My phone gave a ping this morning. It was to remind me that the head of Saint Peter of Verona would be on view today in the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.
Like in those movies which start by jumping right into a scene that leaves the viewer confused and then write “24 hours earlier …” at the bottom of the screen, I must now write that in order for readers to understand this cryptic statement we need to go back some three months, to the month of January (a blessed time when we were still free to walk around and go wherever we wanted). My wife and I had gone down to the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (a mere 15 minutes’ walk from our apartment) to visit its small museum, something which we had never done (I should note in passing that Sant’Eustorgio is one of Milan’s oldest churches, having been established in the 4th Century. One day, I might devote a post to it). In any event, the centrepiece of the museum is the Portinari chapel. It was built in Renaissance style in the 1460s, by Michelozzo, or possibly Filarete, or maybe Guiniforte Solari. As readers can see, there is a considerable degree of doubt on the question. What is not in doubt is who paid. That was Pigello Portinari, who made his money as the Medici Bank’s representative in Milan. He had it built as a family chapel cum mortuary, as well as a place to house one of the relics of St. Peter of Verona, his head (more on this later).
We see here an exterior view of the chapel.
Anyone who has visited Milan will see a certain resemblance with the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses Leonardo’s Last Supper.
But the chapel’s real interest lies in its interior. There are lots of things to admire, but two things stood out for me. One is the interior decoration of the dome, by Vincenzo Foppa.
The rainbow effect, I suppose meant to denote the ineffable beauty of heaven, is really striking. It reminds me of a fresco by Bergognone in another Milanese church, San Simpliciano, which I came across quite by chance one day (an adventure which I relate in an earlier post).
The other stand-out in the chapel is the sepulchure of St. Peter of Verona, by Giovanni di Balduccio, a Pisan sculptor, said to have learned his trade under Giovanni Pisano. He was brought to Milan to sculpt this sepulchure in the later 1330s, some 80 years after the saint’s death.
It’s a very complex sculpture, full of meanings and theological allusions, as befits a religious sculpture of the Middle Ages. I do not propose to elucidate any of the meanings or allusions, because I want to focus on what I found most enchanting about the sculpture, the bas reliefs around the centre of sepulchure, three of which we see in the photo.
These tell the story of the saint’s miracles, his death, funeral, and canonization. They are gems of storytelling. I’m sorely tempted to insert photos of all the bas reliefs, but I will control myself and only insert four.
Starting with his miracles, we have first the healing of the dumb man: a fairly mainstream depiction, with everyone looking holy.
Then we have the miracle of the boat. I presume there was a storm and the saint’s intercession was invoked. Look at the man scurrying up the mast and the fear on sailors’ faces.
Then we have the saint’s murder, in a forest near Seveso: look at the monk running away on the left while the assassin plunges the knife in.
Finally, we have the saint’s canonization by Pope Innocent IV: look at the two grooms at the bottom holding the horses. I can almost hear one saying the other, “how long are they going to go on in there?”
Saint Peter of Verona is one of my favourite saints, iconographically speaking (as I’ve noted in an earlier post). He was killed by having his skull split open with a sabre and having a dagger plunged into his chest. This led to a whole string of paintings over the centuries like this one by Guercino.
I know it’s puerile but I find it hilarious to see these paintings with the man solemnly standing there with a sabre stuck in his head.
In any event, a strange thing happened when the saint was eventually buried in Giovanni di Balduccio’s sepulchure: the head got separated from the rest of the body. One explanation put forward is that Giovanni got the saint’s measurements wrong and made the sepulchure too short. His head was therefore taken off, and the the-then Archbishop of Milan, one of the large Visconti tribe, decided to take it. Another simply has it that the Archbishop wanted to have a piece of the saint near him and comandeered the head – which was probably considered the holiest piece because of that vicious sabre slash. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the saint’s head ended up with the Archbishop, in a nice urn. But then, the story goes, the Archbishop started suffering terrible headaches, and finally realised that he was being punished for keeping Saint Peter’s head separated from the rest of his body. He returned the head to Sant’Eustorgio and hey presto! his headaches disappeared.
Readers can imagine that this story rapidly turned Saint Peter into the saint to be invoked by those who suffer from headaches. Thus started the tradition of bringing the head out once a year, on the last Sunday of April, from the little side-chapel of the Portinari chapel in which it is stored away, and allowing people to come up and touch the casket in which it is kept.
Well, this is very interesting to me! I have to tell readers that I have suffered from headaches since the age of 14. When I was young they could be very strong, now they are just a nuisance. Of course, I’m a firm believer in modern science! But still, you never know, perhaps a little touch of the saint’s casket could help …(rather like those crossed candles at the throat to protect one from sore throats on St. Blaise’s feast day). So, since today is the last Sunday in April this year, I had been hoping to take part in this ancient ritual. Thus, the reminder which I had put in my calendar way back in January. But it is not to be, Covid-19 has once again screwed up plans.
Nine days to go before – maybe – we’re let out onto the streets again …
Well, I’ve gone for another wander around the apartment, this time looking for pieces involving animals – that seems to me a suitable way to follow up the last two posts devoted to humans.
I should start by pointing out that neither my wife nor I are really animal people. My wife’s parents never had any pets when she grew up. My mother used to tell me that we had a dog in the house when I was very young, but I have no memory of it. My wife used to go riding as a child and liked it. I used to go and hated it. We never had pets when the children were growing up – apart from a goldfish which our daughter brought home triumphantly after a field trip somewhere and which very rapidly died. We still don’t have any pets. As a result, I think, we don’t really have that many pieces in the apartment that have to do with animals. But let me show readers what we have!
As usual, I start this wander in the living room, with a piece we bought – once again – in the Museum Art shop in Vienna (several pieces I mentioned in the last two posts were also bought in the shop; there was a time when I visited it very often).
Like all the pieces we bought in the Museum Art shop, it is a modern copy of a very old original, which in this case is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. My copy is made of resin, but the original is in terracotta covered with a red slip. It comes from the Iranian plateau and dates from the 12th Centry BC. The Louvre’s website has this to say about the piece: “their terracotta objects were highly original. Used for funerary libations, they were often in the shape of animals, the most remarkable being the hump-backed bulls with a “beak” for the ritual pouring of water”. I love it for the simplicity of its lines, while still portraying the power of the animal. Here’s a photo of the real thing, a magnificent Zebu bull.
The next piece takes us to Africa.
It was once again bought at the Museum Art shop, by my son and wife, as a birthday present for me. It is also, once again, a copy. The original, a Chi Wara Bamana headdress made of wood, hails from Mali. It is held in the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris. The blurb which the shop gave us states: “Originally fixed to a wicker cap, this sculpture is a headdress that is used in the agricultural rites of the Bambara, organized by a society of initiates called Chi Wara, “champion of cultivation”. This figure is a combination of three animals that inhabit the bush: the antelope, the pangolin, and the anteater.” Here is a photo of one of them in use.
My wife and I bought the next piece during a trip we made (with my mother-in-law) to Mexico in the early 1980s.
I definitely don’t like cats (I tolerate dogs), but I’ve always been fond of this ceramic stand-in. We’ve had him quietly sit on a shelf wherever we’ve been.
We bought this next piece at the UN in New York, back in the mid to late 1980s.
At the time, there was a shop in the building well stocked with “ethnic art”. It’s a delightful piece, from Peru if I remember correctly. Formally it is a candlestick, and we have used it for that purpose a couple of times. But really it’s just a wonderful piece of art, with a cheerful bird as its crowning figure (which is of course the reason why I include it here).
We move on to the kitchen, where we have several animal-themed knick-knacks on our shelves. My favourite is this one.
It is a ram with extremely long fleece standing on a pile of rocks. My wife and my mother-in-law bought it when they went for a holiday to Scotland in the mid to later 1970s. It stayed with my mother-in-law and we inherited it when the good woman died. It is signed “P. Nelson” on the bottom, but who he or she is I have no idea.
My mother-in-law bought the next two pieces.
For obvious reasons, we have the two rabbits sitting on the same shelf. Interestingly, they both serve the same function, as a receptacle. The rabbit to the right is ceramic, but I’m not sure what the rabbit to the left is made of. Could it be zinc? My wife thinks it’s silver; if it is, it must be alloyed with something else. Rabbits are animals I’m quite fond of. My French grandmother had a number of them in a hutch, and I would go and stroke them. I was shattered when one of their babies died of myxomatosis. I remember still my wails when the poor thing was taken out and buried. Of course, my grandmother didn’t keep rabbits because she was fond of them, she kept them to eat. And I have to say that rabbit is very yummy.
These next two cups were a gift – along with two other cups – from a friend of my wife’s. There was one cup for each member of our family. The two seen in the photo are the cups of our children.
They were made by the Hadley Pottery Company, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky. My wife’s friend chose the duck for our son and the lamb for our daughter (their names are on the other side of the cups, that’s how I know). I let readers guess what might have been the reasoning behind the choice, although I suspect that it might be something as prosaic as the lack of any other suitable animals to choose from. The cups are too precious a memory for us to use them now. In fact, one them (mine!) fell to the floor one day and broke. I glued it back together again, but there are pieces missing.
Gluing things back brings me to the last piece (sharp-eyed readers will notice that the beak has been glued back on).
It is a loon, a common bird on the lakes of North America, and one with a wonderfully haunting cry. I remember it vividly from my little canoe trip on Lake of the Woods (which I wrote about in an earlier post). It was made by an Inuit artist, although which one I don’t know. Because of this Arctic connection, I insert here a photo of an Arctic loon.
I bought it as a Christmas present for my soon-to-be-wife in the same shop, the Snow Goose, where some six months later we bought the much larger Inuit piece which kicked off my post on the human face. In fact, it was because I had bought this piece there that we went back to that shop. Fate then led my wife to the Face Spirit.
Well, that completes that tour. I let my readers guess what the subject of my next post will be.
13 days to go before we are let out on the streets again – if we are let out; the Government is being very cautious about relaxing the lockdown, for fear that the virus will spring to life again. Here’s to hoping.
Anyway, as I continue my wanderings from room to room in the apartment, I’ve decided to do an extension of my previous post on the human face, this time looking at pieces which celebrate the whole of the human body – in other words, statues (or base reliefs in a couple of cases) of one form or another.
I start with the biggest statue that we possess, our “nail man”.
As I said, he is big: a little over a metre tall. My wife bought it at an auction of African art at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna. The blurb we received at the time of sale states: “Nail fetish, tribe: Bakongo, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood, on a plinth, one foot set on a small animal as an expression of power, right hand lifted and holding a spear to defend from evil influences [the spear has disappeared], large oversized head with a wide-open mouth and all-seeing glass eyes, body covered all around with nails and iron pieces, with a glass-locked belly box filled with magic substances giving the figure power, suspended amulets, dark patina, age damage, 2nd half of 20th Century”.
We refer to him fondly as the nail man, but he’s actually a Nkondi. The purpose of a Nkondi was to house a spirit (living in the belly box) which could leave the statue to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies (this hunting role explains why the statue has his arm raised and used to hold a spear; pity that got lost). People would drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness – particularly of contracts and oaths. The purpose of the nailing was to “awaken” the spirit to the task in hand and sometimes to “enrage” it if nasty guys needed to be hunted down (before nails were common, it seems that this awakening was done by banging two Nkondi together).
Staying with Africa, the next piece originated in Gabon.
My wife also bought this, at the Dorotheum (she has been in charge of buying our African art). The Dorotheum’s blurb has this to say about it: “Ritual house door leaf, tribe: Tsogho, Gabon, wood, polychrome, front decorated with a relief-like, very stylized “stick figure”, tribe-typical facial features, lattice pattern, age damage, 2nd half of the 20th century”.
Africa also brought us this next piece, once again bought by my wife at the Dorotheum.
Once again, I turn to the Dorotheum’s description: “Wall plaque, tribe: Yoruba, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, two carved out column-figures in relief, in caricature fashion: Colonial officer in white uniform with tropical helmet, walking stick and briefcase, next to schoolgirl in a carrier skirt with book in hand, recognizable age damage, 2nd half of 20th century”.
All the previous pieces are probably no more that eighty years old. The next piece, in and of itself very young, is a copy of a far, far older piece which is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
My wife and I bought the piece at the Museum Art shop in Vienna (which I mentioned in my previous post). The original came from Cyprus, where it was made in about 2100-2000 BC. The piece I have is made of resin, but the original was modelled terracotta, with a polished red slip. The description which the shop gave us states: “This figurine has a rectangular body and is decorated with necklaces. The arms and facial features are stylized by engraved furrows ending in cupules. The ears are treated as pierced projections. These figurines used to be placed in tombs and should be interpreted as a female symbol of fertility. Given their size and shape, they might also have been worn by women as pendants.”
Well, those were the pieces in the living room. I shall now move to the kitchen, where we have a series of shelves where we keep many of our knick-knacks.
The first piece I will present is this ceramic clown.
This was another piece which we inherited from my mother-in-law (readers can refer back to my previous two posts to understand better the role of this good woman in our knick-knack collection). It’s a fun piece, although I’m not sure I understand how it is meant to be used. My wife says that it’s a candlestick; you put the candle into that little bowl which the clown is balancing on his extended foot. I must try it one day, to see if works.
Staying with the circus theme, we have this piece.
I imagine the young lady to be one of those women which I remember in my youth seeing in circuses jumping on and off cantering horses.
It was given to my wife as a present by her colleagues when she left her job here in Italy to move to Vienna. It’s actually a calendar. You move the red, green, and yellow balls to indicate the right date (outside circle) of the right month (middle circle), and the right day (inner circle). It doesn’t really serve its purpose, since it’s so very easy to forget to change. I reset it just before taking the photo yesterday, and it will probably remain frozen at yesterday’s date for several months until someone else decides to set it right. But it is cheerful to look at.
Moving from one female figure to another takes us to this piece.
It’s actually a grater. My wife and I were so enamoured by the design that we bought two of them, one for each of our children. We gave our son his. This one is our daughter’s, waiting patiently to be picked up some day. Since it’s such a fun piece, we’re quite happy that it stays with us sine die.
The next piece was another one handed down to us by my mother-in-law.
It’s a wonderful piece of ceramic, depicting as it does two Daughters of Charity singing. Until the reforms of Vatican II, Daughters of Charity used to wear this very striking wimple. Lord knows why they wore it, though.
We have no idea where my mother-in-law picked the piece up, but I silently bless her whenever my eyes happen to fall on it.
We also inherited the next piece from my mother-in-law.
I’m guessing that it’s Don Quixote. I find the caricature rather well done: a noble-looking head above, thin bandy legs below. Some 15 years ago, my wife and I visited Burgos during a tour of Spain. I was astonished to see a shop offering pretty much identical pieces as this one, in all sizes. My wife reckoned that our piece must have been brought back from Spain by her father. She had a memory of him going to Burgos for a conference. I was suddenly assailed by a sense of his ghost walking down the road ahead of us.
I definitely know where this quartet comes from.
My wife and I bought them in Poland, in the main square in Cracow.
We happened to be there on market day, with stalls laid out in the square. Together with our daughter, we were on our way to pick up our son, who was playing in a baseball tournament somewhere in the middle of Poland. (We went on from there to have a holiday in Finland, but that story is for another day).
I’ve said several times in this and the last two posts that my mother-in-law made some admirable choices of knick-knacks to buy. But not always. This quintet of figurines is a case in point.
As far as I can make out, they represent soldiers from the 18th, possibly early 19th Centuries. The Dorotheum is full of this stuff, and I always give it a wide berth. I simply find pieces of this kind to be too “precious”. But we have them and I’m not going to throw away things which someone took quite a lot of trouble and time to make (but I might see if we can’t sell them one of these days).
My mother-in-law did much better with the next trio.
Formally, they are candlestick holders, although I’ve never seen them used as such. They are clearly Italian pieces; the statue to the right indubitably represents a carabiniere. The statue to the left looks vaguely military. I don’t know if the woman in the middle represents anything except a nice housewife off to do her shopping. My wife wonders if they are not characters from some old Italian folk tale. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law never explained – or if she did explain we weren’t listening – so we will probably never know.
My mother-in-law also bought the very Baroque-looking bishop in this next photo.
Normally, I would have tut-tutted and put it away in some dark corner out of view, but I rather like the way it contrasts with the African statue next to it. Both men are bearded. Both are somebody important – The African is possibly a chief. And both hold a staff of office. But the solemnity, the gravitas, of the African piece just highlights the essential frivolity of the Baroque piece. The contrast between the two encapsulates everything I disapprove of in the Baroque.
Up to now, the statues have all been standing. But we have a few pieces where the subject is sitting. This first example is quite splendid.
It’s one of our more recent acquisitions; we bought it a few years ago during our annual visit to Kyoto (I give a course at the University on sustainable industrial development). It caught my wife’s eye as we were nosing around a flea market which was being held in the compound of one of the temples there. It is some type of Japanese doll, made of papier maché, and seems to represent a Japanese lord or warrior.
The next example is more traditional, but it has great sentimental value for my wife and me.
My wife found them in a little shop in Vienna which sold bric-a-brac, a short while after I was informed that I would be going to Beijing to take over my organization’s office there. Her buying them was a way of celebrating our move to China, a move which neither of us never regretted. I started this blog there and many of the earlier posts were about China.
In this final example of seated figures, both come from my mother-in-law.
They are not pieces that I would buy, but I recognize the wonderful workmanship that went into both of them. I’m not sure what the old man represents. He has by his side a bag of gifts and toys, so I wonder if he’s not meant to be Saint Nicholas.
But my figurine doesn’t have a mitre on his head, which as the picture above shows, he really should have. I also don’t understand why he would be holding a sheet of music, apparently composing. So the jury is out on that one.
It’s very clear, on the other hand, what the old lady represents. She’s an old peasant woman with a delicious cheese in her hands and a crate of vegetables at her feet.
My mother-in-law was rather fond of figurines representing peasants in one garb or another.
Of course, there is a strong tradition in Italy of having figurines such as these peopling the Christmas crèches or presepi. As I have discussed in an earlier post, these presepi are wonderful and I enthusiastically set up our family presepe every year, lovingly setting out the figurines in the necessary “tableau”. But I’m not too fond of them on their own, so I’m afraid all these figurines of my mother-in-law’s have been relegated to a dark corner of the living room.
I’m rather more tolerant of this other figurine which my mother-in-law bought, also of a peasant, but this time of a Chinese peasant. Since he’s holding a fish, I presume it’s a fisherman.
Since I started with the biggest statue that we have in the apartment, I will finish with the smallest statue that we have, a standing Buddha.
It’s a mere 9 cm high. I bought it in Sri Lanka while there on a business trip. It was the first of several Buddhas which I have bought over the years. Perhaps one day I will write a post devoted to them (all the other Buddhas are in Vienna, so that post will have to wait until we manage to get back to Vienna – Covid-19 has currently closed the border between Italy and Austria). Ever since I bought it, I have been looking for a suitable plinth on which to place the statue, but so far I have found nothing.
Well, that finishes this particular wander around the apartment. Over the next 13 days of lockdown maybe I can come up with a couple of other trips through the knick-knacks we have here.
Some seven years ago (Goodness me, in my mind’s eye it doesn’t seem that long ago), I wrote a post about a visit which my wife and I made to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The post was made up of a collection of photos which I took of human faces, from all periods and all regions of the world, looking out at us from the art spread out before us, as we criss-crossed the museum going from one exhibition to another.
Now, in this period of lockdown, I have done the same thing, wandering from room to room in the apartment and taking photos of pieces which my wife and I – and my mother-in-law before us – have collected of the human face.
I start my wanderings in the living room, with this piece from Canada.
I went there with my wife (who was then still my girlfriend) during the summer of 1977. It was she who spotted the piece in a shop close to the National Art Gallery in Ottawa which sold Inuit art, called the Snow Goose. The blurb we were given at the time of purchase gave its title as Face Spirit and stated that it was handmade by an Inuit artist called Sharky who lived in Cape Dorset in Canada’s far north. When we brought it back, my mother-in-law fell in love with it. Since we were both going on to graduate school that Autumn and therefore by definition would be “of no fixed abode”, living in cheap, rented accommodation, we were happy to give it to her on a long-term loan. We took back possession of it some 15 years later when our life was finally on a more even keel. Some 15 years after that, when I was in Montreal for a conference, I spotted a gallery which sold Inuit pieces and visited it. The pieces were all quite modern. When I said that I had bought a piece of Inuit art back in 1977, the lady exclaimed, “Oh, you have an antique!” Readers can imagine how that made me feel about myself.
My wife bought this next piece for me as a birthday present in Vienna in the Noughties.
There was at the time a shop behind the Kunsthistorisches Museum which sold copies of pieces from various world-famous museums (sadly, the shop has stopped offering such pieces). One of these was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the original of this piece is located. In fact, as I report in the post I mentioned earlier, I came nose to nose with the original during our 2013 visit to the Met, which gave me a bit of a shock. The blurb from the museum’s website has this to say about the original: “This magnificent head portrays a king of the late third millennium BC. Its heavy-lidded eyes, prominent but unexaggerated nose, full lips, and enlarged ears all suggest a portrait of an actual person. While the date and place of manufacture of this piece have been much debated, its close similarity to the magnificent bronze head found at Nineveh make a late third millennium date most likely.”
This next piece is also a copy, but this time of a piece in the Musée Guimet in Paris.
I bought the piece online (probably the first thing I ever bought online, come to think of it). It is the head of Jayavarman VII, who was a king in the Khmer Empire. He reigned at the end of the 12th/beginning of the 13th Centuries. He is probably best known for the Bayon temple at Angkor Wat, where this same face is repeated over an over, and on a much large scale, all across the temple.
In fact, I bought this piece after my wife and I had visited Angkor Wat, also during the Noughties. I had found this slightly smiling face totally fascinating.
After Asia we go to Africa. This group of pieces were give as presents to my mother-in-law by an old boyfriend of my wife’s.
They are of wood, but of a wood so dense that they seem to be made of iron. Appropriately enough, they are probably made from a type of ironwood, although which type I have no idea. One day, I’ll try putting them in a basin of water to see if they sink: true ironwoods are denser than water.
This next piece is also from Africa, but is in a completely different, quasi abstract, style.
The unknown artist who made it wound copper wire around a wooden core and used copper parts to make the eyes and nose. It is a really striking piece. I bought it in Ghana in the dying years of the 20th Century during a business trip there.
The next piece brings us back to Europe, although it actually refers to the wars between Europeans and “Africans”.
They were bought by my mother-in-law. They are modern copies of the heads of “Saracens” (i.e., peoples from North Africa) which were used in the Sicilian puppet shows of the 19th Century.
These shows retold the stories of the wars between European knights and their Saracen adversaries (guess who always won), and were roughly based on Medieval classics such as the Chanson de Roland, Gersualemme liberata and Orlando furioso. To the heads of the puppets, normally elaborately carved, would be attached clothes and a reticulated set of arms and legs.
My mother-in-law also bought the next piece. My wife thinks she bought it in Sardinia in the second half of the 1970s.
It’s a very small piece, only some 10 cm high, and very dark, so it’s quite easy to miss on our cluttered shelves. It represents a woman whose face is hidden in the deep folds of a very big shawl she has wrapped around her head. I find the mystery which emanates from it quite tantalizing. Who was she? Why was she so anxious to hide her face?
You couldn’t miss this next piece, even if you tried.
I bought it for my wife a few years ago, as a present for her first birthday in our retirement. The artist, Caterina Zacchetti, entitled it “Vento tra i Capelli”, Wind in her Hair.
Which sort of brings us to the world of ceramics (the last piece being terracotta). My wife and I bought this next piece in Vienna.
The shop we bought it at is Harro Berger Keramik, located in the old town, which specializes in bright and cheerful ceramic objects.
However, the shop’s most spectacular offerings are modern copies of the old ceramic stoves which you find in Austria (two of which are in the photo).
I have always lusted after these stoves. Once, when we were apartment hunting in Vienna, we were shown one which had just such a stove in the corner of the living room. I was sorely tempted to take the apartment just for the stove, but good sense prevailed – it was too small for us.
My wife made this next piece during the one and only ceramics class we have ever taken together, in Vienna.
She made some excellent pieces during that course, which are now scattered here and there. From an inscription on the bottom of this piece I rather think that my wife made it for our daughter. As our mother-in-law did for us, I think we can keep it on a long-term loan and our daughter can take it back when we finally shuffle off this mortal coil.
Talking of my mother-in-law, it was she who bought the next two pieces, in New York as I recall, when she was visiting us there once.
They are wonderful cups, so precious that we never use them for their intended purpose. I’ve no idea who their maker was. There is a mark on the bottom, OCI (I think), and a date, 1984. My memory tells me that there were originally three cups. If there were, one has disappeared along the road of life.
My mother-in-law also bought the next three pieces, which – at least formally – were all made for the same purpose, to hold liquids.
The piece on the far right is a typical Toby jug, from the Royal Doulton porcelain works. My mother-in-law picked it up during a trip she made to the UK with my wife in the mid-1970s. The other two pieces are Italian. We’ve seen very similar jugs to the one in the middle being sold at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, so it must be a popular design. It is Sicilian, if my memory serves me right. I have no information on the piece to the far left.
Sometimes, a face is used to hide your face. I mean, of course, masks. We have a few of those. My wife and picked up this typical set of Venetian masks on one of our trips to Venice – there was a time in our lives when we went there quite frequently.
The top-left mask, the baùtta, was a mask frequently worn, by both men and women of the Venetian aristocracy, as this painting by the Venetian painter Pietro Longhi attests.
The other three masks are from characters in Venice’s commedia dell’arte. From top right clockwise, we have the Plague Doctor, Brighella, and Arlecchino. Here, we have a line-up of the many characters that populated commedia dell’arte.
We go back to Africa for the next mask.
My wife bought it at the Dorotheum. The brief blurb that accompanied the piece states: “Helmet mask, Tribe: Ibo, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, hints of facial features, towering, tapering top, jagged ornaments, dark crusty patina, original repairs, 2nd half of the 20th century”. Quite what ceremony this mask would have been worn in I don’t know. Perhaps one day, if and when I buy a thick tome on African masks, I will find out.
I finish where I started, in Canada. We bought this mask on that same trip of 1977.
It is a modern copy of a corn husk face, which would have been used in the Mohawk Tribe’s Gajesa Society rituals as the mask of a medicine man. It was made by Ga’haur (I’m not sure I got the spelling right, the original label has faded during the intervening decades), a woman from the Mohawks’ Turtle clan.
Well, that’s taken me around the whole apartment as I’ve scoured it for examples of the human face. By my reckoning, we have only two and a half weeks to go before they let us out (if they let us out), time enough to wander a few more times around the apartment and report back on some of the other things we’ve collected here.
Well, I’m on a roll here! Having plumped for internal beauty rather than – the currently forbidden – external beauty, I’m ready for another post.
Today being Easter Sunday, my previous post on egg cups would have been a good topic. But since I have already done that, I will turn to my other little collection, on couples. It is a celebration of my wife and me, of our coupledom (if that is a word), so I suppose it is a good topic for today, a day when – at least in this part of the world – families would normally get together and celebrate.
I started the collection with this piece, which I picked up in Singapore. I was there to lead an environmental audit of a microelectronics factory.
It’s carved in wood. Apart from its flowing lines, I rather liked his hand (perhaps this is patriarchal of me, but I feel that He is looking down at Her) cradling her head.
I got this next piece, also carved in wood, in one of the Alpine valleys behind Milan. I and a couple of colleagues were doing a job up there on a factory that had been closed down; we were doing an evaluation of what residual environmental problems there might be.
A hint of sadness, perhaps, in this couple? Or just quietness together? I’ve never been able to make up my mind.
I’m not quite sure where I got the next piece, made of ceramic and painted. Since it’s a knock-off of Botero and he’s Colombian, I rather suspect it was in Colombia’s capital Bogotá where I went once for a conference (for the life of me, I cannot remember what the conference was about; the only thing I do remember about the trip – etched into my memory for ever more – was having my travel bag stolen just hours before I was meant to leave: the joys of business travel…).
I know a lot of people like Botero, but to be honest I find him rather dull. He stumbled on this idea of painting fat people decades ago and that’s all he’s done ever since. It really gets a little tedious after a bit. But what’s there not to like about this happy couple?
I must have picked up this next piece, also painted ceramic, somewhere else in Latin America. I rather suspect it was in Central America. There was a moment when I was going there quite frequently since I was managing projects to establish Cleaner Production Centres in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Judging from the couple’s ethnicity, I suspect it was El Salvador or Guatemala. A little-known fact about Costa Rica is the thorough ethnic cleansing that country undertook in the 19th Century.
I know exactly where I bought this next piece. It was in Cambridge (the English Cambridge, not the American one). I had taken my son there for an interview, and while he was interviewing I was wandering around the town centre. When I saw this piece, my brain said “it must be mine!” The craze that comes over collectors …
The piece, by the artist Lynn Muir, is made of wood and painted. It celebrates a song that came out in the 1930s or ’40s (I haven’t been able to pin this down). The tune was derived from one of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos. I throw in the song’s lyrics since they explain the piece.
And when we meet, music starts
Upon the strings of our hearts,
And we don’t speak through the song,
For words are weak when love is strong.
And when we kiss there’s a sound of violins all around
And then the moment when we kiss again
Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two,
For me and you.
And when we kiss,
There’s a sound like violins all around,
And then the moment when we kiss again
Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two,
For me and you.
I just love the way her hair flows out behind her as she listens to his song! Formally, the piece is a box, but we’ve never used it to contain anything. All I have in there is a sheet of paper, giving a quick bio of Lynn Muir.
I’m not sure where the next piece comes from, or even if I bought it – I rather suspect our daughter did.
Its design harks back to the first piece – one head holding up another. It’s carved in stone, soapstone I think. Unfortunately, the stone is quite soft and the piece has got chipped over the years. But that doesn’t take away from the piece’s intimacy.
The final piece in this modest collection definitely comes from our daughter. There was a moment when she was charmed by this little collection and wanted to add to it. I hope she is still charmed by expressions of a couple’s love.
Like the previous piece, it is carved in stone. Unlike all the other pieces, it is she who supports him – he grows out of her, as it were, the opposite of the old Biblical story that Eve was created out of a rib in Adam’s side. A sign of the times perhaps?
With that, I wish all of my readers a happy Easter – or to put it in slightly less religious terms, a happy start to Spring!
I cannot believe it! We’ve been condemned to another three weeks of lockdown!! We are now scheduled to creep out of this apartment – pale from lack of sun, low on muscle mass, masked, jittery around other people – on 3 May. What a misery … I feel that I have been robbed of my Spring this year.
The worst of it is that I have written so little on this blog. I have been cut off from the outside world, which has nearly always been the source of my inspiration. (It’s true that I’ve also been sick; we’ve been debating ever since what I got: Covid-19 or just an ordinary flu? I was very asymptomatic – no fever, no cough – so I plump for the latter, but we will have to wait for a confirmatory test some time in the future when there are enough tests to go around). For the last three weeks, we have been forced to turn inwards, wandering from room to room in the apartment. This photo, which was emailed to me by an old colleague and is no doubt doing the rounds on social media, captures the feeling well. Well, I’ve finally decided to make the best of a bad job. If I can’t go outside, I shall look for inspiration for this blog in our apartment, and more specifically in all the knick-knacks which my wife and I have collected over our years together, as well as those which we inherited from my mother-in-law, a great collector of knick-knacks. I will start with our little collection of … egg cups.
I start with this trio of egg cups.
These were bought by my mother-in-law, who had a great eye for the picturesque knick-knack. I find them really cute, especially the middle one, with its blue and white striped socks. It’s my favourite egg cup for my boiled egg at breakfast. We didn’t really know much about them until that time we went to visit my friend Mark in the UK (who tragically died a few weeks ago). His wife Helen, who in retirement had gone into the antiques trade, had one exactly like them. She told us that they were collector’s items. I have since learned that they were made by Carlton Ware, a pottery manufacturer based in that bastion of English pottery, Stoke-on-Trent. The company was established in 1890, went into receivership in 1989, and was resurrected in 1997. My mother-in-law can’t possibly have bought them here in Italy. We have concluded that she must have come across them during a trip she did to the UK in the early 1980s with a busload of friends. They must have caught her eagle eye in some shop they visited.
My next trio of egg cups completes our egg-cup collection – as I said, a small collection.
My mother-in-law picked up the two bald-headed newspaper readers. Where she picked them up we have no idea. The pieces carry no identification marks, so its designer and manufacturer must remain in the shadows (unless a kind reader could help identify them?). I love them, but I musty admit they are not very practical. As anyone who eats boiled eggs knows, you really need 360 degrees access to the top of the egg to be able to eat the insides of the egg with ease. The newspaper rather blocks that access. So I do use them for my boiled egg at breakfast, but only from time to time.
The middle piece is my one and only addition to my mother-in-law’s egg-cup collection, and I must confess that I bought it more out of a sense of desperation than anything else. I had promised myself a number of years earlier that I would add to my mother-in-law’s collection, but I had failed to come across any picturesque egg cups. This one sort-of fitted the bill. It’s a little too obvious in its picturesqueness, and its actual depiction of a face rather spoils the idea of using the egg to complete a human figure with a faceless head. But it was the only egg cup I had come across after years of looking around that came anywhere close to the central theme of my mother-in-law’s collection. As a result, I hardly ever use it.
There is one piece that waits to be added to the collection. Last year, during our annual visit to our daughter in LA, I had accompanied her to the ceramics classes she was taking at the time. I used the occasion to make myself an egg cup, basing myself on the design idea behind my mother-in-law’s collection (the egg is the faceless head of a human body). We had already left when the piece was finally fired, but the idea was that when we went to visit our daughter this year, I would pick it up and bring it back. But this damned Covid-19 virus put a spoke in the wheels of that plan! Our flights were cancelled and we had to give up the whole trip. Hopefully, I can pick it up next year when we go and visit her.
If any of my readers know of any picturesque egg cups which would fit into my mother-in-law’s collection, I would be glad to hear about them. When we finally get out of this bloody apartment, I might be able to track them down.