Vienna, 8 April 2023

I don’t understand it, my wife and I have not yet received our invitation to attend King Charles III’s coronation in Westminster Abbey! It’s taking place very soon, on 6 May!


This is a huge problem, because I won’t get a chance to surreptitiously inspect the Cosmatesque pavement laid in front of the Abbey’s High Altar while the assembled Archbishops drone their way through the coronation liturgy.


The fact is, the pavement is covered up almost all the time, to protect it. It’s only during a coronation or other exceptional events that it is uncovered. In fact, the last time it was uncovered was when William and Kate were married in the Abbey back in 2011 (another event to which my wife and I were not invited; have they mislaid our address, I wonder?)


Why my anxiety to inspect the pavement? Well, the Abbey’s Cosmatesque pavement is quite remarkable, simply because it really shouldn’t be there. One finds this style of pavement primarily in and around Rome, where it was developed from the end of the 11th Century to the 13th Century by a number of families of artisans, the most well-known of which were the Cosmati, who have given their name to the style. As a rule, Cosmatesque pavements have white or light-coloured marbles for background, into which have been inlaid triangles, squares, parallelograms, and circles of darker stones. These are surrounded by ribbons of mosaic composed of coloured and gold-glass tesseræ. The result are lovely geometrical designs of swirling colours over the floor. Here are some of the best examples that have come down to us.

Basilica di San Clemente:


Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin


Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme


Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura


Basilica di San Saba


The artisans laying down these pavements recycled much of the stones they used from the copious ancient Roman ruins that still littered Rome and its environs; the circles in particular were sliced off columns that couldn’t be used as columns any more. The artisans would dig through old ruins, looking for marble to salvage (with one of their side businesses being selling off the statues which they came across during their digs). This painting by Canaletto is from many centuries later, and it just shows people visiting the ruins in Rome rather than digging into them, but it gives a nice impression of what it must have been like to live with all those ruins around one.


The sources I’ve read talk airily about examples of Cosmatesque work also existing north of the Alps, although the only example they ever cite is Westminster Abbey. I haven’t been able to find a single other example of Cosmatesque pavement outside of the Roman heartlands, not even in the north of Italy (if any readers know of examples outside Italy, please let me know). So  the presence of a Cosmatesque pavement in Westminster Abbey is indeed pretty remarkable. How come there is this one isolated example north of the Alps?

The answer to that question lies in the history of Westminster Abbey. The Abbey has always had a special relationship with the English (and later, British) crown, ever since King Edward the Confessor in the 1040s established his royal palace by the banks of the river Thames west of the city of London and decided to re-endow and greatly enlarge a small Benedictine monastery already located there. This included building the first cathedral, the “west minster” (as opposed to the “east minster”, St. Paul’s cathedral, in the city of London). Here, we have a scene from the Bayeux tapestry, showing the funeral procession of Edward the Confessor, bringing him to his cathedral where he was buried.


Thereafter, the English kings patronised the abbey and its cathedral, with all the coronations of English (and then British) monarchs from 1066 onwards (bar two) taking place in the cathedral.

Presumably as a reflection of its special royal status, in the period we’re interested in, namely the second half of the 13th Century, the Abbot reported directly to the papacy and not to any local bishop as would normally have been the case. This meant that it was the Pope who approved the choice of abbot made by Westminster’s monks. Which explains why, in 1258, a certain Richard de Ware, whom the monks of Westminster had chosen as their new abbot, travelled down to Rome to obtain the necessary papal approval. It just so happened that the pope and his court were residing in the town of Agnani, some 60 km south-east of Rome, when Richard arrived (for a while, it was a popular place for Popes to spend their summers). So Richard made his way there. He of course visited the cathedral in Agnani, where he was captivated by its Cosmatesque pavement. I deliberately left this pavement out from the examples I gave above so that I could show it here in all its splendour and imagine Richard de Ware’s feelings when he set eyes on it. The first photo shows the pavement in the main church, the second the pavement in the crypt.


It seems that Richard lusted after this pavement: “I must have it in my abbey church!”, I can hear him cry (in Latin) to the assistants who travelled with him (ever since the beginning of time, Important People have had what the Italians call portaborse, or bag carriers, to accompany them wherever they go).

Richard was probably encouraged to have these lustful thoughts because Westminster Abbey was in the middle of a total makeover. In 1245, England’s king, Henry III, had launched a rebuilding programme of the cathedral, adopting the-then ultramodern Gothic style. I presume that when Richard got back from Agnani, he persuaded Henry that a Cosmatesque pavement in front of the high altar was de rigeur if the cathedral was to be fully at the architectural cutting edge. But it took another ten years for the pavement to be laid. Work on the cathedral’s makeover proceeded fitfully; Henry was always chronically short of funds, and he was constantly at war with his Barons (at one point, he was even their prisoner). But finally, in 1268, after Richard got a team of artisans headed by a certain Odoricus to come from Rome to do the work, the pavement in front of the high altar was finished.


If I’ve repeated the photo of Westminster Abbey’s pavement, it’s to allow readers to compare it better to the pavement in the cathedral of Agnani and the other Roman and Lazian examples which I gave earlier. One fundamental difference jumps out: in Westminster, the background stone – the stone in which the rest of the stones are inlaid – is dark while in the Roman and Lazian examples it is white. I have to say, personally I feel that the Abbey’s pavement suffers from this change in background colour. A white background allows the geometric patterns and swirls to stand out much more effectively. The only reason I’ve found in my readings for this change of colour is that the white Carrara marble used in Italy suffers in damp climates – and heaven knows the UK is damp! But maybe English tastes were anyway for dark stone. Certainly the stone used – Purbeck marble, which comes from a quarry near Bournemouth in Dorset – was popular in English church architecture; it’s to be found in virtually all of the cathedrals in the south of England. Here, we have quarriers of Purbeck marble from 150 or so years ago.


Considering now the design of the pavement, I can assure readers that there is a meaning to the way it was laid out. Cutting through all the symbolic froth, it evokes a sacred centre of the world, what the Ancient Greeks called the omphalion, the navel of the world, which in turn is at the centre of the universe. And it is on that omphalion in the centre of Westminster Abbey’s pavement that the clergy will place coronation chair on which Charles will sit to be crowned, as they have for all the English and British monarchs (bar two, as I said earlier) who have come before him. I show here a photo of the previous coronation, of Queen Elizabeth II – as readers will note, the pavement was covered up that time.


There’s more heavy symbolism to the pavement’s design, alluded to by the Latin inscription which ran around it but of which very little is left today. Luckily, several hundred years ago, someone transcribed it while it was still legible. It said (translated from the original Latin):

In the year of Christ one thousand two hundred and twelve plus sixty minus four, the third King Henry, the city [of London, presumably], Odoricus [the head of the crew which laid the pavement] and the abbot [Richard de Ware] put these porphyry stones together. If the reader wisely considers all that is laid down, he will find here the end of the primum mobile; a hedge [lives for] three years, add dogs and horses and men, stags and ravens, eagles, enormous whales, the world: each one following triples the years of the one before.

According to scholars who have spent many hours parsing this gobbledygook, it shows that the pavement was meant to symbolise not only the world and the universe, but also to predict the number of years to its end. Very reminiscent of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”!


The stones set into the dark Purbeck marble tell us another story, a story of trade, one of the many which I have recounted in these posts. Looking at the Westminster pavement, we can trace a story of a trade in stones across the Roman Empire, the breakdown of that trade as the Roman Empire collapsed, and – as Europe developed economically – its replacement by a European trade in stones. To appreciate these trade flows, readers have to know that the pavement we see today in the Abbey is not exactly the original. Three limited restorations have been carried out over the ages – one in the mid-17th Century, one at the turn of the 18th Century, and a final one in the mid-19th Century – where some of the original stones, worn or lost, were replaced by other stones.

In the original parts of the pavement, purple and green porphyry are the most abundant inlaid stones. Purple porphyry was the “imperial” stone in the Roman and Byzantine Empires (purple being the imperial colour), and it could only be used in connection with the Emperors and their closest family.


That’s why, for instance, the sculpture of the four Tetrarchs (who between them reigned over the Roman Empire in the late 290s, early 300s AD), which today is set into the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, is made with porphyry.


This stone is found in only one set of quarries, located in Egypt’s harsh Eastern Desert. The Romans, and the Byzantines after them, mined it there and transported it all over the Empire. This is a photo of the mountain that the Romans called Mons Porphyris, with remains of the Roman mining town in the foreground.


When the Byzantines lost control of Egypt to the Arabs in the 7th Century, they lost access to porphyry. Thereafter, they were forced to recycle the porphyry already scattered around the Empire.

The green porphyry, on the other hand, originally came from quarries in the Greek Peloponnese.


The quarries were located near the small town of Krokees, not too far from Sparta.


This stone too was traded all over the Empire, a trade that sputtered to a halt after the 5th Century AD as the Empire began to fall apart. The location of the quarries was forgotten and they were only recently rediscovered.

Surprisingly, given the highly symbolic nature of the pavement, porphyry was not used in the central roundel, where the monarchs are crowned. Instead, an alabaster stone was used.


The precise provenance of this alabaster (also used in several other places in the pavement) is not known, but in all probability it was mined somewhere in what is now Turkey but what was in Roman times called Asia Minor.

Odoricus and his crew used a few other stones in minor quantities: africano, a red and black marble breccia, which was also quarried in Asia Minor near what is today Izmir; breccia corallina, a breccia of white marble in a coral-pink matrix, also quarried in Asia Minor, but in what used to be the ancient kingdom of Bythinia; and gabbro, another stone that was quarried in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.

By the time the Westminster pavement was laid down, the trade in these stones had been dead for some 800 years. So contemporary trade was not their source. Just as the stones in the Cosmatesque pavements in Rome were extracted from the Roman ruins scattered around the city, they could have come as spolia from England’s sparse Roman ruins. But Richard de Ware left us a message which suggests that Rome was the source. His grave (which lies on the north side of the pavement) once carried an inscription, which read (in Latin): “Abbot Richard de Ware, who rests here, now bears those stones which he himself bore hither from the City”, in this case the Eternal City, Rome. I can’t believe that Richard’s entourage personally carried the stones back from Rome, like bags of swag slung over their shoulders. I take the inscription to mean that when he got Odoricus and his crew to come from Rome, they brought with them the necessary stones, excavated from the Roman ruins in and around the city.

Interestingly enough, one stone which is common in Rome’s Cosmatesque pavements, but which for some reason Odoricus brought very little of, is giallo antico, a yellow limestone. Here is a nice example of a Cosmatesque use of this stone, in a roundel in the church of San Benedetto in Piscinula.


It was used extensively by the Romans and was mined by them in quarries near Carthage in what is now Tunisia.


The few pieces of this stone in the Westminster pavement have been supplemented by an English stone, Tadcaster limestone from North Yorkshire.

Fast-forward 3½-4 Centuries, to when repairs needed to be carried out to the pavement, and the picture had changed. Stones were being traded once again across Europe. And so, to fill in pieces of missing purple porphyry, ammonitico rosso from the Alps near Verona was used, as was rouge royale, a red limestone from the area around Dinant in Belgium. Any missing green porphyry was substituted either by verde genova, which comes from the mountains lying between Piedmont and Liguria, or verde di Prato, which is mined on the Tuscan side of the Appenines. Where dark-coloured stones needed replacing, a couple of black/grey-black limestones from Belgium were used.

So many interesting things to ponder on! Medieval symbolism, international trade through the ages, political ties between England and Rome in the Middle Ages, and who knows what else! But I can’t do any of this pondering if my wife and I don’t get invited to Charles’s coronation! What can I do to unhook an invite? What favours owed to me can I call in? Let me check my list of contacts for Important Persons whom I can importune to help me get invites. Two measly invites is all I’m looking for!

STOP THE PRESSES! I have just learned that for a limited period just after the coronation, tours are being offered of Westminster Abbey which will include visiting the pavement (shoeless, of course). Unfortunately, all the tickets are already sold out. Who can I buy tickets from, no doubt at highly inflated prices?


Milan, 12 December 2021

If there’s one thing that will always depress me when I see them, it’s those tall industrial chimneys belching out white clouds of steam (sometimes tinged a faint orange by the oxides of nitrogen they can contain, depending on which way the sun is shining). Here’s a typical example of the genre, this one a frequent sight on our hikes upstream of Vienna – it belongs to a power plant.


It’s all that grey concrete that does it, often topped with garish red and white stripes to keep planes from flying into them. Just so ugly! And so damned tall that you can’t ignore them!! So in your face!!! They just drain any brightness and colour out of the surrounding landscape.
I almost think that the older designs of brick chimneys were nicer on the eye. They were less high for one thing, and – at least in some models – took the form of long thin cones, which are considerably more elegant than mere cylinders. But that black smoke which they routinely belched out! Like in this British painting from about 1830.

View of Rotherham, South Yorkshire (c. 1830) by William Cowen (1791-1864). Photo credit: Rotherham Heritage Services

The fact that someone actually painted all that black muck shows how our sensitivities have changed in the last fifty years or so. When the artist painted this, black smoke was a thing to be celebrated, it meant the economy was growing. Now, we think instead that the company’s top managers should be in jail for allowing it to happen.

But back to today’s industrial chimneys. Among all the gloom they have brought to my life, there have been two bright shafts of light over the years, caused by chimneys which I’ve actually enjoyed looking at. The first of these is a chimney in Vienna which belongs to a waste incinerator.


Wonderful piece of work! The design, both of the chimney as well as the rest of the facility, is due to an Austrian artist by the name of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. His normal output looks like this.


I’m sure readers can see the relation between this type of work and his chimney design.

The incinerator has been originally built in the late 1960s, but needed extensive repairs after a fire broke out in 1987. I was told that the mayor of Vienna brought Hundertwasser in to redesign the facades of the facility as well as the chimney, because the local community was up in arms about the city fathers’ plan to continue having a working incinerator in their neighbourhood. Hundertwasser, who was quite an environmentalist, was only persuaded to accept the commission when he was promised that the most up-to-date emissions abatement technology would be installed – and in fact the chimney hardly ever gives off anything. I must say I’m quite glad Hundertwasser accepted the commission, because he created what must be the jauntiest waste incinerator in the world. It makes you almost want to work there (almost …)

It was the second sighting, that of the chimney of another waste incinerator on the outskirts of Milan, which moved me to write this post, although it has taken me nearly nine months to get around to it. Last April, after the success of the hike my wife and I did from Milan to Monza, I decided to do a similar hike in another direction. I chose the direction pretty much at random, which meant, among other things, that there was one stretch where we had to walk along a very busy road with trucks thundering by and no space on the edge of the road for us to walk on. My wife regularly reminds me of this walk whenever I suggest doing a hike sight unseen around the edges of Milan … In any event, it was on this grim stretch of road that we stumbled across the waste incinerator. Its chimney immediately caught my attention. It had been painted a most extraordinary colour, a sort of shimmering, silvery grey blue, merging, but not quite, with the surrounding sky. It was really lovely to look at. I took several photos of it between the thundering trucks. I’m not sure any of them do justice to the chimney’s colour but I throw in the best one.

my photo

By one of those extraordinary coincidences that make one believe that there is some order after all in the chaos of the universe, this chimney happens to have been painted by another Austrian artist! Jorrit Tornquist is his name; his Wikipedia entry informs me that he is a color theorist and color consultant (no doubt it was in this latter role that he was called in by Milan’s waste management company to paint the chimney). As an artist, he does works like this.


Again, readers can surely see the relation between this type of work and the chimney.

As I say, these are the only two industrial chimneys which have ever brought some happiness into my life. But writing this post has moved me to search the Internet to see what other painted industrial chimneys await me and my wife on hikes we might one day do around the world. Here’s what I found, in no particular order.


A couple of chimneys in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, being finished up in classic trompe l’oeil style.


A chimney at the sewage works in Milwaukee, where the art is actually part of the city’s water management system. The chimney is normally blue-coloured but turns red when heavy rain is forecast, warning people to reduce their water use so that the city’s drains are not overwhelmed.


An old chimney in Mount Vernon, Virginia, now hosting two graceful tulips.

I finish with a chimney which happens to be in Milan! It’s the chimney of the old factory where the Italian amaro, or bitter, Fernet Branca used to be produced.


For those of my readers who might not be too familiar with this drink, this is what a bottle of Fernet Branca looks like.


This particular bitter was first formulated in 1845 in Milan. It is made by steeping 27 herbs and other ingredients in alcohol. Which herbs and ingredients are used is of course a tightly-held secret, a pesky problem I have already come across for these kinds of drinks. But apparently at least some of the herbs are pictured on the chimney, so perhaps a close reading of the chimney will lead me to figure out what herbs are used in this drink.

As readers have no doubt understood, I am planning to view this chimney. It can be the object of one of the urban walks my wife and I will take this winter. I’ve already checked on Google Maps to see how to get there, and I’m happy to report that we will not need to walk along busy roads with trucks thundering by. I’m going to have to wait for the right moment in which to casually suggest to my wife that we go for this walk, without spilling the beans about what we are going to see – and of course I will have to reassure her about the absence of busy roads with thundering trucks.


Sori, 16 March 2021

Nearly a month ago, when my wife and I were walking through the local town of Nervi, I happened to notice this banner strung across the street.

my photo

It was an invitation to all and sundry to come and admire the camellia which were flowering in the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini in the Genoese suburb of Pegli.

We filed this invite away for possible future use, but it was only a week or so ago that we got around to going. What we discovered was more than just a bunch of camellia in flower – although we did also find that. It turns out that the villa’s gardens, which were laid out in the first half of the 1840s, are quite famous. They were the brainchild of the Marquess Ignazio Pallavicini and were designed for him by a certain Michele Canzio. This Michele Canzio was a man of the arts: an architect, an interior designer, and – important for our story – a set designer for Genova’s opera house, the Carlo Fenice theatre.  The garden he designed for Ignazio Pallavicini was composed of a series of theatre sets made up of little lakes, streams, waterfalls, various buildings of one sort or another, garden furnishings, rare plants, all inserted into general greenery. In fact, a visit to the gardens was quite openly a theatrical event, with visitors invited to wind their way up the steep hill behind the villa through gardens divided into a Prologue and Background followed by three Acts. Each of these in turn were sub-divided into a number of Scenes, with each section and sub-section having a title. So we have:

Prologue and Background
– The Gothic Avenue
– The Classical Avenue

Act I: The Return to Nature
– Scene I: The Hermitage
– Scene II; The Amusement Park
– Scene III: The Old Lake
– Scene IV: The Spring

Act II: The Recovery of History
– Scene I: The Chapel of the Virgin Mary
– Scene II: The Swiss Hut
– Scene III: The Condottiere’s Castle
– Scene IV: The Condottiere’s Mausoleum

Act III: Catharsis
– Scene I: The Inferno
– Scene II: The Large Lake
– Scene III: The Gardens of Flora
– Scene IV: Remembrance

Looking at all that, I have a sense of being trapped in a rather bad knock-off of a Wagnerian opera, with some knight errant wandering the forests of Mittel Europe searching for his Loved One. But what I feel doesn’t matter. It’s what people at the time felt that matters. They loved it. When it opened to the public (for a fee), it was an instant success. It became the centre-piece of a broader plan by Marquess Pallavicini to turn Pegli from a sleepy little fishing village on the far outskirts of Genova into a smart seaside resort where the Great and the Good from all over Europe could come to spend their winters (and later their summers). The Marquess used his political muscle (he was a Senator in the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy) to make sure that the railway being built out from Genova westwards had a stop at Pegli, donating part of his land for the station buildings as well as for an upscale hotel to house the Great and the Good who would be arriving by train and for a smart new municipal building from which the new, modern municipality he was promoting could be run. Other Genoese aristocratic families which had summer villas in the area knew a good thing when they saw it and had their villas turned into luxurious hotels. And the Great and the Good came: the hereditary princes of the German Empire, various members of Italy’s House of Savoy, various literati such as George Sand, Alfred de Musset, August Strindberg, Franz Kafka, Arrigo Boito, among others. All these Great and Good visited the gardens at Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, and where they went so did Europe’s bourgeoisie.

By now readers might be getting a little impatient and asking themselves what these gardens looked like. Let me answer them by showing a series of postcards from the turn of the century. Wonderful things, postcards. People loved to show the folk back home where they had been, and tourist spots like the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini were more than glad to oblige. My wife has a large collection of postcards sent by her parents, grandparents, and their friends over the decades, and it’s lovely to sit down of a winter evening and browse through them. But I digress. Here are postcards of the gardens:

The Gothic Avenue


The Classical Avenue


The Hermitage (which Canzio rather cleverly had built on the back of the Triumphal Arch which completed the Classical Avenue)


The Amusement Park (where visitors could take a spin on the carousels)


The Spring


The Chapel of the Virgin Mary


The Condottiere’s Castle


The Condottiere’s Mausoleum


The Inferno (made by taking the stalactites and stalagmites from other caves and placing them here; the environmentalist in me shudders)


You could also visit the Inferno by boat


And finally the Large Lake


as well as the Gardens of Flora


Oh, and perhaps I should add a photo of the camellias, which was what brought us to the gardens originally (although this is not a postcard, since it would seem that postcard makers didn’t see the interest in having postcards of the camellias).


As this photo suggests, we came a little too late, many of the camellias being past their prime. Quite how the camellias fitted into Canzio’s grand operatic scheme is not clear to me, but we can let that pass.

Would I recommend to readers to visit the gardens? I’m not sure I would. It’s not just that the highly artificial nature of the gardens does not chime with modern sensibilities (at least, it doesn’t chime with mine). It’s also that the gardens have suffered heavily from Genova’s modernization over the last century. To explain what I mean, I have to take up the story of Pegli from where I left off a few paragraphs ago.

Marquess Pallavicini wanted to turn Pegli into a smart seaside resort, and as we have seen for a while this plan was successful, as this poster from the turn of the century suggests.


But in the late 19th-early 20th Century, Genova, which we see in the far distance in this poster, was spreading like a cancer along the coast and up the valleys behind it – it was the only way the city could expand in this region where the steep hills drop precipitously into the sea. To show what I mean, here is a map of what Genova looks like today. It’s expanded up and down the coast, swallowing up places like Pegli, and sent tendrils of urbanisation up into the valleys behind.


By 1926, Genova had reached Pegli and gobbled it up. Pegli as a distinct municipality was no more.

Like all modern cities, Genova was also pushing to industrialize, and it was industrializing on the side towards Pegli. In 1915, just before Italy entered the First World War, this was the view the visitor would have had looking towards the villa.


We have the villa standing proud on the edge of the hill, with the gardens climbing the hill behind it. In front of it are orange trees, vineyards, and other fields, all the property of Marquess Pallavicini and his heirs. A decade or so later, we have this large cotton mill down by the rail tracks, with the villa in the middle distance partially blotted out by the belching industrial chimney. There were even bigger industrial plants to the right of this photo. One in particular became a very large steel plant.


By this time, the Great and the Good had packed their bags and were spending their winters and summers elsewhere along the Ligurian coast, or on the adjoining coast in France, the Côte d’Azur. Pegli had just become a grimy suburb of Genova. I suspect that Pallavicini’s heirs saw which way the wind was blowing, because the last owner of the villa and its gardens donated them to the city of Genova in 1928. But at least she did so with the provision that the villa be allocated to some cultural use and that the gardens be kept open to the public (Genova more or less honoured the bargain; one part of the villa has become a museum and the gardens were kept open until the 1960s – more on that in a minute).

The pace of modernization quickened after World War II. And here, to continue the story, I switch back to our visit of the gardens. We had passed through the Prologue and Background and had started onto Act I when we started hearing a low roar, which got stronger and stronger as we progressed. At some point, we reached a Belvedere where we got a beautiful, close-up view of –– the A10 motorway, which runs from Genova to Ventimiglia. This section of the motorway was built in the 1960s.


This screenshot from Google Maps shows just how the motorway smashed its way through the hill under the gardens.


The construction of the tunnel so badly damaged the gardens that they were closed until 1992, when they were reopened to the public after a decade of restoration. Even today, much of Act I of the gardens is blighted by the continuous roar from the motorway.

When we had climbed higher, reaching the end of Act I, we began to get splendid views over the sea –– and onto the runway of Genova’s airport.


As the photo shows, the runway is built on the sea, a consequence of the fact, which I’ve already mentioned, that Genova lies at the foot of steep hills that drop straight into the sea – there is no nice flat space nearby where a runway could be built.  After some back and forth, it was decided to build the airport and its runway to the west of Genova, I suspect because this part of the city had already been blighted by industrialization and no-one would complain too much about it. Luckily, the day we visited the gardens no planes landed or took off – Covid-19 induced no doubt – but I presume that on a normal day the noise of planes taking off would add to the noise from the motorway.

On we climbed, and as we got the end of Act II, and the highest point of the gardens, we could enjoy a new view across the valley running alongside the gardens –– to a series of oil tanks planted on the hill on the other side of the valley. They were painted a sickly green, no doubt to claim they were environmentally-friendly. Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately for me, no-one seems to have posted a photo of these oil tanks taken from the gardens, so the best I can do is to show another satellite photo from Google Maps.


The tanks are that group of circles, and to locate the gardens please follow the motorway as it punches its way through the hill.

The presence of oil tanks there are the consequence of another decision, taken in the early 1960s, to have Genova’s oil terminal built close to the airport (so another pleasant sight from the gardens must no doubt be the periodic arrival of oil tankers coming in to offload their cargo). The oil pipelines snake over the hills from the terminal to these tanks, where the oil is stored prior to further onward delivery to the north of Italy.

After enjoying these sights, we wended our way down through Act III of the gardens and on down to the exit. When we arrived back at the villa we went out on its ample terrace to admire the view –– and got a close-up of people’s clothes drying on their balconies. In the 1960s and ’70s, those pleasant fields of orange trees, vineyards and other crops which used to lie at the foot of the villa, and which I show above in that postcard from 1915, had been cemented over to make way for cheap housing. Here we have a view of that housing, and at the end of the avenue we can see the villa.


No “green belt” was kept between the housing and the villa. The apartment blocks come right up to the gates of the villa.

So, like I say, I don’t think I will be recommending a visit to these gardens to anyone. I feel sorry for the enthusiastic volunteers who manned (and womanned) the gardens, I respect the spending of public moneys to restore the gardens, seen as a great example of garden design from the Romantic age, but the garden’s context has been so ruined as to blight any visit to the gardens.



Sori, 14 February 2021

As my wife and I were walking down into Vernazza on our latest hike along the trail which links together the Cinque Terre, I noticed this on the steeple of the village church.

my photo

I suspect it’s a little difficult for readers to see what I mean, so I throw in this close-up photo of the steeple.

my photo

“This” is a weathervane. As I’m sure many of my readers will know, in the pre-modern world, where weather satellites didn’t exist and TV channels didn’t give you weather forecasts every hour on the hour, the function of weathervanes was to tell people which way the wind was blowing, a pretty good indicator of what the weather was going to be like. And of course peering at weathervanes went along with some of the weather-related sayings people were fond of quoting, like this one about the winds:
“When the wind is in the east, it’s good for neither man nor beast.
When the wind is in the north, the old folk should not venture forth.
When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fishes’ mouth.
When the wind is in the west, it is of all the winds the best.”

I can imagine some great-great-great grandfather of mine looking up at the weathervane on the barn and saying “Aah, wind today’s from the north. Like they say, ‘old folk shouldn’t venture forth’”, no doubt using this as a good excuse to wend his way to the village pub to fritter his time (and money) away.

But weathervanes are also excellent examples of how we human beings transform functional objects into art. Take that weathervane on Vernazza’s church. If readers look again at my photo, they’ll see that the weathervane-maker turned the sail, which a weathervane needs if it is to work, into a rather pudgy angel. The things which weathervane-makers have turned the sail into, and continue to turn them into (this is by no means a dead art), are endless. I throw in here, in no particular order, some of the designs which have caught my fancy.


The eventual owners of weathervanes will often choose designs that comment on something: their profession, their beliefs, their interests, the times they live in, even the racehorses they have bet on … No doubt it was in that spirit that Pope Nicholas I, way back in the 9th century, ordered that the rooster be the emblem used on weathervanes placed on Christian churches. It seems that Pope Nicolas was harking back to a comment made by Pope Gregory the Great even further back in time, in the 6th Century. Gregory had decreed that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity, being the emblem of St Peter – he is referring to the story in the Gospel where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, here captured in a painting by Francesco Rosa in San Zachariah church in Venice.


Personally, I find this a rather strange reason to choose the rooster as an emblem on churches, referencing as it does a moment of shameful betrayal by the man who was to become the first Pope. I rather think that Popes Gregory and Nicolas were doing something which Christians had been doing since the dawn of their religion, putting a Christian gloss on what were actually thriving pagan traditions (“if you can’t beat them, join them”). For the Goths and no doubt other “barbarians”, the rooster, crowing as it does at dawn, was an emblem of the sun. What better emblem to put on churches! Wasn’t Jesus (apparently) born at the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn?

In any event, from the 9th Century on, rooster-themed weathervanes became the norm on Christian churches (which no doubt explains why, in English, another name for the weathervane is the weathercock). The oldest surviving weathervane in Europe – from the 9th Century – is a rooster which, until 1891, graced the Church of Saints Faustino and Giovita in the city of Brescia.


And the Bayeux tapestry, my favourite tapestry and one I’ve mentioned several times in these posts, clearly shows a man installing a rooster weathervane on Westminster Abbey (the scene is actually about the burial of King Edward the Confessor; I presume the nuns who made the tapestry were adding local colour).


Now, I’m sure that at this point my alert readers are saying, “Hang on a minute, why does the weathervane on that church in Vernazza have an angel and not a rooster, then?” Well, it seems that at some point the Church authorities relaxed the rooster rule somewhat. Other emblems were possible, although normally ones which were linked to the saint or saints to which the church was dedicated. In the case of the church in Vernazza, it is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch. A quick zip around the Internet tells me that a weathervane emblem connected to her (completely apocryphal) life could be a dragon: one of the more dramatic moments in her life was that she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. Dragons are popular emblems for weathervanes. Here’s a nice example.


Or the emblem could be a hammer. She is often depicted, especially in Orthodox icons, as hammering the Devil – once no doubt she had been regurgitated alive by him. My wife and I saw a great example of such an icon in a museum in Athens a few years ago (for some reason, the Orthodox call her Marina rather than Margaret).

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Here’s a nice example of a hammer, although it’s put together with a saw (“hammer and saw”).


But no, we have an angel. OK, I guess angels are pretty saintly and so a good emblem for a church – as long as they look serious, like this emblem (for some reason, most of the weathervanes have the angel blowing a horn).


But no, if readers go back to my original photo, they will see that the weathervane-maker seems to have made more of a cherub. Raphael painted the most iconic of cherubs.


And here we have a nice weathervane example (also tooting a horn; it seems that angelic figures are expected to be horn players).


The example on Vernazza’s church doesn’t seem nearly as cute. As far as I can make out, the cherub there has gone to seed; a cherub who has spent rather too much of his lockdown time eating and drinking and not enough time working out in his living room.

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I’m not sure how the weathervane-maker got this pretty non-religious weathervane past the parish priest. Perhaps the weathervane-maker was the parish priest. Or perhaps the parish priest was a jolly fellow who liked a good laugh. I have in mind someone like don Camillo as played by Fernandel.


The parish priest must also have calculated that his bishop would never come to this Godforsaken village during his tenure – until quite recently it was pretty difficult to get to Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre; you either walked over the hills or you took a fishing boat, neither of which I see any self-respecting bishop doing.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the backstory on this weathervane. In the meantime, I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye to see where I might have come across weathervanes in my life. Only one episode comes back to me, from my days at prep school (in British vernacular this being a boarding school for primary-school-age children). As I ascertained after a quick zip around the Internet, the school still exists. The only change I can see is that it has gone co-ed in the intervening years, an excellent thing. The school has taken over a building with venerable origins, as this picture of the main lawn attests.


But the main reason for my putting in this photo is that discrete weathervane on that small tower in the centre of the photo. I throw in here an enlargement.


It’s a rather boring weathervane, taking the shape of a flag (the first instruments used to figure out which way the wind was blowing were no doubt flags; indeed, the English word “vane” is derived from the Old English word fana, meaning flag). Nevertheless, I know that weathervane well. One year, my dormitory gave onto the roof covering the gallery (those windows we see to the left of the base of the tower). I was a naughty boy and friends with other naughty boys. We would regularly sneak out of the dormitory window at night onto that roof and go for a walk, just for the dare. Sometimes, that weathervane would be silhouetted against the moon. I see it still … aahh, the good old days!

One other memory I have of weathervanes is their figurative use in cartoons, especially political cartoons. As we all know too well, politicians are notorious for going “whichever way the wind blows” (a popular wind-related saying). Cartoonists have always had a field day with weathervanes, using them to show politicians who chop and change their opinions, “trimming their sails” to prevailing opinion (another popular wind-related saying). I remember a British cartoon mocking the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for acting like a weathervane over the independence of British colonies in Africa. I couldn’t find that particular one on the Internet. But political cartoonists have been busy with the weathervane metaphor in the intervening years. Here are some recent examples.


For some reason, the use of weathervanes seems to be especially popular among American cartoonists. Could it be that the extensive use of interest groups in American politics makes American politicians chop and change their opinions more frequently – and, given the pervasiveness of TV news teams, the evidence of their chopping and changing is more obviously there for everyone to see?

Politicians are of course sensitive to the charge of behaving like weathervanes. Quebecan politicians are so sensitive to the charge that the provincial Assembly has banned the use of the term, considering it a slur. I never knew politicians were quite that thin-skinned …

Well, that still leaves the mystery of my pudgy angel. Maybe, next time my wife and I are in Vernazza, I’ll drop into the church and try to find an answer.

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If I find one I will report back.


Milan, 18 January 2021

In these times of Covid restrictions, my wife and I have been exploring hikes closer to home, hikes which allow us to more or less stay within the limits of the commune of Milan, or at least not stray too far outside of it. The latest such hike we’ve done has taken us along one of the old canals which radiate out from Milan, the Naviglio della Martesana. I fear we might have exceeded the legal limit of where we could go. In our defence, the designations of which Covid tier Milan is in has been changing from day to day, making it quite hard to know just how far we are allowed to travel outside of Milan. I trust my readers will not snitch on us!

In any event, the hike was some 30 km long, undertaken over several days, and took us from the north-east of Milan out to the river Adda, which drains lake Como. It’s not a physically challenging hike. Following a canal means no brutal climbs or descents, and the path is paved the whole way – the path is actually a bicycle path, and the only real challenge is to keep out of the way of bicyclists who race along at high speeds, their riders no doubt dreaming of fame and glory in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.

First, a little bit of history. Building of the canal started in 1460, under Francesco Sforza, the first of the Sforza dynasty to rule over the Duchy of Milan.


The canal took its waters from the river Adda (which at the time was the Duchy’s eastern frontier with Venice) and carried them over the flat plain that lies between the river Adda and Milan, passing various towns and crossing various rivers along the way. At first, it finished several kilometres to the north of the city, emptying into the river Seveso, but then in 1496 Francesco’s son, Galeazzo Maria, extended it with a short new canal, the Naviglio di San Marco, and joined it up with the series of canals which encircled Milan, the Cerchia dei Navigli.


This map shows the track of the canal.


Alert readers will have noticed the trace of the canal is not all that straight, it zigs and zags a bit. The topography certainly didn’t require this – there was no need to go around hills and such like. The land between the river Adda and Milan is as flat as a pancake, so by rights – to reduce construction costs – the canal should have been a straight line between river and city. But all the landowners on that flat plain wanted the canal to come their way so that they could use the water to irrigate their fields. And the towns that dotted the plain wanted the canal as a source of water and to keep their moats topped up. All these different groups brought pressure to bear on the canal’s planners, so the canal ended up winding this way and that way across the plain as those who had the most influence pulled the canal towards them. Which is just as well for me and my wife; walking along a dead straight canal would have been very monotonous.

There were also quarrels right from the start about which uses of the canal should get priority. As we’ve seen, the landowners wanted to use it for irrigation. But a good number of them also wanted to use its energy to drive watermills, as did the towns. And the landowners also wanted the canal as a means of transportation to bring their (mainly) agricultural goods to market. For their part, the rulers of Milan were more interested in the canal as a means of transportation to move goods and so promote the city’s and the Duchy’s economy. They also wanted it to be part of their defensive system against the dratted Venetians to the East. Irrigation tended to drop the level of water in the canal, which was a problem for navigation since the boats wouldn’t have enough draft as well as for the mills because the flow wouldn’t be strong enough to drive the wheels. But maintaining enough draft and a swift enough flow meant cutting back on irrigation, which was bad for the crops. Tempers flared, lawsuits were filed, and no doubt swords were drawn. In the end, though, a modus vivendi was arrived at, and from the 1580s onwards irrigation coexisted more or less peacefully with other uses of the canal’s waters.

At some point, the Milanese aristocracy discovered the delights of the countryside and many built villas along the canal, reachable by boat from their houses in town. So we have this painting from 1790 of one of these villas in Crescenzago (now on the outskirts of Milan), showing also the normal traffic along the canal.


And we have here a painting from 1834 of the Milanese extension of the canal, the Naviglio San Marco, just before it joined the Cerchia dei Navigli.


Then the industrial revolution came along. New means of transportation competed with canals, first railways then roads. The Martesana canal steadily lost out to these upstarts and was only able to remain competitive when heavy lifting was required: sand, stone, coal, wood. Here we have one of those loads being moved along the canal (shown in the-then new medium of photography).


In the meantime, exploding populations meant that villages along the canal grew and became urbanized, as shown in this photo of the same Crescenzago which was the subject of my first painting above.


These growing villages bled into each other, smothering the farmland that once lay between them, with the ones closer to Milan being in turn submerged by the expansion of that city, eventually becoming its outer suburbs. Much of the growth around Milan was driven by the factories which established themselves on its periphery. A good number of them were located along the Martesana canal and Milan’s other canals, as this photo shows.


In 1929, the demand for road space to ease vehicle congestion in Milan (along, it must be said, with a need to deal with public health concerns) meant that the Cerchia dei Navigli was covered over, along with the Naviglio San Marco.


In the late 1950s, the authorities overseeing the canal bowed to reality and decreed that the canal would no longer be used for transportation, only irrigation. Finally, in 1968, after the municipal authorities had concluded that the covers of the Cerchia dei Navigli and the Naviglio San Marco were in danger of collapsing, they decided to simply fill these in and reroute the waters of the Martesana canal into an overflow canal. This went around the inner core of the city and emptied into the dried-up bed of the Seveso river south of the city. The authorities also decided that more space was needed for Milan’s burgeoning car population and so covered another section several kilometers long at the canal’s end and turned this into a wide avenue, via Melchiorre Gioia.

And so out in the countryside, irrigation had finally won the centuries-long arguments about irrigation vs. navigation, while in Milan itself the canal had become a relic of a bygone era, slowly falling apart and becoming for all intents and purposes an open drain.

Luckily, as I’ve also mentioned in a much earlier post about an abandoned railway line, good sense eventually prevailed. Led by Milan, in the 1980s the communes through which the canal passed got their act together. They cleaned up the canal’s towpath and turned it into a cycle path, and generally encouraged their citizens to use the canal as a park. That’s where things stood when my wife and I embarked on our hike along the canal.

We started where the canal’s waters disappear under via Melchiorre Gioia.

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We turned our backs on the city and started walking out towards the distant Adda river. One of the old houses which had graced the canal in its heyday greeted us. As part of the urban renewal which accompanied the upgrading of the canal in the 1980s, its owners had renovated it and painted it a welcoming yellow.

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But already, hulking over this old building, we could see the blocks of flats put up during the 1960s and 70s as the city expanded outwards at breakneck speed. It was a harbinger of things to come, as we walked for kilometres through a jumble of old and abandoned, old but renewed, shining new, and new but already showing signs of wear and tear. Even though drawn in 1945, this cartoon captures beautifully the chaos of today’s urban reality which the old canal now threads its way through.


Here we have one railway bridge after another spanning the canal.

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New blocks of flats giving onto the canal.

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The jumble of tiny gardens which people have carved out of spaces along the canal.

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Industrial chimneys, relics of factories which once abutted the canal.

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in the next case being recycled into a new use as a pole on which to fix transmitters of the newest means of communication, mobile phones.

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Old houses which have been lucky enough to be renovated

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Others which are struggling against the odds.

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As befits an urban backwater, and as the last photo attests, graffiti on every wall. Most of it the usual ugly, mindless initials, but some eye-catching:

– an impossibly elaborate flower turning into a person on the arch of a railway bridge

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– an amusing reminder that we are walking along a bicycle path

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– a swirl of brightness

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– square upon square of colour

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The first of the villas which used to grace the canal’s edge

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once surrounded by countryside, but now hemmed in and overshadowed by ugly modernity

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The walls again, but this time carriers of messages, most of the lovesick type:

– “I love you Vale”

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but sometimes in a more reflective, philosophical tone, which seemed apt in this urban chaos we were walking through:

– “What a shitty life”

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and a line from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1973 song, the aptly titled “Concrete Jungle”

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Finally, on the outskirts of Milan, the first encounter with the countryside, but an encounter showing it to be beleaguered and under threat from the urban sprawl at our backs:

– An example of one of the many crumbling ruins of farmhouses which dot the Italian countryside, victims to rural flight over the last sixty years

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– the use of the countryside as a place to flytip our urban wastes

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We passed under the ring motorway which is effectively the border of Milan. Had we broken out of the concrete jungle? Alas not. The housing continued. We passed the broken down gate of what must once have been the water gate of a fine villa but which now gives onto an ugly, messy, nondescript yard; the villa itself has vanished.

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Spanking new, neat and tidy blocks of flats, but in places which the French call quartiers dortoirs, dormitory districts, places with no shops, no amenities, nothing – just places where commuters can sleep before heading back into town to work.

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But a more rural feel began to creep in.

Cottages along the waterfront.

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And finally, after some 15 kilometres of walking, some real fields! With the snow-capped mountains glistening on the horizon.

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One of the irrigation channels fed by the canal, the water cascading away.

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The last villa we passed, and the most imposing of them all, the Villa Alari.

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Its history is a metaphor for the canal’s history as a whole. It was built at the beginning of the 18th Century on a magnificent scale, as this print shows.



So magnificent was it that the Austrian Governor of Lombardy, Archduke Ferdinand, rented it over several summers and even negotiated, without success, to buy it (his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, nixed the idea, considering the asking price too high). After passing down through the Alari family and, by marriage, into a branch of the Visconti family, it was donated by its last Visconti owner in 1944 to the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in Milan. By then, it had lost the lands around it and with them its magnificent gardens. The Brothers first used the villa as a psychiatric hospital and then as a nursing home. In 2007, they palmed it off onto the municipality, which must be asking itself what the hell to do with the building.

Another of those large farm complexes which dot the plains of the River Po and which, like so many others, has been pretty much abandoned (it was so large it needed two photos to capture it).

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In the distance, the new housing complexes of today, feeding their inhabitants to Milan via an extension of one of the city’s subway lines – one of the new forms of transportation which took the place of the canal.

One of the few remaining locks on the canal, which are sadly firmly and irrevocably shut.

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One last look across a ploughed field at the mountains, closer now, their snow glistening in the sun.

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And we finally arrived in Cassano d’Adda, perched on the river, where we took the train back to Milan.


Vienna, 14 November 2020

As befits a mountainous country with a coolish climate, Austria has acres of forests covering its many hills and mountains. As a consequence, it once had a vibrant tradition of building in wood. Nowadays, of course, wood as a building material has been almost completely superseded by stone, brick and concrete. The only places you still see wooden buildings are in the small villages which dot the countryside, wooden barns being still quite common there. My wife and I come across them quite often on our hikes, as these photos taken on a couple of recent hikes attest.

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I love these old barns. My French grandmother had one just like them attached to the side of her house. We went in there often because that was where the bicycles and the ping-pong table were kept. It was – to the small me – a vast, cavernous place. All sorts of weather-beaten garden tools and other odds-and-ends lurked in the shadows. There was a pile of hay – quite why I don’t know; my grandmother had no animals. But it made the barn smell of hay, into which was mixed the smell of beaten earth rising from the floor. Then one summer I arrived for the summer holidays, only to find the barn gone. My grandmother told me that it had been sagging sideways and threatening to pull the rest of the house down with it. But this perfectly rational explanation didn’t take away the desolation I felt at the disappearance of this wonderful building.

As I say, there was a time when many more buildings in this country were made of wood, especially in the mountain regions. A number of Austrian artists have captured them on their canvases. Oskar Mulley was especially assiduous in his painting of mountain huts and barns, partly or wholly made of wood.


Alfons Walde also often included these buildings in his paintings, although snow was more his thing.


Alas, as we all know only too well, wood burns very well. The older and drier it is, the better it burns, as we all learnt watching the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris go up in flames.


The previously common use of wood in construction in Austria and its tendency to burn well must explain why every municipality in this country, down to the smallest village it would seem, has a fire station. As an extreme example, a couple of days ago my wife and I passed through a small village on one of our hikes, which had not one

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not two

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but three fire stations!

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And each one is bigger than the last. Are fires getting bigger in this village, I wonder, or is it that fire engines are getting bigger and need a more spacious building to house them, or (a somewhat uncharitable thought) have municipal budgets been growing?

Of course, as befits a traditionally Catholic country, Austrians have a saint whom they can invoke to protect them from fire: St. Florian. Austrians should be particularly proud of this saint since he is a native son. The annals tell us that he was born in the latter part of the 3rd Century C.E. in Lorch, near Linz, on what was then the edges of the Roman Empire – the Danube River, which flows just north of Lorch, was the frontier of that Empire. Since so many Roman army units were garrisoned along the frontier his father could have been an army officer. Florian was active, possibly also as an army officer, in St. Pölten (or Aelium Cetium, as it was then called) when one of the periodic rounds of persecution against Christians broke out. This one occurred in 303–304 C.E., under the Emperor Diocletian (the same round of persecution that put paid to St. Pancras, about whom I wrote an earlier post). Without going into the details, which are anyway of dubious validity, it is recorded that Florian was arrested as a Christian. After a trial and various tortures, he was drowned in the Danube by being thrown off a a bridge with a stone tied around his neck. Thus did he become a martyr and a saint.

Sensibly enough, Florian was initially invoked to protect people from the dangers of water. At some point, though, he was pivoted (to use that most modern of terms) and used instead to protect people from fire. My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that another saint, John of Nepomuk, about whom I’ve written in an earlier post and who died in almost exactly the same way as Florian – thrown from a bridge and drowned – won the competition for protecting people from the dangers of water, leaving Florian without a role. Well of course, one critical use of water was to put out fires, so hey presto! he became the protector from the dangers of fire.

The Austrians have not only used wood to build, they have used it to carve, and their churches (and museums) are full of wonderfully carved statues and bas-reliefs. I throw in here a couple of bas-reliefs (from southern Germany in this case) which were recently auctioned at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house.


Naturally enough, the saints who got a place in churches tended to be people’s favourites, ones whom they prayed to regularly. Given the ever-present danger of fire, one of these is St. Florian. My wife and I came across this lovely example of a St. Florian statue during one of our hikes this Autumn, down by Neusidler See (the same hike where we picked up bagfuls of walnuts).

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We see here all the typical attributes of such a statue. Florian is dressed as a Roman soldier and gripping a banner, he is holding a bucket of water, and he is thoughtfully pouring that water over a little burning house situated at his feet. Delightful! My wife and I have come across scores of such statues during our wanderings over Austria’s hills and dales. In fact, we came across a fresco of him on the wall of a house just this afternoon.

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One statue of St. Florian which we haven’t seen, though, and which I have put on my bucket list stands in the town of Bad Tölz in Upper Bavaria. The statue was set up in a square, in front of the town’s tax office. Since the statue gave its back to the tax office the sculptor thought it fitting to have the saint flash his bum to the tax men, to show them what he – and the rest of the town – thought of them.


I think we can all sympathize with the citizens of Bad Tölz, especially since St. Florian’s feast day is 4th May, a few days after 30th April, which for many in the world is the deadline for turning in their income tax returns.

By extension of his duties as heavenly fireman, St. Florian is the patron saint of many trades where fire was once used: bakers, brewers, coopers (the staves which coopers used to make barrels were steamed to make them pliable), potters, forges, soap boilers (who knew that was once a profession?). He is also, naturally enough, the patron saint of chimney sweeps, which, dear readers, contrary to coopers, soap boilers, and the rest is not a profession that has disappeared – not in Austria, at least. They are alive and well and thriving here.

When my wife and I first came to Austria, we were struck by these young blokes we would see (there have also been some young ladies in recent years) walking the streets and wearing this strange outfit: black overalls with a white head covering.


Upon enquiry, we were told that they were chimney sweeps. Chimney sweeps?! Well, both my wife and I have been around the block a couple of times (I won’t admit to how many) and neither of us have any memory of our parents calling in chimney sweeps. I don’t know about my readers, but to me the term “chimney sweeps” conjures up a Dickensian vision of little boys being forced to climb down narrow chimneys by a nasty master and getting stuck and dying.


At a minimum, chimney sweeps should be dirty-looking, like coal miners.


In fact, they should have died out along with the coal industry. But no, these Austrian fellows are around in large numbers and are lick-spittle clean; they don’t give the impression of ever getting within a mile of an actual chimney. What is going on here?

I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I rather get the impression that we have here a great example of a union using its political muscle to avoid extinction. The way I see it, when chimney sweeps saw that their days were numbered, they got the governments – municipal, for the most part – to pass laws requiring homeowners to have their chimneys – used for gas water heaters for the most part these days – as well as the water heaters themselves checked at least once a year by a “chimney sweep”. As a homeowner in Vienna, I have had the doubtful pleasure of having Viennese “chimney sweeps” come over, solemnly open a little trap door in the wall, perfunctorily have a look in, declare all to be well, and require to paid handsomely for this service. And on top of it all they expect a tip at Christmas! This year, I found this “service” particularly grating because just a few days before the “chimney sweep” had come around we’d had the water heater maintained by a man who spent a good deal more time on the job and got paid proportionately a good deal less. But we can’t get out of it, because if we were to have a fire – Oh St. Florian, spare us this disaster! – and if it turned out to have been due to something the chimney sweep would have checked if we had called him, then the insurance wouldn’t pay – they have you over a barrel (made by one of those coopers who have since disappeared).

Not wishing to end on this sour note, writing about chimney sweeps reminds me that in the old days, when they really did sweep chimneys out, they would have cleaned chimneys connected to those wonderful tiled stoves which they used to have here in Austria. Some places actually still have them. We came across one this summer while staying in a hotel on a hike near Innsbruck; the stove is at the back of the room in the picture.


As readers can see, they have a bench around the bottom where one can sit with one’s back against the stove wall keeping nice and warm. I understand people would even sleep on these benches. But what is really lovely about these stoves is their decoration. I throw in a few pictures of such stoves.


Once, when we were looking for an apartment in Vienna to rent, my wife and I were shown one with such a stove. For one mad moment, we thought of taking the apartment just for the stove. But good sense prevailed; it would have been too small, the children wouldn’t have had their own rooms. Sometimes, though, my wife and I reminisce about that stove we never had. Another thing on our bucket list.


Milan, 9 March 2020

A virus stalks the land,  it goes by the name of Covid-19.


For weeks it has been spreading quietly, behind our backs, skipping from hand to hand, riding on droplets we cough out. Now it is out in the open. The patients are pouring into the hospitals. The hospitals are struggling. The frailest – the old, the weak – are dying. The government has enacted drastic measures. Here in Milan, we are in lock-down. No-one can enter or leave the region without a good and serious reason, no-one can even move around within the region. The government exhorts us to stay home. In fact, if we have even a small temperature it orders us to stay home. If we are infected, we are to go to the hospital only if we can no longer breathe. These are anxious times for us all.

True to the philosophy behind this blog, I have been looking around me for beauty and the peace it can bring the anxious soul. I have found it, in a magnolia tree behind Milan’s cathedral.

As a previous post of mine attests, I love magnolias – who does not? I discovered this particular magnolia tree a few years ago. It grows on a small lawn tucked away between the cathedral’s gothic apse and its southern transept. Last year, I happened to pass by when it was in full bloom. Here, I took the photo with the apse behind.

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Here, I took it with the transept behind.

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On impulse, I decided to watch the tree cycle through the seasons, finding excuses to walk this way from time to time. The next time I came by it was summer. The flowers had given way to thick foliage.

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As a previous post attests, I have a weakness for this shade of green, but I found the contrast between the green of the leaves and the white of the cathedral’s stone particularly stunning.  So entranced was I that I snapped several photos of this symphony of green and white.

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Shortly after taking this photo, we moved up to Vienna for the rest of the summer, and the autumn took us to Japan once more. So it was only in the dead of winter that I saw the tree again. I saw it at night, its skeleton of branches barely lit by the lights illuminating the cathedral.

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The delicate tracery of the cathedral’s gothic windows took pride of place.

And now, in these dark times, I have gone back to see the tree in flower once more, to draw solace from it.

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Milan, 1 April 2019

Many, many years ago – it must have been the Easter of 1976 – I visited my wife-to-be in Milan during the Spring holidays. After the dark, cold Scottish winter we had just endured in Edinburgh, the tepid spring temperatures in Milan were a godsend. On my first day there, my wife(-to-be) took me on a walk around the district. We rounded a corner and I found myself confronted with this:
It was even more striking closer up: a froth of tender green partially masking the ruddy red of brick in the walls of a venerable-looking church topped off with a very fine dome.
I took these two pictures from the same spots a week or so ago. Nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening 40+ years.

It was a vision – after that cold, dark winter – of the coming of spring that has remained with me ever since. I put my eventual decision to “pivot” away from grey, rainy, cold UK towards sunny, warm Italy down to that first spring visit to Milan and in particular to this vision of tender green on brick red.

A walk around the back of the church through a little park made the church look even more interesting.
I have always been very fond of this seemingly higgledy-piggledy pile of venerable-looking buildings, all in that warm red brick so common in this part of the world. Over the intervening 40-odd years, whenever I’ve been in Milan I have always tried to find a moment to come back to this spot to admire the view.

The church is just as interesting on the front side. There, the first thing that meets the eye is a row of very worn Roman columns.
They enclose one side of the piazza in front of the church, a piazza which is as orderly as the back of the church is disorderly. Facing the columns, the church’s facade rises up to the church’s imposing dome, adopting the clean lines of classical-looking architecture.
The canon houses on the other two sides of the piazza continue this projection of orderliness, balance, and harmony.
As a finishing touch, in the centre of the piazza stands a statue of a Roman emperor, calmly gazing down on passing visitors.
Meanwhile, in the near distance those same visitors can make out one of Milan’s few remaining gates in its Medieval walls, the Porta Ticinese.
This church is the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It is a very ancient church; the latest archaeological digs put its foundation at the end of the 4th-beginning of the 5th Centuries. Its history is not nearly as orderly as the piazza in front would have us believe; the disorderliness of the back is a better metaphor for its passage through the centuries.

Like many ancient churches in the lands of the old Roman Empire, the church was built atop a Roman temple. This aerial view of what Roman Milan probably looked like has been put together by some clever fellow.
San Lorenzo was built over that square grey temple close to the amphitheatre which readers can see in the bottom left corner. This is a close-up of what the clever fellow thinks that temple might have looked like.
My guess is that the columns now standing guard over the piazza in front of the church were reused from this temple. But it’s just a guess; no-one seems to know for sure where they came from. What is sure is that stones from the nearby amphitheatre were dragged over for use in the foundations of the church.

That reuse of stone and columns strongly suggests that this was an imperial basilica – you needed imperial permission to mine old public buildings for their stone. It’s further believed that the basilica was built close to an imperial palace – at this time Milan was the imperial capital of the Western Roman Empire – as a counterweight to the four basilicas which St. Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan, had been busily building in Milan (and which still exist today, although in much modified form).

We don’t know for sure what the first church looked like, although archaeological excavations and the sparse written records have helped the experts form an opinion. Based on this, some other clever fellow has come up with this cut-away drawing of what the first church might have looked like.
Very little remains of this complex today: the four towers (two are visible in this drawing), the two octagonal side chapels, and the recycled Roman columns at the front. What also remains is the ghostly outline of the central part of the church, a very striking space composed of a large square with each side having a shallow apse, and with a wide circular deambulatory corridor around that central space.
Anyone who visits many churches, either for religious reasons or – like me – to admire their art and architecture, cannot but be struck by the uniqueness of this space. Very few old Christian churches have this kind of floor plan.

The drawing above doesn’t give any indication of the decoration of the church, but if this was indeed an imperial basilica then the interior would have been richly decorated with mosaics. If we had been lucky, if San Lorenzo had passed through the centuries relatively unscathed, we might have been able to admire something as glorious as the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna.
But it was not to be.  Almost all of San Lorenzo’s mosaics are gone, swept away by water leakage, poor maintenance, rebuilding after fires or structural failures, and changing tastes. What little is left is tucked away in one of the old octagonal side chapels, the chapel of St. Aquilinus. The best conserved mosaic is this one, depicting Christ among the Philosophers.
A much more damaged mosaic is tucked away in another corner of the chapel. Experts believe this to have shown the Christ-Sun in his chariot (presumably borrowing from the classical representation of Apollo in his chariot moving the sun through the sky) – one can still see the horses’ legs against a golden background.
Two fires and an earthquake did it for the first church of San Lorenzo, with the central dome probably collapsing. Major rebuilding programmes took place in the 12th and 13th Centuries to rebuild the dome in “modern” style. While the basic plan of the church was left untouched, various other things were added: a few more side chapels and no doubt other things here and there. No-one seems to have committed to paint or paper this newer version of the church. The best we have is some miniatures painted by Cristoforo de Predis in a book of 1476, Leggendario libro della fine del mondo. They show Milan as background to scenes drawn from the New Testament. This one in particular, which depicts Jesus returning to Nazareth where he is presented with a paralyzed man, has Milan standing in for Nazareth. The paralyzed man is being brought out of the Porta Ticinese, which has the old medieval walls attached to it as well as the defensive moat in front of it (now a busy ring road), while in the background we see the church of San Lorenzo with its fine new dome.
The interior decorations were of course also renovated, this time in the “modern” fresco style. Again, if we had been lucky, we might have found ourselves today gazing on something as glorious as the interior of the Collegiata in San Gimignano:
But no. As time went by, these frescoes were also attacked by their enemies: water, fumes from candles, neglect, structural damage, and changes in taste. In the final indignity, someone decided to whitewash over what was left of them to make nice white walls. In the last fifty years or so, modern conservationists have scraped away the whitewash and have revealed some scraps of the frescoes that adorned the church:
Of the first generation of frescoes, we have a Descent from the Cross
St. Helena, holding that same Cross, which she is purported to have found in Jerusalem
The Virgin and the Christ child, enthroned
Later frescoes were added, or substituted the earlier ones, like this Last Supper from the early 16th Century.
Things were definitely not helped by the dome collapsing again in 1573. Once more it was rebuilt, and that is the dome which I admired 40 odd years ago and which we still admire today. But one can imagine that the collapse of the dome brought down a lot of the interior decoration with it and putting it back up again put paid to a good deal more.

Meanwhile, things were changing around the church. At the beginning, the church had been outside the city, but when the city expanded its walls in the Middle Ages, it had been brought within the city boundaries. With the greater protection this afforded, people had decided to build houses all around San Lorenzo. These pressed right up to the church’s walls. In fact, in the front of the church, houses had invaded the space between the church’s front doors and the old Roman columns so that these were now completely isolated from the church, as this painting from about 1815 shows.An exception was the back of the church. There, the ground was marshy, being low-lying and the point where several streams and canals met. As a result, an open no-man’s land was left there, which during normal times was used by the city’s tanners. As anyone knows who has been anywhere near a tannery, the smell in the neighbourhood must have been overpowering, so it was not a place that the good folk would have wanted to live. Tanning was still going on here in the 1830s, as this painting from 1833 attests – note the skins stretched out to dry in the foreground.
To make matters worse, it was on this no-man’s land that until the mid 1800s the city’s authorities carried out their executions, and of course executions included all the hideous tortures that the poor bastards were subjected to before being allowed to die. This print shows vividly what could await those being executed in this space – San Lorenzo stands as a mute witness in the background.
Definitely not an area for the good folk to have their houses! And so the area behind the church was what we might politely call a lower-class neighbourhood, or impolitely call a slum. In the late 1800s, the city authorities decided it was time to spruce up the area. So the no-man’s land was upgraded to a piazza, piazza Vetra, houses were built along its edges and buildings were built in the piazza to house weekly markets. This one, for instance, was built in 1866 for the weekly market in dairy products. We see behind San Lorenzo looking on benignly.
In the first three decades of the 1900s, the city authorities cleaned up the area further. In 1911, as this postcard shows, there were still houses located between the old Roman columns and the front door of the church.
In the 1920s, the city fathers decided to give San Lorenzo back its piazza, and by the 1930s the houses were all gone. In keeping with the period’s desire to stress Italy’s glorious Roman past, a copy of a bronze Roman statue of the Emperor Constantine was placed in the re-formed piazza; no doubt Constantine was chosen because he was the co-author of the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire and which led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Empire.

The city authorities were also busy behind the church clearing the slums but what really did it for that area were the Anglo-American bombings of Milan in 1943 and 1944. The church itself was unscathed but whole swathes of housing were destroyed.
The damage was so extensive that the authorities decided to simply clear away the rubble and create a park. This is what the complex looked like by 1960.
Nothing has really changed since except that the tram lines have been shifted to the other side of the columns.

What of the interior? Did grand paintings and sculptures take the place of the frescoes which disappeared? I’m afraid not. Walking around the church, one rather gets the feeling of being in the church’s attic: various pieces plopped down here and there, many of dubious artistic value. Here are some pictures to show what I mean, from the good
(a Pietà in polychrome terracotta from the late 18th Century)
(a baptism of Christ; the author is not given, nor is the date, but from the style I would guess late 16th Century)

to the bad
(I don’t know why so many Catholic churches insist on having these horribly sucrose statues of the Virgin Mary; the church has a few more statues of this type dotted around)

to the downright ugly
(it took me a few minutes to figure out that this carved wooden statue was meant to be Pope John XXIII).

I must confess to a certain melancholy when I walk around the interior of San Lorenzo. What splendours we could have had, if only the church could have slipped through the ages unscathed! I console myself with not quite a splendour but at least something lively and fun to look at, murals that have been recently painted on the walls surrounding one of the canon houses.
I’m not really sure what the artist is trying to tell us, but they bring a smile to my lips whenever I see them.


Vienna, 2 September 2018

There is an Austrian architect who is spoken about in reverent tones by his compatriots: Otto Wagner, who lived from 1841 to 1918.

The Austrians claim he was a precursor of all modern architecture, his motto being that form should follow function. Now, I’m not an architect so it’s a little difficult for me to evaluate this claim, although my gut tells me it’s an exaggeration. But I’m not here to delve into the roots of modernism in architecture. I’m just interested in the buildings that Wagner designed, because as readers will see in a minute he did design some rather striking ones. Luckily, he didn’t build all that much and most of what he built is here in Vienna. So, a few weeks ago, armed with a slim book listing Wagner’s buildings and accompanied by my long-suffering wife, I crisscrossed Vienna, determined to inspect as many of his surviving buildings as possible.

What follows is an album of Wagner’s buildings. Since, apart from one exception, we were not able to visit them inside, the focus is on their exterior. As a consequence, the external decorations play a large part in my commentary. I have ordered the photos chronologically because it’s interesting to see how Wagner’s style developed over time.

This building, an apartment building close to the town hall, was finished in 1882. I suppose apartment buildings were exciting commissions to get, these being the new palaces of the up-and-coming Viennese bourgeoisie.

I can’t say the building excites me much. It looks very similar to countless stodgy buildings that litter the city centre, for instance this one which stands on the same street.

The same is true of this building, constructed in the same years (1882-84), originally as a bank and now, I think, owned by the Ministry of Finance.

If anything, this building is even stodgier than the last, but I suppose bankers were not interested in architectural virtuosity. Something sensible, solid, and conservative was what they were after.

I have to think that these last two buildings did not reflect Wagner’s inner self, but the need to make money meant that he bowed to the desires of his clients. I say this because two years later, in 1886, he built a house for himself. This surely must reflect what he really wanted to build, and what we see here is a rather florid take on an ancient temple of some sort.

I suspect that the house may not originally have looked quite so florid as it does now. Some 45 years ago, when the house was half ruined, the prominent Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs bought the property and turned it into a museum to himself. It’s full of paintings like this.

I rather suspect, therefore, that Fuchs went overboard on his coloring scheme for the house, Wagner’s palette having been somewhat more sober.

A year later Wagner was putting up another apartment building. Although it is still quite traditional-looking, it seems to be not quite as stodgy as the first one. For one thing, he’s eliminated the heavy-looking window sills and generally made the decorations “flatter” and less obtrusive.

We have to wait another seven years, to 1894, for the next building, yet another apartment block, but this time with a swank shop on the ground floor (currently a Nespresso shop). At least this was now in the chicest part of town, a stone’s throw from the cathedral. Perhaps it’s my imagination but I rather fancy that the building has further lightened up from his previous attempts in the genre. Certainly, the windows on the facade take up more of the total space than before, and the attic-like structure on the roof adds yet more glass to the whole. But all in all, same-old, same-old.

From 1894 to 1900, Wagner was busy on various stations for railway lines that were later to become part of Vienna’s subway system. These are much chattered about here, although I can’t say that I find them particularly elegant to look at. They don’t hold a candle to Hector Guimard’s Metro stops in Paris, for instance. One station in particular, actually a waiting room for the Imperial family when they were on their way to Schonbrunn palace, gets a lot of press.

So does the pavilion at Karlsplatz, where the Art Nouveau style that was coming to the fore at the time bursts forth – I rather feel that I’m in fin-de-siecle Paris or Brussels when I see this little building.

But I also want to insert here a picture of one of his other stations made for mere mortals like me.

These stations are squat and rather bare, I have to say. The dull green paint which has been used on the metalwork doesn’t help.

Thereafter, things begin to look up, at least from my perspective. In 1898, Wagner completed two buildings, apartment buildings again, side by side, on the quays of the river Wien which on this stretch had been covered over. On one side, we have the so-called Majolica House. As its name suggests, the facade of the building is covered by large ceramic tiles, depicting a floral pattern in the form of a vast flowering tree. I suppose we could say that this design connects to the William Morris school.

Next door, Wagner opted for what I would say is a more typical example of Vienna’s form of Jugendstil, the German world’s version of Art Nouveau: more sober floral decoration but a more extensive use of gold leaf (this style always leaves me with a slight sense of decadence, I find).

In the previous year, the most famous building in the Jugendstil style, the Secession Building, had burst onto the Viennese scene, creating much brouhaha among the chattering classes.

Over the next decade or so, Wagner was very busy. Following the style of his last building, between 1902 and 1907 he built the Church of St. Leopold high on a hill overlooking Vienna.

The references to the Jugendstil are strong in Wagner’s church. Not so with the Imperial and Royal Postal Savings Bank, which he built between 1903 and 1912.

Here, he cut out the curvaceous and glittering side of Jugendstil, opting for rigorously straight lines, a white-light grey colour combination, and minimal decoration.

I suppose to avoid monotony in the building’s facades he stamped every facing stone with a circle in low relief (an idea which readers can see, going back to the previous photos, he also used, although with less intensity, on the exterior surfaces of St. Leopold’s church).

The overall effect of all this is quite striking, particularly when you contemplate the facade and then turn round and look at the Ministry of War building, constructed during the same period.

The overly decorated facade of that building jars after the stripped down decoration of Wagner’s building.

While working on his church and postal savings bank, Wagner was also commissioned to build various elements of the Vienna canal system. The most interesting of these is what was originally a bathhouse and is now a restaurant, built in 1906 or thereabouts.

It is here that we first see what I consider Wagner’s signature design: straight lines with an accent on the vertical, minimal decoration but what there is of it of an abstract nature and colored of dark blue.

The effect is really quite lovely, although here it is rather overshadowed by the nondescript buildings behind it and the overpowering graffiti that covers many of the surrounding walls.

A few years later, in 1908, Wagner built a pavilion for sufferers of Lupus disease in the grounds of the Wilhelminen Hospital (it seems that Vienna was then at the forefront of research into this disease).

I have first shown a photo from the time because when my wife and I went to have a look we found a building which seems rather down on its luck.

Lord knows what it is now used for. The fact that its original name has been clumsily covered over suggests that it is no longer used for Lupus sufferers. I have to hope that the signs of construction works around the building herald a renovation. It would be sad to lose this building. Here again we see the use of minimal decoration dominated by blue on white, or at least on pale.

Wagner returned to the apartment-building theme in 1909-11, when he again built two apartment buildings next to each other. The building that most immediately seizes the attention sits on the main road

While following the design principles of his last couple of buildings, this time Wagner opted for black on white. To my mind, the contrast is too strong. Something on the grey side would have been better. The building behind it, on the side road, is more faithful to the blue on white design but is plainer, no doubt as befits a building tucked away from view.

Perhaps the most striking detail of the two buildings is the garage door, a great nail-studded steel affair.

And finally we come to the last building Wagner built, in 1912-13, so a few years before his death. It was another villa for himself and his family, built right next to the first. I see in it the distillation of his latest style and is, to my mind, the most beautiful thing he built.

I would gladly live in it. Someone does – it’s still a private residence. But not visitable, as we were informed, when I tried my luck and asked someone coming out of the front door.


Photos: all mine, except for the following:

Otto Wagner photo: https://www.pamono.it/designers/otto-wagner
Ernst Fuchs painting: http://benedante.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-surreal-madhouse-of-ernst-fuchs.html
Court Pavilion Heitzing: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/450148925226765989/?lp=true
Karlsplatz pavilion: https://vivent.at/orte/otto-wagner-pavillon-karlsplatz/
Secession building: https://www.dreamstime.com/vienna-austria-august-secession-building-exhibition-hall-built-joseph-maria-olbrich-as-architectural-manifesto-image103293489
St Leopold Interior: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vienna_-_Otto_Wagner%27s_St_Leopold_Church_-_6854.jpg
Postal Savings Bank: https://arthive.com/artists/5998~Otto_Wagner/works/517471~The_front_faade_of_the_Austrian_Postal_Savings_Bank_sterreichische_Postsparkasse


Vienna, 5 July 2018

My wife and I have just returned from a whirlwind tour of Belgium with a cousin of mine and his wife – the battlefield of Waterloo, Tournai, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Louvain (or Brugge, Gent, Antwerpen, Leuven, to give them their Flemish names), all in a mere six days. (in case any reader asks himself or herself, we left Brussels out because we had all been there before). I think the next couple of posts will be about various aspects of our trip (the exact number depending on how strongly my creative juices flow).

In this post, I want to focus on bricks. These became a source of fascination for me in Bruges. For those of my readers who haven’t yet been to Bruges, I should state that Bruges is a brick city par excellence. Much of it has been built in what is called the brick Gothic style, of which this – a picture of some street in Bruges – is a typical example.

Actually, I would call it the Dutch style. I know I’m entering a minefield here, since many Flemings would be indignant at having something of theirs called Dutch, but I’m afraid to say that I visited Amsterdam before I visited the lands of Flanders so for me the style is indelibly linked with the Netherlands. Perhaps, to try to avoid landing myself in the middle of local quarrels, I could call the style the Hanseatic style since our brief forays into other Hanseatic towns suggest that this is a style common to them all. (In passing, I should say that I was surprised to learn that Bruges was part of the Hanseatic league. I hadn’t known that it had extended this far south. I have made a mental note to buy myself a book on the Hanseatic league).

But actually it’s not the style of brick building that fascinated me in Bruges. It was the colour of the bricks. To put this in context, I should say that my feelings about brick colour have been very much shaped by the brick buildings in the UK, where bricks first impinged themselves on my retinae. Although it’s no doubt a gross exaggeration, I would classify British brick colours as pleasant, unpleasant, and frankly awful. In the pleasant category, I would put the country’s older brick buildings. Christchurch Mansion near Ipswich in Suffolk is a fine example.

Readers will note that the brick is not too red, you could almost say it has pink overtones, and the colour is pleasingly non-uniform.

In the unpleasant category, I would put just about every brick building put up in the UK since the Industrial Revolution. This picture of an old brick chimney – icon, I would say, of the industrial revolution – can stand in for this type of brick.

To make the point even more strongly, though, I also throw in a picture of an old factory

of one of the buildings in the original red brick universities (in this case Sheffield)

and of a row of normal houses.

Readers will note that the red is harsh, strong, crude, and that the bricks are much more uniform in colour than the older bricks. As far as I can make out, the much stronger red colour comes mainly from the bricks having been fired at higher temperatures, although it could also be due to the original clay holding more haematite (the iron mineral which mostly turn bricks red, although nowadays dyes – rather depressingly – are increasingly being used). As I understand from the little bit of technical literature I have boned up on, higher firing temperatures were used to make the bricks stronger and so more usable in larger structures. But I also read – though can scarce believe it – that at least in London redder bricks were used to make the buildings more visible in the fog (Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London is given as the source of this nugget of information. I shall check it in my copy in Milan).

As for the frankly awful category, I would put all those bricks which are an unpleasant off-white. My grandmother’s old house in London can stand in for the genre.

But this brick was used extensively throughout London. Here’s a part of Waterloo Station.

It’s not just yesteryear that they used this brick. I throw in a picture of a modern use of bricks with this sickly colour.

I know there are readers out there who will indignantly tell me that it’s a beautiful colour, but as they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and in my eye that’s sick colour.

Now, after my trip to Bruges, I can add another brick hue to my pleasant category – indeed, perhaps I should create a new category, “very pleasant”, for this hue. This picture is an example of the type.

As I hope readers can see, the buildings in this case give off a very definite orange “glow”. A somewhat hasty study of such buildings as we moved from one place to another has led me to conclude that the colouring comes from a brick which indeed has more orange than pink hues but also from a savant mix of this brick with bricks of the hideous sick colour the effect of which is to give rise to a paler orange than might otherwise be the case. I throw in pictures which I took of some other buildings with the same light orange hue.

Very nice …

And oh, by the way, Bruges is a very pleasant place to visit. A bit overrun by tourists, perhaps, but at least in June still acceptable. Don’t be fooled by such idiot titles as “the Venice of Flanders”. The place has a few canals but in no way do they compare to Venice.


Bruges street: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/foto/old-street-with-crow-stepped-gable-houses-in-bruges-stock-fotografie/578469816
Christchurch mansion: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190725-d1575683-i74779233-Christchurch_Mansion-Ipswich_Suffolk_East_Anglia_England.html
Old factory chimney: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/foto/alte-industrielle-gemauerten-schornstein-gm932649592-255603992
Old factory: http://www.antiqueslink.com/antiques/antique-archaeology-492420.html
Firth Court, University of Sheffield: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2889648
Brick houses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accrington_brick
My grandmother’s house: https://www.buildington.co.uk/london-sw7/40-montpelier-square/40-montpelier-square/id/3544
Waterloo station: By Alex.muller – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4350988
modern use of london yellow stock: https://wienerberger.co.uk/inspiration/tower-bridge
Bruges houses: my photos