the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Category: Poetry

THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

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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

SPRING IS COMING!

Sori, 14th February 2018

Once, after I’d made a speech in Bangkok about how the world was going to hell in a hand basket, with multiple environmental disasters awaiting us, I was asked by the MC (who clearly had no idea what to say to me) what I most missed in Thailand. The seasons, I replied: winter, spring, summer, autumn. It was indeed one of the few things I missed in Bangkok from my European heritage; I always felt that South-East Asia was seasonal monotony. It was either hot or hotter, with rain added from time to time.

Now that I’m back in Europe, I can enjoy the four seasons again. Right now, in a masochistic sort of way, I’m enjoying the tail-end of the winter season: ah, that cold north wind which causes you to pull your head and shoulders into your coat like a turtle into its shell … But here on the Ligurian coast, located in its own warm microclimate, we already have signs that spring is on its way! As we have been walking the hills, there have been signs all around us that Nature is getting ready to burst forth again, like in Botticelli’s Spring.

We have the mimosa trees, whose festival it will soon be

the almond trees, seen here on a walk in the Cinque Terre

the crocuses, in the shady underforest

a lone primrose, also spied on the sun-speckled forest floor

carpets of a yellow flower, to me unknown, bedecking the sides of the paths open to the sun


bushes of rosemary growing from out of the rocks

purple irises, not a flower I connect with early spring

a humble little mauve flower, growing at the foot of olive trees

even a bright yellow fungus, returning a dead log to the earth from whence it came.

Yes, nothing so lovely as the Earth bursting into life. No wonder the poets have often sung about spring! Here’s a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, entitled simply Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Happy Saint Valentine’s!

_____________

Boticelli’s Primavera: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primavera_(painting)
All other pics: all ours

OSMANTHUS FRAGRANS

Osaka Airport, 22 October 2017

My wife and I have been in Kyoto these last three weeks. I was here to once again give my course on sustainable industrial development at the university. But I don’t want to discuss that, I want to talk about a scent wafting on the breeze.

As we walked around the quiet neighborhood where we had taken an AirBnB, I found my nose suddenly being assailed by a very sweet smelling scent. The first few times it happened, I couldn’t locate an obvious source around me and I began to fear that I was suffering from olfactory hallucinations, that a tumor was growing in my brain and was beginning to press against whichever bit it is that controls one’s sense of smell. What made me particularly susceptible to this theory was that the scent was distinctly similar to the one most toilet cleaning products emit; you know, the scent which wafts off that bright blue or pink stuff you squeeze into the toilet bowl, leaving your toilet smelling like heaven.


Maybe the tumor was triggering olfactory memories of my toilet … Luckily for my growing levels of paranoia, the third or fourth time it happened I located the source. It was an unprepossessing tree on the corner of the road.

It was covered in small orange flowers.

Relieved that the scent was not a figment of a diseased brain, I set to work trying to figure out what plant it was. A google search quickly revealed its Japanese name to be kinmokusei, and that in the month of October it fills the air with its sweet scent. A further search revealed that its official name is osmanthus fragrans, with its English names being sweet olive, tea olive, or fragrant olive (the reference to olive apparently having to do with a similarity in leaf shape to the olive tree).

According to its Wikipedia entry, the several varieties of osmanthus are “native to Asia, from the Himalayas through southern China to Taiwan and southern Japan and southeast Asia as far south as Cambodia and Thailand”. The mention of China rang a bell somewhere in my (non-diseased) brain, something I had read once, while living in China, about osmanthus jam. Sure enough, the Wikipedia article revealed that the Chinese make an osmanthus-scented jam, but also osmanthus-scented tea, dumplings, cakes, soups, wine, and liquor. My wife and I never tasted any of these delicacies when we lived in China, but that was Beijing, in northern China, outside the osmanthus’s range.

The China connection and the nostalgia it evoked in me made me dig a little more. I discovered that the plant’s relationship with China is long; the Chinese have been cultivating it for some two and a half thousand years – its sweet scent saw to that. As might be expected, the Chinese poets weaved it into their work. Here is Wang Wei, an 8th Century Tang Dynasty poet:

I’m quiet, osmanthus flowers fall,
Tranquil is this spring night, empty the hill,
The rising moon startles mountain birds,
Which call awhile in the spring stream.

Or here we have the 12th Century Song Dynasty female poet, Li Qingzhao:

I recover from illness,
My temples have turned grey.
I lie down to rest and watch the waning moon
Climb up my screen.
Tender lips meet sweet mace, boiled in water,
Aromatic as tea.
Books and poems are so dear to me
While I sit idle against a pillow.
The outside scene freshens when rain falls.
All day long, facing me lovingly
Is the sweet osmanthus.

Things have come to a pretty pass when a flower’s scent, which made the Chinese poets sing, only makes me think of toilet fresheners! What a dumbing down we are witnessing …

Luckily for me, the Chinese themselves have made a connection between the flower’s sweet scent and more malodorous things. Osmanthus flowers bloom more or less in the eighth lunar month, which is when the Imperial civil service examinations were originally held.

This temporal connection gave rise to a phrase in late Imperial China which was used to euphemistically indicate that a candidate had successfully passed the exam: “pluck osmanthus in the Toad Palace”. Passing the exams would now open up to the successful candidate positions in the administration where myriad possibilities would exist for him to conclude sweet deals to his advantage during the rest of his no doubt illustrious career. Imperial examinations have vanished, only to have their place taken by the gaokao, the university entrance exams.

This is the first critical step to defining how successful a career you can have in China and how much of a life of preferment and sweet deals you will enjoy. “Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more things change and the more they stay the same, as the French writer Jean-Baptiste Karr once observed.

While I have been reading up on all this, Typhoon Lan has been brewing in the Pacific to the east of the Philippines. Now it is moving ponderously northward towards Japan. The rain that’s been falling as a prelude to its arrival has stripped the Osmanthus bushes of their flowers.

Their scent is finished for this year. It’s time for us to fly home, hopefully before Typhoon Lan makes a landfall and closes the airport.

_____________

Toilet cleaner: https://wifinowevents.com/news-and-blog/22000-agree-clean-toilets-wi-fi/
osmanthus fragrans: my pictures
Chinese Imperial exams: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AXGQt7Ts1wo
Gaokao exam: http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/what-is-gaokao-chinese-college-entrance-exam
Fallen osmanthus flowers: my picture

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 festivities

as 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 being 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, with one tiny change by me), says it all (or nearly so).

Under the linden 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 true love 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 a honey enthusiast, 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.

___________

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

LYING TOGETHER, FOREVER

Milan, 20 May 2017

Last week my wife and I visited, together with a French cousin of mine and his wife, the First World War battlefields of Verdun and Chemin des Dames. For me, it was a follow-on to a trip we made a few years ago to the battlefields around Ypres in the British sector. For my cousin, it was a chance to visit Verdun, a battlefield still deeply etched in the French psyche.

As during my previous visit to Ypres, I was struck by how peaceful the countryside now looks. Traveling along the Chemin des Dames, but also on the west side of the River Meuse at Verdun, with their rich rolling farmland on every side, it was difficult to imagine the large-scale death and destruction visited upon these lands a mere hundred years ago. The farmer’s plough has smoothed away the millions of shell holes that pockmarked the earth, wheat and rapeseed cover the land with carpets of green and yellow.

Yet that farmer’s plough still brings to light every year unexploded ordnance and other detritus of war, and by some estimates will continue to do so for seven hundred years.


And it still brings to light remains of men who died in these now peaceful fields.

At Verdun, these will be added to the Ossuary of Douaumont, where the visitor can gaze upon mountains of human bones, German and French alike.

In certain places, especially on the East bank of the River Meuse but also at Mort-Homme and Cote 304 on the West Bank, and at the Plateau de Californie on the Chemin des Dames, the land was too smashed, and too dangerous, to give back to agriculture. There, trees cover the land with their green foliage and birdsong fills the air. But if you peer beneath the tangle of branches, you can see the cratered, pot-holed landscape the trees hide from our view.

You can begin to imagine what it must have been like for those poor soldiers who cowered there, and fought like savages when they met each other, and died horrible deaths, and whose bodies were ripped into ever smaller shreds by incoming shells.

The official memorials which the French put up in the immediate aftermath of the war ring false to my modern ear: “Glorious Sacrifice!”, “Victory!” Where was the glory in the stinking mud and blizzard of shrapnel? What victory was this which brought us another World War thirty years later? Even that oft repeated phrase “Eternal Remembrance” rings hollow – who remembers any more the individual young men who died here? Their parents are long gone and the last of the soldiers who fought here passed away ten years ago. I find the small, private memorials put up by families whose sons disappeared without trace into the mire of the battlefield much more touching: “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment, killed 6th May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Mourned by his mother, all his family, and his friends. Pray for him”, “Marcel Duquenoy, from Calais, aged 20, of the 350th infantry regiment. In memory of our son, who disappeared 6th May 1917, in the wood across the way”. As a parent, I can empathize with the agonies of a mother who had lost her son and didn’t have a body to decently bury and a tombstone to grieve over.

The modern iconography is much more sensitive to the sheer, wanton waste of life of this war. There is a superb museum-memorial near Douaumont, which gives a balanced French and German account of the battle of Verdun and shows in great detail the life of ordinary soldiers on both sides. There is a modern sculpture, the Constellation of Suffering, at the museum of the Cave des Dragons on the Chemin des Dames.

It commemorates the 16,000 African soldiers, mostly from the ex-French colonies in West Africa, who were totally decimated in this battle: the ultimate act of colonialism, using colonial troops to fight your wars. And there is of course that iconic picture of Franco-German reconciliation: President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands at the annual anniversary of the battle of Verdun in 1984.

You cannot visit World War I battlefields without coming across the military cemeteries both big and small which dot the countryside. I like these cemeteries. They are oases of peace and beauty, but they are also the one place where I can connect, if only for a moment, with the individual men – boys, often – who died in this carnage. I go down rows reading the names. I feel I owe this to them, so that they can exist again for a brief instant before returning to the cold earth. I’m always sorry that I can’t read all the names, there are simply too many and time too short. We visited many French cemeteries, of course

but also the very big American cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, product of the Americans’ Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918 (with so many who died just a few days before the war’s end)

a few small, modest German cemeteries – the penalty of the vanquished leaving their dead in the victor’s country

and a small British cemetery, the result of the frantic rearguard fighting in the first month of the war.

But the cemeteries I most liked were across the road from the memorial chapel on the Chemin des Dames. All the military cemeteries I have ever visited stand in isolation, each country mourning its dead separately. But here, a German cemetery touched upon a French cemetery. They were not side by side – that would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago, perhaps even today – but they touched in one corner, so that you could walk from one to the other.


It makes me think of a poem by the French poet René Arcos, “Les Morts…”, “The Dead…”

Le vent fait flotter
Du même côté
Les voiles des veuves

Et les pleurs mêlés
Des mille douleurs
Vont au même fleuve.
Serrés les uns contre les autres
Les morts sans haine et sans drapeau,
Cheveux plaqués de sang caillé,
Les morts sont tous d’un seul côté.

Dans l’argile unique où s’allie sans fin
Au monde qui meurt celui qui commence
Les morts fraternels tempe contre tempe
Expient aujourd’hui la même défaite.

Heurtez-vous, ô fils divisés!
Et déchirez l’Humanité
En vains lambeaux de territoires,
Les morts sont tous d’un seul côté.

Car sous terre il n’y a plus
Qu’une patrie et qu’un espoir
Comme il n’y a pour l’Univers
Qu’un combat et qu’une victoire.

Here are my very modest efforts at translation:

In the same direction
Does the wind make
The widows’ veils float.

And the mixed tears
Of a thousand pains
Flow into the same stream.
Wedged one against the other
The dead without hate and without flag,
Hair smeared with clotted blood,
The dead, they are all on one side.

In the same clay where come together without end
The world that dies and that which begins
The fraternal dead temple to temple
Expiate today the same defeat.

Clash, divided sons!
And tear Humanity
Into vain rags of territory,
The dead, they are all on one side.

For underground there is
But one fatherland and one hope
As there is for the Universe
But one battle and one victory.

What more fitting monument could there be than these twinned cemeteries for today’s Europe, which sees us inching cautiously closer together, with the goal of making this war (and its successor, the ’39-’45 war) la Der des Ders, as the French called it, la Dernière des Dernières, the absolutely last war.

______________________

Photos: ours or our cousins’, except:

Landscape Chemin des Dames: http://1418.aisne.com/discovery-routes/ASCPIC002FS000JG/detail/laffaux/le-front-du-chemin-des-dames
Unexploded shells: http://www.europe1.fr/faits-divers/pas-de-calais-plusieurs-obus-explosent-naturellement-dans-un-champ-2638741
Soldiers’ remains: http://www.bfmtv.com/societe/une-vingtaine-corps-poilus-retrouves-meuse-527266.html
Kohl and Mitterrand hold hands: http://www.cvce.eu/en/obj/francois_mitterrand_and_helmut_kohl_verdun_22_september_1984-en-2f9050c7-d5cb-4899-9bb2-e1e05bb9cb26.html
British cemetery Vendresse-Beaulne: http://www.ww2cemeteries.co.uk/ww1frenchextension/vendressebrit.htm

 

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some forty 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.


It was either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). Either way, 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 at all. 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 the City of Milan 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 atrium 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 to 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 in the background other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, 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.

____________________

Sant’Ambrogio: http://www.itmap.it/milano/basilica-di-santambrogio/
Atrium of Sant’Ambrogio: http://muse-garret.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2018/04/index.html
Incense smoke in church: https://www.pinterest.ph/pin/321233385899973661/
Swinging thurible: http://www.diariodejerez.es/semanasanta/Lunes-Santo-Jerez_3_575672440.html
Christmas carolling: https://www.gettyimages.de/video/choir?sort=mostpopular&offlinecontent=include&phrase=choir
Adoration of the Magi: http://en.artsdot.com/@@/8BWV5K-Rogier-Van-Der-Weyden-Adoration-of-the-Magi
Simple creche: https://ask.fm/matteotesselli99_
Elaborate creche: https://collinadeiciliegi.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/er-presepe/
Ruins of Baraqish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baraqish
Ruins of Avdat: http://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/reizen/israel-restaureert-antieke-stad-avdat/diaporama-normal-450517.html
Ruins of Petra: https://magdalatravel.com/detalles.php?id=82
Frankincense trees: http://holistictoolbox.co.nz/product/frankincense-boswellia-rivae-organic/
Camel riding: http://thesandysnowman.com/5-lessons-life-travel/

A WALK FROM ONE SAINT TO ANOTHER

Sori, 10 December 2016

We started in San Rocco, which is perched on a rocky spur high above Camogli.

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The last time we visited it, we huffed and we puffed our way up the old mule track that snakes its way up from Camogli. This time, we took it easy; we took the Recco-Rapallo bus and hopped off at Ruta, which lies on the saddle between Camogli on one side of Monte di Portofino and Santa Margherita on the other, and took another little bus from Ruta to San Rocco.

A little aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Rocco, known in English – if at all – as Saint Roch (I found traces of a couple of British churches named after him), lived in the late 1200s, early 1300s, dividing his time between what is now southern France and northern Italy. He is the patron saints of dogs and bachelors (a strange combination) and was especially invoked in times of the plague – hence this painting of the saint pensively pointing to a plague bubo on his leg.
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In any event, fresh from our relaxing bus drive, and fortified by a cappuccino and a slice of focaccia, we set off down the path which led to Punta Chiappa, a low rocky ledge jutting out into the sea at the furthest reaches of Monte di Portofino. The idea was to have lunch in a restaurant down at the water’s edge just before Punta Chiappa and, suitably fuelled up, toil our way back up to San Rocco. We started losing height through a series of long flights of steps
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we wended our way through woods
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through which struggled a few remaining olive groves.
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We finally arrived at San Nicolò, a small collection of houses clustered around a pretty little 12th Century church.
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The original monks who had ministered to the small community of fisherfolk clinging on to this steep hillside finally moved away in the face of continuing depredations by Barabary pirates (I suppose church plate was considered good loot) and the church fell into disuse. Recently, suitable renovations have been undertaken, although there was little left of the original decorations to restore.

Another quick aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Nicolò, Saint Nicholas in English, lived at the juncture of the 3rd and 4th centuries. He was a bishop in Asia Minor and was famous for working miracles (he seems to have been particularly good at this). Of relevance to this story, he is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
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But he also is responsible for a whole host of other professions including coopers, archers, pharmacists and – somewhat bizarrely – broadcasters. Somewhere along the line, no doubt because he is the patron saint of children, this very worthy saint morphed into that very heathen Santa Claus.

One of the few fragments of the original decorations left is this piece of fresco.
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It shows St. Nicholas saving two sailors from drowning as their ship founders: that nightmare of all sailors and the subject of famous paintings
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as well as a myriad of humbler ex-votos, normally dedicated as in this case to Mary in her role as Stella Maris, Star of the Seas.
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I am moved to insert here those lovely lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in the short section of the poem entitled Death by Water:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current underseas
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

From San Nicolò, we got the first good view of the Golfo di Paradiso, the woods having obscured the view in the upper reaches of the walk.
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Hunger drove us on. We dropped still further towards the sea,
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finally reaching the restaurant. Alas! Contrary to what we had been assured in the café where we took our morning cappuccino and focaccia, it was closed. We were mournfully counting the tangerines we had brought with us and reckoning on the number of stairs we would need to climb to get back to San Rocco on a nearly empty stomach when we saw a boat coming in to dock. We hurried forward and discovered that by sheer serendipity we had arrived just in time to catch the boat to San Fruttuoso, from whence we could get a boat back to Camogli! Light of stomach, but also light of heart, we hopped on, took a seat, and admired the passing views as we rounded Punta Chiappa
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motored past forbidding headlands
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until the small fort protecting San Fruttuoso hove into sight,
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where we turned into San Fruttuoso’s bay and chugged in towards the village itself.
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Calling this a village is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, composed as it is of the ancient abbey (currently under renovation)
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a somewhat less ancient watchtower
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and a few fishermen’s houses clustered in between.

It’s a charming site, much frequented in the summer by people who come to lie on the beach (as it was when we visited it, during a long weekend). We took the easy way in, but hardier folk can take one of a number of paths crisscrossing Monte di Portofino which pass through San Fruttuoso. Well rested and after eating our meager cache of tangerines I went off to visit the Abbey while my wife read her book on the beach.

A final note on the lives of obscure saints: San Fruttuoso, Saint Fructuosus in English (a saint so obscure in the English world that I could find no church named after him), was a bishop of Tarragona in Spain in the second half of the third century.
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His main, in fact his only, claim to fame was that he was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is so obscure that no group has claimed him as their patron saint, which is a bit sad. Given his name, makers of fruit juices could perhaps apply …

How an abbey in Italy got to be dedicated to him is a bit of a mystery. The story goes that when the Vandals invaded Spain some monks from Tarragona, anxious that his remains not be despoliated, carried them off by sea. After a certain amount of wandering around the Mediterranean, they ended up on the Monte di Portofino. I find the story to have a lot of holes in it, but hey, who am I to question its veracity? Suffice to say that the Abbey grew quite wealthy from donations of land. Wealth put it in the sights of the Barabary pirates. Like San Nicolò, it went into decline after repeated depredations and was eventually abandoned.

In the early afternoon, our return boat docked. We piled in and returned to Camogli
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for a well-deserved late lunch of focaccia al formaggio.

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______________

All photos: mine, except as follows

San Rocco: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camogli-chiesa_di_San_Rocco_(Ruta)-DSCF0645.JPG
Saint Roch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Roch
Le radeau de la méduse: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Radeau_de_La_Méduse
Ex-voto shipwreck: http://www.ottante.it
Saint Nicholas: http://aristidhmilaqi.blogspot.it/2011/06/saint-nicholas-patron-saint-of-sailors.html?m=1
Saint Fructuosus: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructuosus
Camogli: http://www.cepolina.com/Camogli-sea-beach.html
Focaccia al formaggio: http://www.italianbotanicalheritage.com/it/scheda.php?struttura=499

KYOTO IN NOVEMBER

Kyoto, 13 November 2016

We read glumly about the results of the American presidential elections and their aftermath. The future looks bleak. Yet, even in this dark hour, it is impossible not to be struck by the beauty that surrounds us in Kyoto.

The paintings on the sliding doors of the temples, branches spreading over a wash of gold.
sliding-doors
The sweep of moss, brilliant green, under the trees, in the temple gardens.
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The leaves turning on the Japanese maples, early November scarlet bleeding into old summer green.
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I am moved, like the Japanese poets of old, to compose a haiku.
japanese-poet

Velvet moss greening gnarled roots,
Maples blooming red:
I weep for America.

____________________
Sliding doors: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/44858
Japanese poet: https://www.pinterest.com/reaconnell/haiku-japanese-poetry/
Other photos: ours

AMBER AND ITS ROAD

Bangkok, 15 August 2016

I’ve just finished a fascinating book about the peopling of Europe, entitled Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings, by Jean Manco. The book describes the various waves of people who have settled Europe, peacefully or not, from 40,000 BC to 1,000 AD.

One thread in the rich tapestry of the peopling of Europe is the trade networks which sprang up as neighbouring tribes traded whatever useful or interesting resources they controlled inside their territories. The really high-value resources could in this way travel very long distances from their point of origin, as people passed them on – at ever-increasing value, no doubt – to people further away from the original source. In an earlier post, I’ve mentioned the Stone Age long-distance trade in obsidian, which made excellent, sharp arrowheads. Gold, the subject of my next-to previous post, was also traded over long distances. Amber was another such material.

In the early days of Europe’s history, by far the richest source of amber was the Baltic coast of Poland (it probably still is), where nuggets of amber would wash up on the beach, broken off from the amber deposits on the sea bottom.
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The biggest market for amber, on the other hand, and from time immemorial, were the civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament contains pieces of Baltic amber, for instance
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while Heinrich Schliemann found necklace beads of Baltic amber in the Mycenaean tombs he excavated.

Thus sprang up several “amber roads”, trade routes which brought Baltic (and other Northern European) amber south.
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The one that most interests me is the amber road which led from the general region of Gdansk down to the Roman provincial capital of Carnuntum on the Danube River (the Danube became the Roman Empire’s frontier in 9 BC), on down along the network of Roman roads to Aquileia in North-Eastern Italy, the terminus. This map shows, more or less, a detailed trace of this amber road.
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I say “more or less” because while the route taken by the amber after the Danube River crossing is pretty clear – it followed the Roman roads down to the Italian peninsula – how it got to the Danube River from the Baltic coast is less so. There were just tracks through the forests and around the bogs in this part of Europe, and I’m sure every Germanic trader followed his fancy, depending on what else he was buying or selling along the way, as well as what the weather was like and who was fighting who. There seem to have been a few fixed points on the itinerary: Wroclaw (Breslau in German; the British historian Norman Davies, in collaboration with Roger Moorehouse, has written a fascinating biography of this city, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City), the Moravian Gate (a pass between the Carpathian and Sudeten mountains, used since remotest antiquity as a passageway), and the Morava River which flows into the Danube just across from Carnuntum.

Once the raw amber arrived in Aquileia, it was turned over to workshops which turned it into desirable luxury products. Aquileia’s amber products were famous not just in the Italic heartlands but throughout the Roman world. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder – rather dismissively, it seems to me – says they were in demand among women only. He also says that amber was thought to have protective properties for illnesses of the throat, which might explain why so many of the amber products found in the Italian peninsula are pendants.

I have to say I’m not a big fan of amber, at least as used in modern jewelry. But I must admit that some of the amber pieces made in the Italian peninsula, both before its domination by Rome and after, are really very lovely. Here, in no particular order, are some pieces whose photos I found on the net. The first two are pre-Roman (Italic and Etruscan, respectively, to be precise)
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while the remainder are from the Roman period; a number of them, if not all, were made in Aquileia’s workshops. This is Dionysius
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while this must be Pan.
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This is a perfume bottle
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while this little set-piece is “Eros and a bitch”.
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Lovely little pieces …

Let me go back a step now and explain my interest in this particular amber road. Or rather interests, for there are several. I first got to know about it, and the ancient amber trade in general, when my wife and I lived in Vienna. It so happens that Vienna is located close to Carnuntum. It always tickled me pink to think that Vienna, which gives itself such airs as the capital of the (defunct) Austro-Hungarian Empire, was once upon a time no more than a minor garrison town called Vindobona on the far edges of the much mightier Roman Empire. I’m sure officers and soldiers alike in little Vindobona looked with envy at their more powerful neighbour Carnunutum, which not only had the rich amber trade passing through it but also was the capital of the province. So many more important things went on there! The Emperor Marcus Aurelius chose Carnuntum as his base for three years during one of the periodic Roman campaigns against Germanic tribes across the Danube River (he also wrote part of his famous Meditations there, a copy of which graces my bookshelves). Another Emperor, Septimius Severus, was also based in Carnuntum when governor of Pannonia, and he was proclaimed Emperor there by his troops. Carnuntum hosted a historic meeting between the Emperor Diocletian and his co-emperors Maximian and Galerius, to solve rising tensions within the tetrarchy. Among other things, the meeting led to freedom of religion for the Roman Empire. And on, and on.

In contrast, like in all garrison towns, probably nothing much ever happened in Vindobona (although Marcus Aurelius’s death there in 180 AD must have caused a ripple of excitement). W.H. Auden caught well the tedium of garrison life on the Empire’s frontier for the ordinary soldier, in his poem Roman Wall Blues. The poem is about another of the Empire’s frontiers, Hadrian’s Wall, but I’m sure the tedium was the same, whichever frontier you were assigned to.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

But I suppose Vienna had the last laugh. It still exists, whereas Carnuntum is now but a very modest pile of ruins, having been systematically sacked by Germanic tribes in the 4th Century (I suppose in a way the Germanic tribes had the last laugh too, after all the denigration they received from the Romans). Sic transit gloria mundi, as I am ever fond of repeating: “thus passes the glory of the world”.

This particular amber road also caught my attention because it gave me an alternative route to the ones we always took to go back to my wife’s home town of Milan: either head south out of Vienna over the mountains to Graz and then over more mountains to Klagenfurt and Villach, slip through the Alps at the Tarvisio pass, then speed past Udine down to Venice, whence turn right and make for Milan; or, head west out of Vienna towards Linz, then Salzburg, and then into Bavaria, turn left at the River Inn and enter Austria again, at Innsbruck turn left again and climb up to the Brenner pass, down the other side to zip by Bolzano and Trento, exit from the Alps at Verona, and turn right there to head for Milan. Now my wife and I could take a lower road (a considerable benefit when traveling in winter, when both the other routes can be unpleasant), as well as one steeped in history. Travelling along the ghosts of old Roman roads (all of which disappeared long ago) we would head south past the tip of Lake Neusidler, shared by Austria and Hungary, to Šopron and then Szombalethy, both in Hungary, on to Ptuj, Celje, and Lubljana in Slovenia, to finally slip through the Julian Alps at Gorizia and on to Aquileia, where we would need to finally get on the A4 motorway and speed on to Milan!

Great idea, except for one slight problem – time. There is no speedy highway linking all these towns, so it would take far longer to get to Milan. Since we were working, we couldn’t afford the time; we were always time-starved. But that will all change in a mere two weeks’ time, when I retire! Then, we will have all the time in the world, and I am determined to finally follow in the footsteps of the legions and pass through what were once the Roman towns of Scarbantia, Savariensum, Poetovium, Celeia, and Emona. There’s not much Roman left in them, though. Like Carnuntum, and like the terminal point Aquileia (of whose total destruction I wrote about in an earlier post), they were all thoroughly sacked and resacked by Germanic, Gothic, Hun, Lombard, Slav, or Hungarian war parties (or some combination of these) during the period of the “Barbarian Invasions” or the “Migration of the Peoples”, the Völkerwanderung (take your pick, depending on your ideological point of view).

I always feel a point of melancholy when faced with these moments of destruction in history. And it’s not just in the remote past. On the northern end of this amber road, tremendous destruction, of places but also of people, was wreaked a mere 70 or so years ago as first, German troops swept through on their way to enacting Hitler’s policy of lebensraum, expanding the living space of the Aryan, Germanic people at the expense of Slavic people, and then again, as the Soviet troops fought their way back to Berlin. Along with many other Polish cities, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Poznan, all sitting astride the amber route, were almost totally destroyed, their Jewish populations annihilated, their Polish populations much depleted, their industrial infrastructure stripped away. What a waste … so much human creativity swept away by the animal desire to destroy.

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Raw amber on a Baltic beach: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_amber#/media/File%3ABaltic_beach_sand_containing_amber.jpg
Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament: https://hu.pinterest.com/pin/249598004324238999/
Amber necklace, Mycenae: https://sites.google.com/site/ambranathistplinio/home/etimologia-e-proprieta
Amber routes map: http://www.ambergallery.lt/en/disp.php?itm=en_museums_3%2Fen_museums_3_9
Amber road through Carnuntum: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amber_Road
Ram’s head, Italic, 500-400 BC: http://museumcatalogues.getty.edu/amber/intro/16/
Boar’s head, Etruscan, 525-480 BC: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/19/entertainment/la-et-getty-ambers-20130119
Mask of Dionysius, Roman, 1st C AD: http://amberregina.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html
Perfume bottle, Roman, Aquileia workshop, 2nd C AD: http://www.antiquitiesexperts.com/rome138.html
Eros and bitch, Roman: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1128_-_Archaeological_Museum,_Udine_-_Ancient_Roman_amber_Eros_and_bitch_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_May_29_2015.jpg