagues on supporting the government to develop a national action plan to minimize the effects on the population of the country’s pollution. Fascinating stuff, but not the subject of this post.

As part of the work, it was necessary to schmooze with the local diplomatic community, preparing the ground for future requests of assistance to deal with the country’s pollution. I therefore found myself one evening attending the event put on by the Dutch to celebrate the King’s National Day. As is customary on such occasions, the Dutch Ambassador made a speech, thanking us for coming, listing the important Dutch-Kyrgyz partnerships, and of course – given the occasion – mentioning the Royal family. He did so in an interesting way. Having mentioned partnerships in the agricultural field, he segued smoothly from this to inform those of us who didn’t know it that carrots were orange because patriotic Dutch farmers had selectively bred this root crop to turn it orange, in honor of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, patriarch of the Dutch Royal family.

Well! This was interesting indeed. As anyone who has even a passing interest in sporting events knows, the Dutch national color is indeed orange.


And this patriotic show of orange is indeed linked to William the Silent’s feudal title of Prince of Orange, although the orange in this case is the pretty little town of Orange in southern France, which was William’s fiefdom (and an old Roman city).

But to say that Dutch farmers had turned carrots orange as a patriotic gesture … Such is the dominance of orange carrots in our supermarkets, groceries, and farmers’ markets that it had never, ever occurred to me that carrots could have been anything but orange!

In other posts, I have demonstrated my interest in the humble history of vegetables. The Ambassador had now given me a wonderful opportunity to study the history of the carrot. So these last few days I have been spending time which I should have been more usefully devoting to the pollution problems of Kyrgyzstan to happily digging into the carrot’s history instead. I am now ready to report back.

The first thing I have to say is that the Ambassador was indeed correct in his basic contention, that Dutch farmers had turned the carrot orange. This happened in the 17th Century and, for reasons that I shall explain in a minute, the orange carrot took over the carrot world. But first let me throw in some pictures of different colored carrots:
Purple carrots


Yellow carrots

Red carrots

White carrots

Black carrots, even!

Here we can see all these different carrots in glorious technicolour.

Personally, I have never seen any of these. I suppose they are like heirloom tomatoes: there are some enthusiastic aficionados out there who are growing these in their vegetable plots and trading seeds with other carrot enthusiasts. Perhaps one day, like I’ve seen in upscale Californian supermarkets, there will be a corner of the vegetable section devoted to these – to my eye – strange and wonderful carrots.

But why did the Dutch farmers breed these orange carrots? Here, I have to say that, with all due respect to his august person, the Ambassador seems to have got it wrong (along with 99% of the Dutch population). The farmers did not do it to honor William the Silent and his House of Orange. They were looking to breed carrots which were sweeter and whose core was smaller and less woody. The root of wild carrot is actually quite bitter, so since time immemorial farmers had been trying to breed the bitterness out of the root, and as anyone knows who has eaten a big and mature carrot, its core can take up a good part of the carrot and be disagreeably tough to eat.

It just so happened that the carrot they bred was orange. I suppose the carotene which gives the carrot its color also gives it its sweetness. It was only later generations of Dutch who saw the political dimension of the carrot’s color, and actually saw it in a negative sense. Dutch burghers of strong Republican sentiment frowned upon carrots because of their too Royal orangeness – in their Republican zeal they also went after other orange plants, discouraging the planting of marigolds for instance.

Another example of the politics of color.

Before I leave orange carrots, I should report that analysis of carrot genomes strongly suggest that the Chinese independently bred orange carrots. It pleases me no end to know this, because in my years in China I was always puzzled by Chinese carrots. They somehow seemed different from the European carrots that I was familiar with. I throw in a picture of Chinese carrots to show what I mean.

They are a darker orange – the fact that the Chinese obtained the orange color by changing different genes from the ones which give European carrots their orange color probably explains this. And they were much stockier than European carrots, a fact that I put down to the Chinese breeding carrots more as animal feed (like the wonderfully named mangelwurzels) than as human food.

I could not resist the temptation of using this research into the orangeness of carrots to carry out research into the broader history of the carrot. It turns out that the wild carrot is at home in Central Asia – so it is indeed apposite that this little piece of research was kicked off by a chance remark made in Kyrgyzstan, which happens to be one of the homes of the wild carrot. For those of my readers who, like me, have never seen a wild carrot, I throw in a picture.

It seems that its root is bitter and woody, but I suppose that hunger makes one tolerant of not-so-tasty food – better than having nothing in one’s stomach. The wild carrot, perhaps in some domesticated form, was carried far and wide from its Central Asian homeland. Carrot seeds have turned up in archaeological digs of prehistoric lake dwellings in Switzerland.

The Babylonians knew of it; it is mentioned in a cuneiform tablet listing the plants growing in the garden of King Marduk-apla-iddina (King Merodach-baladan in the Old Testament).

Seemingly, the Egyptians knew of it, although the evidence is rather weak. The Greeks and the Romans knew of it. But in all these cases, it seems that it was the leaves and seeds which they were interested in; the root was too bitter. They used the root or the seeds for medicinal purposes and ate the leaves much as we would eat spinach (I am reminded of a story my mother used to tell us young children, of how during the War, when she was trapped in occupied France, one could not find carrots in the market. Only the leaves were on sale. She and her mother made do and ate those – better than having nothing in one’s stomach).

All this time, our ancestors were tinkering with this foodstuff as they were tinkering with all their foodstuffs. Finally, possibly as early as the 6th Century, one or more farmers somewhere in today’s Iran and Afghanistan bred a carrot with a sweeter, less woody, more edible root. This plant was destined to become the ancestor of all modern carrots. From there, the seeds were carried by passing traders and travelers both east and west, no doubt along the Silk Roads which I have had cause to mention in earlier posts. In the case of its carriage to the west, Arab traders seem to have been the vector after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th Century, much as was the case for the lilac bush, the subject of an earlier post. More tinkering and crossbreeding took place in today’s Turkey before a carrot with an even more edible root continued on its journey to Europe. It arrived there in the 10th Century, eventually ending up in Northern Europe in the 13th Century. It came in two colours, yellow and purple, with a rarer white variety thrown in. For some reason, the Dutch got heavily into carrot production and the rest is orange history.

Since the Dutch started this post, let me finish by throwing in some of those still lives so beloved by the Dutch, of kitchens full of vegetables and fruit. Normally, I pass these over with a yawn (I have never understood our ancestors’ fascination with this type of paintings), but it seems appropriate to admire them in this case. I invite my readers to locate the carrot in each of the paintings.



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William the Silent: https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Death-of-William-the-Silent
Dutch football players: http://www.football-oranje.com/sweden-v-netherlands-match-preview/
Dutch fans: http://www.newsweek.com/dutch-men-latvian-women-are-tallest-world-study-483868
The city of Orange: http://be.france.fr/fr/a-decouvrir/orange
orange carrots: https://www.well-beingsecrets.com/health-benefits-of-carrots/
purple carrots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU03lczH6mk
yellow carrots: https://www.bukalapak.com/p/hobi-koleksi/berkebun/benih-tanaman/fs8sg5-jual-biji-2-benih-wortel-kuning-yellow-carrot
Red carrots: http://www.gardenpicsandtips.com/18-vegetables-that-are-colorful-and-worth-eating/2/
White carrots: http://blue-myhanh.blogspot.com.tr/2014/08/khi-trai-cay-co-mau-khac-voi-chung-ta.html
Black carrots: https://www.amazon.co.jp/%E8%BE%B2%E6%A5%AD%E5%B1%8B-%E3%81%AB%E3%82%93%E3%81%98%E3%82%93-%E7%A8%AE-%E3%83%96%E3%83%A9%E3%83%83%E3%82%AF%E3%82%AD%E3%83%A3%E3%83%AD%E3%83%83%E3%83%88-%E5%B0%8F%E8%A2%8B%EF%BC%88%E7%B4%84300%E7%B2%92%EF%BC%89/dp/B00NHD5BCY
Carrot spectrum: http://sezahrana.tumblr.com/page/130
Split carrot: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Marigold: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Chinese carrot: https://www.pinterest.com/kurskinlab/spa-men/
Wild carrot: https://myediblebackyard.net/2014/05/02/wild-carrot/
Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_prehistoric_lake_dwellings._Wellcome_M0015374.jpg
Cuneiform tablet: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3066115&partId=1&searchText=Merodach-Baladan+II&view=list&page=1
Pieter Aersten, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary: https://www.tumblr.com/search/christ%20in%20the%20house%20of%20mary%20and%20martha
Anonymous, Kitchen scene in Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html
Pieter Cornelizs. Van Rijk, Kitchen Scene: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html