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Category: Architecture

LUXOR, EGYPT

Milan, 19 November 2017

My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in Egypt (I also went to do some consultancy on a project proposal in Upper Egypt, whose objective is to create small businesses around the reuse of agricultural and agro-processing waste; but that is a story for another day). We primarily visited Luxor, so the main thrust of our visit was the monuments of Ancient Egypt.

I must confess to being quite ignorant about the art, culture, and history of Ancient Egypt. Of course, I have a passing knowledge about all the usual things: the rather icky mummies

and the richly decorated Russian-doll like cases which enclose them

the – rather static and boringly repetitive – statues which fill halls in various Worthy Museums in Europe (here’s the British Museum’s, which I suffered through as a child).

Having read articles from time to time about King Tut and his tomb, I have of course absorbed a certain amount of his story, but to give an idea of the shallowness of my knowledge I have a very clear memory of doing a long line when I was young to visit a King Tut exhibition at the British Museum, but for the life of me don’t remember anything I saw in the exhibition itself.

I was also entertained in my childhood by the presentation of Ancient Egypt in the comic books I read: Tintin first of all

with the amusingly absent-minded Egyptologist Philémon Siclone

then Asterix

with the Egyptians speaking in hieroglyphics.

In more recent times, I have been tickled by films relating to various Curses of the Mummy.

And that’s about it. In short, I was really very ignorant about Ancient Egypt.

The hotel we stayed at in Luxor continued the comic-book theming of Ancient Egypt. We were staying in the Nefertiti wing, with the Cleopatra wing close by. These two pastiche statues greeted us every day as we made our way to the breakfast room


and the hotel’s walls were decorated with this kind of pastiche fresco.

Luckily, the French-speaking guide we had hired over the Internet turned out to be very competent. He had put together a nice programme which covered many of the best of the sites in and around Luxor: the temple of Karnak, with its large-scale bas-reliefs on its walls

the temple of Luxor, which we saw at night

with its avenue of sphinxes

Luxor Museum, which had some lovely pieces

several of the tombs in the valleys of the Kings, Queens, nobles, and in the village of the artisans, with their incredibly fresh frescoes


the temple of Dendera, with its amazing astronomical ceiling

the temple of Abydos, with its lovely bas-reliefs inside the temple

the temple of Hatshepsut, with its dramatic setting

and finally the Ramesseum, with the green fields fed by the Nile’s waters lapping at its feet.

I won’t pretend that by the end of it all I was an Egyptologist, but I do think I now have a passing understanding of the history of the 18th to 20th dynasties (noting, though, the rather depressing fact that there were 30 dynasties in all before the Romans put a halt to pharaonism; I have much more to learn). I also think I have a – still very sketchy – understanding of ancient Egyptians’ religion. Finally, I have a passing knowledge of the architectural principles underlining the buildings that we saw.

I do not propose to bore readers with a breathless precis of what we saw, heard, and sort-of understood. I’ll just comment on some of the things that particularly struck me as we went along.

The sun truly dominated the thinking of the ancient Egyptians. After our two weeks there I can understand why. I saw clouds just once, and that was in Cairo. In Luxor, we had a clear, hard, lapis-lazuli sky the whole time, with the sun climbing slowly from the eastern horizon

up to its apex

and then falling slowly to the western horizon, as we moved from site to site.
It must be like this all the year round, so I can understand how the sun played a primordial role in ancient Egyptian religion. I particularly liked, then, to hear that the obelisk, that most Egyptian of things, was considered a petrified sunbeam.

What a lovely idea! A ray of the sun, congealed – frozen – in stone, driving into the earth. The equivalence would have been even stronger in the old days, when obelisks’ pyramidal capstones were covered with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver; the tips of the obelisks would have flashed and glowed in the sun.

In Cairo, were told the same thing of the pyramids, but it was more difficult to imagine pyramids as rays of the sun in stone.

The place of the sun in Egyptian religion reached its extreme under the “heretical” pharaoh Akhenaten: he abolished all deities in the Egyptians’ pantheon except for the solar god Aten. In his frescoes and bas-reliefs, he had Aten depicted as a disc from which emanated rays that ended in hands.

The sun caressing the Earth and all that is on it … a beautiful idea! For doesn’t all life on this planet ultimately depend on the the warmth and heat of the sun?

Akhenaten was an interesting fellow, not least because of the way he had himself depicted in his official statuary, with an elongated, sensual face, quite different from everything that came before and after.

(the statues of him in the National Museum in Cairo are even more intriguing, with a body that looks distinctly feminine, to the point that some claim this is actually his wife Nefertiti)

The sun even played a role in the design of the bas-reliefs which covered the walls of temples and tombs. We saw two types of bas-reliefs. The more delicate ones were true bas-reliefs, with the background cut down until the subjects were in light relief, like the ones I showed above from the temple of Abydos. The second type were created instead by cutting deep grooves along the outline of the figures and finished with some light molding of the figures. These were very striking in a raking light – in the late afternoon, for instance – when they stood out, almost like charcoal drawings on the walls.


It seems the effect was deliberate, to make reliefs that were readable in the country’s strong light.

The Egyptians held that the goddess of the sky, Nut, swallowed the sun at sunset and gave birth to him again in the morning. She was the wife (and sister) of the god of the earth, Geb. The story goes that she wanted to lie on him perpetually, but Ra ordered their father Shu, god of air, to force them apart. But Nut managed to keep her hands and feet touching Geb. I just loved the way the artists depicted these stories. The artists painted Nut – very often on ceilings, as one might expect – with her feet touching the Earth in one corner, her hands touching it in another, and her thin, lithe body curving along the edge of the ceiling between these two corners.

See how in the first of these two photos, Nut is shown giving birth to the morning sun and about to swallow the evening sun, while in the second Shu is holding Nut and Geb apart.

Originally, Nut was goddess of the night sky, and night skies are a common decoration of ceilings. We saw many ceilings painted blue and sprinkled – sprayed might be the better term – with a multitude of white stars.

It was a charming effect, and in the tombs certainly gave all those mummies lying on their backs a beautiful night sky to gaze upon for eternity – in the case of the photo above Nefertari, the main wife of Ramesses II.

I finish with the so-called Colossi of Memnon, although actually they are statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. Tourists who passed through here a couple of thousand years before us – the Ancient Greeks – misnamed the statues.

Truth to tell, they are not much to look at; they have suffered much at the hands of time. As we stood there, a muezzin nearby started singing his call to afternoon prayers.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.

Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-llah.
Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah.
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah,
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah.
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala,
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala.
Hayya ‘ala-l-falah,
Hayya ‘ala-I-falah.
Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar.
La illaha illa-llah.

God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.

As the song floated over the shattered statues before us, I reflected on the seemingly inevitable passing away of civilizations and their religious constructs. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians was thrown onto the dust heap of history in the 3rd Century of the Common Era, after surviving 3,000 years or more, with a triumphant Christianity taking its place. After a mere 400 years, Christianity in Egypt was in turn overrun by Islam. Today, after 1,400 years, Islam stands seemingly secure in the lands of the Nile. But one day, when the statues before me will have crumbled to mere stumps of stone, Islam will no doubt have given way to something else. Nothing man-made survives the test of time.
_________________
Royal mummy: https://islampapers.com/2013/01/09/the-identification-of-the-pharaoh-during-the-time-of-moses/
Mummy cases: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130823091144.htm
Egyptian statue room, British Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/rowan925/egyptian-exhibit-british-museum-artifacts/
Cigares du pharaon cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Tintin-Tome-4-Les-cigares-du-pharaon-32559.html
Cigares du pharaon egyptologist: my photo
Asterix et Cléopatre cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Asterix-Tome-6-Asterix-et-Cleopatre-22950.html
Asterix et Cléopatre speaking hieroglyphics: my photo
The Mummy movie poster: http://www.impawards.com/1999/mummy_ver1.html
Pastiche statues and fresco: my photo
Temple of Karnak: http://www.nilecruised.com/tours/karnak-temple/
Temple of Luxor: https://www.traveladdicts.net/2011/10/karnak-temple-luxor-temple-egypt.html
Avenue of sphinxes: http://www.travelphoto.net/a-photo-a-day/wordpress/2005/04/15/sphinx-avenue-at-luxor-temple/
Luxor Museum: http://egypt-magic.com/category/luxor/
Tomb, Valley of the Kings: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shelbyroot/1164944359
Tomb, Village of the Artisans: https://archaeology-travel.com/archaeological-sites/deir-el-medina-luxor/
Temple of Dendera ceiling: https://paulsmit.smugmug.com/Features/Africa/Egypt-Dendera-temple/i-BJPQ24h
Temple of Abydos bas-reliefs: our photo
Temple of Hatshepsut: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/mortuary-temple-hatshepsut-deir-el-bahri-002777
Ramesseum: https://www.egypttoursplus.com/ramesseum-temple/
Sunrise Luxor: http://www.news4europe.eu/6369_entertainment/4797559_egypt-s-newly-discovered-artifacts-to-help-revive-tourism-in-luxor.html
Sun high in sky: http://www.psdgraphics.com/backgrounds/blue-sky-with-sun/
Sunset Luxor: my wife’s photo
Obelisk, Luxor Temple: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luxor_Temple_Obelisk.JPG
Obelisk with golden capstone: http://www.riseearth.com/2016/08/mythical-benben-stone-landing-site-of.html?m=1
Sun rays with hands: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/art-amarna-akhenaten-and-his-life-under-sun-002587
Akhenaten head: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/2105526
Akhenaten statue: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/312437292872997702/
Grooved bas-reliefs: our photos
Goddess Nut, Dendera: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-egyptdenderaptolemaic-temple-of-the-goddess-hathorview-of-ceiling-68990173.html
Goddess Nut, tomb Ramses IV: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/news-photo/egypt-thebes-luxor-valley-of-the-kings-tomb-of-ramses-iv-news-photo/88701257
Stars on ceiling, Nefertari tomb: https://www.pinterest.com/ancha_no1/inside-egyptian-tomb/
Colossi of Memnon: our photo

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MIHO MUSEUM

Milan, 30 October 2017

One of the more remarkable things which my wife and I did this year during our three-week stint in Kyoto was to visit the Miho Museum. I must confess that we had never heard of this museum before scanning a newspaper listing the various things to do in Kyoto during the month of October. It’s actually located outside of the city, up in the Shigaraki Mountains, surrounded by a nature reserve. To get there was a mini-adventure in itself: bus to subway; subway to train; train to a final bus, which after a 45-minute meander over hill and dale brought us to our destination – all this while trying to follow our course by painfully deciphering the Japanese names of the stations or bus stops as they went by.

What decided us to go – apart from the excuse it gave us to adventure outside of Kyoto – was the fact that the museum had been designed by I.M. Pei, he of the Pyramid at the Louvre

but also of the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington D.C., which we had discovered as youngsters in the early 1980s


as well as of the Suzhou Museum, which we had discovered at a more venerable age some five years ago


along with his building for the Bank of China in Hong Kong.

Mr. Pei, who – as we discovered at the museum in some breathless descriptions of him – is 100 years old this year, did not deceive us. He whetted our appetite by leading us up a rather spectacular road to reach the museum proper from the car park, bus drop-off, and ticket office. After passing through a twisting tunnel, the road runs over a futuristic bridge spanning a cleft in the hills to bring us to the museum’s main door.

There is hardly anything to see of the museum from the outside. In the museum’s own descriptions of its design much is made of the fact that it has been buried so as to have minimal impact on the surrounding nature reserve. But the inside more than makes up for this external modesty: long clean lines, asymmetry, a profusion of triangles, light flooding in – all signature touches from I.M. Pei; a wonderful light beige stone used for cladding, spectacular views across the valley behind the museum.

And the collection housed by all this is not to be sniffed at.






And yet … some second-thoughts began to creep in as we watched videos describing the building of the museum, and read articles about how the collection had been put together. When we first read that the museum had been built below ground to respect the natural surroundings, we presumed that they had dug and tunneled down into the rock. Not a bit of it! They just took a huge bite out of the ridge, built the museum, and then covered it up and planted trees and vegetation on top. Granted, the modeling of the covering had been done well, blending apparently seamlessly with the remaining ridge, and the plantings had stayed faithful to the original vegetation. But to claim that this way of building respected the original environment seems to be quite an exaggeration.

As for the art, we read that Mihoko Koyama, who with her daughter Hiroko commissioned Pei, had originally planned to build a small museum to house her relatively small collection of Japanese art, mostly of items linked to the tea ceremony. But Pei told them he would accept the commission only if it would be for an international collection. So the Koyamas went on a massive buying spree on the international art markets. We know from cases like the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that when rich buyers appear on the art market wanting to buy in a hurry and not looking too closely at the exact history of the pieces they are offered, all the tomb robbers and their shady intermediary dealers are given a huge incentive to carry out their nefarious activities. Indeed, it turned out that a Chinese statue from the sixth century which mother and daughter purchased for their museum had been stolen from a public garden in Shandong province (let’s put aside questions as to why on earth such a statue should have been put up in a public garden in the first place). Who knows how many other of the museum pieces have shady pasts? And of course hardly any of the pieces have known provenances. So, while they are unquestionably beautiful works of art, their value to archaeology is zero.

I must confess I also began to uncharitably ask myself how Ms. Koyama senior got the $400 million – or maybe even $1 billion (the size of the final bill is unclear) – which it took to pay both for the building of the museum and stocking it with high-end art. So I began to burrow into her life. The details I found were sketchy, so what I present here is subject to possible revision.

Mihoko Koyama, who came into this world in 1910, arrived with a very large silver spoon in her mouth. Her family had started the Toyobo Textile Company some 30 years earlier, back in the 1880s, at a time when Japan was feverishly trying to catch up with the Europeans and textile companies were still the nec plus ultra of industrialization: a country without a textile industry was simply not industrialized. Toyobo was, and still is, a very big and very wealthy company. In the 1970s, its management cannily understood that textiles were a thing of the past and moved into the next nec plus ultra of industrialization, plastics. Now they are navigating in the futuristic waters of biotech, the next nec plus ultra of industrialization.

As if it wasn’t enough to be a wealthy Japanese heiress, Mihoko married a Japanese millionaire. I’ve not managed to find out how he made – or inherited – his millions. Bottom line, she was very comfortably off in her own right. Whether or not she was happy in her marriage is not related.

The moment that changed her life came in 1941, when at the age of 31 she met Mokichi Okada. An intriguing fellow, this Okada. Born poor, he eventually made a fortune in the jewelry business. In 1926, at the age of 44, he claimed to have received a special revelation from God, and nine years later he founded a new religion, the Church of World Messianity. This religion has three pillars, the one of most relevance to us being the Art of Beauty. Okada believed that art had an important role to play in heightening people’s emotions, enriching their lives, and giving meaning and enjoyment to their existence. I can’t really argue with that; this whole blog is pretty much based on the same idea. The second pillar of this religion is the Art of Nature, which includes nature farming. Originally called “no fertilizer farming”, nature farming is based on the ideas that fertilizers pollute the soil and weaken its power of production, that pests will eventually break out from the excessive use of fertilizers, that the difference in disease incidence between resistant and susceptible plants is attributed to nutritional conditions inside the body, and that vegetables and fruits produced by nature farming taste better than those by chemical farming. I can’t quarrel with any of that either (apart from the third idea, which I don’t really understand).

Where things begin to get sticky is the religion’s third and actually most important pillar, the concept of johrei. Okada claimed that his divine revelation of 1926 gave him the power to be a channel of God’s Healing Light (“johrei” in Japanese), which could purify a person’s spiritual realm and so remove the spiritual causes of that person’s illness, poverty, and unhappiness. If enough people received johrei, then they would achieve Messianity and a new Messianic Age would be inaugurated. Okada went on to teach johrei to his followers, allowing them to achieve, like him, Messianity and spread the teachings across the world. Wearing a pendant containing a copy of one of Okada’s calligraphies, which allows the wearers to access the powers of Okada in the spirit world, practitioners of johrei claim to be able to channel healing light into patients by waving their hands over the their body. All this would be kind of cute although pretty weird if it weren’t for the fact that members of this religion forsake modern medicine, arguing that johrei alone can heal. So the usual stories abound of children dying of perfectly preventable diseases because their parents refused to go and see a doctor.

In any event, Mihoko Koyama was bowled over by Okada’s teachings, and she decided to devote the rest of her life to practicing what he taught. After this, things get a little murky. She must have joined Okada’s Church of World Messianity but in 1970, for reasons that are not apparent – at least not from the “open literature” of the Internet – she split off and founded her own group, the Shinji Shumeikai group, Shumei for short, dedicated to the same three principles as Okada’s church: the pursuit of beauty through art; appreciation of nature and “natural agriculture”; the practice of johrei. Mihoko was Shumei’s First President, her daughter Hiroko has been its Second President since her mother died.

All just fairly weird were it not for the distasteful issue of money. To become a new member of Shumei, one has to participate in a three-day “training” in johrei and pay about $300 to obtain the famous pendant used during johrei. Members are then put under severe pressure to either bring in new recruits or to make donations, with public humiliation if they can’t meet agreed targets. Members are also subject to a “daily gratitude donation”, where they are expected to donate 100 yen for every meal they eat to show their gratitude for a safe daily life. This is equivalent to about $100 a month. Members are also expected to make a donation every time they visit the group’s headquarters, and of course the bigger the donation, the greater the praise. Whenever members have a stroke of good luck, they are encouraged to make a donation commensurate to the size of their luck. Conversely, when members suffer a misfortune, they are encouraged to make a donation in thanks that the spirit of Okada helped them avoid the worst. And so on.

So, after this rather long digression through Mihoko Koyama’s life, we can come back to my uncharitable question: how did she pay for the Miho Museum? Well, I would like to believe that Ms Koyama used some of her personal wealth to foot the bills, although the cynic within me suspects that much if not all of the money came from all those donations that the members of Shumei have piously or perhaps fearfully made over the years, or that have been extorted from them through threats of humiliation, eternal damnation, or worse.

All of which leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth. But then, how did all those Renaissance popes pay for the wonderful art they commissioned from the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo? Wasn’t it the Popes’ selling of the indulgences to fund their art purchases and building programmes which led to Martin Luther’s disgust with Rome and eventually the Protestant Reformation?
___________________
Pyramid at the Louvre: http://www.dezeen.com/2017/04/26/architect-im-pei-100-birthday-10-most-significant-buildings/amp/
East wing, National Gallery, exterior: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/04/26/architect-im-pei-100-birthday-10-most-significant-buildings/amp/
East wing, National Gallery, Interior: http://www.monkeyswithwings.com/aaeastwing2.html
Suzhou Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/291678513348642992/
Suzhou Museum: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/i-m-pei-image-gallery-of-the-suzhou-museum/1570/
Bank of China, Hong Kong: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/04/26/architect-im-pei-100-birthday-10-most-significant-buildings/amp/
Miho Museum tunnel and bridge: https://www.archdaily.com/639108/miho-museum-i-m-pei/556f94f8e58ece3dc4000025-miho-museum-i-m-pei-photo
Miho Museum: https://amuse-i-d.vice.com/why-you-should-visit-i-m-peis-extraordinary-miho-museum/
Miho Museum: http://regex.info/blog/2013-12-06/2349
Miho Museum: http://regex.info/i/JF4_045278.jpg
Artefacts at Miho Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/RoxenPhoenix/ancient-persian-central-asian-jewelry-artifacts/
Artefacts at Miho Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/gianfrancocurat/archeo/

http://www.miho.or.jp/en/exhibition/20th/

BERLIN

Vienna, 27 August 2017

Some fifteen years ago, during one of my periodic telephonic chats with my father, I was telling him about our recent visit to Berlin and how much we had enjoyed it. I suggested that he should go too. But after a short pause, he replied “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to visit Berlin”. At the time, his answer surprised me. But after some reflection, I could understand his reluctance. He was 16 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany

18 when the Saarland voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Germany,

19 when Germany remilitarized the Rhineland,

21 when Germany annexed Austria

and occupied the Sudetenland after the Munich Accord

22 when Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia,

then invaded Poland,

and the UK finally declared war on Germany,

23 when he was cut off from his French fiancé (and eventually my mother) by the German invasion of France,

28 when the war against Germany ended.

So it’s not surprising, really, that for him a visit to Berlin would bring back anguishing memories.

For me, it was different. Of course, the War was still very present when I was a boy – it had only finished nine years before I was born, after all – but in my case it was already history, a thing I lived through films such as the Dam Busters

the Great Escape

and the Battle of Britain

What was ever-present in my daily life was the Cold War. By the time I turned 16, East and West had been locked into the Cold War for some 20 years and there was no end in sight. Berlin, an island in a sea of communism, Berlin with its grim wall physically separating East from West, was the noble symbol of that confrontation.

It was also the location of thrilling spy stories-turned film like John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

or Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin

a world of cross, double-cross, triple-cross, where it was no longer possible to understand who was Bad and who was Good.

It is difficult for me to escape these two pasts when I visit Berlin, as my wife and I did a month ago. The sheer newness of much of central Berlin’s building stock – very pleasant on the eye for the most part

is a constant reminder of the fact that the city had been bombed and shelled into rubble by the end of the Battle of Berlin.

The pock marks and gouges in the stone work of many of the old buildings, a result of shrapnel flying around, are also mute testimony to that destruction.

Then there are the new memorials:

The Holocaust Memorial


the Jewish Museum

the Gleise 17 Memorial

the Sinti Roma Memorial

the Memorial to the Homosexuals

All bear witness to the mad, hateful, terrifying policies of racial discrimination and dominance which were at the heart of Nazism (whether they work as memorials is a matter for another day, but those who are interested in this debate can do no worse than read Victor Ripp’s slim volume Hell’s Traces).

As for the post War years, a double line of cobble stones running along the old border between East and West Berlin

is a constant reminder of the Berlin Wall which once ran there, as are pieces of the wall which stand in various parts of the city.

 

But stop a while.

Berlin is more than the Nazi period and the Cold War. It has a long history going back at least 700 years:
– Town at the crossroads of two trade routes

– Capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg

– Then joint capital, with Königsberg, of Brandenburg-Prussia after Elector John Sigismund also became Duke of Prussia in 1618

– Then capital of unified Prussia after Frederick the Great’s wars of expansion in the mid to late 1700s had joined up the two separated parts of his lands

– And finally capital of unified Germany after 1870.

A process of growth which has left some handsome buildings behind:

Gendarmenmarkt Platz

Humboldt University

Berlin Cathedral

Charlottensburg Palace

Sansouci Palace

A capital which at the beginning of the 20th Century competed with Paris and London for smartness

and modernity.


But after the First World War, a capital of a broken Germany, a city full of unemployed, crippled soldiers, and of men on the make

and of seedy cabarets.

Fast forward to the present, it is now the capital of what is indisputably the most powerful state in Europe, as exemplified by its new Ministry of Finance.

It is becoming a centre of contemporary art, as exemplified by the old Hamburg Train Station turned into museum of contemporary art.

It has buildings by iconic architects.

It has a cool scene.

It has quiet, little corners, very restful on the nerves.

And much more, I’m sure.

We need to push our way past the Third Reich and the Cold War and look at the old and new Berlins. We must not – we cannot – forget what happened during my father’s youth and my youth; we must always remind ourselves of what can happen in any apparently decent, democratic country. But let’s not let this drown out the rest of Berlin.

_________________

Hitler becomes Chancellor: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2010/01/30/hitler-becomes-chancellor/
Saarland votes to rejoin Germany: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865645404/This-week-in-history-The-Saarland-votes-to-rejoin-Germany.amp
German troops enter the Rhineland: https://germanwarmachine.com/timelines/third-reich-day-by-day/third-reich-1936/march-1936
Germany annexes Austria: https://ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=86
Germany occupies the Sudetenland: https://historyimages.blogspot.co.at/2009/12/ww2-germany-takes-over-sudetenland.html?m=1
Germany occupies Czechoslovakia: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/mobile/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=0&MediaId=1875
Germany invades Poland: http://www.histogames.com/HTML/chronologie/epoque_contemporaine/deuxieme_guerre_mondiale/batailles/campagne-de-pologne.php
U.K. declares war on Germany: https://www.sutori.com/story/canada-wwii-2680
Germany invades France: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/during-german-invasion.html
VE-day: http://thelondonsims.blogspot.co.at/2012/05/ve-day-celebrations.html?m=1
Dam Busters: https://dambustersblog.com/category/dam-busters-1955-film/page/2/
The Great Escape: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mos0s0lZoY8
The Battle of Britain: https://www.pinterest.at/explore/battle-of-britain-movie/
Berlin Wall: http://sfppr.org/2014/12/twenty-five-years-after-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-a-realist-perspective/
The Spy who Came in from the Cold: https://fanart.tv/movie/13580/the-spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold/
Funeral in Berlin: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funeral_in_Berlin_(film)
Leipziger Platz today: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-mall-of-berlin-leipziger-platz-berlin-germany-79017119.html
Berlin in ruins: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_flag_over_the_Reichstag
Shrapnel scars: http://ruby.colorado.edu/~smyth/Personal/travels/Berlin/Berlin.htm
Pieces of Berlin Wall today: https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/3478461
Holocaust Memorial-1: https://berlinonbike.de/en/walking-tours/modern-berlin-tour/
Holocaust Memorial-2: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holocaust_memorial_Berlin.JPG
Jewish Museum: http://www.roadtripsaroundtheworld.com/3554-2/
Gleis 17 Memorial: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlin-Grunewald_Mahnmal_Gleis_17_02.jpg
Sinti Roma Memorial: http://jewish-voice-from-germany.de/cms/memorial-for-sinti-and-roma-in-berlin/
Memorial to Homosexuals: http://urbanlabsce.eu/memories-are-built-as-a-city-is-built-umberto-eco/
Trace of Berlin Wall: my photo
Pieces of Berlin Wall: https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/3478461
Berlin 1250: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/507499451740810589/
Berlin ca. 1500: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-geography-travel-germany-berlin-city-views-cityscapes-berlin-and-clln-19751351.html
10) Berlin 1650: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-panoramic-view-of-the-berlin-skyline-berlin-germany-europe1650-17th-56917453.html
Berlin 1717: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:1717_in_Berlin#/media/File%3ABerlin%2C_Schiffbauerdamm2.jpg
Berlin ca. 1760: https://auktion.catawiki.de/kavels/3169247-deutschland-berling-j-wolff-g-b-probst-berlin-ca-1760
Berlin 1900s: https://www.amazon.com/Historic-Views-Berlin-Hannah-Schweizer/dp/3833157747
Gendarmenmarkt Platz: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gendarmenmarkt_berlin_2008_c_filtered.jpg
Humboldt University: http://www.uq.edu.au/uqabroad/humboldt-university-of-berlin
Berlin Cathedral: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/lustgarten-berlin.html
Charlottenburg Palace: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charlottenburg_Palace_04.jpg
Sansouci palace: https://www.getyourguide.de/potsdam-l467/potsdamsanssouci-mit-eintritt-und-schlossfuehrung-t26520/
Max Lieberman, Terrasse im Restaurant Jacob in Nienstedten an der Elbe, 1902: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Liebermann_Restaurant_Jacob.jpg
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin street scene, 1913: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/oct/03/george-grosz-first-world-war-art-jonathan-jones
Georg Grosz: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/oct/03/george-grosz-first-world-war-art-jonathan-jones
Georg Grosz: https://animationresources.org/inbetweens-the-caricatures-of-george-grosz/
New Ministry of Finance: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/federal-ministry-finance-berlin.html
Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof-1: http://u-in-u.com/magazine/articles/2011/tomas-saraceno/
Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof-2: http://forums.hipinion.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=94518&start=300
Richard Rogers building: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/977309967-daimler-chrysler-building-fence-richard-rogers-potsdamer-platz
Cool Berlin: http://www.traveller.com.au/cool-berlin-the-writings-on-the-wall-b49o
Quiet corner of Berlin: https://chroniclesofwanderlustdotcom.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/eurotrip-days-10-to-12-berlin-deutschland-und-prenzlauer-berg/amp/

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some thirty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio


either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). At the end of the ceremony, we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like Health & Safety services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll, we walked through the courtyard where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense and keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh … the gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, in the background but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh … so desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees

and we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

 

OUR L.A. PHOTO ALBUM

Milan, 18 April 2017

My wife and I landed back in Italy a few days ago. And now, lying on the sofa tired and jet lagged, I’m sifting through the multiple, kaleidoscope impressions of LA careening around my brain after our month’s stay there. Picking out from my photos as well as that of my wife’s, and, where for some unexplained reason there is a gap, complementing them with photos off the web, here is our photo album of our holiday in LA. To be viewed together with my last three posts. Enjoy!

-o0o-

I start at Venice Beach, where our daughter and her boyfriend live.

Twenty years ago, we visited the beach so that our son, at that point in his life passionate about in-line skating, could show off his tricks to the other cool dudes who he had read in his magazine congregated there. That had to be our starting point on Day 1.

It’s got much cooler since we were last here. The skatepark looks incredibly futuristic to my untutored eyes.

An amusing message from a citizen of Venice Beach.

I wrote about public murals in an earlier post. Many of these are in Venice Beach. Not surprising, I suppose, since it’s meant to be a very artsy community. Talking of artsy community, here’s the yellow brick road in the Mosaic Tile House.

This is an otherwise normal house in Venice which an artist couple have been covering inside and out with broken tiles and pottery for the last twenty years.

The Venice High School and an ex-police station nearby.

You find this kind of architecture – 1930s? – dotted all over the city. For some reason, they remind me of Superman and his Gotham City. Something to do with the artwork in the early comics? They also remind me of Shanghai, where a lot of the posher pre-WWII buildings have this style.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), up on Bunker Hill.

“R.S.V.P.”, by Senga Nengudi. It’s made of panty-hose weighted down by sand. Still striking.

“Better Homes, Better Gardens”, by the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall. The museum is holding a major retrospective of his work. It’s fascinating to see these paintings populated by coal-black subjects. It challenges our traditional perspectives, where it is normally white people who inhabit paintings.

Across the road from MOCA, the Walt Disney Auditorium.

It’s rather similar to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; not surprising, really, since the two are by the same architect, Frank Gehry.

A charming fountain in the small garden behind the Auditorium, made with shards of blue and white porcelain.

It reminds me of a sculpture I saw in Beijing a number of years ago.

The monthly flea market at the Rose Bowl.

The art of the deal …

A detail of a painting from the Getty Centre’s impressive collection of European art.

It always appeals to the puerile side of me to see saints – in this case St. Stephen – having the objects by which they were martyred – in this case stones – lodged in their heads. There is a Saint Peter, Saint Peter the Martyr, who died from having his skull smashed in by a sword. In paintings, you see him calmly going about his saintly business with a sword lodged in his head.


The view from the Getty Centre, over Los Angeles.

A beautiful view, although unfortunately you could also see the city’s infamous smog, a light brown mist licking up the base of the surrounding hills.

Some of the statues in the Getty Villa, part of its collection of Classical Greek and Roman art.

I am so used to seeing sightless Greek and Roman statues that I find these staring statues slightly unsettling. If I lived in a Roman villa surrounded by statues looking at me so intently, I think I’d get rather nervous.

One of the beautiful sunsets which greeted us in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, about which I wrote in an earlier post.

Watching a team putting together the next NASA satellite to be sent to Mars at NASA’s/Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), with its widely diversified collection:

Pieces from the museum’s excellent collection of Amerindian art.

An example of the strange Casta paintings which were produced in Spain’s Latin American colonies.

The aim was to show the result of mixing three populations: the Spaniards, the Amerindians, and the Africans. They were based on incredibly racist concepts, with the whites always at the top of the pile, the blacks always at the bottom, and the natives somewhere in between. The degree of mixing placed you somewhere on this spectrum.

From the museum’s collection of American art:
“Moonlight on the Water”, by Winslow Homer

“Angel’s Flight”, by Millard Sheets

“Chester”, by Sargent Claude Johnson


All nice examples of early 20th Century American art before Abstraction became the norm.

A wonderful painting from the museum’s collection of German Expressionist art:

“The Orator”, by Magnus Zeller. It captures so well the angst in post-WWI Germany. I think it helps to understand why Hitler succeeded.

A masterful Georges de La Tour, “The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame”, from the museum’s collection of European art.

A 17th Century plate from the museum’s collection of Japanese art. The turnip has finally been ennobled.

A nice example of Japanese lacquerware, a 17th Century writing box.

West meets East. A painting by Roy Lichtenstein, “Landscape with Poet”, echoing that most classic of Chinese paintings, the scholar contemplating nature.

Contemporary art at the Hauser & Wirth art gallery in LA’s Art District.

Whatever … I much preferred the rose in the courtyard.


From the exhibition at the Japanese American national museum, exploring the shameful treatment meted out to Japanese Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour.

It is hard not to see in this exhibition warnings about current feelings about Muslims in certain quarters of America.

I’ve already written about the wildflowers at Joshua Tree National Park and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. These are some of the wildflowers we came across during a walk we took one weekend with our daughter and boyfriend on Catalina Island.

The marvelous organ in the Walt Disney concert hall, seen here during a concert we attended.

We were lucky enough to hear it being played a week later.

“Infinity Mirrored Room”, by Yayoi Kusama: installation art at the Broad Museum.

We were ushered into a dark room with mirrors on all the walls and a very shallow pool of water on the floor. Small LED lights hung down from the ceiling, their light being reflected over and over in the mirrors. One had a sense of floating among the stars. Very tranquil. A pity we could only stay in a minute.

The rest of the museum is dedicated to contemporary art. I’m not a Basquiat fan, but this painting, “Eyes and Eggs”, stood out positively for me

while this Jeff Koons stood out negatively – I find his stuff so damned shallow.

A wonderful painting in the Norton Simon Museum’s very fine collection of European art.

It shows St. Joseph as a doting father cheerfully playing with the child Jesus. In most paintings, St. Joseph usually stands around solemnly in the background, like a piece of furniture.

West meets East again. This is a statue of a bodhisattva in the museum’s collection of Asian art.

It is a wonderful example of art from Gandhara. The region is home today to the Swat valley, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but it was for a couple of centuries (180 BC-10 AD) a Hellenistic kingdom, a carryover from Alexander the Great’s conquests in this part of the world. Greek sculptural concepts were superimposed on the local Buddhist faith.

Olvera Street, one of the few traces left from the original nucleus of LA, the Spanish settlement of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula, a small market town for the local ranchers.

Transfer of California from Mexico to the US, the area’s popularity with the American plutocrats looking for winter homes to escape the cold of the Mid-Western states, the growth of the movie industry, attracted here by the region’s almost continuous sunshine, the discovery of oil, the growth of LA’s port during WWII, its becoming a manufacturing hub after the war just when car ownership in the US skyrocketed … across the decades these have all deposited layer upon layer of new urban structures. But none of it has masked the essential Latin Americanness of LA – nearly 50% of Angelinos are Latino.

Part of the army of homeless people in LA.

They are very visible there, no doubt because the weather is so clement, but a problem in all developed countries. How can our societies, so rich, accept this shameful situation?

“Portrait of Samuel and Eunice Judkins, Ulster County, New York”, by Sheldon Peck

“Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn”, by Samuel Miller

“Yankee Driver”, by Thomas Hart Benton

“The Long Leg”, by Edward Hopper

“Soldier”, by Charles White

A sample of the impressive collection of American art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. It also has an extensive collection of British art, of which this “Blue Boy”, by Thomas Gainsborough, is one.

As I confessed to my wife, the only paint-by-numbers picture I ever tried as a boy.

The Huntington also has lovely, and very extensive, gardens.


Hollywood!

The Dream Machine, masking the essential tackiness of it all.

An exhibition of the artist Jimmie Durham at the Hammer Museum.

A very amusing artist, although you have to wonder if he isn’t taking his viewers for a ride and laughing all the way to the bank.

Seen after visiting the Watts Towers, subject of an earlier post.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the depiction of a real heart in this time-worn phrase, so popular to T-shirt manufacturers.

Art livening up the otherwise dreary underbelly of a highway overpass, seen at a subway transfer station after leaving Watts.

Hollyhock House, the first Frank Lloyd Wright house I have ever visited.

I reserve judgement.

A delightful take on the aristocratic habit of painting palace ceilings with frescoes showing angels, saints, or gods cavorting in the clouds.

Seen at the exit of a subway station, coming up the escalator.

Contemporary art at the Geffen Centre of MOCA.

Whatever … As long as I don’t have to pay for this stuff.

An amusing sign inviting people to come and taste the luncheon delights of a local restaurant.

Resonates particularly strongly with my wife and I, wrestling as we are with the need for weight loss through diet and exercise. We came across it at lunch time as hunger gnawed at our insides.

And with that, it’s a wrap on our stay in LA!

____________________
Photos: ours, except for the following:

Skatepark, Venice Beach: https://m.discoverlosangeles.com/blog/things-to-do-venice-california
Kerry James Marshall: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-how-kerry-james-marshall-became-a-superhero-for-chicago-s-housing-projects
Rose Bowl flea market: http://la.racked.com/maps/los-angeles-vintage-shops/rose-bowl-flea-market
St. Peter Martyr: https://www.pinterest.com/az0827/st-peter-of-verona-op/
Japanese internment: http://freenom.link/?k=80808080&_=1492438798
Infinity Mirrored Room: http://www.thebroad.org/art/exhibitions/yayoi-kusama-infinity-mirrored-room
Basquiat, “Eyes and Eggs”: http://www.thebroad.org/art/jean‐michel-basquiat
Koons: http://robbreport.com/art-collectibles/broad-contemporary-art-museum-opens-los-angeles
Bodhisattva: https://www.pinterest.com/sheth0430/gandharan/
Olvera St.: http://www.inetours.com/Los_Angeles/Photos/Olvera-St-cross.html
LA’s homeless: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-how-los-angeles-homeless-crisis-got-so-bad-20150922-story,amp.html
“Blue Boy”, Thomas Gainsborough: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blue_Boy
Huntington gardens: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Japanese_Garden_at_Huntington_Library.jpg
Hollyhock House, exterior: http://www.mnn.com/your-home/remodeling-design/blogs/hollyhock-house-frank-lloyd-wright-beauty-to-bloom-again-following
Hollyhock House, interior: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/myonebeautifulthing.com/2015/03/16/walk-wright-in/amp/
Carl Andre, MOCA: https://www.moca.org/

WATT’S TOWERS

Los Angeles, 8 April 2017

There is a town on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius that goes by the name of Nola. Although very ancient, nothing much of great historical significance has ever happened there. It did play host to three battles between Hannibal and the Romans, there was another battle of some regional significance in the Middle Ages, and that’s about it. Naples, which like all big cities has been growing outwards over the last 100 years, has finally engulfed it so that Nola is now really no more than a suburb of Naples. Sadly, Nola’s main claim to fame nowadays is that of being a hotspot of Camorra activity. On the brighter side, it is also the host to the Festa dei Gigli, the Festival of the Lilies, which, together with several similar festivals in other parts of Italy, has been listed by UNESCO as an Intangible World Heritage.

The roots of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies are very ancient, going back all the way to the 800s AD. It celebrates an even earlier moment in the city’s history, back in the 400s AD. Pope Gregory the Great, no less, relates the story. A poor widow begged the bishop of the city, Paulinus, to help her get back her only son, who had been carried off by the Vandals to North Africa after one of their frequent raids of Campania. But Paulinus had already used up his considerable fortune ransoming other Nolans enslaved by the Vandals. So the saintly bishop sailed off to North Africa and offered to take the place of the widow’s son, an offer the Vandals accepted. Some time later, the king of the Vandals discovered that this slave was the great Bishop of Nola. He at once set him free, granting him also the freedom of all the other captive Nolans which the Vandals still held. When Paulinus sailed back to Campania, the joyful citizens of Nola escorted him to his residence holding lilies.

The citizens of Nola reenact the last part of this delightful, if rather unbelievable, story every year in their Festival of the Lilies, on Paulinus’s feast day in June. They organize a lavish procession which draws thousands of people, once pious (or perhaps credulous) locals but now mostly just curious tourists. When the festival was born 1200 years ago, each person in the procession carried an actual lily. The sixth century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna of the procession of virgins can stand in here for this event, even though the plants in the background are date palms rather than lilies.

Over the centuries, however, those many long-stemmed lilies morphed into eight thin, very tall (25-meter tall) pyramids, each carried by a team of men. These towers are rebuilt every year. The structure’s wooden skeleton is first assembled

and then elaborate decorations are applied to one side of the pyramid.

A ninth team carries an effigy of the boat which brought Paulinus back to Nola.

The teams carry their “lilies” and the boat through Nola, with them swaying and undulating as the teams navigate the city’s narrow streets.


Once the lilies and the boat have been brought into the piazza fronting the cathedral, they are ranged along the sides of the piazza.

The bishop, successor of Paulinus, then blesses the assembled crowds.

Now I must rewind my story more than a century. Some time in the early 1890s (as near as I can guess), a young boy called Sabato Rodia must have witnessed the Festival. He was born in 1879 in Ribottoli, a small village some 40 kilometers east of Nola. What he saw burnt itself into his mind and stayed with him all his life. The romantic in me wants to believe that he witnessed the Festival on his way down to the port of Naples: at the age of 15, his parents packed him off, unaccompanied, to America. He joined his elder brother, who had already emigrated and who was working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. Tragedy struck when his brother was killed in a mining accident. Sabato, who had anglicized his name on entering the States to Sam, moved out to Seattle, entered the construction business, married and had three children. In 1905, when Sam was 26, he moved himself and his family to Oakland in California. Things were looking good for him, but unfortunately something went wrong inside him. He began drinking too much, lost his job, and I suspect beat his wife, or children, or both. Whatever the case, in 1912 his wife took the children and left him, and he never saw any of them again. Luckily, Sam managed to get off the bottle and to start working again, still in the construction industry but this time as an itinerant tile setter.

All the while, something was gnawing away at him. As he told an interviewer many years later, “I had in my mind I’m gonna do somethin’, somethin’ big”. Finally, in 1921, when he was 42, he bought a small plot of land, sandwiched between the railway tracks and the tram lines, in the working-class neighbourhood of Watts in Los Angeles. He lived in the plot’s small house, while in the narrow, triangular backyard he started to recreate his own very personal take on his vivid memories of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies.

For the next 34 years, until he was 76 years old, Sam dedicated all his spare time to his project, working alone since he had no money to hire help and using nothing but the most elementary tools of the construction trade. He built in reinforced concrete, a medium he was familiar with after all his years in the construction business but also because he wanted his dream to last. Like a magpie, he picked up colorful objects wherever he came across them – broken bottles of green but also blue and brown glass, broken tiles from his tiling business, sea shells which he picked up on the nearby beaches, colored stones – and he embedded them in the wet concrete for decoration. He was happy to be squeezed in between tram and rail tracks since the passengers would be able to enjoy views of his growing creation as they passed.

Recreating Nola’s cathedral piazza in his cramped backyard, Sam built the framework of three Lilies, with an airy interconnection between the tallest.


In the site’s narrow apex, he placed the boat which brought the bishop back from the Vandals.

On the other side, he built his vision of Nola’s cathedral as an airy gazebo.


Outside of it, he placed the font from which the bishop of Nola would bless the procession.

All around the site, he built a wall, decorated inside and out with his colorful finds.

Like all artists, he proudly signed his work, in his case with an SR

and, almost like a Medieval guild member, he showed off his tools of construction.

The local community must have found Sam odd, eccentric, somewhat mad, perhaps touched by God. Certainly, in a gesture of respect, the local Central American community called him Don Simon, which led to his last change of name, to Simon Rodia. In its final years, his project caught the attention of Los Angeles’s artistic community, so we finally have photos and films of Simon at work.


In 1955, Simon decided he had finished and dropped tools. Perhaps it was like the God of Genesis who on the sixth day “saw all that he had made, and it was very good”, and rested on the seventh. Or perhaps he was just tired of arguing with city officials over building permits. Whatever the reason, he deeded the property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez, California, where years before a sister of his had come out from Pennsylvania to take up residence. He lived there for another 10 years until he died at the ripe old age of 86.

As for Simon’s creation, neglect and vandalism nearly destroyed it, but good sense prevailed and the city council listed it as a Historic-Cultural Monument two years before Simon died, in 1963. Simon himself was granted the greatest of all apotheoses, a space on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top right corner, near Bob Dylan).

What more could a person want?

________________
Procession of Virgins, Sant Apollinare: https://inpress.lib.uiowa.edu/feminae/DetailsPage.aspx?Feminae_ID=30725
“Lily” framework: https://gigli.jimdo.com/assegnazioni/
Building framework-1: http://www.cancelloedarnonenews.com/2009/09/16/da-brusciano-costruttori-e-cullatori-alla-festa-dei-gigli-di-mariglianella/
Building framework-2: http://ifg.uniurb.it/viaggio-nella-festa-dei-gigli-di-barra-tra-storia-passioni-e-maestosi-obelischi/
Covered lilies: http://www.lavocedelnolano.it/blog/2015/07/festa-dei-gigli-2015-il-nostro-pagellone/
The boat: http://www.fotovolpe.it/portfolio_page/i-gigli-di-nola-napoli/
Moving the lilies through the streets of Nola: http://mapio.net/s/58166915/
Carriers: http://www.dagospia.com/mediagallery/DEVOTI_E_DEFORMI_I_CULLATORI_DI_NOLA-118332/574414.htm
Lilies and boat in the cathedral’s piazza: http://www.rivistasitiunesco.it/domenica-26-giugno-si-rinnova-la-tradizione-dei-gigli-di-nola/
Simon Rodia’s lilies: our pictures
Simon Rodia’s boat: http://ca.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2013/december/09/why-the-watts-towers-were-nearly-knocked-down/
Simon Rodia’s church: http://www.terragalleria.com/california/picture.usca35355.html
Simon Rodia’s font: our pics
Simon Rodia’s walls: our pics
Simon Rodia-1: https://m.discoverlosangeles.com/blog/watts-towers-story-la-icon
Simon Rodia-2: http://www.wattstowers.us/history.htm
Sergeant Pepper’s album cover: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/genius.com/amp/The-beatles-sgt-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-band-album-artwork-annotated

THE GOLDEN MEAN IN CHURCH FACADES

Milan, 15 March 2017

Many years ago, when I first visited Italy, one of the things that struck me was the very flat facades which Italian churches had. In the Basilica dei Fieschi, the topic of my last post, we came across a typical example of the genre.

These facades were so different from the much more vertical and more articulated church facades of Northern Europe which I was used to. I throw in here pictures of la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Cologne Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey as examples of what I mean.



Much more than these facades, I find that the facades of Italian churches, with all those acres of flatness, can be quite boring, if not downright ugly, to look at unless something is done to liven them up. Consider, for example, the facade of the Florentine Church of Santo Spirito, which my wife and I came across in our recent visit to Florence.

I mean, look at that! It’s just like staring at a blank wall from your office window. Every time we crossed the square in front of it – which, given the location of our rented apartment relative to the locations of the places we were visiting, was quite often – I would comment disapprovingly on the facade’s drabness, its flatness, its total boringness until my wife finally remarked with a touch of asperity that I was repeating myself. But I mean, look at it!

Somewhat less flat but just as drab are the facades of those Italian churches – and there are many – which for some reason never got completed, initially because of lack of money, or quarrels about proposed designs, or the start of wars, or the break-out of pestilence, and thereafter simply through inertia. The facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, also in Florence, is an excellent example of this type.


Those rough bricks are just crying out for an elegant, visually interesting facing to be added. That, of course, was the plan. A competition was held, which Michelangelo won. His facade that would have looked like this.

He had gone so far as to choose the marble for the facade. But the Medici pope who was paying was short of cash. So Michelangelo had to choose a cheaper stone. Then the Pope died. Then there was a war. Then Michelangelo was called to Rome by another pope, and that was the end of that. There have been at least three attempts since then to complete the facade, the latest no more than a few years ago, but all have come to naught.

Of course, it is not automatically the case that a finished facade will look better than the original bare brick. Personally, I think that Michelangelo’s facade would have been a definite improvement. But that’s because I’m a fan of simplicity in design, and Michelangelo’s has all the looks of a simple design. Take a look at this facade, though, built more or less at the same time that Michelangelo’s wasn’t.

This is the church of the Certosa di Pavia, which my wife and I visited a few days after our visit to the Basilica dei Fieschi. This was a Carthusian monastery whose creation had been ordered by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. The church was to be his family’s mausoleum, and therefore had to be suitably magnificent. For this purpose, he gave the monks access to large amounts of funds which they could only use to embellish the church. So when the Carthusian monks started on the facade, only the best was acceptable, and the more, the better. To the fundamentally sober facade, a riot of Renaissance statuary and bas-reliefs were added, covering every square centimetre of the facade’s surface. Let me zoom in on just a few of the details.


Luckily, all this hue and cry in stone does not overcome the overall effect, which is really very pleasing on the eye.

Not so in the case of Milan’s cathedral.

Here, the statuary and other embellishments on the facade have gotten completely out of hand. The effect is not helped by the over-the-top statuary and embellishments having invaded every square centimetre of the entire outer envelope. All this gives one the feeling that the cathedral is drowning in white marble froth.

So where does this all leave us? Well, I suppose we have here yet another example of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s principle of the golden mean: we should always seek the middle ground between the extremes of excess and of deficiency. So in our case, neither facade-less nor frothy facade.

With this in mind I invite readers to go back to facade-less Basilica of San Lorenzo. What design could we propose to Florence’s city fathers? Let me immediately say that the obvious proposal of simply finally installing Michelangelo’s design won’t fly. This was there the very recent suggestion by the-then mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi (who, fyi, went on to briefly be Prime Minister of Italy). This proposal was shot down, on the grounds that putting up Michelangelo’s facade now would be akin to making fake Louis Vuitton handbags (that precise simile was not used, I hasten to add). So a copy of an old design is out. Which is a pity, because I think that the facade of the Florentine church of San Miniato, for instance

or of Pisa’s cathedral

would both nicely fit the golden mean principle.

Personally, I think we should take our cue from San Miniato’s use of colored lines, although maybe to avoid the criticism of simply copying the past, we could adapt a more modern approach to line-drawing: a Mondrian style, for instance.

A follower of Mondrian’s actually adapted the style to a building facade, although in this case it was a very secular subject, a café in Rotterdam.

Given the ecclesiastical nature of our subject as well as its venerable age, I think we would need to go for more muted colours than Mondrian’s signature blues, reds, and yellows. Perhaps we could adopt the more muted hues of his earlier works.

If I had access to an app which would allow me to make architectural drawings, I would come up with a design to propose to readers. Instead, I will just leave it to their imagination as to what a Mondrian-like facade on the Basilica of San Lorenzo might look like.

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Facade Basilica dei Fieschi: my photo
Facade Notre-Dame cathedral: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_de_Paris
Facade Cologne cathedral: http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ma/htm/related/ma_cologne_cath_01.htm
Facade Westminster Abbey: https://www.colourbox.com/image/london-westminster-abbey-west-facade-image-3357405
Facade Santo Spirito church: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Facciata_di_santo_spirito_01.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_lorenzo_Facciata.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo – Michelangelo’s design: http://www.fiorentininelmondo.it/it/home/143-san-lorenzo-e-la-facciata-di-michelangelo.html
Facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.visual-italy.it/IT/lombardia/pavia/certosa/
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certosa_di_Pavia
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.settemuse.it/viaggi_italia_lombardia/pavia_certosa.htm
Facade Milan cathedral: https://www.pinterest.com/mayavnt/duomo-milan/
Milan cathedral from side: http://topsy.one/hashtag.php?q=DuomodiMilano
Facade San Miniato church, Florence: https://www.gonews.it/2014/09/23/i-monaci-di-san-miniato-al-monte-chiedono-aiuto-per-il-restauro/amp/
Facade Pisa cathedral: https://www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/it/amp/Cattedrale-di-Santa-Maria-Assunta-a-Pisa/
Mondrian: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/piet-mondrian-1651
De Stijl café: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/264727284317842292/
Early Mondrian: http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/143392523

 

BASILICA DEI FIESCHI

Sori, 6 March 2017

It was a grey day in Liguria, with the threat of rain, so my wife and I decided not to go for our usual walk in the hills. We opted instead to go to Lavagna. Non-Italian readers might well ask where on earth that is, and indeed Lavagna doesn’t make it into most guide books on Italy, or only slips in as a footnote. As for Italians, if they know it at all it’s because blackboards used to be called “lavagna” in honor of the fact that the first blackboards were made of slate and since time immemorial Lavagna has been a major source of good quality slate.

Alternatively, Italians could know it as one of the many seaside places in southern Liguria.

But we were going there neither for the slate nor for the sea and sand. We were going for a church.

A bit of background is in order here. Lavagna sits at the mouth of the Entella river, whose valley was the principal fiefdom of the Fieschi, a powerful family in Genoa in its heyday as a Maritime Republic (they lost out to another powerful Genoese family, the Doria, in a failed coup in 1547, and dropped out of History; but that is another story). As befitted any powerful Italian family in the pre-Reformation days, they maneuvered to have one of their own elevated to the papacy. Their efforts were rewarded in 1243 when Sinibaldo de’ Fieschi, younger son of Ugo de’ Fieschi count of Lavagna, became Pope Innocent IV.

(The Fieschi hit the papal jackpot again in July 1276, when a nephew of Innocent’s, Ottobuono de’ Fieschi, became Pope with the name Adrian V; alas, he died very shortly thereafter, in August – but that is another story.)

As often happened, Pope Innocent IV decided immediately to embellish the lands of his family with a great church. It was to be a Basilica, no less, and was to be constructed on a little knoll several kilometers north of Lavagna. It must have been constructed very fast, because in 1245 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II swept through the Fieschi fiefdom laying waste to all, including the Basilica.

Innocent IV promptly excommunicated Frederic II. All this had to do with the eternal squabbles between Popes and Emperors, Guelphs and Ghibellines, but that is definitely another story. Suffice to say that the Pope ordered the Basilica to be rebuilt, which his nephew, as Adrian V, managed to consecrate in 1276 as the Basilica di San Salvatore dei Fieschi before his untimely death.

We can leave History now, for the Basilica which my wife and I visited was essentially the one consecrated by Adrian V. By some miracle, there had been little fiddling with it in the centuries that followed its consecration. After getting off the bus and walking along some fairly nondescript suburban streets, we finally got our first full glimpse of the church, from the back, across a vineyard.


As befits a church built in a valley where slate is king, shades of grey predominated, no doubt enhanced by the greyness of the day.

We walked around the vineyard and entered a lane that led us through the small historical nucleus of houses clustered around the church

and into a delightful little pebbled piazza which sloped gently down to the entry door of the church.

It was as if a grey cloak had been flung on the ground in front of the church – no artificial leveling of the ground, just pebbles set in the earth.

The facade was a sober affair, grey slate with simple bands of white marble in the upper storeys.

There was little decoration, just a much faded fresco above the door and some simple but lovely little carvings along the edge of the roof.

The interior was equally severe and spare, with hardly any decoration.

This was more, I suspect, fruit of the latest restoration efforts which sought to rid the church of later additions than a reflection of what it actually looked like in 1276; I have to believe that the walls and columns were all frescoed back then.

The church was not entirely without decorations, however. Tucked away in a corner of the two little chapels flanking the main altar were an admirable crucifix carved from a cleft branch

and a lovely pietà made instead from a single branch

with the faces of Mary and Jesus barely breaking the wood’s surface.

Also giving onto the piazza was a smaller church.

Its creation actually predates the Basilica but its Baroque facade is the visual symbol of the original church’s complete restructuring over the ages. Beside it stands a palazzo of the Fieschi family built in 1196 and badly in need of restoration. With its white bands, its facade admirably echoes that of the church.

The piazza once had similar buildings all around it, but later constructions have taken their place.

We left the piazza by another lane. Looking back, we had one last glimpse of the Basilica.

As we turned away, we found ourselves in front of a door above which was a carved marble lintel.

It proclaimed:
HUC ADES
NON TIBI SUNT TRISTES CURAE NEC LUCTUS AMICE
SED VARII FLORES

With a lot of help from Google, we managed to translate this as:
“Come hither, friend,
Sad cares and grief are not for you,
But rather flowers of many hues.”

And indeed along the road back to the bus stop, flowers of many hues were beginning to appear, signs of the coming Spring.

______________

Photos: all ours except:
Slate mine: http://www.ardesiamangini.com/azienda.asp
Lavagna beach: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/57630010
Innocent IV: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Innocent_IV
Frederick II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_II,_Holy_Roman_Emperor
Church interior: http://artigullio.scuolaeformazioneliguria.it/3_beni%20architettonici/architetture%20religiose/Cogorno%20S.Salvatore.htm
Botticelli, Spring: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/la-primavera-allegory-of-spring-by-sandro-botticelli/

A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
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A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

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The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
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I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
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A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
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Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
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A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
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In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
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A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
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With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
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That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.
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Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
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We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
img_1969

_______________
Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi

AMERICA MEETS ITALY

Milan, 31 January 2017

Over the weekend, my wife and I took a train up to Varese, to the north of Milan. The objective of our little trip was the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, situated on the hills of Biumo in what were once the outskirts of the city. Built originally in the 1750s and extended in the 1830s, the Villa is a nice example of Baroque with some Rococo thrown in.
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The gardens, formal in design but with a dash of English informality, are very pleasant to walk around, even at this time of the year.
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But what had drawn us here was not so much the Villa itself as its collection of American contemporary art. By one of those strange quirks of history which make life so interesting, its last owner, the most Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Buimo, had developed a passion for contemporary American art, collecting feverishly from the mid-1950s through to the early 2000s. Much of the collection is now dispersed in museums. Many American museums, for instance – notably the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York – either bought or were grateful recipients of important chunks of Count Panza’s vast collection.

So here we were, in this Baroque-Rococo setting, taking in pieces from the very latest waves of art. It made for an interesting clash of perspectives.
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But actually, the most interesting part of the Villa’s collection is housed in what were once the stables and carriage house, a building which has been stripped of any of its historical context: bare white walls and floors, nothing more. Works by Dan Flavin, famous for his installations made with fluorescent lights, predominate. Walking down the long corridor of this building, we found ourselves awash in the primary colors emanating from the many rooms leading off the corridor.
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Each room houses one piece, like this one.
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The colors are strong, almost blinding. My wife and I preferred by far this much quieter piece, housed in an almost black room.
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As we advanced down the corridor, there was this luminous half-moon at the end. Was it another Dan Flavin, I wondered?

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No, it was a piece by James Turrell, foremost exponent of the Light and Space movement. The artist had simply removed a piece of the external wall and what we were seeing was the blue winter sky. In a room off the corridor was another of his pieces, this time a square hole in the ceiling. We were gazing up at the winter sky, yet without any sensory clues such as clouds or trees it seemed to be an abstract painting
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one where the intensity of the blue varied as we moved around the room.
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It was a singularly beautiful experience.

Turrell has another piece in the Villa, an example of his earlier work exploring sensory deprivation. A small group of us stood in a room where corners had been eliminated and were bathed in light of varying colors, giving rise to optical illusions.
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By another of those quirks which make life so interesting, my wife, not knowing what awaited us at the Villa, had recently booked us a slot for a session in a similar installation by Turrell at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, when we go and visit our daughter next month. This will give us a chance to see the other pieces which Count Panza sold to the museum, like these Rothkos for instance.
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At the risk of being accused of frivolity, I feel I must report on another meeting of US and Italy which we experienced that same day. After the visit, we walked down the hill and repaired to a place called Hambù for lunch. This is a case of American fast food meets Italian design.
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Or, as Hambù’s web-site breathlessly puts it, “We are not talking about the usual meat patty between two pieces of bread and sauces, but rather of a gastronomic challenge: the radical revolution of the sandwich.”

One more example of the wonderful things that can happen when cultures meet and mix. The new American president and his acolytes should take note.

_______________
Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, exterior: http://www.shoppingandcharity.it/en/magazine/villa-panza-between-history-and-contemporary-art
Villa interior: http://www.latitudeslife.com/2010/06/dividere-il-vuoto-a-villa-panza-va/
Villa gardens: http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/villa-panza/
Villa interior with art: http://dogma-art.com/giuseppe-panza-collection/
Villa interior with art: http://www.flashartonline.it/article/giuseppe-panza-di-biumo/
Dan Flavin: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/gupansh.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/villapanza/amp/
Dan Flavin: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/gupansh.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/villapanza/amp/
Dan Flavin: http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/villa-panza/
James Turrell, half moon: my picture
James Turrell, sky painting: my picture
James Turrell, room: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/arts/design/panza-villa-exhibits-illusionary-works.html?_r=0&referer=https://www.google.co.uk/
LA MOCA, Rothko: http://www.panzadiscoveringinfinity.com/the-story/
Hambù: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/apostrofoio.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/hambu-di-varese/amp/
Hambù set table: https://www.tripadvisor.com.ph/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g194942-d7294471-i155563419-Hambu-Varese_Province_of_Varese_Lombardy.html