SAINT NOTBURGA

Los Angeles, 26 September 2022

Just before my wife and I hurried over to Los Angeles to help our daughter, we spent a very pleasant long weekend in Innsbruck, celebrating our wedding anniversary. We actually weren’t visiting Innsbruck itself but rather using it as a base to do some hiking. As the city’s name indicates, it is situated on the river Inn. The valley down which the river flows is flanked on both sides by mountains, and it was these that we were there to hike, up, down and along.

Nevertheless, on the way to and from our hikes we found ourselves enjoying various parts of the old town through which we strode (on the way out) or shuffled (on the way back), and on the last morning we had time enough before our train left for Vienna to visit one museum. Being a fanatic believer in the Green Michelin Guide, I quickly looked up what museums it suggested to visit in Innsbruck, and discovered that this august publication bestowed its maximum encomium, three stars, on only one museum in the city: the Museum of Tyrolean Arts and Handicrafts. So the Museum of Tyrolean Arts and Handicrafts it was!

As usual, the Michelin Green Guide was spot on. I earnestly recommend any of my readers who are spending some time in Innsbruck to visit this museum. But this post is not really about the museum. It is about one particular painting which I chanced upon, of St. Notburga.

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Well! As any faithful reader of my posts will know, I have a very soft spot for obscure saints, the obscurer the better. In my time, I have written posts about Saints Radegund, Pancras, Blaise (who is also, incidentally, the subject of a small painting in the museum), John of Nepomuk, Hubert, Peter of Verona, Fructuosus, and a few other odds and ends in the Saints’ Department. So it was clear from the moment I clapped eyes on the painting that I would have to write a post about her. The train journey back to Vienna gave me all the time I needed to do the background research.

St. Notburga’s story is quickly told, and hinges around three miracles. If she existed at all, and I for one have my doubts about that, she was born in 1265 or thereabouts, into a humble family living in the small town of Rattenberg situated on the river Inn some 50 kilometres downstream from Innsbruck. So she was a Tyrolean girl.

Some time in her teens, she went to work as a servant in the household of the local aristocrats, the Count and Countess of Rottenburg. She was – of course – a very good girl and was scandalized by the fact that the leftover food from the Count’s meals was fed to the pigs when there were lots of townsfolk who went hungry. So with the Count and Countess’s blessing, she collected the leftovers and distributed them to the poor. (From here on, I show, very blown-up, some of the scenes which circle the painting above. They are somewhat dark and fuzzy; if I had known about Notburga beforehand, I would have taken close-ups from the painting itself. Ah well …)

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Alas! the Count died, and his son inherited his father’s title, lands, and servants. The new Count and his lady wife didn’t approve of Notburga’s good works at all. They wanted all the leftovers to go to their pigs. So the Countess, who was in charge of running the household, told Notburga to stop.

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Being – of course – a very obedient girl, Notburga did as she was commanded. But how she suffered! So she decided to put aside some of her own food instead, especially on Fridays – being not only good but pious, she fasted on Fridays – and  gave this to the poor. The nasty Count and Countess didn’t like that either. As far as they were concerned, she was giving away their food, not hers, and saw this as theft. The Count decided to catch her in the act of leaving the castle with the food.

FIRST MIRACLE: So one Friday, Notburga was as usual carrying the food she had put aside for the poor in her apron and a jug of wine in her hand, when she encountered the Count and his entourage in the castle’s courtyard. He demanded to know what she was carrying. Notburga replied, “wood shavings and lye, Master”. The Count scoffed and commanded her to open her apron. Notburga obeyed, but in place of food, the Count saw only wood shavings and sawdust! Then he tried the wine, but tasted only lye!

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Of course, the Count being a nasty man, he suspected that Notburga had played a trick on him and fired her. She accepted her fate with forbearance, and left the castle and moved to a small village of Eben on Lake Achen, some 20 kilometres from Ratenberg. Here we have her (I think) walking to Eben.

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There, she was employed as a farm worker by a local farmer. She looked after the cattle and helped with the field work. Being, as I say, a very pious girl, Notburga only asked that the farmer let her stop work to pray when the bell first rang in the evening and let her go to Mass on Sunday and holy days, to which he graciously agreed.

SECOND MIRACLE: One afternoon, as always, Notburga stopped work when the first bell rang. But the weather was threatening to change, so the farmer demanded that no one stop until all the grain had been collected. Seeking divine assistance to make her case, Notburga raised up her sickle and said: “Let my sickle be judge between me and you.” She let go – and the sickle remained suspended in mid-air, caught on a ray of sunshine!

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Frightened half out of his wits, the farmer let her stop working, and he never tried that one again!

In the meantime, things were going very badly for Count Rottenburg. His pigs – the ones to whom the leftover food was given – were ravaged by some mysterious disease. His wife’s half-brother set the castle on fire after a bitter quarrel. Here, we have the half-brother attacking the castle.

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Finally, his wife sickened and died. Many residents decided that the Count had been cursed and left. The Count began to ascribe all his misfortunes to his dismissal of Notburga. He sought her out, together with his new wife, and implored her to return to work for him.

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She accepted, but only on condition that he let her resume her care for the poor. The Count immediately agreed, and of course his fortunes took a great turn for the better when Notburga came back. For 18 years, she served in the castle as nanny for the Count’s children, then cook, all the while continuing her charitable good works. She also succeeded in reconciling the Count with his first wife’s half-brother, the one who had very nearly burned the castle to the ground.

THIRD MIRACLE: In September of 1313, sensing that death was approaching, Notburga requested her master to place her corpse on a wagon drawn by two oxen and to bury her wherever the oxen would stand still. The Count did as she had asked. So off went the oxen, followed by the funeral procession.

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When the cart reached the Inn, the river parted and all the mourners were able to cross to the other shore without harm!

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The oxen continued on their way, covering at a leisurely pace the 20 kilometres to Eben (the mourners must have all had sore feet by now). There, just outside a wayside chapel on the outskirts of Eben they finally stopped. With much pomp and ceremony, she was laid to rest in the chapel; it is even said that angels carried her coffin into the chapel.

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And that’s Notburga’s life wrapped up. Readers will have noted by now the importance of the sickle in Notburga’s life. Hence her being represented in the painting above prominently waving a sickle around. I insert here a statue of her which I also came across in the museum, again waving that sickle around.

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I have told her story somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Quite honestly, it’s difficult for me to see what was so saintly about her life. I find the miracles ascribed to almost akin to conjurors’ tricks. But somethings about her definitely captured the imagination of the rural folk of the Tyrol and contiguous areas. Pilgrimages to that little chapel in Eben started up and became big enough for Maximilian I (whose own mausoleum sits in the church next to the museum) to decide to have a bigger church built in the village at the beginning of the 16th Century. It got a late Baroque makeover a few centuries later. Here is an aerial view of the church, set in the beautiful Tyrolean landscape (it really is a beautiful part of the world).

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And here is a view of the church’s interior.

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Her skeleton (or someone’s skeleton) was unearthed from the original chapel and, dressed in rich clothing, now rather macabrely presides over the church’s interior.

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Notburga was until recently one of the most revered saints in Tyrol and South Bavaria, as well as in East Styria and Slovenia (I would imagine that the general dechristianization of Europe has put paid to this, although a quick search on LinkedIn and Facebook show that there are still quite a lot of people called Notburga). Rural folk would ask for her intervention in many situations of distress, from human or animal sickness to threatening storms. Apart from her representation on religious furniture and furnishings (paintings, votive images, statues, stained glass windows, church bells, even offering boxes and holy water basins) her image could be found on all sorts of objects of everyday use like salt shakers, stove tiles, and cupboards. There are even tiny, 2 by 2.8 cm., pictures of her to be swallowed or “inhaled” from; they were used as part of religious folk medicine and belonged in the home apothecary. It was believed that consuming or breathing in from these little images would release Notburga’s healing powers. Little silver Notburga sickles were worn on watch chains and rosaries as amulets. Many songs, prayers and litanies were dedicated to her.

There are those who say that Notburga was a Christian personification of much older goddesses who were prayed to in the mountains. Her sickle, for instance, is considered as pointing to a connection with a moon goddess, a common goddess throughout Europe and indeed the world; we have here the Roman goddess Luna.

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Notburga’s association with fields, crops, grain and bread recalls the “grain mothers” like the Greek fertility goddess Demeter and the Roman Ceres.

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This could well all be true. But I see another thread in her story, the constant struggle of rural folk with hunger, linked at least in part to their exploitation by landowners, both big (aristocrats) and small (rich farmers). Those rich folk were wasting food? Ha! She took it all and redistributed it to us poor folk! The Count fired her? Ha! He sure suffered for having done that! The farmer insisted that his workers work long hours? Ha! She sure put the fear of God in him for doing that, and after that he behaved himself! It’s no coincidence that she is the patron saint of the downtrodden in rural areas: servants, female agricultural workers, and the peasantry in general. I can understand that people would pray to her to deal with the richer folk making their life miserable. Personally, though, I think unionization is the better way to go.

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Just saying …

APEROL SPRITZ

Los Angeles, 26 December 2021

A Chinese reader very kindly sent me a comment recently on a post I had written about tomato ketchup. After reading his comment, and re-reading the post in question (I must confess to have forgotten much of what I’d written in that post), I started thinking fondly of the five years my wife and I spent in China (where, incidentally, I started this blog). And as my mind wandered over the Good Old Days, it alighted – in that odd way which wandering minds do – on a bar on the edges of Sanlitun in Beijing where we would go from time to time to have an Aperol Spritz. Yes, I know, it’s odd for a mind meandering through Chinese recollections to land on Aperol Spritz, but there you go, that’s globalization for you.

The thing is, once my mind had alighted on Aperol Spritz I had to investigate: What is this Aperol? What are its origins? And where did this Aperol Spritz thing come from? etc., etc.. What to do, for better or for worse that’s the way my mind works. In any event, I am now ready to report back on the results of my investigations.

I will start my story in Paris, towards the end of the 19th Century. After Baron Haussmann had brutally driven his wide, straight boulevards through the city’s hodgepodge of medieval streets, a thriving café culture sprung up along them, with people of all classes loitering at the tables to sip a drink and natter with friends. We have here a painting by Manet depicting the café scene.

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This happy lady appears to be drinking a traditional beer, but a new drink also made its appearance at this time: the apéritif . This apéritif was actually a retooling of a drink originally invented in the Middle Ages as a medicinal product, something to open your body up and let the bad vapours and whatnot escape (aperire being the Latin for “to open”). It was made by steeping and macerating various herbs and roots in wine (first) and alcohol (later). By the time the café culture along Paris’s boulevards came along, the apéritif had lost its medicinal connotations and was promoted instead as something to take before a meal to “open up” your appetite. We have a painting here by Degas of this new custom.

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Important for our story is the fact that the French quickly shortened the rather formal word apéritif into apéro, as in “Hey Jean, see you this afternoon at the Café du Peuple on the Boulevard de la Paix for an apéro”.

We now turn our attention to the town of Padova in northern Italy; for reasons which will become apparent in a second, I throw in a photo of the Basilica Sant’Antonio which is located in the city.

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There, in 1880, a certain Giuseppe Barbieri set up a liquor business, making and selling various alcoholic concoctions. One of his more popular offerings was Liquore Sant’Antonio, a liqueur made by steeping various herbs and roots in alcohol (“a sugar cube soaked in Liquore Sant’Antonio is an excellent sedative to take before going to bed” used to proclaim the label).

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In 1912, Giuseppe handed over the reins of the business to his two sons, Silvio and Luigi. We have a photo of them here in later life.

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The two brothers spent the next seven years developing a new drink to add to the company’s line-up. Following the company’s experience with products like Liquore Sant’Antonio, it was to be a concoction of herbs and roots steeped and macerated in alcohol. But Silvio, who had spent many years in France where he had got to know the culture of the apéritif, persuaded Luigi that they should be developing an aperitif-like drink, not too alcoholic, to be taken before a meal to “open up” the appetite. After much tinkering, they came up in 1919 with a bright orange drink which, in honour of its connection to the French apéro culture, was baptized Aperol.

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What, readers might well ask, is in Aperol? The label only admits to the presence of alcohol (well, duhh!), water (ditto), sugar, and “flavourings”, which of course come from all those herbs and roots which are left to steep and macerate in the alcohol. Of these, the label only identifies quinine, although various internet sites add gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, as well the rind of both sweet and sour oranges. One site also claims that a drop or two of absinthe is added to counteract the slightly bitter taste which all these ingredients would otherwise leave. All the other ingredients are, as usual, a tightly held secret (my eyes roll at this point; as I have intimated in earlier posts, I’m no fan of secrecy when it comes to ingredients).

None of these ingredients explain Aperol’s main visual characteristic, its bright orange colour. That no doubt comes from two food colourants which the label confesses to be present in the brew: the yellow E110 and the red E124. Now, it’s claimed that Aperol’s recipe has remained unchanged since its birth in 1919, but the Barbieri brothers cannot possibly have used these two modern, synthetic, colourants. My guess is that for their yellow colouring they used curcumin, extracted from turmeric, and for red they used cochineal.

Whatever gave Aperol its taste, it was an instant hit with the good citizens of Padova, where it was drunk either pure or mixed with a shot of soda water. Its fame spread quickly to other parts of northern Italy, and the serious money started rolling in. Thereafter, the trajectory followed by the Barbieri brothers was very similar to that taken by Davide Campari for his eponymous drink, a story which I have told in an earlier post.

First, like Davide Campari, the brothers abandoned their father’s artisanal approach and built a modern factory to make their Aperol on an industrial scale.

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Second, again like Campari, recognizing that they were selling a product based on desire and not on need, Silvio and Luigi invested heavily in the black arts of enticement – or, if we are to be more polite, in what was then the new art form of advertising. Here are a few examples of the posters which the company created in the interwar years.

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If I’m to be honest, I think Campari did a better job in its advertising. I think readers would agree with this if they go to my post on Campari and look at the examples I give there of the advertising posters which Campari commissioned. The last one at least has the advantage of admitting publicly to three of Aperol’s ingredients.

The Second World War was not kind to the Barbieri brothers. Apart from the fact that sales must have been down, the Barbieri lost their factory to a bombing raid (the Campari family was luckier; they managed to keep their original factory, now a museum dedicated to the Campari story). Luckily for us, the Barbieri were undeterred and rebuilt after the War.

Which brings us – finally – to the Aperol Spritz, the drinking of which all those years ago in Beijing set me off on this post. The story of Aperol Spritz starts in the 1950s. But actually, we first need go back a little further. Originally, a spritz – a common drink in the Veneto region (of which Padova is part) – consisted of a glass of white wine into which sparkling water had been splashed (spritzen in Austrian German; Veneto was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time). Then, in the 1950s, and specifically in the province of Padova, bars began adding a shot of bitters to the traditional spritz. One of these bitters – but only one – was Aperol. Depending on the barman’s or drinker’s inclinations and on what was available behind the bar, the bitter added could be Cynar, Select, Campari, China Martini, maybe some locally-made bitter, as well as Aperol. In fact, it is still possible to find barmen in the Veneto region who will serve you a spritz with one of these other bitters. In any event, this new take on the spritz went well with the dolce vita which took hold of Italy in the fifties and sixties, captured so well in Fellini’s film of the same name.

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By dint of persistent advertising, especially in the new medium of television, Aperol became a national brand. There was an incredibly famous (for Italians) TV show called Carosello which ran pretty much every day of the year for all of the 1960s and much of the 1970s. The show was basically a way for the Italian Television monopoly RAI to get around the strict rules on advertising. Carosello was made up of a series of skits which each ended with an advert for some product or other. Aperol was a regular contributor. My wife used to religiously watch the show every evening and speaks very fondly of it. Even today, nearly fifty years after last seeing it, she can quote some of the more famous advertising tag lines. I’m sure she remembers Aperol’s, which had the presenter smack his forehead and exclaim “Ah! Aperol!” Here we have him doing it with a bunch of young people who of course were now the intended target audience for Aperol.

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In parallel, the Barbieri (by now, the next generation had taken over) aggressively pushed Aperol as the bitter of choice for the new-type spritz. Here are some examples of the advertising posters they used to promote the Aperol Spritz.

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As we can see, the ads began to appeal to a hipper, cooler, more chilled set. This was typified by a famous (to Italians) TV ad from the late 1980s, featuring a pretty woman in Miami hitching up her miniskirt provocatively before getting on her motorbike and setting out to meet her cool, chilled friends for an Aperol Spritz.

Watch the video here

In the meantime, the Barbieri got caught up in the Great Game of brand purchases by Corporate behemoths, which I have bemoaned in previous posts. In 1991, the family sold Aperol and a few other brands to the Irish company Cantrell & Cochrane, itself part of the multinational Allied Lions. The new owners began to internationalize Aperol and Aperol Spritz. The German world was an early market (where the Aperol Spritz was germanized to Aperol Gespritz), and then the US market opened its arms to the orange concoction.

In 2003, the Great Game of brand buying and selling saw Cantrell & Cochrane sell Aperol to Campari (which explains why I have sneakily been making comparisons to Campari as I went along). Campari put heavyweight advertising behind Aperol and the Spritz, which turbocharged Aperol’s global diffusion. Thus, hopping from one bar to another, the Aperol Spritz eventually made its way to that bar in Sanlitun where my wife and I would go from time to time to sample an Aperol Spritz, sitting at the bar’s terrace, watching the world go by. Since we are neither hip, nor cool, nor chilled, by this time (we are talking 2010 or thereabouts) Aperol Spritz had clearly gone mainstream.

I have since discovered that we had joined a Global Movement! On 29 June 2012, some 2,600 Aperol fans descended on Piazza San Marco in Venice to attempt a Guinness World Record for the “Largest Aperol Spritz Toast”. Here we have the joyous crowd clinking their glasses (I like the T-shirt! Wonder where I can get one?)

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And so we come to 2019, the centenary of Aperol. To celebrate this earth-shaking event, Campari commissioned a series of designs for centenary labels.

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So, dear readers, buy yourselves a bottle of Aperol! Go ahead and make yourselves an Aperol Spritz this evening! Bring in the New Year with an Aperol Spritz! FYI, in case you’ve never made one yourselves, the International Bartender Association’s recipe for the Aperol Spritz has you mixing 9 cl of prosecco with 6 cl of Aperol and as much as soda water or seltzer as necessary.

Cheers!

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PRETTY INDUSTRIAL CHIMNEYS

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

SAINT HUBERT, PATRON SAINT OF FORESTS

Vienna, 10 October 2021

Amended 2 April 2022

My son commented to me yesterday morning that I hadn’t posted in a while, and he’s right. It’s been over a month! The fact is, I’ve been busy these days (or B-U-S-Y as my son used to write in reply when we fond parents sent him a WhatsApp message suggesting a chat; luckily, he wasn’t B-U-S-Y yesterday morning). I’ve been helping students at a school in Wales figure out how the school could reduce its carbon footprint and I’ve had to prepare and deliver quite a number lectures for webinars on the topic of Circular Economies. All fascinating stuff, but it has eaten into my blogging time.

Anyway, it seems to me that as the days shorten, the temperatures fall, and my wife and I have our last hikes in the woods around Vienna before we migrate south to Italy for the winter, it would be good to celebrate Saint Hubert, the patron saint of all things linked to forests:

– Of hunters and their hounds, here painted by Paolo Uccello.

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– Of archers (because they originally used their bows to hunt in the forests; Robin Hood comes to mind).

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– Of trappers (another type of hunter who lurked in forests trapping beavers and other animals for their furs), here seen in a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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– Of loggers and other forest workers, seen here in a photo from the late 1800s.

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Here is a photo of Hubert on one side of a small forest shrine that we came across during one of our recent hikes.

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And this is the shrine.

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Hubert’s story, which explains why he was made patron saint of all things to do with forests, is quickly told. He was born in the 650s AD in Toulouse, into a family that was part of the high Frankish aristocracy. Initially, he joined the Neustrian court centered on Paris, but because of quarrels with the Mayor of the Neustrian palace he transferred to the Austrasian court centered on Metz, where he was warmly welcomed by the Mayor of the Austrasian palace, on the grounds of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – the two Mayors were constantly fighting each other. He seems to have quickly inserted himself into the local elites, marrying the daughter of the Duke of Leuven (if you’re a Flemish speaker, Louvain if you’re a French speaker).

Like all good aristocrats of the time (indeed, like all good aristocrats of all ages), Hubert loved to hunt, and he seems to have spent most of his time roaming the forests of the Ardennes looking for some red meat to shoot. His predilection for hunting only increased after his wife died in child birth, to the point that one Good Friday, when he really should have been in a church on his knees praying for his soul, he instead vaulted onto his horse and rode off into the forest in pursuit of game.

The story goes that he spied a magnificent stag and was riding full tilt after it, when the animal suddenly turned. Hubert was astounded to see a crucifix hovering between its antlers. This scene has captivated various artists over the centuries – or more probably, it captivated their clients and the artists merely executed their clients’ wishes. Here’s a version by Albrecht Dürer.

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Here’s one by Jan Brueghel the Elder

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Even Egon Schiele painted a version!

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In any event, the story goes on that Hubert heard a Voice, telling him to clean up his act or else he would be going straight to Hell. When he humbly asked the Voice what he should do, It told him to go find Lambert, Bishop of Maastricht, who would straighten him out.

And straighten him out he did! Under Lambert’s direction, Hubert gave away all his worldly possessions, entered a monastery, led an ascetic life, evangelized among the heathen folk who lived in the depths of the forest of Ardennes where he had once joyously hunted, etc., etc.

In about 705 AD, Lambert was assassinated, the victim of some quarrel between different Frankish factions. The event is depicted in all its gory detail in this painting by Jan van Brussel.

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Hubert became bishop in Lambert’s place. At some point, he moved Lambert’s remains from Maastricht to Liège, where Lambert had been killed, as we see here in this manuscript miniature.

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He built a magnificent basilica, which was soon turned into a cathedral, of which he naturally became the bishop (in the process, he kick-started the rise to greatness of Liège, which was then just a pissy little village). Alas, this cathedral was demolished by revolutionaries in 1794.

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Much to his disappointment, Hubert wasn’t martyred but died peacefully in his bed in the late 720s AD. He was, as might be expected, initially buried in Liège, but about 100 years later his bones were dug up and transferred to the Benedictine Abbey of Amdain. This event was depicted in this wonderful painting by Rogier van der Weyden.

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Not surprisingly, the town around the abbey renamed itself Saint-Hubert in his honour and became a focus for pilgrimages over the succeeding centuries (no doubt making the Abbey rich in the process).

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I think readers will now understand why Hubert is patron saint of all things forest. He was a very popular saint among the little people in the Middle Ages, probably because forests played an important role in people’s livelihoods until deforestation shrank those forests, first to woods and then to woodlots on the margins of rural lives. Not surprisingly, given his passion for hunting, Hubert was also very popular among the aristocracy, and several Noble Orders dedicated to hunting were named after him. Take, for instance, the Venerable Order of Saint Hubertus, which was founded in 1695 by Count Franz Anton von Sporck.

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The Order brought together the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and hunting enthusiasts from various other noble families throughout the Holy Roman Empire. It still exists, its current Grand Master being Istvan von Habsburg-Lothringen.

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Given that in the early days of the European presence in Canada so many French Canadians were involved in the fur trade as trappers, I also now understand why Saint Hubert was a popular saint in French Canada; in the teen years I spent there, I was intrigued by the number of places called Saint-Hubert (there is even a chain of chicken restaurants in Quebec called Saint Hubert). No doubt the saint’s protection was invoked by the Catholic trappers as their canoes set off on their way to the beaver grounds out west.

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Of course, since the regions we now call Belgium and southern Netherlands were the saint’s favoured hunting grounds, both literally and figuratively, many places there are also called Saint-Hubert (French) or Sint Hubertus (Flemish/ Netherlandish). One beer has taken its name from the town of Saint-Hubert around the abbey where Hubert was eventually buried. Here is a bottle of one of the company’s brews (triple amber for any beer enthusiasts among my readers).

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There is also a brew that is popular here in Vienna, the Hubertus Bräu.

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I’m not sure why it’s called Hubert’s Brew. It’s certainly not named after the place it’s brewed in, which is Laa an der Thaya (nice area; we’ve been on a couple of hikes around there). But it has a very distinguished pedigree. The town obtained the right to brew it back in 1454, from Ladislaus Postumus, Duke of Austria (and for this privilege they had to deliver the good Duke a keg of beer on each holiday, which doesn’t sound much – but maybe there were lots of holidays back then).

As readers will note, both these beers have as a symbol the famous stag’s head with the crucifix hovering between its antlers. So does the digestive Jägermeister, that concoction of herbs macerated in alcohol, which for some strange reason became popular with the student crowd.

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In this case, the connection to Hubert is via its name, which means Master of the Hunt.

Of course, I understand why any alcoholic drink which has some sort of connection to Hubert would use the symbol of the stag with the hovering crucifix. But I wonder if the makers of these drinks have thought this idea through. For me, the implication is that drinking the beer or digestive will make you see things which aren’t there (rather like that hoary chestnut that alcoholics see pink elephants).

Not perhaps the best image one wants to give to an alcoholic drink. On the other hand, putting a picture of Hubert as a bishop, like the one in the photo which I started this post with, could well put a damper on one’s enthusiastic desire to drink. A tricky marketing conundrum …

With that, I lift a good glass of wine to my readers and go and join my wife to do the packing. Auf wiedersehen, arrivederci, we will see each other again once we’ve moved down to Italy!

TOTENTANZ, THE DANCE OF DEATH

Sori, 4 July 2021

During this year’s week-long hike in the Dolomites (which I also mentioned in passing in my previous post), I managed to squeeze in a visit to the parish church of Sesto (or Sexten, to give its German name; we are in Sud Tirol, after all). Let me repeat here a message I have tried to pass in previous posts: always visit every church you come across in Europe, no matter how small it is, because there is a good chance that you will discover an artistic gem (or two). The church in Sesto / Sexten was no exception.

The church itself was OK – it had some interesting frescoes on the ceiling.

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But what really made the visit worth while was the cemetery. My wife will tell you that I have a morbid streak, and indeed I don’t deny having a certain preoccupation with death – a preoccupation which, naturally enough I think, is growing with age. But cemeteries do also often contain wonderful art, as people try to lessen the pain caused by the departure of loved ones and reduce the fear of death itself through art. Things started with a bang at the entrance to the cemetery, which took the form of a small circular pavilion reached by a covered staircase from the road.

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The ceiling of the pavilion was adorned with a Totentanz, or Dance of Death (danza macabra in Italian). This type of artistic depiction flourished in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries, probably in response to the Black Death and the lesser outbreaks of the plague which continued to periodically sweep through the continent. They were a form of memento mori, a reminder to us that we must all die sooner or later: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”. I came across a typical example of the form several years ago, in a church in Milan.

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The phrase on the left says “I was what you are”, while the one on the right says “You will be what I am” (I emailed the photo to a dear friend of mine as an attachment to a lighthearted note; he died a year later – death catches us all, some of us sooner than later).

Dances of Death were different because they stressed that Death was the Great Leveller: whatever your social position, however powerful you were, you could not hide from Death. I suppose this idea was thrown into sharp relief by the Plague: here was a disease which made no distinctions, remorselessly scything down rich and poor, powerful and powerless, old and young, sick and healthy. And so Dances of Death would depict men and women – and children – from all ranks of society and all walks of life dancing with, being embraced by, skeletons. Here are typical examples of the genre.

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In the earlier versions, each person would be accompanied by a short poem, often written in an ironic tone, commenting on him or her and their incipient death. And the skeletons would be quite jolly, not only dancing but frolicking about.

Even though the example on the ceiling of that pavilion in the cemetery of Sesto / Sexten was quite modern – it was painted soon after the First World War – its author, Rudolf Stolz, followed the traditional iconography quite faithfully. Thus, we have a ruler.

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He is accompanied by a rhyming couplet in German, which states (in my rather free translation)
“The sands have run out,
Lay aside your scepter.”
The skeleton is holding an hourglass, so we can interpret these couplets as something the skeletons are saying to their charges.

Then we have a mature woman, a “matron” as they used to be called.

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Her skeleton is saying to her
“Woman, your devotions are over
Idly burns your candle”
To make the point, it pinches the candle’s wick. Like many a matron in a village like Sesto, she must have been a regular churchgoer.

Next we have a mature man, no doubt a local farmer, dressed the way locals would have dressed until quite recently.

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With a scythe slung over its shoulder, his skeleton is intoning
“Your virility, your creativity
Cut like grass by a stroke of my scythe”

He is followed by the most poignant of the depictions, that of a baby.

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The skeleton is crooning to the baby
“Sleep, my angel, sleep sweetly
You’ll awake in paradise”
At a time when the death of babies and children was still quite common, I can only hope that this painting was of some comfort to grieving mothers on their way to tend the graves of their children.

On goes the dance! We move on to a young man.

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His friendly skeleton, bony arm wrapped around his shoulder, is telling him
“Not so sad, young blood
Go homewards with cheerful heart”
Presumably “homewards” in this context means home to the kingdom of God.

Which brings us to a young woman.

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Her skeleton is telling her
“Fair maiden with the myrtle wreath
Follow me to the wedding dance”
And indeed the skeleton seems to be about to start the kind of square dance that was common in these parts. But no doubt it is referring to a wedding with Death.

And so we come to the final character, a bishop.

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His skeleton is telling him
“Bishop with the shepherd’s crook
Set aside your heavy burden”
and is helpfully taking away his crosier (his crook), no doubt as a first step in divesting him of his other accoutrements.

When I saw this Dance of Death, I was immediately reminded of another Dance of Death which recently went under the hammer at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, a version of Albin Egger-Lienz’s “Totentanz 1809”.

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The affinity between these paintings is no surprise. As his name indicates, Egger-Lienz was born just down the road from Sesto / Sexten, in Lienz, now in Austria. Most of the themes of his paintings were Tyrolese. Rudolf Stolz was a great fan of his.

Suitably reminded of my own approaching demise, I passed into the cemetery itself. Tyrolese cemeteries are a joy to visit. Each grave is a little garden, carefully tended by relatives. This one was particularly well kept, and the view on the Dolomites of Sesto was magnificent.

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In addition, the crosses over the graves are often masterpieces of ironwork. I throw in a few examples I came across.

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I have to assume that all those flowery curlicues are to remind the Christian viewer that the wooden cross is the bearer of (eternal) life, rather like a stick which – when stuck in the ground – sprouts leaves.

Behind the first cross you can see an example of the frescoes that are painted on some of the cemetery’s family tombs. Rudolf and his two brothers Albert and Ignaz painted a good number of these (Albert also painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the church). I rather like this fresco by Ignaz Stolz, a nice take on the story of the Sermon on the Mount.

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In the end, though, I rather preferred the sculptures in wood – another great art form in the Tirol; not surprising, given the wealth of wood here – that adorned some of the family tombs.

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I’m not sure I would want a sculpture on my family tomb strongly suggesting that I would be burning in Hell …

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The story of the women coming to the grave of Jesus to prepare him, only to find an angel sitting at the mouth of the tomb.

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A pietà.

Yes, if I am finally laid to rest in a cemetery – which is not a given; cremation is a strong possibility – I think a Tyrolese grave, surrounded by mountain flowers, will do me very well. And I want a brass band to see me off! Once, many years ago, when I was convalescing at home after a knee operation, my wife took me for a spin through the countryside around Vienna. Quite by chance, we came across a funeral procession that had just reached the village cemetery. We stopped to watch. Suddenly, the sombre silence was broken by a duet between trumpet and trombone. What a way to go, to the sound of brass!

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I have often told my wife of this desire, but I suspect she has been dismissing it as an emanation of the Monty-Pythonesque side of me, not to be taken seriously. But really, what better way to say that that final goodbye than through the booming notes of a brass band? Since she and I like jazz so much, maybe she could fly in one of those New Orleans funeral bands. Now that would be something!

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IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

On the hikes which my wife and I have been doing around Lake Como, we frequently come across irises blooming in people’s gardens. They are very nice, of course, but what I really admire are those irises which we spy on the side of the path, normally growing out of a small mound of garden waste. Clearly, someone in the vicinity did some clearing in their gardens, which included pulling up some iris rhizomes (their tuber-like roots), and then they just chucked the waste by the side of the path. But these irises are tough. In the face of adversity, they’ve just kept going, rooting into their new environment and continuing to bloom, to the delight of passersby. Unfortunately, the photos which I took at the time of these feral irises have disappeared into the Photo Black Hole in my iPhone, so I throw in this stock photo instead.

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I really admire the irises’ toughness. They remind me rather of a similarly tough plant with lovely flowers which I’ve written about earlier, common chicory.

Irises also reach back deep into my subconscious. My mother had planted irises in her garden in the house of my early childhood in Eritrea – or maybe she inherited them from previous renters of the house; that will to survive which I was just mentioning – and small child though I was (I could not have been more than six years’ old), I was awestruck by these lovely, bright, complex-looking flowers, with their sword-like leaves. My memory may be playing tricks with me but I remember them being yellow irises.

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Yet another encounter during a walk last week around Lake Como with irises growing out of waste piles has finally persuaded me to take up my electronic pen and write about them.

Not that there’s a huge amount to write about, unless you’re fixated about irises (and a good number of people do seem to be fixated by them). I was rather astonished to discover that taxonomists recognize something like 280 species of iris (there are also thousands of hybrids – the iris is a flower which enthusiasts have loved to fiddle with – but I won’t bother with them; it’s the Real Thing that interests me). Their natural distribution spans much of northern Eurasia, although there are also a number of species which are native to North America. I throw in some photos of irises in their natural habitat, not imprisoned in someone’s garden: as I’ve remarked in an earlier post about tulips, it’s so much nicer to see flowers in their natural state.
A field of irises in North America:

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Iris sibirica in Central Europe

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Iris haynei in the Middle East

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The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

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Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

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With 280 species to choose from, I suppose I could have added a good deal more photos of wild irises. But I think that will do. I’m struck by the colours I chose; I rather suspect that I wanted to get away from the typical purple and yellow irises one sees in gardens.

Talking of natural states, it seems to me that iris is a bit of a fancy name for a flower, at least in English. Something like mugwort or yellow flag (actually an alternative name for one of the irises) seems more English. In fact, it appears that we owe the flower’s name to the French. Someone there, some time in the 13th Century, noticing that the flower’s petals had iridescent reflections gave the flower the Greek name for rainbow. Perhaps the deep violet colour of many of the species, resembling the violet and indigo bands of the rainbow, also played a part in this naming exercise.

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I’m not completely convinced by this explanation of the name; my inspections of the flower don’t show any obvious iridescence; maybe it was the flowers’ way of shading from colour to colour that inspired the French to name it iris.

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In any event, I find that this explanation makes more sense to me than the other explanation bouncing around the Internet, namely that the flower was called iris because it comes in all the shades of the rainbow; this clearly is not the case.

Whatever the right explanation, a connection has been made with a Greek goddess, which has given me an excuse to explore this member of the Greek pantheon. She is, I must admit, a very minor member. Her sole role in life was to carry messages from the gods to other gods or mortals. But she did this very prettily, by laying down a rainbow and walking along it to whoever she was delivering a message to. Apparently, there are no ancient statues of her bar one; one of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon now in the British Museum – I will skate over the passionate arguments that this relocation to London has generated.

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Yes, well, I mutter under my breath, how can anyone know who this very bashed up piece of stone is meant to represent? Nevertheless, I bow to the Experts and accept their attribution.

We seem to be on firmer ground when it comes to paintings on Greek pottery. Here we have a picture of Iris on this vase from the 5th Century BC.

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Iris was also depicted by those European artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries who went in for classical themes – not my cup of tea, but hey! it takes all sorts to make a world. This particular painting from 1811, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, falls into this category.

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I have to say, it seems to me that the painting is verging on soft porn. In any event, it claims to be portraying a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Juno sends Iris to give a message to Somnus, the god of sleep – the message is, “send a dream to Alcyone that her husband Ceyx is dead” (any reader who wants to know the backstory is welcome to read the Metamorphoses). Iris throws down a rainbow and walks along it (or slides down it?) into the underworld, where Somnus sleeps away his days and nights. She can barely rouse him from his slumbers but finally manages and delivers the message. She then gets the hell out of there as she feels she is about to fall asleep, and clambers back up her rainbow. I should explain at this point that Somnus has one thousand sons, whose job it is to deliver dreams to us mortals. He summons his son Morpheus, the best deliverer of dreams, instructs him to pass on Juno’s message, and promptly falls back to sleep. Guerin got the story wrong by depicting Iris delivering the message directly to Morpheus.  But Somnus was presumably middle-aged while Morpheus was a strapping young fellow, so no doubt Guerin took some artistic license so as to be able to paint a nakedly handsome young man as a worthy companion to the nakedly pretty young woman.

The French not only gave the flower its modern name, they also brought the flower’s heraldic representation, the fleur-de-lys, to great prominence, through the adoption by the French kings of the fleur-de-lys as their heraldic emblem. I have to admit to have been really surprised to discover this connection. Why are fleur-de-lys not called fleur-de-iris, then? The best explanation I’ve come across is that the French kings were descended from a line of Frankish chiefs who had lived originally around the river Lies in Belgium before they invaded France. These Frankish chiefs took as their heraldic symbol the yellow Iris pseudacorus, which grows in abundance along the edges of the River Lies, and which is known in Frankish – their original tongue – as Lieschbloem, the bloom of the Lies. It’s easy to see how that could have been frenchified to fleur-de-lys. Here, we have the Lieschbloem in its natural riverine habitat.

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And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.

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I think one can appreciate that the fleur-de-lys could well be a stylized Lieschbloem. As a clincher, readers should note that the background of the French kings’ armorials was blue (“azure” in heraldic lingo) – a representation of the River Lies? Here are the arms of King Louis XVI.

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The kings changed their the number of fleur-de-lys on their arms quite frequently, and I chose him because everyone has probably heard of him – the one who got his head cut off during the French Revolution.

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Talking of fleur-de-lys, it was also – still is, actually – the centrepiece of the arms of Florence. But there’s an interesting story to the colour scheme. Originally – we’re talking before 1251 – the colours were a white fleur-de-lys on a red background.

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The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.

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It even grew, it is said, on the city’s walls – this is no longer the case, alas, for the few stretches of the walls still left around Florence.

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So I suppose it was quite reasonable for the City Fathers to choose a white iris as the city’s heraldic symbol (why they placed it on a red background I don’t know).

In 1251, the government of the city was in the hands of the Ghibelline faction. I hope my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the fighting between Guelphs and the Ghibellines that roiled pretty much all of the city-states in northern and central Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Here, for instance, we have Guelphs and Ghibellines duking it out in Bologna.

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Formally, the Guelphs supported the Popes and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperors in the never-ending feud of these two about who controlled who. But in many cities this was just an excuse to cover local quarrels. In Florence, for instance, it was more about the patricians (Ghibellines) versus the plebs (Guelphs). In 1251, the Guelph faction wrested control of the city from the Ghibellines, and to signal that there had been a definitive political change, the Guelphs switched the colours around on the city’s armorial bearings. I suppose they were in power for long enough for the switch to become definitive, because still today we have a red fleur-de-lys on a white background.

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One side-effect of this colour switch was people trying to breed a truly red bearded iris (the group of irises to which Iris florentina belongs) and failing dismally. The judgement of Those Who Know is that there is no truly red iris, bearded or otherwise.  Well of course the experts know, but the copper iris from North America looks pretty red to me.

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But, once again, I bow to the Experts.

It would seem that the Florentines discovered another interesting thing about their Iris florentina, namely that if you take the plant’s rhizome and dry it for a very long time – 3 to 5 years – reactions slowly take place in the rhizome which eventually lead to the production of chemicals with the fragrance of violets. This fragrance is liberated by crushing the now rock-hard rhizomes to a powder. Catherine de’ Medici brought this alchemist-like knowledge to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Mixed with rice powder, it eventually became a popular way for Europe’s upper crust to perfume their faces, clothes, and eventually wigs when these later came into fashion. Nowadays, perfumers plant huge fields of a light purple cousin of Iris florentinaIris pallida.

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They dig up the rhizomes, dry them, and then steam distill them to obtain a thick, buttery oil known as orris oil. Eyewateringly expensive stuff – like €100,000 a kilo – it’s used by perfumers to give a base note to their creations.

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After all of this, though, I’m sure my readers will agree with me when I say, let’s just forget all the metaphorical, allegorical, or representational bla-bla with which irises have been enveloped, and let’s just enjoy the flowers as they are. So let me close with a couple of paintings of irises by Vincent Van Gogh.

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THE GARDENS AT VILLA DURAZZO PALLAVICINI

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.

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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

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The Classical Avenue

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

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

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The Spring

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The Chapel of the Virgin Mary

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The Condottiere’s Castle

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The Condottiere’s Mausoleum

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

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You could also visit the Inferno by boat

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And finally the Large Lake

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as well as the Gardens of Flora

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

WALKING ALONG MILAN’S MARTESANA CANAL

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.

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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.

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This map shows the track of the canal.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

SACRO MONTE DI OSSUCCIO

Milan, 24 December 2020

As is our habit, my wife and I have been spending these dying days of 2020 hiking around the edges of Lake Como. We did the Green Way again recently (this is a walk which goes from Colonno to Griante).

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And once again, as we passed through the village of Ossuccio, we noticed this sign on a wall.

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It was advertising (if that’s the right word) some kind of pilgrims’ path which snaked its way up from the village to a church, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, located high above it.

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The path was studded with 14 little chapels, which the pilgrim could stop at and pray – or the modern hiker like us could inspect.

My wife and I debated whether or not we should take the path. The last time we had passed through Ossuccio we had been running late. But this time, we were ahead of schedule, and anyway we needed to do a bit of climbing – the Green Way is quite flat. So we decided to make a little detour up the hill.

I had thought that we would be doing a Stations of the Cross – a common thing to find on hills and mountains in this part of the world. But no, the whole enterprise is actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the fourteen chapels plus the church are built around the mysteries of the Rosary. I’m afraid I’m getting into a Catholic tradition which is quite foreign to anyone who has not been brought up a Catholic, but I have to explain these mysteries a little if readers are to understand the iconography of what I am about to describe.

If any of my readers have ever entered a Catholic church in the early evening, they may have encountered the following scene: a darkened church with a pool of light in the first few rows of pews, a handful of older women (and, rarely, a few men) sitting in the light, possibly a priest acting as MC, and a steady drone emanating from the group. They are reciting the Rosary (capital “r”), which is the recital of a couple of different prayers in a certain order. To help them recite the Rosary correctly, the little group in the church will be using a rosary (little “r”). This is a string of beads which looks like this.

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The point of a rosary is to help its users recite the right number of prayers in the right order. The drone emanating from the group in the church is the result of them repeating the prayers over and over again, with the rosary beads slipping through their fingers as they keep count of the prayers.

This litany of prayers is built around the so-called four mysteries of the Virgin Mary: the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries. In turn, each mystery is based on five episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. As the name of the mysteries imply, these episodes are joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious. As the picture above shows, a rosary normally consists of five groups of ten small beads separated by one bead. Readers with an arithmetical bent will no doubt have understood that one tour of the rosary through the fingers of that little droning group in the church covers the five episodes of a mystery, with one set of prayers being droned out for each episode (somehow, as they drone their way through the prayers, the members of the little group are meant to meditate on the episode in question). Which mystery the droners will be covering when you walk into that darkened church depends on which day of the week it is: Mondays or Saturdays, the joyful mystery; Tuesdays or Fridays, the sorrowful mystery; Wednesdays or Sundays, the glorious mystery; Thursdays, the luminous mystery (as readers can see, the whole Rosary programme is very well organized).

Coming back to the fourteen chapels and church on the hill behind Ossuccio, they are built around three of the four mysteries: the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries (the luminous mystery is not included, but simply because it didn’t exist when the chapels and church were built; it was only added by Pope John-Paul II in 2002). My arithmetically inclined readers will of course have figured out that fourteen chapels plus a church is 15, which equals the three times five episodes in the mysteries. And in fact it turns out that each chapel (plus the church) are dedicated to one of the episodes covered by the three mysteries.

“But what are these episodes?!” I can hear my readers cry. Well, for that it is best that we visit the chapels and the church. But before we set out on our visit, I just want to say that we are about to see mises-en-scène, pieces of theatre frozen in place by the use of life-sized painted terracotta statues: 230 in all, 163 of people, 52 of angels, and 15 of animals.

Let me start with an overview picture of the chapels and the church.

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The small white structure up the stairs and behind the tree is one of the chapels. In the background on the hill we see the church, the end-point of the pilgrim path. Sharp-eyed readers can spy similar chapels on the hillside below the church – unfortunately, modern houses have also been built on the hillside, so the view is not as harmonious today as it must have been in the late 17th, early 18th centuries when the chapels were first built.

When pilgrims – or modern hikers – approach a chapel, they will see a very closed building: a blank wall, with a locked door and a couple of grated windows on either side of the door.

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It is those grated windows which allow pilgrims – and hikers – to see what’s going on inside the chapels. Peering through them, they will behold a mise-en-scène of statues describing an episode of the mysteries. The grates on the windows are often of fine mesh. On the one hand, this is a good thing, in that it stops birds, rodents, and other pesky animals from entering the chapels and making a mess of the statues and everything else. On the other hand, this is a bad thing, in that it made it difficult for me to take good photos of the mises-en-scène with my i-Phone’s camera.

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So I shall be relying heavily on photos taken by other photographers who were given permission to go inside the chapels and posted their photos online.

Now, finally, we can visit the individual chapels and the church!

We start with five chapels which are dedicated to the five episodes making up the joyous mystery. Thus, we have:

Chapel 1: the Annunciation, where an Angel announces to Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.

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Chapel 2: the Visitation, where Mary visits her much older cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, and where Elizabeth recognizes Mary as the mother of the long-awaited Messiah.

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Chapel 3: the Nativity, where Jesus is born in a manger.

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Chapel 4: the Presentation, where Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem.

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Chapel 5: Finding Jesus in the Temple at age 12, discussing Mosaic Law with the elders.

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This chapel has the amusing detail of having a young boy sitting in the foreground who seems to be laughing at all these wise old men, and a dog which is crossing the scene. Presumably the artist who created this chapel wanted to give pilgrims a bit of light relief. I also like a detail at the back of the scene, in the dialogue between the young Jesus and the elder next to him.

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That elder is wearing a pince-nez, no doubt as much a symbol in the late 17th, early 18th Centuries of the bookish type as it is today (and on a darker note, let’s remember the Khmer Rouge’s decision to kill anyone who wore glasses, because they clearly had to be bourgeois intellectuals).

The next five chapels are dedicated to the episodes of the sorrowful mystery. So we have:

Chapel 6: the Agony in the garden of Gesthemane, where Jesus prays that he might be spared his impending death.

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Chapel 7: the Scourging, where Jesus is whipped before his execution.

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Chapel 8: the Crown of Thorns, where Jesus is mocked by being crowned “king” with a crown made of branches with long, sharp thorns.

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Chapel 9: Jesus carries the Cross to the place of execution.

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Chapel 10: the Crucifixion, where Jesus dies on the cross.

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I’m sure the pilgrims’ attention would have rapidly shifted from the crucifixion in the background to the soldiers throwing dice for Jesus’s cloak in the foreground. The sculptor created some very interesting-looking characters there. It’s certainly where my attention went.

The final four chapels and the church are dedicated to the five episodes of the glorious mystery:

Chapel 11: the Resurrection, where Jesus rises from the dead.

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The soldier sprawled on the ground in the foreground with his leg in the air is a nice touch, although the statue is in dire need of restoration.

By now, we are high enough to get a good view across the lake and of the mountains – snow-capped at this time of the year – behind it.

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Chapel 12: the Ascension, where Jesus ascends into heaven.

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Chapel 13: the Descent of the Holy Ghost on Mary and the Apostles.

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As we toil our way up to the next chapel, another lovely view opens up across the lake.

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Chapel 14: The Assumption of Mary into heaven after her death.

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Finally, after having huffed and puffed our way up the sometimes very steep path, we reach the church.

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A typically baroque church greets us when we enter – the chairs set at the required safety distances in these times of Covid-19.

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At the far end, over the main altar, we have the representation of the last episode of the glorious mystery, the Crowning of Mary as queen of heaven and earth.

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These little scenes we’ve witnessed as we’ve climbed up the hill are really wonderful pieces of theatre. In fact, that was their purpose, to teach a largely illiterate population the main stories from the New Testament through pictures: another example of the Poor Man’s Bible, which I commented on in a post long ago about San Gimignano in Tuscany.

Set-ups like this one in Ossuccio were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (known affectionately as “el Nasùn” because of his very large nose).

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He saw these as an important way of reaching out to the poor and downtrodden, who might otherwise be tempted by Protestantism, and as a way to talk to them about Christianity in a “language” which they understood. As a result, Ossuccio is one of a good number of so-called Sacred Mountains that dot the landscape of northern Italy; it bordered Protestant lands in Switzerland and was in danger of Protestant infection. The religious passions have died away but these masterpieces of baroque sculpture have remained. They have been declared a group UNESCO World Heritage site.

The funny thing is, this whole programme was tacked over a much earlier veneration of the Virgin Mary on the site of the church. The current church replaced an earlier church, which archaeological digs have shown in turn replaced an even earlier Roman temple to the goddess Ceres (Ossuccio was originally a Roman township by the name of Ausucium). She was the goddess of agriculture and by extension fertility. But since crop failures could have calamitous repercussions, she was also prayed to to avert catastrophes and was given thanks when catastrophes were averted. Somehow, in the shift to Christianity, this latter aspect of the cult of Ceres was transferred to the only “goddess” which Christians had, the Virgin Mary. It was to her that you prayed if something terrible happened to you, and if you survived you would often donate an ex-voto to her shrine as a memento of her presumed intercession. Since remotest time, then, the church high on the hill above Ossuccio has been a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and it has continued to be a place where people have come to pray for her intercession in times of danger. As a result, there is a little chapel off the main nave of the church which is stuffed full of ex-voto. I love these ex-voto, which tell us, sometimes in touching detail, of terrible misfortunes averted. I include here just some of the ex-voto which lined the walls of that little chapel.

The earlier ones seem to focus on recovery from grave illnesses.

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Later ones seem to focus more on run-ins with modern technologies of one sort or another – I suppose people were getting healthier while their environment was getting more dangerous.

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A couple have to do with falling from great heights.

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This last one speaks to us in particular. I presume the poor man has fallen from some sort of cliff. The area is littered with old quarries, and the slopes can anyway often be very steep. As my wife and I hike above and below these old quarries and along some very steep slopes, we are uncomfortably aware of the steep drops to our sides. One foot wrong …. Oh Blessed Virgin, keep us safe! (hey, you never know, a little prayer might help.)

WOOD AND FIRE

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.