the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

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 some 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

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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.

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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

CURLED MUSTACHES

Milan, 4 February 2018

With apologies to Gentle Readers who got an earlier, unfinished version of this post

A Gentle Reader of my recent post on the use of orange peel in coffee sent me a link to a post about some young fellow, a barista, who makes a coffee with vanilla and orange peel in a bar on Venice Beach. The post has a picture of the barista at work, which I include here.

My other Gentle Readers will note that the barista’s mustache ends have a certain curl to them. That curl is the subject of this piece.

The fact is, I have recently begun to notice that some of the men I pass in the street who happen to sport mustaches have begun to add a curl to them. I throw in here a picture or two I found here and there on the internet.


This new fashion in facial hair is an example of that adage “what goes around comes around” (or maybe of that other adage “there’s nothing new under the sun”). Curled mustaches have certainly not been in fashion during my lifetime – Salvador Dalì’s weird mustache definitely being an example of yet another saying: the exception that proves the rule.

They don’t seem to have been in fashion in my parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime either. If men had mustaches at all in their time, they favoured pencil-thin mustaches à la Clark Gable

or trim mustaches favoured – at least in my mind – by military types

(although there was a sub-culture of daring RAF pilots during the War who chose to grow handlebar mustaches, luxuriant mustaches discretely curled at their ends).

The mustache-beard combination was also relatively rare: men went around bare-chinned for the most part. King George V seems to have bucked the prevalent trends, at least when he was young and still Prince, growing both a luxuriant beard and giving his mustache a slight curl.

By the time he was King and needed to emanate a certain gravitas his mustache was no longer curled.

Perhaps George was copying his elder brother, Albert Victor (who died young and so never reigned), who opted to give his mustaches a more foppish curl (but shunned the beard).

I’m guessing that curled mustaches were more of a continental phenomenon, and a southern (Catholic) continental phenomenon at that. I suspect that during most of the 20th Century Englishmen felt that it was only funny little foreigners who curled their mustache – one only has to read what Agatha Christie had to say about Poirot’s mustache to get a sense of the ordinary Englishman-on-the-street’s feelings about highly curled mustaches.

Indeed, in my great-grand parents’ time it seems that only southern continentals had curled mustaches. We have Napoleon III

and even more strikingly Vittorio-Emanuele II, first king of united Italy.

I have already written about how my French great-grandfather followed his Emperor’s fashions in hair and beard, only to change to a more Prussian style when Napoleon III got the shit beaten out of him by Bismarck, whose mustache was very much in the no-nonsense style.

A quick review of even earlier Movers and Shakers – Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and such like – suggests to me that apart from a few exceptions, mustaches, when grown, were not commonly curled until one gets back into the mid-17th Century, the era of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, when anyone who was anyone sported a curling mustache, accompanied not by a full beard but by a goatee. The best example of the style is Cardinal Richelieu.

The face of the king he served, King Louis XIII, was similarly festooned

although even in this he was overshadowed by his Minister: who associates Louis XIII with curled mustaches?

On the other side of the Pyrenees Philip IV similarly sported a curled mustache and goatee beard (which didn’t hide his protruding Hapsburg chin)

As did Charles I across the Channel.

Clearly, curled mustaches with goatees were in.

No European King prior to this generation seems to have curled his mustaches, but it must have been in fashion earlier. Here, for instance, from England’s Elizabethan era, we have that English vice-admiral (pirate might be a better word, or buccaneer if we want to be more romantic) Sir Francis Drake.

And here we have Sir Walter Raleigh, another swashbuckling fellow (and good poet).

In fact, all of those sailor-pirate-explorer types that Elizabeth favoured tended to have upward-curving mustaches:
Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Sir Richard Grenville

Sir John Hawkins

and his son, Sir Richard Hawkins.

I presume that equally dashing lads throughout Europe curled their mustaches. Was it a fashion started by men living on the edge of respectability, the wild ones in Good Society, the ones you loved to read about but would definitely not marry your daughter off to, a fashion which then crept into more respectable circles to be finally sported by Kings and Cardinals?

Of course, I have been revoltingly Eurocentric up to now in this piece. It is time to give space to other parts of the world where curled mustaches have made their mark. And here I’m thinking principally of the Indian subcontinent, which has given us examples of some magnificently curled mustaches. Currently, the Sikhs seem to be the ones carrying forward this tradition


but in the past well curled mustaches – and rich and full beards – were common in the Indian subcontinent.

Well, I end my historical tour of the curled mustache here. I can only look on men who curl their mustaches with envy. As I reported earlier, I’ve never grown a beard and if I did it would be a mangy thing. I grew a mustache once in my life and it was a raggedly sorry affair despite my best efforts. Well, that’s life: you live with the genes your parents gave you, and I didn’t get the gene for rich, thick, curlable mustaches. Hey ho.
_______________
Barista: http://sprudge.com/the-orange-vanilla-caffe-rico-at-menottis-coffee-stop-venice-beach-73092.html
Modern curled mustaches: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.vanityfair.it/amp/8465/beauty/trend-beauty/2017/05/11/barba-capelli-trend-uomo-primavera-2017
Modern curled mustaches: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/zacpeck/beards-and-mustaches/
Modern curled mustaches: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/captainfawcett/moustache-and-bearded-cool/
Modern curled mustaches: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.esquire.com/style/grooming/gmp2890/mustache-styles-for-men/
Modern curled mustaches: https://m.theepochtimes.com/movember-guide-to-a-sweet-mustache-styles-to-fit-your-face-and-other-tips_340938.html
Modern curled mustaches: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/275986283398395802/
Salvador Dali: http://m.theartstory.org/artist-dali-salvador.htm
Clark Gable: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.filmibeat.com/amphtml/hollywood/news/2008/gable-racism-victor-fleming-300908.html
Military man with mustache: http://thejollybuffoon.blogspot.it/2008/11/?m=1
RAF fighter pilot: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2870347/Last-One-final-surviving-Battle-Britain-pilots-dies-aged-98-leaving-incredible-archive-aerial-photographs.html
young King George V: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kinggeorgev1928.jpg
old King George V: https://www.gettyimages.it/evento/years-since-king-george-v-death-90301144#/king-george-v-of-great-britain-preparing-to-give-a-radio-broadcast-a-picture-id56650523
Prince Albert Victor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Albert_Victor,_Duke_of_Clarence_and_Avondale
Hercule Poirot: http://serialy.bombuj.eu/serial-hercule-poirot
Napoleon III: https://fi.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleon_III
Vittorio-Emanuele
 II: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vittorio_Emanuele_II_di_Savoia
Bismarck: http://historyworldsome.blogspot.it/2013/12/otto-von-bismarck.html?m=1
Cardinal Richelieu: https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/cardinal-richelieu-6772.php
Louis XIII: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XIII_of_France
Charles I: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11228284/Killers-of-the-King-the-Men-who-DaredExecute-Charles-I-by-Charles-Spencer.html
Philip IV:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_IV_of_Spain
Francis Drake: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Francis-Drake
Martin Frobisher: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Frobisher
Humphrey Gilbert: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humphrey_Gilbert
Richard Grenville: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Grenville
John Hawkins: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hawkins_(naval_commander)
Richard Hawkins: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Hawkins
Indian Maharaja: http://dp.mariottini.free.fr/carnets/inde/maharajas-rajputs.htm
Indian Maharaja: https://no.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maharaja
Nawabs: https://no.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nawab
Bearded Sikh: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/turban-beard.html
Bearded Sikh: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.reddit.com/r/beards/comments/676iel/some_people_say_ive_got_a_pretty_sikh_beard/

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 here 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.

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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

COFFEE AND ORANGE, COFFEE AND LEMON

Milan, 7 January 2018

Our son, who happens to be staying with us at the moment, is currently really into a new variant on our standard way of making our post-lunch instant coffee – yes, in this country which gave the world cappuccino, espresso, macchiato, and dozens of other glorious versions of coffee, we use instant coffee at home. Let me leave aside any discussion as to why we do this and share with readers the variant in question. It is the addition to the coffee of some zest from the mounds of orange peels which we regularly generate at this time of the year. The zest adds a slight citrus flavour to the coffee, which pleasantly smoothens the coffee taste. Our son was taught the trick by my wife, who in turn learned it from her mother, who used it very often when she was drinking her caffè d’orzo, her barley coffee – this is Italy’s non-caffeinated alternative to coffee, made from ground roasted barley; it is similar in function to, although better in taste than, chicory. This picture of caffè d’orzo with a twist of orange zest was tweeted by an Italian lady who was waxing enthusiastic about the cup she was just having.

Knowing the rather louche reputation that chicory has, I throw in this picture which clearly shows that caffè d’orzo is considered a very respectable drink in Italy.

While we do not drink caffè d’orzo our main use of instant coffee is in its decaffeinated form, which makes it pretty close in spirit to caffè d’orzo, so the orange zest works well with it too. I recommend that any of my readers who drink instant coffee and who happen to be eating oranges should try it.

As is my habit when writing posts, I cruised around the internet a little, this time to see what other coffee-orange combinations have been tried or are being suggested. There are quite a number, but I will cite just one or two. One that takes my fancy is actually more of a liqueur. Take a bottle of grappa, add three strips of orange zest and six freshly toasted coffee beans, and then leave the whole for about 15 days to allow the grappa to imbibe both the orange and the coffee flavours (in the first few days, turn the bottle once a day to ensure that the beans get waterlogged and sink down into the grappa).

I suspect that this is not really Italian – the net reports a similar liqueur made in the Netherlands using vodka (I would have thought that it should be made with jenever to be really Dutch, but perhaps I’m quibbling here).

For reasons which will become clear in a minute, another coffee-orange combination which caught my eye goes as follows. Peel off the zest of half an orange, put it in a small pan with eight teaspoons of sugar, two cloves, a piece of cinnamon, and four small glasses of rum. Heat the pan over low heat until the mixture is piping hot and the sugar completely dissolved. Add to the hot mixture four small cups of boiling espresso coffee. Mix in and drink. The recipe helpfully suggests to accompany the coffee with some biscuits.


While I was doing my searches for orange-coffee combinations, I decided to do a similar search for lemon-coffee combinations. Many years ago, when we were in the US we went to an Italian restaurant. At the end of the meal they served us an espresso with a small twist of lemon zest. I was somewhat surprised by this, but my wife explained that it was actually a Neapolitan habit – my reading for this blog suggests a somewhat wider localization, since it seems to also be a habit on the Sorrentine peninsula.

The reason for adding lemon zest to coffee seems to be to soften its bitterness. Apparently, one should also rub the lip of the cup with the zest, to disinfect it – I have to presume that cups were not that well washed in the old days … From the comments I found on the net, there must be many Italians who do not know of this Neapolitan-Sorrentine use of lemon zest. A number of entries written by Italians described similar experiences to mine in the US and put it down to the general barbarity of the Americans. Yet all it seems to show is that a lot of Neapolitans and Sorrentines emigrated to the US and took their culinary habits with them.

Here too I cruised around the net to see what other lemon-coffee combinations I could discover. The one that really captured my fancy is the Ponce di Livorno, the Leghorn Punch (how on earth did the English transpose the Italian name Livorno into Leghorn? A mystery to resolve another day). There was a time when Livorno, a port city in Tuscany, had a sizable British expat community, merchants for the most part. As British expats always do, they brought their gastronomic habits with them, one of these being the imbibing of punch.  By the time the local Livornese population was introduced to this drink in the early 19th Century, it had become quite genteel, being made with tea, rum, sugar, lemon and cinnamon. Since the Livornese, like Italians in general, were coffee drinkers rather than tea drinkers they decided to substitute the tea with coffee (they also substituted the rum either with Mastice, a local aniseed-based liqueur, or with “Rumme”, a fake rum made by mixing together alcohol, sugar and dark-coloured caramel. Nowadays, since rum is easily available they have gone back to using that). It’s become so much part of Livorno that the drink has been given a Protected Designation of Origin certification. To make it, put half a large cupful of rum into a small pan, add two teaspoons of sugar and some cinnamon (or Mastice), and heat. When hot, add an equivalent amount of espresso coffee, mix, and pour into a large cup. Add a twist of lemon zest.

It’s just as well that lemon juice is not added, as it presumably would have been to the original British punch. Many entries in the net refer to coffee-lemon juice combinations as a great emetic (people refer to their grandmothers using this with their grandchildren when they were sick to their stomach), or as a great cure for hangovers, or as a great cure for headaches. I’m not quite sure lemon-coffee can have all these effects, but clearly we must have no more than a faint trace of lemon in the coffee (I’m rather reminded of puffer fish sushi. Puffer fish contains a deadly venom. If not properly prepared and even a small trace of venom remains, that puffer fish sushi will be your last meal)

Well, with this, I wish my readers fun in combining either orange or lemon with their coffee, whether properly brewed or instant!

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caffe d’orzo with orange zest: https://twitter.com/alexethno/status/719877692846444544
caffe d’orzo Lavazza: http://www.areavendingcasa.it/cat0_14907_4780/cialde-and-capsule/lavazza-espresso-point-cialde/p28132-caffe-dorzo-espresso-point-50-capsule.php
grappa con caffe e arancia: http://www.vinibertot.it/index.php/it/grappe-e-liquori/grappa-con-caffe-e-arancia-gr-40-bott-cc-700-detail
caffe with rum and orange: http://ricette.donnamoderna.com/caffe-rum-arancia
caffe with lemon zest: http://www.dersutmagazine.it/cucina/caffe-e-limone-caffe-al-limone/
Ponce alla livornese: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-ponce-alla-livornese-ponce-al-rum-livorno-leghorn-tuscany-italy-ponce-32108130.html
people drinking coffee: http://nutritionadvance.com/drinking-coffee-every-day-good-bad/

ABDOULAYE KONATÉ, MALIAN ARTIST

Milan, 31 December 2017

My wife and I went for a walk the other day in Milan’s so-called Fashion Quadrilateral, the zone in the city centre bounded by four roads – Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Manzoni and Corso Venezia. Here, you will find the boutiques (shops seems too vulgar a word) of the greatest Italian fashion brands as well as of quite a number of the best-known foreign brands. I won’t name names, I don’t feel like giving even an iota of publicity to these temples of conspicuous consumption.

I should clarify that I dislike visiting shops, and the higher the price tags on the merchandise the more I dislike them. Visits to places like Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral therefore turn me into a rabid Socialist. In moments like these, my wife just ignores me and enjoys the window-gazing.

As I stumped grumpily along streets whose windows were stuffed with items the sale of any one of which could cover a Bangladeshi garment worker’s salary for several decades, I spied something out of the ordinary in a window. Now this was something intriguing indeed!

Seeing another one inside the boutique in question, I metaphorically held my nose and entered. It was somewhat smaller but just as striking.

A sign stenciled on the boutique’s window helpfully informed me that the works were by a certain Abdoulaye Konaté. I had never heard of this artist, but a quick search on the Internet revealed the bare bones of his life: he is a Malian artist, one year older than ourselves, and resides in Mali’s capital city, Bamako.

And what lovely pieces he creates! He works primarily with textiles, with one thread of his work – if I may put it that way – veering towards abstract compositions made with small rectangular stripes of highly coloured cotton textiles, much like his works in the boutique. I give here a little gallery of these works, drawn from the Internet.

This final one has recently been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

The other main thread of his work veers more towards the figurative, as these examples show:

Thoroughly excited by these discoveries, after Christmas I headed to the gallery in town which was lending the pieces to the boutique. Alas! The gallery only held the pieces loaned to the fashion boutique. Instead, it was holding a show dedicated to Gianfranco Zappettini, an Italian artist from the so-called Analytical school of the 1970s. Paintings like these surrounded us as the young, enthusiastic fellow on duty told us more about Konaté and eventually about Zappettini.

Analytic painting, and I quote, “wished to conduct an analysis of the material components of paintings (the canvas, the frame, the material of the paint, the colour, signs) and the material relationship that takes place between the work as physical object and its author. Painting therefore became the subject of investigation of itself and lost the references which linked it to reality (in figurative painting), to expressiveness (in abstract painting) and to the underlying significance (in conceptual art)”. Well, that pretty much sums up the complete dead-end that modern Western art has finished up in. A feeling that was underscored for me by a visit to a new art venue in Milan, the Pirelli Bicocca, once – as its name implies – a factory of the Pirelli Group, now a large ex-industrial space given over to art. The space is wonderful. But this is what we saw there – piles of old clothes passed off as art.

Konaté takes textiles and turns them into lovely pieces of art. We in the west can only make untidy piles out of these textiles and call it art.  It seems to me that contemporary art is like and old tree, rotted away at its heart but still living around its edges which are supporting an exuberant  foliage.

Thank God for Malian artists like Abdoulaye Konaté, or Inuit artists like Kananginak Pootoogook, or Malagasy artists like Joel Andrianomearisoa, or a dozen other artists from the so-called periphery of the world, who are keeping art alive!

___________________________

Shopping in Via Montenapoleone: http://www.wheremilan.com/discover-milan/sightseeing/montenapoleone-district/
Abdoulaye Konaté: http://www.artesmundi.org/artists/abdoulaye-konate
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-1: https://www.blainsouthern.com/artists/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-3: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/abdoulaye-konat-exhibits-merges-music-and-colour-at-blainsouthern-gallery
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-4: https://www.widewalls.ch/abdoulaye-konate-at-blain-southern-berlin-solo-exhibition-useful-dreams-2015/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstact-5: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/461689399276917735/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-6: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/655979
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-1: http://biennaleartmagazine.com/1986/04/18/abdoulaye-konate-arken-21-april-18-september-2016-dk/
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-3: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16308012
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-4: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/abdoulaye-konate-fete-africaine-the-men-and-the-marionettes
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-5: https://scope-art.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/SMB14-NL-03-v5.html
Gianfranco Zappettini paintings: http://www.primomarellagallery.com/it/mostre/63/la-luce-prima/
Old hollowed-out tree: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-6904222-stock-footage-old-hollowed-out-oak-tree-was-struck-by-lightning-about-years-ago-and-despite-having-a-lost-it.html

COTECHINO FOR NEW YEAR’S DINNER

Milan, 28 December 2017

Many posts ago, I promised that I would render public the recipe for mashed potatoes which had been handed down for generations from mother to daughter on my mother’s side (at least, that’s what I would like to think; I certainly got the recipe from my sister, who in turn got it from our grandmother). I will finally unveil it today – but first, I will dreamily describe the meal which it accompanied, which happens to have been our Christmas lunch.

The centerpiece of the lunch, the pièce de resistance as the French would say, was two cotechini. For readers who have no idea what a cotechino is, let me first say that I completely understand; I too had no idea what it was before I had slices of one put on my plate some forty years ago, when I passed my first year’s end in Italy. Let me go on to say that it is a sausage – such an ugly term for this glorious dish! the Italian term salume is so much more elegant, I will use that.

It is made with pork meat, both lean (shoulder, neck, leg, shank) and fatty (throat, cheek, bacon) as well as rind. The meat portion is chopped coarsely, the rind finely. Nowadays, the lean meats predominate in the recipe, with about a fifth each by weight of fatty meat and rind added, but I suspect that in the old days there was much more rind since its name derives from cotica, the Italian word for rind. In any event, salt, pepper, spices and herbs, and even sometimes wine, are added to the mix. The precise types and amounts of spices and herbs are of course closely guarded secrets handed down from generation to generation in the hush of rural kitchens, but nutmeg, cloves and sometimes cinnamon are present in modern recipes. This fragrant mix is then squeezed into a casing of pig’s intestines. The resulting salume is cured for about a month, after which it is ready to eat. But first it needs to be cooked, which luckily is easy though slow: place the cotechino in boiling water over low heat for some four hours, first pricking the casing to allow the fats inside to ooze out. Et voilà! (I feel I must inform those readers who are pressed for time that there are now modern pre-cooked cotechini which can be ready for the table in half an hour, but I would really urge them to make time in their busy lives to purchase a raw cotechino and cook it the full four hours).

Today, the cotechino is a very respectable dish, but I suspect this is because it has been subjected to the culinary equivalent of gentrification. It must have started life as the ingenious response by poor people to the pressing need to use every bit of their pigs, even the hard, gristly, tough bits. In fact, the region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, which until recently was a very poor region of Italy, has always claimed the paternity of the cotechino. In truth, though, it is found in substantially the same form throughout the whole of north-eastern Italy, and has spread west to Lombardy and south to the Apennines. Northern Italy was full of very poor people until comparatively recent times. Some years ago, riding the wave of sourcing your food locally, Modena has cannily parlayed the greater notoriety of its variant of cotechino into a certification of Protected Geographical Indication, no doubt much to the annoyance of all the regions in the north-east who believe that the cotechino was born in their region.

Well, I don’t object to this social upgrading of the cotechino. I’ve always thought that simple “peasant” food is much nicer than the fussy, overwrought creations invented for aristocrats with nothing useful to do with their lives and always looking for something new to excite their jaded palets.

In northern Italy, cotechino is the dish par excellence for Christmas and New Year meals. It is joined in this distinction by the zampone from Emilia Romagna, which is identical to the cotechino except for the casing used: the pig’s front foot rather than its intestines.

It is probably its role in year’s end festivities that has turned the cotechino into a respectable, middle-class dish. But I suspect that its place on the Christmas or New Year table in the first place is actually due to simple chance. In the old days, it was customary in the countryside to slaughter the household pig at the beginning of winter. The meat and offal were then cured or otherwise preserved to build up food supplies for the lean winter and spring months. Cotechino, which is cured within a month, would have been ready by the end of the year, just in time for the festive season. Thus did it happen to become, in my humble opinion, the centerpiece – the piece de resistance – on the Christmas or New Year table.

What of the side dishes to be eaten with cotechino? This year, we followed the time-honored tradition of eating it with lentils.

I personally think this is an excellent culinary pairing. Cotechino has rather a sharp taste, which is admirably offset by the relative blandness of lentils. The relative dryness of lentils also soaks up the cotechino’s tendency to excess fattiness. But I’m not sure this was necessarily the reason for which the pairing originally occurred. Since time immemorial, lentils have been the poor person’s food, so it seems natural to me that it should have been paired with cotechino, the poor person’s salume. It could also be that there was already a tradition of eating lentils at the new year. It seems that since at least Roman times there has been the belief that eating lentils at the new year will ensure your prosperity in the year to come. This credence is based on the shape of the lentils – they look like (very) small coins. I suppose this must be based on a belief in some sort of sympathetic magic: eat coin-shaped food and real coins will soon be clinking in your pocket. I wish it were that simple …

Which brings us back to where this post started: mashed potatoes.

We decided to add this to the basic pairing of cotechino and lentils. I feel that the gentle sweetness of mashed potatoes helps the lentils in its task of smoothing out that bite and tartness which is an essential part of the cotechino’s identity. I’m convinced that the our mashed potatoes’ sweetness is enhanced by the way we prepare it (I say “we” because I have passed on the age-old secret recipe to my wife and daughter): mash the potatoes, preferably in one of those old-fashioned manual food-grinders, add enough milk to nearly liquefy the mash, add an extremely large nob of butter, stir. That’s it.

And so we all tucked into our Christmas lunch of cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes.


Nothing fancy, just damned good food. And of course followed by that glory of Milanese cuisine, panettone.


Well, it’s taken me a little time to prepare this post, but readers still have just enough time to rush out and buy themselves a cotechino for their New Year’s lunch or dinner. I suggest going to your nearest Italian Deli to see if they have it – you can buy a zampone if they stock that. If not, you might just have time to buy it on-line. But hurry! Time is running out!

__________________

cotechino: http://www.academiabarilla.com/italian-recipes/second-courses/cotechino-with-lentils.aspx
cotechino di Modena IGP: http://www.pubblicitaitalia.com/eurocarni/2007/2/7179.html
zampone: http://www.salepepe.it/ingredienti/tipi-di-carne/zampone/
lentils: http://www.lacasadellericette.com/2011/12/lenticchie-felice-anno-nuovo.html
mashed potatoes: http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/mashed-potatoes-with-roasted-garlic-and-mascarpone-cheese-1947695
cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes: https://cucina.doki.it/secondi-piatti/cotechino-pure-patate-bimby-tm31-ricetta
Panettone: http://www.alimentipedia.it/panettone.html
New Year’s dinner: http://www.grubstreet.com/2016/12/where-to-make-last-minute-new-years-eve-reservations-in-nyc.html

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING

Milan, 25 December 2017

I suppose it’s a sign of old age creeping up on me that I recall with ever greater fondness the memories of my youth, and in this festive season no more so than to Christmases past – here, to get us into the spirit of things, I throw in a picture of Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past.

There is one Christmas in particular which comes back vividly to mind.  I must have been six years old, old enough to remember things forever more and young enough for incidents to be deeply impressed into my still malleable brain. I can still see in my mind’s eye the living room of our house in Eritrea – this was probably the last Christmas we spent there; we would be leaving it forever within the coming year. The furniture had been moved around to make room for a Christmas tree in the corner and a nativity scene along the edge of one of the walls. Following the cultural divide in our family, my British father was responsible for the tree while my French mother was responsible for the nativity scene, or crèche as she used to call it. The tree was a source of endless fascination to me, covered as it was with those glittering balls and other baubles. This picture of a Christmas tree from the 1950s captures well the glittering fantasy I beheld.

The balls in particular were a magnet for my little fingers, which was a problem because they were incredibly fragile in those days, made as they were of some very thin, very easily breakable material.  Alas, despite numerous parental warnings to keep out of the living room, I could not resist sneaking in and touching those beautiful balls, with a broken ball and a sore bottom being the inevitable result.

The crèche was an equal source of fascination: the little manger, the figurines of Mary and Joseph, the Mum and Dad to that little baby, Jesus, lying in the hay, the donkey and the cow, very much like the ones I saw when we went for drives in the countryside around the town, the shepherds hanging around the manger, who also looked pretty much like the shepherds I sometimes saw out in the countryside, the angel which hung by a thread over the manger, the three old fellows and a camel who, day by day, were brought closer and closer to the manger until they reached it some time after Christmas … all wonderful stuff. The crèche photographed here has the rough and ready look which ours surely had – in fact, it looks already to be one level above whatever it is that we prepared, although to my innocent eyes ours was a work of art.

I had little understanding and, frankly, zero interest in the theological profundities which were being exposed before us. What I loved were all those little figurines which we could move around! Our mother made it even more interesting by allowing us to add our own figurines to the mix. I don’t recall what I brought but I remember that my elder brother came with his toy cowboys and indians which he proceeded to hide behind the various trees and bushes dotting the papier-maché landscape.

In all my Christmases Past, I have had a particular fondness for these Christmas trappings, even though for reasons which are now not clear to me the crèche quite quickly dropped away in my parents’ Christmases, leaving only the tree and its baubles. When my Italian wife and I started having our own Christmases the decorated pine tree also dominated, although my wife remembered with great fondness the crèche, or presepe as she calls it, which her father would create when she was young. As she described it to me, it seemed very much like the crèche of my memory, although her father had cunningly inserted a pond into the landscape using a mirror and had rigged up a little light driven by a battery which would shine in the star above the manger – very clever! Since it was very much my father-in-law’s project, I suppose that after his early death my mother-in-law never had the heart to take the presepe out and set it up, even when our children were young and might have appreciated it. But we took them along to the local churches – every self-respecting Italian church will have a presepe set up in one of the side chapels at Christmas.

This year, as I did my annual trek to the attic to bring down our Christmas tree (made of plastic and reusable; I have to walk my talk, after all, and I can’t stand those piles of dead and dying pine trees on pavements after Christmas), I spied in the corner the box where my mother-in-law had stored the presepe materials, an old box which had once contained a humidifier and which still had her handwritten note on the top of it – a message from the past.

Since it was to be a family Christmas this year, with both our children joining us, I decided on the spur of the moment to set up the presepe. I brought the box down, took everything out, and carried out a general inspection. I decided to drop the pond; I didn’t approve of this novelty. The electrical system was kaput, so I ditched that. The main actors were all there – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ass and the ox, the shepherds and their sheep, the angel, the three Wise Men and their camel. But I was going to need some extra characters, to make up for the cowboys and indians which in my wiser old age I recognized as very incongruous – and anyway I had no cowboy and indian figurines at hand (I had some of my son’s Warhammer figurines in the back of a cupboard, but they would have been even more incongruous).

I decided to check out the greatest of all presepi in Italy, the ones made in Naples, which had brought the art of nativity scenes to heights of splendour. I mean, look at these two!


Now that’s what I call nativity scenes worthy of kings! (and queens) Making one was to be my KPI!

A little research informed me that there are a certain number of stock characters in Neapolitan nativity scenes. There is Benino, the sleeping shepherd, a reference to the line in the gospel that the shepherds were out in the fields at night (and therefore presumably snoozing). There is the wine seller, a reference to the Eucharist, but there is also Cicci Bacco, who is a reference to earlier pagan rites. There’s the Fisherman, symbolizing the fisher of souls. Then we have the two pals Unc’ Vicienzo and Unc’ Pascale, personifying Carnival and Death. There’s the Monk, who is meant to symbolize the union between the sacred and the profane in the Neapolitan nativity scene. There’s a Gypsy Girl, whose symbolism is uncertain but who is fun to have around. There’s Stefania, around whom there is an elaborate tale which I will not relate here. There’s the Prostitute, who is there to form a contrast with the purity of the Virgin and who normally is made to hang around outside the tavern – where else? Finally, there are the sellers in the market, one for each month of the year: butcher for January, seller of ricotta or cheese for February, seller of chickens and other birds March, seller of eggs April, a married couple holding a basket of cherries and fruit for May, baker for June, tomato seller July, watermelon seller August, fig seller September, wine seller October, chestnut seller November, fishmonger December. A rapid comparison of what I had inherited from my in-laws told me that we had a lot of gaps. I had a Benino, a fisherman, a fishmonger, a young girl with a basket who could be one half of the married couple of May, a young girl who could be Stefania. And that was about it. I had a number of other figurines who it seems are not part of the stock players in a Neapolitan nativity scene. There were a couple of figurines of men playing various instruments, maybe referring to a tradition which was still alive – just – when I first came to Italy in the 1970s and which saw men appearing a little before Christmas playing the Lombard equivalent of bagpipes and inviting donations from passers-by for their efforts. There was also a neat little figurine of a fellow making polenta, no doubt part of an effort to defend the honour of northern Italian cuisine. My wife had come across by chance a little shop which sold a medley of figurines for nativity scenes, so we stocked up on a few of our missing characters. We also bought some sheets of coloured paper to use as backdrops, a bag of moss to sprinkle around as generic vegetation, and some little houses to create a nearby Bethlehem.  Then we got to work, my wife on the tree and me on the presepe alla napoletana. The result is not so bad, even if we say so ourselves.

But there is still much to do on the presepe! Luckily, I am a believer in the philosophy of continuous improvement. Next year, we will make our presepe somewhat better, the year after that better still, and on and on. If I’m lucky enough to celebrate many more Christmases Yet to Come we will finally end up with a magnificent Neapolitan-style presepe! – with some tweaks to distinguish ourselves from our southern cousins.

 

Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Buon Natale!

____________________

Ghost of Christmas Past: http://www.wisegeek.com/who-is-the-ghost-of-christmas-past.htm
Christmas tree: https://it.pinterest.com/suehirtle1/1950s-christmas/?lp=true
Manger: http://www.unionesarda.it/articolo/sardegna_agenda/2017/11/29/a_villamar_un_corso_per_salvare_l_arte_del_presepe-122-671332.html
cowboys and indians: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/hajosc49/toy-land/
Parish church nativity scene: http://www.valcenoweb.it/2017/12/10/chiesa-parrocchiale-di-pione-bardi-inaugurato-il-presepio-venerdi-8-dicembre-2017/
the presepe box: my photo
Warhammer figurines: http://www.sickchirpse.com/peta-campaign-against-warhammer-fur/
Presepe napoletano: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presepe_napoletano
Presepe napoletano-2: http://www.oggiroma.it/eventi/mostre/il-presepe-religiosita-e-tradizione-popolare/27671/
The finished Christmas tree: my photo
The finished presepe: my photo
Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adorazione_dei_pastori_(Ghirlandaio)

AUTOSUGGESTION

Milan, 9 December 2017

I was recently reading The Lying Stones of Marrakech, a volume of essays by one of my favorite authors, Stephen Jay Gould.

My writing style in these posts owes a great deal to his essays. If any of my readers have an interest in natural history in general and paleontology specifically, I can highly recommend his books. Tragically, he died of cancer at the age of 60.

In any event, I had just started reading an essay entitled “Of Embryos and Ancestors”, which starts by Gould quoting the phrase “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. He then writes that the phrase was invented by a Frenchman by the name of Émile Coué.

Coué, Gould informs us, was “a French pharmacist who made quite a stir in the pop-psych circles of his day with a theory of self-improvement through autosuggestion based on frequent repetition of this mantra”. Gould mentions in passing that the phrase in the original French reads “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux”. I suddenly sat up – I was reading in bed – as if electrified.

To explain my reaction, I have to recount a little bit of the history of the French side of my family. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, my maternal grandfather contracted tuberculosis in the 1920s. This was in the days before antibiotics, so it was essentially incurable; 50% of the people diagnosed with active tuberculosis had died of it within 5 years, and it was the cause of 1 in 6 deaths in France at that time. Tuberculosis surrounded one on every side. Edvard Munch painted his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 14, sick in bed (his mother also died of the disease).

Claude Monet painted his first wife, Camille, on her deathbed, killed by tuberculosis.

Literature was full of people who died of tuberculosis: Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, Fantine in Les Misérables, Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Coming fast on the heels of my grandfather having lost all his money – actually my grandmother’s dowry – in a failed business, his contracting tuberculosis spelled economic catastrophe. My grandmother was forced to take a job as personal secretary to a rich English woman by the name of Mrs. Green, down in Menton on the Côte d’Azur where the lady and her husband would spend the winters. Mrs. Green stipulated that my grandmother could not live with her husband, for fear that she would contract the disease and – this was the real point – pass it on to her employer. So my grandfather was forced to live hidden away in Nice, where my grandmother would visit him from time to time in secret. In the summer, when Mr. and Mrs. Green returned to England, my grandparents would come up to the house they had managed to hang on to near Mâcon. But even here my grandfather lived apart, away from the children, in a room of his own, using his own sheets, his own towel, his own napkin, even his own plate and cutlery, all in an attempt to avoid infection.

To no avail. One day, my grandmother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Catastrophe reared its head again. Mrs. Green would fire my grandmother the moment she heard her coughing. But my grandmother was not one to give in to anything. As my mother recounted it, she began to repeat every morning, “je vais de mieux en mieux”. And by God it worked! The tuberculosis was stopped in its tracks. I had always thought that this was just one more example of my grandmother’s indomitable will overcoming yet another setback in life. But reading that phrase in French in Gould’s essay immediately persuaded me that my grandmother had actually been using Coué’s method of autosuggestion.

I was even more convinced of this when I read a bit more about Coué’s method. It was very straightforward. He said that people who wanted to get better should quickly, mechanically repeat the phrase “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux” twenty times, morning and night, while running a string with twenty knots in it through their hands. My mother’s detail that my grandmother had uttered the phrase every morning jibed well with the Coué method.

How my grandmother might have heard about the Coué method is now lost in the fog of time. Perhaps she bought one of Coué’s books, very popular at the time; his best-seller was La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente, published in 1926.

Perhaps she read an article in the newspapers about him. Perhaps she heard the record which he made to reach as many people as possible (I’ve heard it in Wikipedia, a thin, scratchy voice from a long time ago). Perhaps one of her friends told her about it. If she did decide to use the Coué method, she never told her daughter about it; perhaps she was a little ashamed of using something that appeared akin to magic.

Of course, as a scientist Gould is dismissive of the method, seeing it only as an example of the placebo effect. I’m sure he’s right, but it – or something very like it – seems to have helped my grandmother overcome her tuberculosis. Which is just as well. My grandfather died of his in 1936. If my grandmother had also died of it, who knows what would have happened to my now-orphaned mother (and her brother). For sure she would not have met my father, so I wouldn’t be around. So thank you, placebo effect! And thank you, Monsieur Coué, if you indeed helped out here!

____________________
Stephen Jay Gould: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Jay_Gould
Émile Coué: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Coué
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosis_in_human_culture#/media/File%3AMunch_Det_Syke_Barn_1885-86.jpg
Claude Monet, Camille Monet sur son lit de mort:

“La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente”: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Méthode_Coué

LUXOR, EGYPT

Milan, 19 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

with the amusingly absent-minded Egyptologist Philémon Siclone

then Asterix

with the Egyptians speaking in hieroglyphics.

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

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

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


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

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

the temple of Luxor, which we saw at night

with its avenue of sphinxes

Luxor Museum, which had some lovely pieces

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


the temple of Dendera, with its amazing astronomical ceiling

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

the temple of Hatshepsut, with its dramatic setting

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

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

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

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

up to its apex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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