the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Category: Art

GUILDS AND THEIR PAINTINGS

Vienna, 14 July 2018

In our recent rapid tour of Belgium, our little group (my wife and I, a cousin of mine and his wife) visited Antwerp’s cathedral.

I suppose I could go on about it being “a masterpiece of Gothic architecture”, about its tower, “jewel of the monument, light, thin and beautifully sculpted”, about its “exceptionally large” interior whose “majestic coldness is warmed gently by numerous works of art”.

But that’s not really what caught my eye during the visit. That distinction goes to an exhibition which the cathedral was hosting of paintings from the late 16th-early 17th centuries. These paintings had for the most part been commissioned by Antwerp’s guilds and were to be mounted in side-chapels of the cathedral dedicated to these guilds. For obvious reasons, the painters had chosen scenes from the Bible that in some way reflected the work of the guilds. A straightforward example is the “Multiplication of the Loaves”, by Ambrosius Francken, commissioned by the city’s Guild of Bakers and Millers.
Here, obviously, the loaves – the backbone of the bakers’ and millers’ business – play a star role in this story from the New Testament. Guild members must have been proud to bathe in the reflected glory of the Lord through their humble product, the loaf of bread.

The same can be said of the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, by Hans van Elburcht, commissioned by the Guild of Fishmongers.
Here, too, the fishmongers’ product plays a star role in another story from the New Testament. No doubt, guild members were pleased to remind non-guild members of the holiness of their product because of its close relationship to the Lord.

A rather straightforward, though more racy, connection between guild and subject matter is also made in the “Wedding at Cana”, by Maerten de Vos.
The commissioning guild in this case was the Guild of Innkeepers, who of course would be selling large quantities of wine (and other alcoholic drinks) on their premises (just to remind those readers who may not be too familiar with biblical stories, this is the story where Jesus turned water into wine). Perhaps this was a way for inn-keepers to gently suggest that their business was nothing if not holy.

A pretty straightforward relationship also exists between the subject and the commissioning guild in the next painting, the “Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Frans Floris.
Look at that mass of writhing flesh! So thrilling. It must have been very difficult for church goers to concentrate on the mass with this painting to look at. It was commissioned by the Guild of Fencers, whose job it was to maintain public order and defend the city. So the painter has chosen as his subject the Archangel Michael and his men, arch-defender of Good, beating back the arch-representatives of Evil, Satan and his hordes, using, of course, the arms which the fencers themselves would be using. In this case, the painter had to stray from the Old and New Testaments into the Book of Revelation for his subject matter; no matter, it was part of the accepted Canon. I mean, didn’t Milton use this story for his poem “Paradise Lost”?

The painting by Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”, highlights another issue: what to do if you wanted a painter to paint a nice painting for your guild but you weren’t rich enough to afford him, and you weren’t rich enough to support a side-chapel? The answer, obviously, was for a couple of guilds to share the costs. This is exactly what the Guilds of Schoolmasters and Soap Makers did. They shared a side-chapel in the cathedral and they shared the cost of the painting. To make sure that each guild was represented in the painting, they had a triptych painted.  Since the schoolmasters were willing to pay a greater share of the painter’s fee, they got more square centimetres of painted surface for their subject matter.
More specifically, the schoolmasters got the centre panel and the right-hand panel, while the soap makers only got the left-hand panel. The scene in the centre panel is Jesus as a young boy instructing the teachers in the temple – no doubt the dream of every schoolboy and girl, and a rather strange subject for schoolmasters I have to say, unless Antwerp’s schoolmasters were a very humble lot. The scene in the right-hand panel is Saint Ambrose, patron saint of teachers and one of the Doctors of the Church (doctor as in PhD rather than in MD), baptising Saint Augustine, another of the Doctors of the Church.

The poor old soap makers had to make do with a very obscure story from the First Book of Kings (obscure at least to me). It has to do with the prophet Elijah, who miraculously ensured that the poor widow Sarepta was able to fill numerous pitchers of oil from the small jar that she had, thus allowing her to pay off her debts. For those of my readers who may not immediately see the connection to soap making, I should remind them that soap is made from boiling lye with oil (at least, it used to; God knows how chemists make it nowadays).

After that, the relationship between the subject of the paintings we saw in the cathedral and the guild commissioning it got a little more tenuous. For instance, we have the “Adoration of the Magi”, by Artus Wolffort.
This was commissioned by the Guild of Tailors. What does this subject have to do with tailors, readers may be asking.  Well, through the expensive clothes that the painter can have the Magi wearing! Viewers could be reminded of the wonderful (and expensive) clothes the city’s tailors could make. And perhaps the tailors, admiring the painting during a particularly boring mass, could find in it a confirmation of their skills.

A painting with what seems to me an even more tenuous connection between subject matter and commissioning guild is the “Lamentation” by Quinten Metsijs.
The painting was commissioned by the Guild of Carpenters. I puzzled over this one for a while, and concluded that the only connection with carpentry and wood working were the three crosses far away in the background. I guess it is a carpenter who have sawed the wood from which the crosses were made. But why not simply a painting of Saint Joseph? He was a carpenter. Maybe that was too banal a topic. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t even seem to have been the patron saint of the guild. That honour went Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, who are the subjects of the two side-panels.

Having done the tour of the exhibition, I wondered out loud to my cousin what could have been a suitable biblical theme for the guild he would have been a member of had he lived and worked in Antwerp in the 16th-17th Centuries. I should explain that until he retired my cousin had worked for many years for a company that makes trucks like these.

Of course, this particular mode of transport did not exist in biblical times (or indeed even in 16th century Antwerp) but I think we can all agree that the equivalent would have been the cart, rather like the one we have in that famous Constable painting, the “Hay Wain”.

And I’m sure there was a guild for cart-makers (or maybe carriage and cart makers).

Nothing came to our minds on the spot, but in my spare moments in Vienna I have returned to the question. What biblical scene has carts in it, which could have been a suitable subject for some famous Antwerp painter to paint? Not knowing the bible by heart, I have done the next best thing, which is to search on-line versions of it put there by various Christian associations earnestly hoping that you will dip into the Good Book. Dip I did, using “cart” as the search word. And I came up trumps! Not in the New Testament, where the word cart doesn’t appear once (no doubt a reflection of Jesus’s poverty; he walked everywhere and owned nothing to speak of), but in the Old Testament, specifically in the First Book of Samuel. The story is part of the eternal wars between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant and have borne it back in triumph to the temple of their god Dagon. But strange things happen in the temple, horrible diseases and other calamities strike the Philistines. The Philistine rulers decide to send the Ark back to the Israelites. Their diviners tell them to put the Ark on a cart drawn by two cows, add a chest of treasure as a guilt offering, and let the cows go free. If the cows go back towards Israelite territory, then all their troubles have indeed been caused by the Israelites’ God. And of course that is exactly what the cows do. The story more or less finishes as follows (I quote this for reasons which will become clear in a minute): “Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord [poor cows!]. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.”

Unfortunately, I could find no painter of the 16th or 17th centuries who depicted this scene. The best I could come up with was this depiction by a 19th century American folk artist who goes by the wonderful name of Erastus Salisbury Field.

From the short piece of text I cited above, I think readers will immediately see that Erastus was depicting the moment when the cart arrived in Beth Shemeth.

Well, after this success at finding a painting to fit my cousin’s presumed guild, what about me? First of all, what could have been my guild? Well, my last job was for the UN, and that certainly didn’t exist in the golden age of guilds, so that couldn’t be an entry point for me. I suppose UN work could be associated to government work. But government workers didn’t get a guild either – they did (and still do) nothing practical, just write and file documents of one form or another. My job before that – as a consultant – doesn’t help either. Consultants just advise, with the real work being done by others. As I wrote in my home page, I suppose the one thing which has run like a thread through all my jobs is that I had to write. So maybe I could have been a member of the Guild of Scriveners!

So now the question is, what could have been a suitable biblical scene to have painted for this guild? Scriveners are the same as scribes, and the New Testament is full of stories of scribes. But they are all negative stories, scribes being depicted as nasty people on the same level as the Pharisees. I don’t want negative publicity for my guild! So I turned once more to the on-line bible and did a search in the Old Testament. The best I could come up with is another obscure story in the Second Book of Kings involving King Josiah. Josiah instructs that the money which has been collected in the Temple be used for the Temple’s maintenance. While gathering the money, the High Priest finds the Book of Law (presumably the book had fallen out of use and this particular copy was gathering dust in some corner of the Temple). He gives it to Shaphan the scribe along with a report on how much money has been given to the maintenance crew. Shaphan comes before Joshua and reads the report but also reads him the Book of Law. Josiah tears his clothes because he realises that the Israelites haven’t been following the Law and “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book by doing according to all that is written concerning us.” I presume Josiah does something about this but I didn’t read any further. As my painting, I came up with this one, painted by the 17th Century Dutch painter Leonaert Bramer, showing Shaphan humbly reading the Book to a rather concerned-looking Josiah.
Well, this painting certainly fits with the period in which the other paintings in Antwerp cathedral were painted. Frankly, though, I prefer the painting I found for my cousin. But there you go.

Oh, and the rest of Antwerp was very nice.

_____________________

Antwerp cathedral exterior: http://www.visitflanders.com/en/things-to-do/attractions/top/the-cathedral-of-our-lady.jsp
Antwerp cathedral interior: http://www.medievalists.net/2011/01/medieval-origins-of-the-cathedral-of-our-lady-in-antwerp-belgium/
Ambrosius Francken, “Multiplication of the Loaves”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Multiplication_of_the_Loaves_(Ambrosius_Francken)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Hans van Elburcht and School of Ambrosius Francken, “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-antwerp-belgium-paint-miracle-fishing-scene-hans-van-elburcht-abbrosius-francken-year-september-cathedral-image77028241
Maerten de Vos, “Wedding at Cana”: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/nachrichtenfoto/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-nachrichtenfoto/526962934#/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-kadriorg-art-picture-id526962934
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Christ_among_scribes_(Frans_Francken)_September_2015-5.jpg
Artus Wolffort, “Adoration of the Magi”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Artus_Wolffort)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Quinten Metsijs, “Lamentation”: https://www.kmska.be/en/collectie/highlights/Schrijnwerkers.html
Truck: https://www.abrbuzz.co.za/mobility-beat/5689-volvo-trucks-retains-top-position-in-sales-service-and-parts-according-to-q4-scott-byers-results
John Constable, “The Hay Wain”: https://www.planet-puzzles.com/grafika-john-constable-la-charette-de-foin-1821-puzzle-1000-pieces.p46141.html
Erastus Salisbury Field, “The Ark of the Covenant”: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/ark-of-the-covenant-erastus-salisbury-field.html
Leonaert Bramer, “The Scribe Shaphan Reading the Book of Law to King Josiah”: https://www.passionforpaintings.com/en/art-gallery/leonaert-bramer-painter/the-scribe-shaphan-reading-the-book-of-law-to-king-josiah-oil-painting-reproduction

Advertisements

HEIDI HORTEN’S COLLECTION

Vienna, 20 June 2018

This is the second posting where I write with wistful envy about a person who was rich enough to build up an art collection and who had enough taste to build up a great art collection. The first posting was about Ms. Kröller-Müller, whose museum we will visit in a few weeks’ time when we go to the Netherlands. This second posting is about Ms. Heidi Horten, a selection of whose collection my wife and I recently visited at Vienna’s Leopold Museum. (In passing, Mr and Mrs Leopold are another couple who used their riches to build up a ravishing collection now housed in this same museum.)

A few words about Ms Horten. As a 19 year-old, this Austrian girl married the much older Mr Helmut Horten, a German who had made his fortune after the war with a chain of department stores (I will skitter delicately over the fact that the start of his business empire was his purchase – I would assume on the cheap – of a department store owned by two Jewish partners who were forced to give it up in the wake of the Nazis’ antisemitic policies and prior to their emigration to the US). Here, we have the Horten couple.

As a couple, they did some collecting but nothing major. The serious collecting only really started when Mr Horten went the way of all flesh in 1987 and Ms Horten inherited the bulk of his fortune – some $ 1 billion, it is reported. Here is a photo of her in those years: quite a glamorous lady, I would say.

And what a collection Ms Horten has amassed! Like Ms Kröller-Müller and the Leopolds, she has focused her purchases on modern and contemporary art. I presume that the exhibition at the Leopold Museum is only a portion of her collection, but what they are showing is impressive. After doing a round of the exhibition, I went around again, taking pictures of the pieces which had particularly struck me. I post them below, in the order of their creation.

Lyonel Feininger’s The Honeymooners, from 1908.

Wonderful expression of the happiness of two honeymooners, dressed in bright clothes and towering over their surroundings.

Egon Schiele’s aquarelle of Seated Male Nude from Behind, painted in 1910.

Schiele painted a whole series of these aquarelles, a number of which I was fortunate enough to see several years ago on one of my periodic visits back to Vienna from China.

Emile Nolde’s Red Evening Sun, painted in 1913.

My wife was particularly struck by the painting’s dark, dark sea.

Gustav Klimt’s Church in Unterach am Attersee, painted in 1916.

Klimt painted a number of these views, which he saw, it is said, through a telescope to get that foreshortening effect.

Kees van Dongen’s Commedia (Montparnasse Blues), painted in 1925.


Emile Nolde again, Summer Day with Hay Cart, painted in 1926, more than ten years after the earlier painting.

Chaim Soutine’s Doorkeeper – Woman in Blue, from 1935.


Soutine captured perfectly the sour look which all the French doorkeepers of my youth constantly displayed.

After that, things begin to get grim. I’ve often complained (the latest time last December) that as Western modern art gets ever more modern it slips off into irrelevance and silliness. I feel that the rest of the exhibition demonstrates this pattern all too well. Nevertheless, I show here pictures of some of these later pieces, often for no better reason than they amused me.

Alexander Calder’s Untitled (Toy Train) from around 1946. A fine way to reuse old tins and cans.


Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Nurse and Girl from 1965.

What, I wonder, were the two discussing?

Pablo Picasso’s Bust of a Man, from 1969.

As I’ve commented elsewhere, among the dreariness of abstract art Picasso shines out as having stayed true to representational art.

Another Alexander Calder, Critter with Peaked Head, from 1974.

Funny title, and interesting change of view as one goes around the critter and as one of her three legs disappears (I assume the critter is feminine since she is wearing high heels; but perhaps male critters also wear heels).

Roy Lichtenstein’s Forest Scene, painted in 1980.


Andy Warhol’s Lenin, from 1986.

Normally, I find Warhol’s portraits wearisome and repetitive, but I found these two portraits of Lenin quite arresting.

Keith Haring’s Untitled, painted in the same year as Warhol’s Lenins.

Untitled, but I presume a commentary on the AIDS epidemic that was then sweeping through the US’s gay community and which counted him as one of its victims four years after he completed this painting.

Not Vital’s Untitled (Fuck You), from 1991-2.

I don’t know if this is what Vital intended, but I see this piece as a commentary on those awful collections of deer antlers which you see in many conservative Austrian homes, testimony to the enthusiasm with which the home owner and his ancestors have hunted deer.

If I were a deer, I too would want to have those seven letters dangling from my horns as I faced my hunter.

Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (Zorro) from 1997.

I’m assuming that Cattelan was taking the piss out of Lucio Fontana, he of the cut canvases. I feel this ever more strongly given that this painting was hung beside some four or five Fontanas.

Cattelan, by the way, is the same artist who sculpted that hand with its finger raised in front of Milan’s stock exchange; it was the subject of an earlier posting of mine. He seems to be quite a joker.

And finally, Erwin Wurm’s Kastenmann, or Box Man, from 2010.

I don’t know what Mr. Wurm is trying to tell us, it just looks amusing.

I now invite my readers to scroll through all these pictures again. Did something not go wrong with the art we produced in the developed countries some time after the Second World War? Is all that’s left to our art is whether it’s a good joke or not?

_______________________________

Pictures: all mine except:
Horten couple: https://www.falter.at/archiv/wp/das-maerchen-von-helmut-und-heidi
Heidi Horten: https://www.vindobona.org/article/heidi-horten-collection-leopold-museum-vienna
Deer antlers: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-trophies-of-deer-hanging-on-a-wall-in-a-hunting-lodge-styria-austria-18704002.html

BIKERS AND CENTAURS

Milan, 26 May 2018

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

Centaurs??

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

_________________

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

WALK THROUGH THE FIVE SORROWFUL MYSTERIES

Sori, 12 May 2018

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

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

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

and small olive groves hugging the hill’s countours

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

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

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

and the baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scourging of Jesus, painted by Caravaggio

Jesus is Crowned with Thorns, painted by Orazio Gentileschi

Jesus Carries the Cross, painted by Tintoretto

Jesus Dies on the Cross, painted by Andrea Mantegna.

On we toiled up the hill

taking in the views across the valley

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

Having enjoyed the view

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

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

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

______________________

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

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

ORANGE CARROTS

Istanbul airport, 5 May 2018

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Yellow carrots

Red carrots

White carrots

Black carrots, even!

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

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

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

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

Another example of the politics of color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



_____________________

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

CARLSBAD CAVERNS

Los Angeles, 7 April 2018

Alert readers of my previous posting may have been asking themselves what was the origin of the gypsum strata in the San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges, which had played such a crucial role in the creation of the White Sands dunes (because, of course, they had not been magically created out of nothing, nor had they been lying there since the birth of the Earth). I’m not sure I can give a categorical answer to this question, but our visit to the nearby Carslbad caverns suggested one possible answer.

A little bit of background is in order here for the uninitiated. Carlsbad caverns constitute a very large underground limestone cave system in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico. This little diagram gives an idea of the extent of the caves. As one can see, it is a series of large chambers connected by passageways.

Videos in the Visitors’ Centre helpfully inform the interested viewer that these chambers were formed by our friend gypsum! Many millions of years ago, as the Guadalupe Mountains were being uplifted, the limestone strata making them up cracked and fissured as the rocks twisted and turned. Rainwater percolated downwards through the cracks until it reached the water table, while hydrogen sulphide percolated upwards, given off by the crude oil and natural gas lying far below (and which we saw being pumped out on our way to the caverns).

When the hydrogen sulphide met the groundwater, it reacted with the oxygen in the water to form sulphur dioxide which then reacted with the water to form sulphuric acid. So the limestone cracks and fissures now found themselves bathing in sulphuric acid. This unforgiving acid attacked the limestone and turned it into calcium sulphate, which is none other than our friend gypsum. The gypsum washed away, leaving fresh limestone to be attacked by the sulphuric acid. And then the cycle repeated itself until the small cracks and fissures had turned into huge caverns. I imagine a similar process created the gypsum strata with which I started this post: hydrogen sulphide bubbling up into a sea above, the sulphuric acid so created attacking coral formations and turning the sea into a vast pool of dissolved gypsum, the sea drying out thereby creating beds of crystallized gypsum. Something along those lines.

Coming back to the Carlsbad caverns, as the uplifting of the Guadalupe Mountains continued the caverns were raised out of the water table and drained of their acid. The caverns would no longer grow. But the rainwater kept percolating down, and in so doing filled the caverns with those formations which make such caves a wonder: the stalagmites and stalactites of course, but also the sheets, the draperies, the ribbons, the flowstones, … Carlsbad caverns have their share of these wonders. But first one has to get to them. The caves have a natural opening at the surface

through which Mexican free-tail bats stream in and out at night

as do cave swallows during the day.

But so do human visitors, who walk down, down, down


into the central chamber of the cave system, the Lunch Room, a huge cavern rather oddly decked out as a cafeteria.

From there, visitors can explore – guided or unguided – other chambers. We chose to take the tour of the King’s Palace, which offered us these views.

This cavern was also home to some strange-looking formations, which I had never seen before. The formations looked somehow gnarled and knotty.

It seems that these proturbances have been formed by convective patterns in the cavern’s air streams gently pushing the drops of water in directions other than down.

I hope I haven’t bored my readers with all this science. I find it fascinating, although I recognize that others may find it tedious or, even worse, that it may bring back bad memories of sitting benumbed in chemistry classes at school. To make it up to them, let me talk about art, or more specifically prehistoric cave art. Of which, unfortunately, there is hardly any at Carlsbad caverns. There is no prehistoric art in the caves themselves. It seems that the Native Americans were afraid of entering the cave, from which they believed their ancestors had originated. There are reports of Native American pictographs around the natural opening, although I didn’t see them and found no photos of them on the web. No matter! I’ll transport ourselves thousands of kilometers eastward to the caves in France and Spain on whose walls our Paleolithic ancestors painted some 40,000 years ago, and I’ll throw in some pictures of the cave art one can find there.


These paintings are very interesting, no doubt about it, but what impresses me even more is that the artists ventured so deep into the earth to paint them. At some point during our tour of the King’s Palace, our guide turned off all the lights. The resulting darkness was absolute. Your eyes never accustomed themselves to the dark as they would outside, allowing your eyes to eventually see something, even if only indistinctly. It was instead unremittingly pitch black, an extremely disagreeable sensation. Of course, our Paleolithic ancestors would not have painted in the dark, they would have taken torches down. But even a torch would have given off precious little light; our guide lit a lantern powered by a candle and such light is faint indeed.

How did our ancestors create such lovely sketches in such a tremulous light? And how did they overcome their fear in going so deep into the inky blackness of these caves? Questions without answers.

________________
Map of Carlsbad caverns: http://carlsbadnewmexico.com/places/carlsbad-caverns-maps/
Oil derrick in New Mexico: https://fronterasdesk.org/content/9902/new-mexico-lawmaker-faces-challenge-strengthening-oil-regulation
Natural opening: https://www.tripsavvy.com/new-mexico-honeymoon-activities-1863221
Bats at natural opening: https://miraimages.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Zbbmp9jYDCc
Cave swallows at natural opening: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g60761-i23159610-Carlsbad_New_Mexico.html
Path down through natural opening: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/138556126016751944/?source=images
Main Corridor: https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/fees.htm
Lunch Room: https://www.flickr.com/photos/46062921@N00/442216196
King’s Palace-1: my wife’s photo
King’s Palace-2: http://rv-dreams.typepad.com/rvdreams_journal/2007/06/carlsbad_cavern.html
King’s Palace-3: http://traveltips.usatoday.com/rv-parks-carlsbad-caverns-52061.html
Gnarled, knotty formations: my wife’s photo
Prehistoric art-1: https://www.archaeological.org/tours/europe/25009
Prehistoric art-2: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cave-of-lascaux
Prehistoric art-3: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/phys.org/news/2011-11-ancient-dna-insights-cave-horses.amp?source=images
Prehistoric art-4: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/513551163733767543/?source=images
Candle in a cave: https://www.dragonsdawn.org/nmtCaver/El_Malpais_Feb_2017/index.html

THE ODYSSEY: DAYDREAMS OF MY YOUTH

Milan, 10 March 2018

A couple of days ago, my wife declared that I needed to buy some books since my supply of unread books was running low. No sooner said than done: we popped down into the basement of the large bookshop in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza Duomo and I spent a happy half hour perusing their shelves of English books. As I walked off with five or six new volumes to read, I spied a book whose title was “Odyssey”.

And suddenly I was 10-11 years old again, sitting in the school library, breathlessly reading a simplified version of the Odyssey which was written in installments in some boys’ weekly magazine. Week by week, I followed the crafty Odysseus as he and his men sailed away from the still smouldering ruins of Troy in his “racing warships across the wine-dark sea”, bound for Ithaca and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. I absorbed his adventures, some of which I illustrate here with Greek pottery or Roman mosaics or sculpture (and in one case with a much more recent print because I couldn’t find an example from the Classical period); I accompany the illustrations with passages from the text of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles:

In the land of the Lotus Eaters

Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
their only wish was to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home
dissolved forever. But I brought them back—I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades:
‘Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!’—
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.

In the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, who is now in a drunken sleep after tossing down several large bowls of wine given to him by Odysseus

Now, at last, I thrust our stake in a bed of embers
to get it red-hot and rallied all my comrades:
‘Courage—no panic, no one hang back now!’
And green as it was, just as the olive stake
was about to catch fire—the glow terrific, yes—
I dragged it from the flames, my men clustering round
as some god breathed enormous courage through us all.
Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point,
straight into the monster’s eye they rammed it hard—
and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye
till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft
and the hot blast singed his brow and eyelids round the core
and the broiling eyeball burst—its crackling roots blazed
and hissed. He loosed a hideous roar, the rock walls echoed round
and we scuttled back in terror. The monster wrenched the spike
from his eye and out it came with a red geyser of blood —
he flung it aside with frantic hands, and mad with pain.

On Circe’s enchanted island

She opened her gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting them all in, and in they went, all innocence.
She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs,
then she mixed them a potion—cheese, barley
and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine—
but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs
to wipe from their memories any thought of home.
Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly
she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties,
all of them bristling into swine—with grunts,
snouts—even their bodies, yes, and only
the men’s minds stayed steadfast as before.
So off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing
as Circe flung them acorns, cornel nuts and mast,
common fodder for hogs that root and roll in mud.

Sailing by the sirens

I stopped the ears of my comrades one by one.
They bound me hand and foot in the tight ship—
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast—
We were just offshore as far as a man’s shout can carry,
scudding close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship
was racing past and burst into their high, thrilling song:
‘Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory—
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!’
So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free—
they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder.
But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake,
once we could hear their song no more, their urgent call—
my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used
to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me.

Sailing between Scylla and Charybdis

Now wailing in fear, we rowed on up those straits,
Scylla to starboard, dreaded Charybdis off to port,
her horrible whirlpool gulping the sea-surge down, down
the whole abyss lay bare and the rocks around her roared,
terrible, deafening— bedrock showed down deep, boiling
black with sand— and ashen terror gripped the men.
But now, fearing death, all eyes fixed on Charybdis—
now Scylla snatched six men from our hollow ship,
the toughest, strongest hands I had, and glancing
backward over the decks, searching for my crew
I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,
flailing, high, higher, over my head, look—
wailing down at me, comrades riven in agony,
shrieking out my name for one last time!

Odysseus killing the suitors

With that he trained a stabbing arrow on Antinous …
just lifting a gorgeous golden loving-cup in his hands,
just tilting the two-handled goblet back to his lips,
about to drain the wine—and slaughter the last thing
on the suitor’s mind: who could dream that one foe
in that crowd of feasters, however great his power,
would bring down death on himself, and black doom?
But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat
and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out—
and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp
as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life-blood came spurting
out his nostrils— thick red jets— a sudden thrust of his foot—
he kicked away the table— food showered across the floor,
the bread and meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.

Ah, what stories, what stories!

Then, a few years later, when I was 13-14 years old, I caught the bug of trying to figure out the route which Odysseus had taken in the ten years he wandered the seas trying to reach home: just where were the land of the Lotus Easters, the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, the rocks on which the Sirens sat and sang, Scylla and Charybdis? Sitting in the quiet school library

I would surreptitiously shove my homework aside – Latin, Greek, French, History, whatever it was – and go get myself the Times Atlas. This was a very large atlas with a lovely dark blue cover. It had maps of every corner of the world, but I zeroed in on the maps of the Mediterranean: the Aegean Sea

the North African coast up to Tunisia

Italy, especially the area around Sicily

and a glance or two across the western Mediterranean to Spain.

I pored over a translation of the Odyssey, which I found in some corner of the library, trying to tease out clues as to travel time and direction. Then, having got some information somewhere about how fast a sailing ship could go, I would examine the maps with furrowed brow, trying to turn this information into travel distance and direction. I read up on competing theories of Odysseus’s itinerary, which had maps looking like this.

I spent hours on this. But eventually reality stepped in. Either my grades were slipping or I realized that it was impossible to work out Odysseus’s itinerary with any level of certainty; I was slipping into the world of cranks. But it wasn’t all for naught: I was left with a love of maps and of the Mediterranean. And from time to time, when I have a chance encounter such as that in the bookshop, good memories flood back of this brief passion of mine.

____________
Escaping the Lotus Eaters: https://art.famsf.org/theodore-van-thulden/ulysses-and-his-companions-land-lotus-eaters-no-5-labors-ulysses-19633015206
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/498914464951224721/?lp=true
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops: https://trecancelle.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/153-sperlongas-archaeological-museum-and-tiberius-grotto/
Circe turning Odysseus’s men into swine: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T35.7.html
Odysseus and the Sirens: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey
Odysseus and the Sirens-mosaics: http://marmor-mosaike.de/FK035.html
Odysseus and Scylla: https://releaseyourkraken.com/blog-3-kraken-mythology/
Odysseus and Scylla (reconstruction): https://ontravelwriting.com/places-and-people/sperlonga-sculptures-group-ulysses-national-archaeology-museum/
Odysseus kills suitors: http://slideplayer.fr/slide/3720241/
Times Atlas Greece: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Original-Antique-Victorian-Greece-Scutari/dp/B0088WNU8Q
Times Atlas Italy: http://www.stanfords.co.uk/The-Times-Desktop-Atlas-of-the-World_9780008104986
Times Atlas Libya and Egypt: https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~225480~5506188:Egypt-and-Libya,-Plate-85,-V–IV
Map with journey: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/74379831324150781/?lp=true

WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

Milan, 25 February 2018

Yesterday was a day of political excitement in Milan. With the elections only a week away, things are hotting up. There was a large gathering in Piazza Duomo of the Lega, a much smaller gathering of left-wingers in Largo La Foppa, and an even smaller gathering of anarchists of various stripes somewhere else. Below, I show a picture of the leftwing gathering in Largo La Foppa.

The police barred their way as the marchers tried to leave Largo La Foppa, the temperature was mounting, and at some point the police charged – or maybe the marchers charged, or pushed forward. Anyway, the police started wielding their batons, while the marchers protected themselves, somewhat bizzarely, with inflatable boats – taken to remind the world of the plight of the refugees, according to the newspapers, but it seems to me also an excellent way of protecting oneself from the police batons.

At the same time, the police shot off a couple of canisters of tear gas, that white smoke one sees behind the marchers.

Meanwhile, my wife and I were sitting down having tea and cannoncini (a puff pastry stuffed with vanilla cream) under those large white umbrellas one can see to the left in this last photo. We were there quite by chance, being on our way to see Daniel Day-Lewis in his last film, “The Phantom Thread”. We were early and those large umbrellas belong to a good pastry shop, so we decided to treat ourselves. We made our way round what seemed to us quite a small crowd (the papers talk of 1,500 but in my opinion it was no more than 200), got our tea and canoncini, and sat down. It was fun to watch all the flag waving going on in front of us and reminisce about our youth. Suddenly, the noise levels rose, there were sounds of shots, and two little smoking canisters landed almost at our feet. My wife, a veteran of Milan’s 1968 riots, leaped up in alarm and urged me to move. But I saw no need for panic, I thought they were crackers thrown by some of the marchers. I rapidly changed my mind when I breathed in the smoke. It immediately caught you terribly in the throat and made your eyes burn and weep. This was tear gas, for God’s sake!! I grabbed my cup of tea and the remainder of my cannoncino and shouted to my wife to move. Together with other customers, we blundered into the pastry shop and stood there gasping and wheezing and coughing. According to my wife, who had had a whiff or two of tear gas in her youth, technology has improved in the last fifty years; she didn’t remember it catching you so strongly in the throat. I wouldn’t know, this was my first exposure to the stuff. Eventually, we were shepherded out to a back yard, from which we exited into a side street and made our escape to the cinema.

All this excitement has led me to reminisce about marches and protests in the arts. The most well-known painting on the topic of marches must be Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s “The Fourth Estate”, which gives the working man a wonderful dignity

while “Liberty Guiding the People”, by Eugène Delacroix, must be the most famous painting on the topic of insurrections, in this case the insurrections of 1848.

Once the October Revolution rolled around, revolution and the working class became respectable subjects of art. Staying with marches, where I started this post, we have, for example, “The Bolshevik”, by Boris Kustodiev.

And, of course, we have the start of that wonderful art form, the propaganda poster, where marches of the proletariat were a popular subject. Here we have a Soviet propaganda poster.

The Chinese picked up on the art form with a vengeance. They made some great paintings, which I mentioned in an earlier post about a new museum we visited in Shanghai, but their propaganda art was fantastic. Here’s one with the Chinese people walking towards a bright future.

The caption declares: “Smash the imperialist war conspiracy, forge ahead courageously to build our peaceful and happy life!” Change that to “the 1%” and we have a message for our times …

I have to say, though, I always preferred the type of Chinese propaganda poster which has smiling, muscular workers:

The North Koreans were still making these type of poster when I made an official visit there with my wife in 2009. We asked if they could give us a copy of one of these posters, but the best they could come up with was one urging people to wash their hands to reduce the spread of illnesses…

The Mexican muralists also painted some great revolutionary art, especially Diego Rivera. We have here his “Uprising”

and this is his “Distribution of Arms”

I posted photos of some of his other revolutionary murals earlier, after our last visit to Mexico.

Wonderful stuff. But who paints it anymore? Revolution is out of fashion, at least for the moment.

Ah well … In the meantime, we will be passing through Largo La Foppa again today, to go and see another film. That gives my wife the opportunity to have another cannoncino; while I saved mine, hers got lost in the confusion of running away from the tear gas.

____________

March in Milan: http://milano.corriere.it/foto-gallery/cronaca/18_febbraio_24/scontri-corteo-milano-largo-foppa-polizia-antagonisti-moscova-1d7e8c1a-1974-11e8-9cdc-0f9bea8569f6.shtml
Quarto Stato: By Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo – Associazione Pellizza da Volpedo, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2588195
Liberté Guidant le Peuple: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_Leading_the_People
Boris Kustodiev, The Bolshevik: http://www.rusartist.org/boris-mikhailovich-kustodiev-1878-1927/#.WpKLb6inFPY
Soviet propaganda poster: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/26/communist-propaganda-post_n_6377336.html
Chinese propaganda poster: https://chineseposters.net/gallery/e16-266.php
Chinese propaganda poster2: http://www.businessinsider.com/chinese-propaganda-posters-2012-9?IR=T
Diego Rivera, the Uprising: http://bigthink.com/Picture-This/occupy-moma-diego-riveras-populist-murals-reunited
Diego Rivera Distribution of Arms: http:// http://www.leninimports.com/diego_rivera_distribution_arms_canvas_print_9a.html

RUBALDO MERELLO

Sori, 10th February 2018

My wife and I were recently in Genoa. Since it was a rainy day, we had decided that our usual excursions along the coast were out, and had opted to visit a couple of exhibitions at the Palazzo Ducale, the Ducal Palace. The Palazzo Ducale was recently the scene of much brou-ha-ha. It had hosted an exhibition of Modigliani’s paintings. Some Modigliani experts had claimed that half the paintings were fakes (apparently Modigliani is very easy to fake), the organizer retorted that all the paintings had certificates of authenticity emitted by various other experts and that very respectable institutions had already hosted the exhibition, the Carabinieri had nevertheless moved in and confiscated the whole exhibition and were pressing charges for fraud, the organizer in turn was suing person or persons unknown for making false claims … in a word, there was a right royal mess.

Luckily, the exhibitions we were visiting were not the subject of such polemics. One was an exhibition of works by Picasso from the Picasso Museum in Paris. Although interesting, I will not comment on it (although I should note in passing that Picasso has also been widely faked: organizers beware!). The other was an exhibition of works by Rubaldo Merello.

I will perfectly understand if readers have never heard of Merello. I had not heard of him either until we saw this exhibition advertised. He is, to be honest, a minor Italian painter and sculptor, and his story is quickly told. Born in 1872, he worked at the turn of the last century, dying in 1922 at the relatively young age of 50. He was a local son, learning his trade at Genoa’s Accademia Ligustica delle Belli Arti. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, he tied his colours to the movement known as divisionismo, Italy’s answer to France’s pointillisme. For some reason which is not completely clear but which may have had to do with his paintings being rejected by the 1st Venice Biennale, he started isolating himself from the art world, eventually holing up, in 1906, in San Fruttuoso, a small fishing hamlet on the promontory of Monte di Portofino.


I have already written about San Fruttuoso in an earlier post, but it’s worth repeating here that while charming San Fruttuoso is very remote. The only ways to reach it are by boat from Camogli, which even today can be impossible if the sea is too rough, or by foot up and around the mountain and then down a steep track to the shore – in Merello’s days either your own feet or mules’ feet. But Merello buried himself and his family here for eight years, despite many calls from his friends to return to civilization. He paid the price for his isolationism. In 1913, his younger son died of diphtheria because medical help couldn’t arrive quickly enough. His wife had a breakdown after her son’s death (poor woman, who can blame her after the hermit’s life her husband had imposed on her), and Merello himself was never quite the same. He moved the remaining family to Santa Margherita Ligure in 1914 and worked there, mostly on sculptures, until he died.

Because Merello chose to stay in San Fruttuoso, most of his paintings are of the hamlet and its surroundings. His paintings of the hamlet itself are interesting but no more than that.



It’s when Merello clambered up the mule track behind San Fruttuoso to be high up above the village that his paintings begin to grip me. There was one view in particular which he painted again and again, almost obsessively it would seem, a view of the small bay of San Fruttuoso from the Monte di Portofino, which I have been always fond of. It is a plunging view, from high up the mountain down to the lapis lazuli sea far below, seen through a screen of trees. It is a view much photographed.

Merello tried a number of colour combinations for the view, resulting in a fascinating array of paintings.


Even more striking, though, were his paintings still from high on the mountain but now focusing just on pines and the sea in the far distance.

He arrived finally at an almost abstract composition of pine against water.

If this last painting had fallen off the back of a truck, I would not have hesitated to keep it, on the basis of the morally dubious saying “Finders keepers, losers weepers”. Out of a somewhat masochistic curiosity, I checked auction prices for Merello’s paintings. While many orders of magnitude below what you need in your bank account to buy a (real) Picasso, at around €40,000 a painting they are way out of my league. Well, I guess I’ll never have a Merello on my wall – unless it falls off the back of a truck.

_______________

Rubaldo Merello: http://www.palazzoducale.genova.it/rubaldo-merello-la-vita/
San Fruttuoso: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/san-fruttuoso-bay.html
San Fruttuoso: https://www.fondoambiente.it/luoghi/abbazia-di-san-fruttuoso
The bay of San Fruttuoso from above: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g227888-d4569424-i112196609-Camogli_San_Rocco_Batterie_San_Fruttuoso_Trail-Camogli_Italian_Riviera_L.html
Other photos: my pics

ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

____________________

Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html