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Category: Art

THE NATIONAL ART AUDIT

Vienna, 30 July 2017

As is my wont, I was perusing the electronic newspapers a few days ago during a leisurely breakfast (ah, the joys of retirement!). Normally, I focus on the unfolding Brexit tragedy, shooting off comments on various articles (another product of leisurely retirement hours), or on the soap opera that US politics has become. But a few days ago my eye was caught by an article on a “National Art Audit” conducted in the U.K. This very fancy term covers a publicity gimmick paid for by Samsung, to advertise its new television which doesn’t actually turn off when you turn it off, but instead shows electronic copies of paintings, photos, etc. Samsung has given the TV a picture-like frame so that you can hang it on the wall to make it look like a picture.

Very clever.

But back to the National Art Audit. It purports to give a snapshot of the Brits’ favourite pieces of art at the moment. In truth, the result seems to be a bit cooked in that works of art were pre-selected by a committee of arts writers and the final choice made by a mere 2,000 people. But let’s give the organizers of this exercise the benefit of the doubt and assume that the tastes of Britain’s arts writers more or less mirror the tastes of the general population and that the 2,000 people were a statistically valid sample. So what do we have?

I list the first twenty works in their order of preference:

1. We start with some street art, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon. The man, or woman, or collective (for who knows who hides behind “Banksy”?) stenciled copies onto walls in several locations. This copy is to be found – I think – on the stairs of the South Bank, Blackfriars bridge, in London.

There’s a lot of poo-pooing by art critics of Banksy’s work, but I rather like these whimsical pieces with a political sting which appear mysteriously overnight. Personally, I find this particular work somewhat twee, but no doubt that explains its popularity. I used one of Banksy’s more political works in an earlier post. Here’s another.

2. Constable’s The Hay Wain. The original is in London’s National Gallery, but copies are to be found in their thousands on biscuit boxes, tea towels, and puzzles, which no doubt both drives and explains its popularity.

I suppose the painting feeds into that nostalgia which so many English (not necessarily British) people have for the country’s past, although I suspect that that past was not quite the Garden of Eden that this painting would have you believe.

3. Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler. The original is in a private collection, but reproductions of it have made it the best-selling art print in the UK.

Interesting fellow, Vettriano. You wouldn’t think so from his name, but he’s Scottish – he adopted his mother’s name at some point. He had a very poor childhood, almost Dickensian I would say, even though he’s my age more or less. But he managed to teach himself to paint, so there’s hope yet for all us frustrated artists. I’m not terribly keen for his work, I have to say, much of which tends towards sado-maso soft-porn, like this painting.

4. JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Another painting which hangs in the National Gallery.

For those of a romantic bent, His Majesty’s Ship Temeraire fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, and here the grizzled warrior, old and outdated by modern technology like the steam tug towing it, is being taken to its final berth to be broken up for scrap.

5. Antony Gormley’s The Angel of the North.

This 20-meter high steel statue stands very close to the motorway to Scotland, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Probably the view most people have is from the motorway as they drive north. Since it is quite a striking sight as you drive along it has no doubt impressed itself on the memory of many a motorist.


6. LS Lowry’s Going to the Match.

Although Lowry is undoubtedly very popular, I personally find him depressing as hell. He painted from the late 1920s to the 1950s (he produced this painting in 1928), and his visions of industrial Britain in this period – these bleak urban landscapes with smoking factories, treeless streets, and gaunt people – are a nightmare as far as I’m concerned. This painting in particular makes me think of George Orwell’s 1984:

“So long as the Proles continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

7. John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott

Well, if you like the painter’s style, “the epitome of the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”, then head down to Tate Britain to see it. I prefer to quote the lines from Tennyson which inspired the painting:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

8. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover, designed by Peter Blake (and which I happened to refer to in a recent post).

I’m glad that album covers have made it onto the list, I’ve always believed that I had a rich collection of art in my LPs. It was one of the reasons I was unwilling to make the switch to CDs. It was great to lie on the sofa admiring the album cover while the music boomed around you. Mind you, personally I would have chosen the Yellow Submarine album cover for the Beatles.

9. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie.

Another great album cover, although personally I would have chosen Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover.

10. George Stubbs’s Mares and Foals in a River Landscape, another painting in the Tate.

I put its being in the list down to the British love of horses. But even I, who have no great love for horses, can appreciate that they are very fine specimens of the species.

11. Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, in London’s National Gallery

This seems to be the epitome of an English painting, and I use that geographical term advisedly; I see nothing Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish in this painting. That being said, I do remember years ago, a lifetime ago in fact, during the French elections of 1981 which François Mitterrand won for the Socialists, the French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé published a whole magazine on the wrongdoings of the-then President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the cover of which was this painting with the faces of Giscard d’Estaing and his wife pasted over those of Mr and Mrs Andrews.

So perhaps the painting’s message is more European than Little Englanders might think?

12. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, in Tate Britain.

Like I said earlier, you have to like the Pre-Raphaelite style to appreciate the painting. I find it more interesting that Laurence Olivier, in his film version of Hamlet, chose to model Ophelia’s death scene on this painting.

I should also say that I am not untouched but this painting. As I’ve evoked in an earlier post, an evening in a cold airport in China set off a train of memories from my childhood which led me to this painting.

13. Andy Goldsworthy’s Balanced Rock Misty. Anyone who wants to see the original photograph should go to the Carlisle Museum and Gallery.

The work dates from 1979 and is located in Cumbria (or more probably was; I can’t believe that that rock is still balanced like that). I must confess to never having heard of Andy Goldsworthy before looking at this National Art Audit. I read in Wikipedia that he “produces site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings”, that he “is generally considered the founder of modern rock balancing”, of which this is surely an example, and that “photography plays a crucial role in his art due to its often ephemeral and transient state”, no doubt the reason he took this photo. Without knowing it, I’d actually come across a work of his at the Storm King sculpture park north of New York when my wife and I last visited it, where he had built this stone wall snaking through the trees.

14. David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, another painting in the Tate.

It’s from his time in the 1960s in California. Personally, I prefer Hockney’s much later work, like this landscape, painted when he came back to the U.K. a decade or so ago.

15. Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares, painted in 1961.

For once, this painting is not in the Tate, although still in London. It’s in the Arts Council Collection at the Southbank Centre. I’ve never really liked these optical illusion paintings. I find them too visually unsettling and I don’t see why I should look at a painting that unsettles my balance. But hey, beauty is in the eye of the observer.

16. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit.

I’ve never seen this thing (not sure it really fits the definition of a tower), so I shouldn’t comment. I suspect, though, that it will become London’s response to Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

It certainly seems to be attracting the same kind of passionate criticism and praise that the Eiffel Tower did in its time. I understand they’ve added slides to the Orbit, to attract visitors. Maybe the Eiffel Tower could add them too.

17. Stik’s A Couple Hold Hands in the Street. Another street artist, this time with a face but no name. I’m not completely sure what work this entry refers to, but I think it’s this one.

This is what the artist had to say about it: “This one, with the burka, was done around the back of a mosque on Brick Lane. I was really nervous about doing it actually, because there had just been an attempted assassination on a cartoonist who had depicted Mohammed somewhere in Sweden. … But I did my research and I found that actually, within Islam, if you choose to depict living beings you have to do it in a two-dimensional way without any illusion of depth, and that’s me!” First time I’ve heard of this.

18. Maggi Hambling’s Scallop.

The sculpture stands on a beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where Benjamin Britten lived. It is a tribute to him; the words piercing the shell, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, come from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The artist has had this to say about the sculpture: “An important part of my concept is that at the centre of the sculpture, where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea.”

19. Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure. The problem is, Henry Moore did a lot of reclining figures and I’ve no idea which one this little exercise is referring to. So I show here reclining figures of his from 1929, 1939, 1957, 1969-70, and 1984, and readers can take their pick. (Giving a time-series like this also allows one to study how Moore went about “decomposing” the body into abstract masses)





20. And so we come to our final entry, Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks album cover, designed by Jamie Reid.

Interesting. Can’t think what else to say about it. Perhaps because I was never a Sex Pistols fan the picture doesn’t evoke any fond memories in me.

So what do we conclude from all of this apart from the rather unsurprising conclusion that my personal list of the best 20 would have been somewhat different – I mean, this list represents some sort of national average. One thing that struck me is how London-centric the list is, with the majority of the works to be found in the capital. Maybe I noticed it because recently so much of my newspaper reading has been about Brexit, and “London vs the rest of the country”, “London getting all the attention” has been an important thread in the arguments between Leavers and Remainers. But it does seem to me from this list that London is sucking the cultural air out of the lungs of the rest of the country. The other thing that struck me is the absence of any advertising art. Yet this can be a very honourable art form, and I’m sure certain ads are very familiar with many people; the old Guinness ads, for instance, which I’ve often seen copies of.

Or how about propaganda art, which is a close relation to advertising art? This one from World War II seems to have taken the world by storm. I constantly see T-shirts with endless variations on the theme.

Or that most iconic of all posters, the London Underground map?

I don’t know, it seems to me that there’s a whole form of art here that people are very familiar with and enjoy, yet is missing. Maybe for the launch of its next super-clever TV product Samsung can make sure this gets included.

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Samsung The Frame TV: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/the-frame-4k-tv-samsung-wall-art-standby-uhd-led-a7630716.html%3Famp
Banksy Girl with Balloon: https://hubpages.com/art/banksy-girl-with-balloon
Banksy Make Trouble: https://www.canvasartrocks.com/blogs/posts/70529347-121-amazing-banksy-graffiti-artworks-with-locations
Constable The Hay Wain: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/john-constable-the-hay-wain
Jack Vettriano The Singing Butler: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Singing_Butler#/media/File%3AVettriano%2C_Singing_Butler.jpg
Jack Vettriano Fetish: https://www.collectorsprints.co.uk/product/fetish/
JMW Turner The Fighting Temeraire: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fighting_Temeraire#/media/File%3AThe_Fighting_Temeraire%2C_JMW_Turner%2C_National_Gallery.jpg
Antony Gormley The Angel of the North: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_of_the_North
The Angel of the North from motorway: https://www.reddit.com/duplicates/3obbfn/angel_of_the_north_gateshead_uk_a1_motorway/
LS Lowry Going to the Match: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/going-to-the-match-162423
John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott.jpg
Sgt Pepper album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_images_on_the_cover_of_Sgt._Pepper%27s_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band
Yellow Submarine album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Submarine_(album)
Dark Side of the Moon album cover: http://www.b-wave.be/blog/david-gilmour-on-the-run-dark-side-of-the-moon-on-synthi-a/
Animals album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animals_(Pink_Floyd_album)
George Stubbs Mares and Foals in a River Landscape: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/stubbs-mares-and-foals-in-a-river-landscape-t00295
Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews: https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/mr-and-mrs-andrews-by-thomas-gainsborough/
Les dossiers du canard: http://m.ebay.fr/sch/i.html?_pgn=1&LH_Auction=1&LH_PrefLoc=2&_sop=12&isRefine=false&_nkw=miscard
John Everett Millais Ophelia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_(painting)
Ophelia drowned in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: http://arainbowofchaos.blogspot.co.at/2011/12/?m=1
Andy Goldsworthy Balanced Rock Misty: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/image/?tid=1979_068
Andy Goldsworthy Storm King: http://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/505388389415343402/
David Hockney A Bigger Splash: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Bigger_Splash
David Hockney Landscape: http://minimatisse.blogspot.co.at/2014/12/hockney-landscapes.html?m=1
Bridget Riley Movement in Squares: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/movement-in-squares-64038
Anish Kapoor ArcelorMittal Orbit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArcelorMittal_Orbit
Eiffel Tower: https://www.getyourguide.com/eiffel-tower-l2600/
Stik A Couple Hold Hands in the Street: http://www.eastendreview.co.uk/2015/09/08/stik-new-book/
Maggi Hambling Scallop: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggi_Hambling
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1929: https://www.henry-moore.org/collections/leeds-sculpture-collection
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1939: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-reclining-figure-r1147454
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1957: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-working-model-for-unesco-reclining-figure-r1171983
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1969-70: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/lost-art-henry-moore
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1984: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4637053
Never Mind the Bollocks album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Mind_the_Bollocks,_Here%27s_the_Sex_Pistols
Guinness poster: https://www.amazon.com/Guinness-Poster-Lovely-Tucan-Weather/dp/B009SDXUUM
Keep calm and carry on poster: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-surprising-history-of-keep-calm-and-carry-on-2015-6?IR=T
London Underground map: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Beck

OUR ZIEGLER-TYPE CARPET

Vienna, 7 July 2017

About six months ago, my wife suggested that we should get a carpet for our living room in Vienna. She felt that it would soften the room, taking the edge off the hard wooden floor – and covering some ugly marks on that same floor. It so happened that the Dorotheum Auction House, one of my favourite places in Vienna, a place I haunt whenever I’m in town and where I have parted with several largish banknotes for various objects over the years, was holding one of its regular carpet auctions.

Having armed ourselves with the auction’s catalogue, we poured over its pages and selected several promising candidates. They all tended towards the big size, my wife having persuaded me that we should try to cover as much of the floor as possible. We then proceeded to the Auction House itself to inspect our choices – I always pity the poor fellows who have to labour through those stacks of heavy carpets to get to the one you want to look at. In any event, surrounded by would-be bidders doing the same thing, we solemnly looked our choices over. I for one was somewhat self conscious about this since I had no real idea what to look for other than to see if we liked the colour combinations and the feel. But we managed to look as if we knew what we were doing. In the event, we plumped for one of our choices, and then waited for the auction day.

On the big day, we filed into the auction room. My wife does the bidding, I’m too nervous about the whole thing, terrified that I will make a false move and find myself landed with some horror and being required to pay a stellar price for it. She had her paddle at the ready as the auctioneer moved with brisk efficiency through the lots. Our chosen lot came up on the screen, the auctioneer opened the bids, and quick as a flash my wife’s paddle went up for the minimum bid. We were confident we would get it at that price since most of the earlier lots had not gone beyond the minimum, but alas! this time someone else’s paddle went up hot on the heels of my wife’s. The bid climbed inexorably, and we regretfully threw in the towel.

Rather glum about it all, we went back to the unsold lots. There had been another carpet which had taken my wife’s fancy but which I had not been sure about. It had not been sold, so we had another look. After some to-ing and fro-ing, especially on my part – it seemed very big, and the colours were a bit on the pale side – we decided to go with it. Here is the picture of it from the auction catalogue.

A few days later, two men huffed and puffed it up the stairs and into our apartment. We laid it out and I had a moment of panic about its size. It’s 4.90 by 3.80 metres (16 by 12.5 feet, for readers still on British units), so a fair good size. Had I measured the room right?! But all was good; it fit – snugly, but fit.

No sooner had the two men put it down than two other men came and took it away, huffing and puffing their way back down the stairs. They were Iranian; in the intervening days, we had discovered a carpet shop around the corner, run by a small Iranian who – so we discovered as we chatted with him – had escaped from Iran during the 1979 revolution. Since he also cleaned carpets, we decided to have ours cleaned before laying it down permanently.

Now in place, cleaned and ready to do its job for the next twenty years or so, I’m truly glad we bought it. It really lights up the room. Its paleness, which had led me to hesitate initially, is actually a good thing – too much colour in such a big carpet would have overwhelmed the room. The dark red border gives just enough of a splash of colour. The relative emptiness of its design is also good. Again, if it had been too busy, it would have overwhelmed the room.

My wife and I are currently spending a lot of time staring at that carpet from very close range. As part of our summer campaign to lose weight, we do an exercise routine (almost) every day, faithfully following a series of fitness videos my wife has found on the internet. As we do burpees, planks of various descriptions, bridges, and I know not what else, we get to stare close up at the carpet. In my case at least, given my predilection for all things historical, it has led me to wonder about its history. After some research I am ready to report.

The auction catalogue had informed us that the carpet had been manufactured in the 1990s in Egypt. So the carpet itself is not old, which is just as well since we wouldn’t have been able to afford anything remotely antique. But is the design perhaps an ancient Egyptian design? The answer is no. Egypt has very little history of carpet making. After a moment of glory in the 16th Century, whatever it had shriveled away and was only resurrected in the 1950s after supplies of carpets from Iran, the traditional source, dried up – no doubt the result of soured relations between the two countries after Nasser’s left-wing takeover in Egypt and the CIA-backed coup in Iran which brought the right-wing Shah Pahlavi to power. But the Egyptians just made copies of Iranian designs and as far as I can make out has continued in this tradition ever since. In fact, the auction catalogue described the carpet’s design as “Indo-Persian”.

So do we have here a traditional Iranian design? Again, the answer is no, and here it becomes interesting. It seems that the Iranian carpet industry was actually started by Europeans. The demand back in Europe was far outstripping the very artisanal production in Iran, so various European companies stepped in to bring a certain level of industrialization to the country’s carpet makers. One of these was an Anglo-Swiss company by the name of Ziegler, which set up shop in Sultanabad in the 1870s. It was one of the company’s Sultanabad managers who came up with very non-Oriental carpet designs for their Iranian carpets which later came to be known as Ziegler carpets: “large, simplified designs of a languorous nature … featur[ing] whimsical draughtsmanship [with] quite deliberate distortions introduced to break up the monotony of a repeating design”, the whole with a light palette of colours.

As the first photo attests, these are all design elements found in our carpet: the long tendrils of flowers and other vegetation languidly weaving their way across the carpet surface, a relatively simple design with plenty of open space, light colouring, no obvious axis of reflection in the design. So I pronounce our carpet to be a Ziegler-type carpet (not an original Ziegler carpet, our pockets are not deep enough for that). It seems that after a certain period of popularity Ziegler carpets went out of fashion, their non-Oriental looking designs being looked down on. Then, as usual, there was a resurgence of interest in, and use of, Ziegler designs in the 1980s. I put our carpet’s production down to that.

The carpet has an Arabic inscription woven into its border, something we discovered just recently.

I took this photo to our Iranian carpet shop owner, to see if he could read it. He informed me regretfully that he could not but that he had a man who could. He disappeared into the back of the shop and came back with one of the young fellows who had carried off our carpet to clean it. With me standing there agog, the fellow peered at the photo and pronounced that it was a name, Hamid Ali Bek Bek. Very excited by this nugget of information, I ran an internet search on the name linked to carpets. I came up with no carpet producers in Egypt but did come up with one Hamid Ali Bek, importer of fine carpets in Hamburg. Could it be that this Mr. Bek had had carpets made for him in Egypt (a little strange since he is Iranian, but you never know) to sell in Germany? I fired off an email to the company but have yet to hear back.

My wife tells me that it’s time for closure on this carpet business and for me to move on. So regretfully I have to leave my story there, with still much up in the air about the carpet’s history. Who knows, though? There might be some updates at a later time.

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pictures: ours

UNDER A LINDEN TREE

Vienna, 1 June 2017

One of the reasons we were attracted to the apartment we bought in Vienna is that there is a linden tree, or lime tree, just outside the living room, at eye level.

Right now, the flowers are still forming, but it was July when we bought the apartment and the tree was in full bloom, covered in pale yellow flowers around which buzzed a thousand insects.


The scent that wafted through the open window was divine. For those readers who have not had the good fortune to be near a linden tree in full bloom, let me try to describe the scent: delicate – your brain barely registers it; sweet – at the height of the bloom, insects are crazy to get to the nectar; ephemeral – the scent wafts your way for a second, then disappears just as quickly. I’m sure the memory of that scent still lingered in our minds when we signed the purchase contract.

Strangely enough, even though the linden tree grows in the U.K., I have no memory of that scent from my youth; perhaps because I hardly ever spent any of my summers there. Nor do I have any memory of the scent from France, where I spent many a youthful summer, or from Italy, where I spent many of my adult years. It was only when I moved to Austria twenty years ago that I became aware of it. Was it perhaps because linden trees are common shade trees throughout the Germanic and Slavic lands? Certainly, the street we live on in Vienna has a portion, closer to the city centre, which is entirely shaded in linden trees – and what a treat it is for the nose to walk unter den linden, under the linden trees, when they are in bloom! I will make sure we walk along the much more famous Unter den Linden Avenue in Berlin


when we go there in early August although by then I fear that the peak of the trees’ blooming will have passed.

I have to think that the frequent presence of linden trees in urban settings throughout Central Europe can be traced back to the sacred place the tree had in Germanic and Slavic mythology. When Christianity arrived, it sensibly adapted, planting linden trees around churches, accepting that villagers congregate under the village linden tree for important meetings or for seasonal festivitiesas well as encouraging a tradition linking the Virgin Mary to the linden tree (probably because this displaced a pagan goddess linked to the tree).

Thus was the tree’s place in Central Europe’s modern cities assured. But why the linden tree was sacred to Slavic and Germanic tribes in the first place is not clear to me – at least, I have found no good answer in the literature available to me on the web. I have read that the tree was seen to represent the female side of nature (with the oak tree representing the male side), its natural capacity to regrow quickly seen to symbolize rebirth and fertility. Perhaps. But – simply because it appeals to my romantic fancies – let me add here another theory, which I extracted from the wilder and woolier side of the internet, from a site dedicated to Druidism to be exact. There, the writer noted that the tree is in full bloom around the time of the summer solstice. Well! What better reason to sacralize a tree which gives off a heavenly scent when the great Sun God reaches its apogee! (we have here modern devotees celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge)

Whatever the reasons, the linden tree’s connection to the feminine side has meant that it has naturally been connected to love. Betrothals took place under the village linden tree, but so – people whispered – did love in its wilder form. A famous German minstrel song from the 12th Century, Unter der Linden (translated here by Raymond Oliver), says it all (or nearly so).
Under the lime tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Lovely together,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Tándaradéi,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.

I came to meet him
At the green:
There was my truelove come before.
Such was I greeted —
Heaven’s Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
Tándaradéi,
See how red my mouth’s become.

There he had fashioned
For luxury
A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing
Delightedly
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Tándaradéi,
Mark the spot my head once lay.

If any knew
He lay with me
(May God forbid!), for shame I’d die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Tándaradéi,
Who will, I think, not say a word.

Of course, the tree’s sacred properties meant that it had a special place in the apothecary of our ancestors, with various parts of it being ingested to remedy numerous ills. A pale descendant of this is the infusions of linden flowers which are available in our supermarkets.

My mother-in-law liked this infusion and always had a packet of it in her kitchen cupboard (my wife and I prefer camomile; it has more taste, we think).

But tasteless infusions are not the only food which is extracted today from linden trees. Bees adore linden flowers, and honey aficionados adore linden flower honey, praising it to the rafters for its sublime taste. Not being honey enthusiasts, I can only offer this judgment without comment. They also mention its much lighter colour compared to other honeys, which this photo certainly attests to.

As can be imagined, the linden tree’s wood was also considered to have talismanic properties. I want to believe that many religious statues in this part of Europe were carved out of limewood for this reason, although more prosaic reasons such as the wood’s ease of carving and its ability to hold intricate detailing are also given. Be that as it may, some lovely carvings have resulted. Here is a Saint Stephen looking pensive and holding in his lap the rocks with which he was lapidated

while this is the Supper at Emmaus, a solemn occasion indeed for the artist from the look on everyone’s faces.

Well, time now to go to bed. Tomorrow, at breakfast, we’ll open the window again on our linden tree.

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Linden tree from window: our picture
Linden tree blooms: our picture
Unter den Linden Avenue, Berlin: http://www.berlin.de/tourismus/fotos/sehenswuerdigkeiten-fotos/1355832-1355138.gallery.html?page=2
Villagers dancing under a linden tree: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/under-the-village-linden-tree-ken-welsh.html
Shrine under linden tree: https://www.lamusdworski.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/linden-tree/amp/
Summer solstice, Stonehenge: http://notihoy.com/en-fotos-mas-de-20-000-personas-presenciaron-el-solsticio-de-verano-en-stonehenge/
Linden flower infusion: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lipton-LINDEN-Tea-Bags-pyramid/dp/B00TVCXZ7S
Lime flower honey: http://www.dealtechnic.com/shop/honey/raw-wild-flower-lime-honey-800g-with-jar-honey-flow-2014-natural-organic-farm/
Saint Stephen: https://www.pinterest.com/elkie2/small-sculpture/
Supper at Emmaus: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-christ-in-the-house-of-mary-and-martha-the-last-supper-the-supper-68542669.html

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

MURALS IN LOS ANGELES

Los Angeles, 5 April 2017

While we’ve been in LA, my wife and I have been giving ourselves a veritable smorgasbord of art. In no particular order, we’ve visited the Getty Centre, the Getty Villa, one of the three spaces of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Broad Museum, the Norton Simon Museum, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, the Hammer Museum. And there are still a couple more art museums to visit if we can face it …

I will come back to these museum visits in a later post, to highlight some of the things we saw, but right now I want to celebrate a more popular art form, the mural. Los Angeles is full of murals, covering and brightening what would otherwise be drab blank walls. I put here just some of the murals we’ve spotted as we walk or drive around on buses.


Walls are not the only surface to receive the painter’s brush. These boxes, found on many street corners and that I take to be electrical cabinets for traffic lights or other public uses, are often the easel for urban painters.


Even fences get the treatment, as these photos show.

Sculpture also gets a small look-in.

Even world famous artists have got into the act. Here, for instance, is a mural by Frank Stella, which in my opinion doesn’t hold a candle to what the much more anonymous artists have created.


I have to say, it’s a real pleasure to come across these paintings as we move around town. And I may be wrong but they seem to keep the graffiti in check. Maybe we should think of encouraging murals back home. I can think of a number of corners in Milan and Vienna that could do with a lick of artistic paint and less graffiti.

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pix: all ours, except:

Frank Stella mural: http://profotoonline.photoshelter.com/image/I0000nP8Uv6IxZq8

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.

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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 WALK ALONG A VIA CRUCIS

Sori, 3 March 2017

We are down at the sea again and yesterday, in what is becoming a good habit, we went for a walk in the surrounding hills. Our starting point was San Rocco, subject of a previous post, but this time, rather than heading down towards Punta Chiappa, we turned left and headed up towards the summit of Monte Portofino. As I’ve noted in a previous post, trails up hills in Italy often become Vie Crucis, Ways of the Cross, with the fourteen Stations of the Cross set up along the trail. In the not-so old days – in my youth it was still common – local parish priests would periodically lead pious parishioners up such trails to “do the Stations of the Cross”. Given the subject matter, the death of Jesus on the Cross, Lent was a popular time. The group would move from station to station, stopping to pray at each one.
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With the precipitous decline in Christian worship in Europe, I doubt many people do this any more.

In any event, the Via Crucis which we were following as we slowly rose past houses and started passing through olive groves
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was not a standard Stations of the Cross, because it was enfolded in the story of Mary and was compressed to but a few of the standard fourteen stations. It started with the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and announcing to her that she would bear Jesus.
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It moved on to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, this visit being the source of that wonderful prayer, the Magnificat.
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It ended the cycle of Jesus’s birth with the picture – much beloved in Italy – of the baby Jesus in the manger.
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Jesus’s youth was then summarized in one station, showing him as young boy in the Temple, discussing sapiently with the wise old men there.
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Jesus’s years of mission were skipped over and we were fast-forwarded to his agony in the garden of Gesthemane.

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Then it lingered over two scenes of Jesus’s condemnation to death by crucifixion, his flogging

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and his crowning with the crown of thorns.
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It finally started into the stations of the cross proper, but squeezed the standard fourteen down to two. It showed Jesus carrying the cross
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and him dying on that cross.
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It moved on to the transcendent moment for Christians, Jesus rising from the dead
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and went on to his ascension into heaven.
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The stations finally returned to Mary, with her ascension into heaven at her death
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to finish with her being crowned by her son in heaven.
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By this time, the trail had reached the outer edges of the olive grows. After a pause to catch our breath and admire the view, we went on and up, into the woods proper.
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I like this rural religious art. I like its simplicity, its roughness, its genuineness. This art will never be sold at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. But I also like it because it means something to me beyond the art. Brought up as I was in a Catholic family, all the stations along that walk represented scenes that are deeply familiar to me. All those hours – and hours – of gospel readings fifty years ago meant that when I saw those scenes of Jesus or Mary I went “Ah yes, that story!” And of course I have the same reaction in most Italian museums, stuffed as they are with religious paintings made by talented artists for Italy’s Renaissance city slickers. Thus it was at the Uffizi, which my wife and I visited very recently.

Fresh from that visit, I decided I wanted to re-propose to the readers the thirteen stations of the Via Crucis that my wife and I had just walked along, this time using paintings from the Italian Renaissance and especially paintings by Botticelli – when I saw the first station, the Annunciation, his wonderful painting on this theme in the Uffizi immediately came to my mind. I have pretty well managed in my intention, straying only once into late Gothic and once into early Baroque. Here they are. Enjoy!

The Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli
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The Visitation, Domenico Ghirlandaio
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The Nativity, Sandro Botticelli
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Christ among the Doctors, Duccio di Buoninsegna
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The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli
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The Flagellation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli
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Crowning with Thorns, Caravaggio
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Christ Carrying the Cross, Sandro Botticelli
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The Crucifixion, Andrea Mantegna
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The Resurrection, Sandro Botticelli
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The Ascension, Pietro Perugino
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The Assumption of the Virgin, Andrea del Sarto
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Incoronation of the Virgin, Fra’ Angelico

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Stations of the Cross in Domodossala: https://allevents.in/domodossola/via-crucis-per-le-domeniche-di-quaresima/179152335896297
Pictures along the trail: ours
Botticelli, Annunciation, Uffizi, Florence: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Ghirlandaio, Visitation, Louvre: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visitation_(Ghirlandaio)
Botticelli, Nativity, Columbia Museum of Art: https://www.google.com/amp/s/eclecticlight.co/2015/12/24/botticellis-unique-nativity/amp/
Duccio, Christ among the Doctors, Museum del Opera del Duomo, Siena: http://www.arts.magic-nation.co.uk/doctors1.htm
Botticelli, Agony in the Garden, Capilla Real de Granada: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-agony-in-the-garden
Botticelli, the Flagellation of Christ, Uffizi, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/sandro-botticelli/the-flagellation
Caravaggio, Crowning with Thorns, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: http://www.jesus-story.net/painting_passion_christ.htm
Botticelli, Christ carrying the Cross, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandro_Botticelli_-_Christ_Carrying_the_Cross._1490-1.jpg
Mantegna, Crucifixion, Louvre: http://www.oilpaintingfactory.com/english/oil-painting-105710.htm
Botticelli, the Resurrection, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton: http://christianityinview.com/jesuschrist.html
Perugino, Ascension, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_of_Jesus_in_Christian_art#/media/File%3APietro_Perugino_cat48c.jpg
Andrea del Sarto, Assumption of the Virgin, Palazzo Pitti, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/andrea-del-sarto/assumption-of-the-virgin-1
Fra Angelico, Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Uffizi, Florence: http://www.marysrosaries.com/collaboration/index.php?title=File:Coronation_Of-the_Blessed_Virgin_Mary_-_Fra_Angelico_081.jpg