LEONARDO IN MILAN

Milan, 19 January 2019

I was accompanying my wife a few weeks ago to do the weekly shopping at the local supermarket, when I once again noticed this painting on the hoardings surrounding a building site.
It’s a painting of Leonardo – not this Leonardo, with his intrepid band members Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo
but the other Leonardo, the original Leonardo, Leonardo da Vinci.
I suspect that the artist was basing himself on this portrait of Leonardo or one similar; this particular portrait was found in the back of a cupboard in 2008 somewhere in the south of Italy.

The anonymous street artist is really quite good. I suspect that it is the same artist who used a blank wall at the nearby church of San Lorenzo as his/her canvas.
As I’ve said in an earlier post, it’s so nice to see these paintings on public walls rather than the usual meaningless scribbles with which so many are daubed.

But I digress.

I have walked past this particular painting of Leonardo many times, but this time I paused (and took a photo). The reason was simple: he was mentioned in a book I have recently finished about 50 Italians who made their mark on the world. The book included Leonardo, of course, and what the author wrote about him can best be summarized by saying that Leonardo had been beset by a tendency to never finish things. Or to put it more bluntly, he faffed around. Did this judgement hold for Leonardo’s stay in Milan, I wondered?

For those of my readers who are not necessarily up to speed on Leonardo’s cv, I should explain that although he was Tuscan by birth and started his artistic career in Florence, Leonardo went on to live and work in Milan for nearly 20 years. He arrived in 1481, when he was just shy of 30, “on loan” from Lorenzo de Medici, “The Magnificent”, to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The loan seems to have become permanent – for some reason, Leonardo doesn’t seem to have been interested in going back to Florence, and maybe the Florentines were quite glad to see the back of him. He only quit the city in 1499, when Ludovico was forced out by the French king Louis XII during the Second Italian War and Leonardo had to go find himself a new patron.

So what did Leonardo leave us from his time in Milan? Not much, really. The judgement that he had a tendency to faff around seems to hold quite well for his time here. If we look at his artistic output, for instance, we have two huge failures. The first is the equestrian statue in bronze with which Ludovico wanted to commemorate his father. Ludovico gave the commission to Leonardo some time in the late 1480s. As usual, Leonardo faffed around, making this drawing and that model and finally came up with the design for a colossal statue which would have stood more than 7 metres high and weighed nearly 70 tonnes. Ludovico was incensed by the sheer impracticality of the design and wrote to Lorenzo the Magnificent, asking if he didn’t have someone else under hand who could actually do the work. Luckily for Leonardo, the answer was no. But he got the hint and hastily redimensioned the design to a normal size. He still continued to faff around, though. It was only by the early 1490s that he managed to put together a terracotta version of the work, to use in casting the final bronze version. But then war broke out and Ludovico gave away all the bronze which had been accumulated for the statue to his father-in-law Ercole d’Este to make cannons with. And that was the end of that. The final indignity occurred when the French captured Milan in 1499. They used the terracotta version of the statue for target practice, shattering it to pieces. The pieces disappeared somewhere, never to be seen again.

There is an interesting coda to this story. In 1977, an American by the name of Charles Dent became obsessed with this failed project and decided to recreate at least the huge horse that Leonardo initially had had in mind, using some of Leonardo’s drawings. After two decades (and Dent’s death), the project finally came to fruition and a 7-metre high Leonardesque horse now stands in the San Siro Hippodrome here in Milan. Here’s a picture of it, with a real horse and rider in front of it, to give readers a sense of its enormity.
My wife and I haven’t seen it yet. It’s on my bucket list.

Leonardo’s other big artistic failure from his days in Milan is his fresco, The Last Supper, also commissioned of him by Ludovico Sforza. It took pride of place on a wall of the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the monks could contemplate it as they ate (and no doubt feel guilty that they were enjoying their food).
It’s got to be one the best known paintings on the planet. God knows why; what you see today is a mere ghost of a painting. In fact, it decayed so rapidly that it was already a ghost of a painting when Giorgio Vasari saw it less than 60 years after it was finished. He wrote that the it was so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. Over the centuries, it’s been restored several times, sometimes cackhandedly, the last time being over a 21-year period finishing in 1999. This last restoration was extremely professional and probably did as much as is humanly possible to preserve and enhance the painting. But the fact is, only some 20% of the original has remained intact. One-fifth … not much.

In this case, it wasn’t Leonardo’s congenital faffing around that was the problem, although it did take him three years to finish the work and he only did so after having been pestered by the monastery’s prior to get on with it. It was his ever-present desire to experiment. In fresco painting, you paint onto fresh, still-wet plaster, which dries quickly. This technique does not allow the artist to have ripensamenti, or second thoughts: change a colour here, a line there. It dries too quickly for that. You have one chance and that’s it. That approach to painting was totally inimical to Leonardo, who liked to rework and rework paintings – one of the reasons for his high levels of faffery. So he adopted another technique, where he first added to a layer of dried plaster a coating of white lead and then painted in oil and tempera on top of that. The result looked great initially, so great that it blew away the minds of the little world of artists and art cognoscenti. Here is an early copy of the painting that one of his assistants, Giampetrino, made some 25 years after the original.
But the fresco degraded very quickly. The paint failed to bind with the underlying plaster and started to flake off after just a few years on the wall. The traditional enemies of frescoes – humidity, creation of new doors and windows, and pillaging troops, in this case French Napoleonic troops – did the rest. It didn’t help that the refectory took a direct hit from a bomb during World War II.

I saw the Last Supper in 1975. I was totally unimpressed. I haven’t been back since. I suppose, though, that I should also add a second visit to my bucket list, to check out the restored version.

Leonardo did leave us another fresco in Milan, in the Sala delle Asse, one of the rooms of the Castello Sforzesco, which the Sforzas used as their ducal residence.

The subject is trees, painted in such a way that people in the room are meant to feel they are in a grove of trees.
The fresco was painted on the walls and ceiling of a room where the Duke would greet dignitaries who came to pay their respects. No doubt the purpose of the fresco was to astonish them; this was one of the first uses of trompe l’oeil in decoration. Leonardo doesn’t seemed to have faffed around (much) on this commission, but unfortunately he painted the fresco at the very end of his time in Milan. He’d just finished it when the French threw Ludovico Sforza out and took over Milan. They, and then the other foreign occupiers who came after them – Spaniards and Austrians – used the castle as a barracks. This particular room was turned into a stable and the fresco whitewashed. Presumably, the soldiers decided that horses had no need for trompe l’oeil. I rather suspect the fresco was also falling to pieces since Leonardo seems to have used the same technique – oil and tempera on dried plaster – that he used with the Last Supper. There it stayed until it was rediscovered at the end of the 1800s. It thereupon suffered the indignity of a bad restoration, followed by a better one in the 1950s. It is now in the middle of another restoration, which started in 2006. I shall put it on my bucket list: “to visit once the restoration is finished” – if I don’t die before (keeping in mind that the Last Supper took 21 years to restore).

What of Leonardo’s paintings? Was he able to produce during his Milan days? He certainly painted a number while he was in Milan, although just how many is not always clear: dating his paintings is a pretty approximate affair, first because the records are sketchy, but also because of Leonardo’s constant dilly-dallying; he found it hard to let go of his paintings, he felt they could always be improved. Nevertheless, he seems to have worked on at least the following six paintings during his stay in Milan:

The Virgin of the Rocks, of which he painted two versions, one alone
and one in collaboration with Ambrogio de Predis and possibly others
The Madonna Litta (although in truth there is considerable argument about whether this really is a Leonardo)
Portrait of a Musician (although it is generally thought that Leonardo only painted the face)
Lady with an Ermine
La Belle Ferronière
Since paintings are highly mobile chattel – indeed, Leonardo himself seems to have carried a good number of his paintings around with him as he moved from place to place – and since a Leonardo painting pretty quickly became a highly desirable chattel, all but one of his paintings from his Milan days are now scattered throughout various collections around the world. The one exception is the Portrait of a Musician, which has ended up in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (is it possible that I’ve lived so many years in Milan and I’ve still not visited this museum? On the bucket list!)

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana also holds the Codex Atlanticus, one of six bound sets of Leonardo’s writings and drawings (maybe doodles would be a better description) – there’s another, the Codex Trivulzianus, held in the Castello Sforzesco somewhere. These seem to be typical pages from these codices.
During my lifetime at least, the codices have become a popular topic of discussion whenever the subject of Leonardo is brought up. They have been used to show what a universal genius he was, a man who was interested not only in art, but also engineering, mathematics, botany, metaphysics … in a word, a truly Renaissance Man! My take on them is that these codices instead just show how the man was unable to focus on any one thing, fluttering from one subject to another.

The codices have also been used to show that Leonardo prefigured pretty much every invention we humans have come up with in the last 200 years. In Milan’s “Leonardo da Vinci” National Museum of Science and Technology, there is a section which contains models of many of the weird and wonderful “machines” Leonardo dreamed up and committed to paper.
My take on this is that Leonardo was really a predecessor to William Heath Robinson and his mad machines.
Tinkerers, though, take a delight in Leonardo’s creations. My father-in-law, for instance, who was a very keen tinkerer (the apartment used to be full of his tinkerings), would drag my poor wife to the Leonardo da Vinci museum when she was young and show her the machines – “you see, dear, this clever machine here will bla, bla, bla ….”. She still goes pale when I bring up the possibility of visiting this museum. I guess it will never be on my bucket list.

It’s all very well to say that Leonardo prefigured all out modern machines. To me, the real test is whether or not he actually turned any of his mechanical musings into real machines during his lifetime, in Milan or elsewhere. And the answer to that is, he only did it once: a rather low level of success in turning daydreams into practicality, I would say. Nevertheless, every Milanese, including my wife, will at some point proudly inform you of that one success story, namely that Leonardo invented canal locks during his stay in Milan. This is not quite true. The Chinese were the first to invent locks, for use on their Grand Canal. The Europeans independently re-invented them some 200 years later. All these locks were opened and closed by sluice gates, which had to be pulled up and pushed down – the pulling up especially was very hard work. Since Roman times, the rulers of Milan had been tinkering with the local hydrography, slowly but surely extending the network of canals relaying the city to ever more distant rivers. Ludovico Sforza was no exception. He wanted a bigger navigable canal, which meant bigger locks, bigger – and heavier – sluice gates … a limit to what was physically possible was being reached. Leonardo came up with an ingenious solution: the mitred lock gate. This is the lock gate familiar to us all, which closes at a 45° angle. Closing at an angle means that the pressure of the water pushes the gates together, minimizing leakage, and having them move horizontally rather than vertically makes them much easier to open and close. Here is a picture of the gate from Leonardo’s papers.
And here is such a lock gate on one of the few canals remaining in Milan.
There was one area where Leonardo excelled with his daydreaming and tinkering, and which I suspect was the main reason Ludovico Sforza kept him around: the organization of spectacular festivals for the Duke’s eminent visitors, festivals where Leonardo could use all his mechanical aptitudes to create shows that would amaze and delight the Duke’s visitors. Many of them left detailed accounts of these wonderful, quasi magical, shows. By the end of his time in Milan, the organization of these festivals were Leonardo’s main source of income: he had turned into a magician, albeit a very good one.

Looking back over what I’ve written, I sense that I might have projected a somewhat jaundiced view of the Great Leonardo. His tendency to restlessly flit from one thing to another like a butterfly, without finishing anything on time, or sometimes without finishing them at all, irritated his contemporaries, especially his clients to whom he had promised deliveries by certain dates and who had paid up-front. If I had met Leonardo, I suspect he would have ended up irritating me too. In my 40 years in the workplace, I came across a number of such characters, golden-tongued men (they were all men for some reason) who made many promises but failed to deliver on them, leaving the rest of us having to scramble around to fill the gap. Right royal pains in the ass they were, the lot of them! “But he was brilliant!”, I can hear readers exclaim. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for unreliability. And with that little sermon, I leave readers with that famous drawing of Leonardo in his old age – I hope his melancholy look shows that he is bitterly regretting a lifetime of faffing around.
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Ninja turtle Leonardo: https://turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Leonardo_(Paramount)
Leonardo self-portrait: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leonardo_da_Vinci_LUCAN_self-portrait_PORTRAIT.jpg
Leonardo Horse, Milan: http://pixdaus.com/size-comparison-leonardo-s-horse-the-symbol-of-milan-italy-a/items/view/524205/
The Last Supper: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Supper_(Leonardo)
The Last Supper copy by Giampetrino: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520.jpg
Castello Sforzesco: https://www.ilcastelletto.com/castello-sforzesco/
Sala delle Asse: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1655657329.html
Virgin of the Rocks-Louvre: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks-National Gallery: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Madonna Litta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Portrait of a Musician: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Lady with an Ermine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
La Belle Ferronière: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Codex Atlanticus-1: http://baulitoadelrte.blogspot.com/2017/12/
Codex Atlanticus-2: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Leonardo-da-Vinci-Codex-Atlanticus-1478-1519_fig4_321113179
Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Milan: http://www.leonardo3.net/en/the-museum/
Heath Robinson cartoon: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/heath-robinson-deserves-a-museum
Leonardo drawing of a lock gate: http://www.italiannotebook.com/places/leonardo-canal-gate/
Lock gate on a Milan canal: http://www.italiannotebook.com/places/leonardo-canal-gate/
Self-portrait of Leonardo as an old man: https://www.fineartone.com/shop/old-masters/self-portrait-6/

NATIVITIES IN THE WOODS

Sori, 1 January 2019

A few days before Christmas, I set up our nativity in Milan. I wrote a post about this tradition last year, and I throw in here the photo I took of it then, because I haven’t memorialized this year’s effort (it really hasn’t changed much; I just added a few figurines).
But, as we discovered on a walk today, my modest efforts have been quite put to shame by the locals around Monte di Portofino (we’re spending the new year down by the sea). They have commandeered a stretch of forest road in the woods. There, in the bank of the road, they have set up charming little nativities, two dozen in all.
They have placed small – in some cases tiny – nativities in natural depressions: among the roots of fallen trees, spaces where stones were once imprisoned in the soil, a natural declivity in the terrain.

These nativities are so modest that they are very easy to miss if you’re not looking out for them.

These al fresco nativities have humbled me. It’s back to the drawing board with my efforts. But in the meantime, I would like to celebrate these small, anonymous scenes with some photos: not all 24 nativities, just a selection of the best.
Let me leave you with a picture of the glorious sunset that greeted us on our return home.
Happy new year.

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Pictures: all ours

ARTICHOKES

Milan, 17 December 2018

I never ceased to be amazed by the ingenuity of my fellow human beings. The latest thing that has set me off on this train of thought is … the artichoke.

Because, dear readers, when one is eating an artichoke, one is essentially eating a  thistle.

The family resemblance is a little clearer if one looks at an artichoke whose thorns have not been cut off.

It is even clearer if one sees an artichoke in flower (I for one didn’t know that artichokes could flower; and a beautiful flower too).

So there you go. We artichoke eaters are at one with Eeyore. True to character, that totally gloomy, pessimistic, and depressed stuffed donkey,  friend to Winnie the Pooh, loves to eat thistles.

I suppose A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh and the related cast of characters, had in mind the kind of thistle I pictured above, the spear thistle, common throughout the British Isles. But actually, the artichoke is a descendant of the cardoon, which is a cousin to that thistle.

Now, how on earth did generations of humble but ingenious farmers coax that spiny little bell-shaped bud supporting the cardoon flower into becoming the, sometimes huge, artichokes which we artichoke-lovers delight in eating today? How did it even cross their minds to try?

This train of thought was started in me a few days ago when my wife bought the first artichokes of the winter season and served them up steamed for lunch. There I was, following my usual routine with artichokes. I picked off the leaves one by one, dipping them in my oil and vinegar sauce, and scraping off the tender pulp at the base of each leaf with my teeth.
As I spiraled round the artichoke, working my way through the leaves, they were getting more and more tender, with more pulp on each to eat, until I finally reached the artichoke’s inner sanctum. By then, the leaves had become small and delicate.
I plucked them all off at once, dipped, and ate them whole. Now, the artichoke’s flower was exposed.
This fibrous mass would have turned into the beautiful purple bloom I gave a picture of above if the farmers had left the artichoke in peace in the field. But it had been sacrificed to my animal desires and now I took my knife to this fuzz and scraped it all away to reveal the artichoke’s heart.
Ah! The most delicious part of the artichoke! I reverently dipped it in my oil and vinegar sauce and ate it meditatively, not forgetting to eat the stem, just as delicious. And as I reveled in this almost religious ceremony, the question popped into my mind: Who on earth invented this endearingly strange vegetable, and why?

After a little bit of digging, I can inform readers that we don’t really know. As I have reported in at least one previous post on the history of a vegetable, I’m afraid that the history of how vegetables got created was of little interest to ancient historians, who were much more interested in the goings-on of the elites. What humble little farmers were up to did not interest them much. So we have to piece together a history from shards of evidence left behind in the historical records, cross-checked with more recent genetic evidence.

As I have said, the artichoke’s ancestor is the wild cardoon, which has much the same range as the strawberry tree which I wrote about in the previous post, that is to say, the western part of the Mediterranean basin, from Greece to Spain and from Libya to Morocco. We know this because cardoons and artichokes are very similar genetically, so close that they can interbreed. Quite why someone ever bothered to try eating this viciously thorned plant is not clear to me. I have to assume that hunger led our ancestors to try anything and everything that grew around them, although the preparation time required to make wild cardoon edible must have been daunting. I can only think that our ancestors persisted because they felt that the taste was worth the effort. As an aficionado of artichokes, I would have to agree with that. Or – in an era where there was no corner drugstore – they believed it had valuable medicinal properties of some kind.

Quite how long ago farmers started experimenting is also unclear. Genetic analysis suggests that these humble folk were fiddling in two ways with the wild cardoon. Some were trying to make the flower bud more edible, leading to the artichoke. Others were trying to make the stem more edible, their efforts leading to the domesticated cardoon – for readers, who like me before writing this post, have no idea what domesticated cardoon looks like, I throw in here a photo of the plant.

The artichoke developers seem to have succeeded in their efforts by the “beginning of the first millennium” of our era, and these anonymous developers seem to have toiled away in Sicily or thereabouts. So perhaps artichokes were available some time in the first couple of centuries AD, in what was then the Roman Empire? As for the domesticated cardoon, this process doesn’t seem to have been completed until “the first half of the second millennium”, somewhere in Spain. So 1300-1400 AD in what could still have been Arabic Spain but was fast becoming Christian Spain?

As for the written evidence, our friend Pliny the Elder (whom I mentioned in my previous post) had a brief section in his Natural History, written before he was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius that wiped out Pompeii in 79 AD, on a plant he called carduus, which is the general Latin term for thistle. He wrote that this plant was grown in Carthage (in today’s Tunisia) and in Cordoba, Spain. But did he mean the artichoke or the domesticated cardoon? Or maybe some predecessor of the two which was not quite either? Then there is a Roman mosaic of the 3rd Century AD in Tunis whose frieze seems to be showing artichokes, although some people have argued that they could just as well be cardoons with largish heads.

As far as the artichoke is concerned, the etymologies of the various European names for it are not terribly helpful either. One strand of names – carciofo in modern Italian, alcachofa in Spanish, alcachofra in Portuguese – seem to be derived from the artichoke’s Medieval Arab name al-ḫaršūf. Another strand of names – artichaut in French, artichoke in English, artischocke in German, and similar names in other northern European languages – seem instead to be derived from the plant’s old Italian name articoca (which in turn derives from the late Latin name alcocalum).  Meditating on that, my guess is that when the Arabs invaded Sicily in the 9th Century, they found the artichoke already implanted, under its old Italian name. They arabized the name and carried it to Arabic Spain, where it entered Spanish gastronomy under its Arabic name. Then, in both places, when the Arabs were pushed out, the Arabic name was italianized and hispanified. In the meantime, the rest of Italy, to which the Sicilian-developed artichoke had spread, continued to use the old Italian name. This then spread – along with the vegetable itself – into other European countries to the north. But then, back in Italy, at some point the new Italian name, developed in Sicily, overtook the old Italian name. Complicated …

That’s about where things stand with the artichoke. I will leave the reader with one of the earliest representations in paint of this vegetable, by that really strange artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose paintings, however, were wildly popular in his time; they now adorn the best museums in Europe. This particular one, l’Estate, hangs in Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum.
Readers will see that the “man” has an artichoke as a buttonhole.

As to the way I eat artichokes, I’m sure some readers would object. I know there are other dips that can be used. And artichokes can be cooked in other ways – carciofi alla romana come to mind, or maybe carciofi alla giudia. And the hearts can be conserved in oil and used in salads. But I am more than content with my simple approach. It’s stood by me for some 50 years. I will let others explore other ways of eating artichokes.

I can’t say the same for domesticated cardoons. I must confess to having never eaten this plant. My French grandmother – one source for my culinary experiments – never cooked them, and nor did my Italian mother-in-law, another source of my culinary experiments. Spain and North Africa seem to be the places to go to try cardoons. So with that, I will leave my readers with the recipe for a well-known Spanish dish, Cardos en Salsa de Almendras, Cardoons with Almond Sauce. My excuse for choosing this one is that it is popular in the Christmas season. The amounts quoted here are for four people.

Take a kilo of cardoons. They come in bunches like this.

Discard any hard outer stalks. Separate all the stalks from the base. Peel off the strings on the outside of each stalk of cardoon (like one does with celery) and the thin skin which is on the inside of the stalks. Once peeled, cut the stalks into 10-cm pieces and drop them into a bowl with water and lemon juice (the juice of 1 lemon for every 4 cups of water) and let sit.

Meanwhile, stir ½ tablespoon of flour into a small amount of water. Add the mix to a pot with 4 cups of water and a teaspoon of salt. Squeeze a chunk of lemon into the pot and throw in the lemon chunk too. Bring the pot to a boil. Add the cardoons, cover and simmer until the cardoons are tender when pierced with a knife (45-60 minutes). Remove from the heat, allow to cool in the cooking liquid, drain well.

Heat 1½ tablespoons for olive oil in a skillet and fry ¼ cup of skinned almonds and a clove of chopped garlic until they are lightly toasted and golden. Skim them out. Place them in a blender with some chicken stock. Blend until smooth. Stir a little flour into the oil in the skillet and let it cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the drained cardoons, the almond mixture from the blender, a cup of chicken stock. Salt to taste.

Enjoy!

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Artichoke: https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/the-nutrition-of-artichokes.html
Spear thistle: http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/Flowers/T/Thistle(Spear)/Thistle(Spear).htm
Thorny artichoke: http://www.wetheitalians.com/web-magazine/italian-flavors-thorny-artichoke-from-sardegna
Artichoke in flower: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Eeyore: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/artichoke-flowers_n_56eafabce4b03a640a69e41b
Cardoon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardoon
Eating artichoke: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Innermost artichoke leaves: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Artichoke heart: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke/
Domesticated cardoon: https://worcesterallotment.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/discover-cardoon/
Roman mosaic, Tunis: https://www.agefotostock.com/age/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/DAE-BL022894
Arcimboldo, l’Estate: http://www.khm.at/it/objektdb/detail/71/?offset=2&pid=2582&back=&lv=listpackages-283
Cardoon bunch: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html
Cardoons with almond sauce: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/2013/12/christmas-dinner-with-side-of-cardoons.html

WILD GEESE AND GREAT POET

Milan, 7 December 2018

I wrote in the previous post about my wife and I visiting a museum dedicated to the Japanese woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige, in preparation for our walk along the Nakasendo Way. That same museum also happened to be holding an exhibition dedicated to Katushika Hokusai. Many of Hokusai’s woodblock prints were of course on show, and it was certainly a pleasure to be given the opportunity to study and admire them up close.

But actually it’s a painting of Hokusai’s that has remained with me in the intervening weeks. I sneak in here a photo that I took of it – I’m not sure I was allowed to take photos and I looked around stealthily before whipping out my phone and snapping this shot. I have cropped the photo to eliminate the silk wall hanging in which it is incorporated; I want the reader to focus on the painting, and I find its silken frame a distraction to the eye.

Its title is Wild Geese and Great Poet, and indeed we see a man of certain means sitting on the ground, his elbow resting on that typical Japanese arm rest, the kyousoku. His head rests on his hand, and he is watching with a look of wistful melancholy at a flock of geese flying away into the distance.

I immediately felt that there was a story being told here. I saw the drawing in of winter, with the geese flying south from Siberia to overwinter in Japan, and of the poet meditating on the drawing in of his own life as old age beckons: the kind of pessimistic thinking which I enjoy, especially now that I am a pensioner, and which makes my wife roll her eyes and sigh loudly. I felt that Hokusai was surely taking his cue from a Japanese or possibly Chinese poem on the subject, and I resolved to track the poem down.

Well, five weeks have passed, and I can’t say that I have yet found the poem in question. Everyone agrees that flying geese were often used as symbols of the passage of the seasons and of time in Japanese and Chinese poetry, but one particular poem where the writer uses this imagery to meditate on his approaching old age I have not found. Fearing that the task I have set myself will meander on inconclusively before petering out ignominiously, I have resolved to stop here, draw a line under my research, and report back on the results of my increasingly dispirited internet surfing.

The best fit I have found is a poem from the Songs of Chu, an anthology of Chinese poems which tradition says were written in the late 200s BCE, during the Warring States period. This particular poem is attributed to the poet Song Yu. I read into this poem a story, so typical of Imperial China, of the bureaucrat who has somehow fallen foul of his master, has lost his position, and is now wandering the land, an exile, wondering if he will ever get his old life back.

Alas for the breath of autumn!
Wan and drear: flower and leaf fluttering fall and turn to decay;
Sad, forlorn: as when on journey far one climbs a hill and looks down on water to speed a returning friend;
Empty and vast: the skies are high and the air is cold;
Still and deep: the streams have drunk full and the waters are clear.

Heartsick and sighing sore: for the cold draws on and strikes into a man;
Distraught and disappointed: leaving the old and to new places turning;
Afflicted; the Emperor’s servant has lost his office and his heart rebels;
Desolate: on his long journey he rests with never a friend;
Melancholy: he nurses a private sorrow.

The fluttering swallows leave on their homeward journey;
The forlorn cicada makes no sound;
The wild geese call as they travel southwards;
The partridge chatters with a mournful cry.

Alone he waits for the dawn to come, unsleeping;
Mourning with the cricket, the midnight traveler.
His time draws on apace: already half is gone
Yet still he languishes, nothing accomplished.

As for the Japanese side, the best I’ve managed to find is a number of haiku. Here is one from the Manyōshū, a collection of Japanese poems compiled sometime after 759 AD.

The inlet of Okura is echoing;
To the fields of Fushimi
The wild geese are passing.

This one instead is by Matsuo Bashō, master haiku composer whom I mentioned in my previous post and who lived in the second half of the 1600s.

The sea darkening –
The voices of the wild geese
Crying, whirling, white.

And finally, there is this haiku, written in 1953 by Takaha Shugyo

Wild geese pass
Revealing
The whole of heaven

A certain continuity is revealed, I think, over this nearly 1,000 year period.

Well, since it was a visit to a museum dedicated to Hiroshige that led me to the painting by Hokusai, I feel it is only fair that I should finish with a woodblock print by Hiroshige, Full Moon at Takanawa, where geese are the star players.
_____________

Hokusai, Wild Geese and Great Poet: my photo
Hiroshige, Full Moon at Takanawa: https://www.musubi.it/en/biblioteca/haiku/477-mp-haiku?showall=1

THE NAKASENDO WAY

Milan, 24 November 2018

I have a weakness for Japanese woodblock prints, that art form which we in the West tend to associate with Katsushika Hokusai. I mean, who hasn’t seen somewhere, in some form, his Great Wave off Kanagawa?

or his Fine Wind, Clear Morning?
Or even his Kajikazawa in Kai Province

So when my wife and I were preparing for the week-long walk we undertook along the Nakasendo Way in Japan a few weeks ago it was with pleasure that I read that another artist well known for his woodblock prints, Utagawa Hiroshige, had, together with yet another artist, Keisai Eisen, made a series of prints specifically about this highway, The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido.

I should perhaps step back and explain to readers what the Nakasendo Way is. In Japan, as everywhere else where there has been a history of centralized government, rulers were anxious to build and maintain highways between important points in the country to ensure better control. The Japanese shogunate maintained a network of five such highways, all radiating out of the capital Edo (now Tokyo), with a series of officially-approved post towns along each route where the weary traveler could rest for the night, and change horses and obtain porters for the next stage of the journey.

Two of these highways led to Kyoto. One we could call the low road, because it ran along the coast (E in the map), and the other we could call the high road since it threaded its way through the Japanese Alps, a block of mountains standing between Edo/Tokyo and Kyoto (C and D in the map). The latter is the Nakasendo Way.

This print by Hiroshige, which shows a view across rice paddies of the post town of Nakatsugawa, gives a sense of what the road must have looked like in the shogunate period.

The prints were prepared in the late 1830s, early 1840s, in the dying days of the shogunate. Some ten years later, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay with his black ships and forced the country to open up.

This was the start of the cataclysmic changes which led to modern Japan. Much of the Nakasendo Way was wiped out in the country’s ensuing rush to modernity. This map, which overlays the trace of the Nakasendo Way on a modern map of Japan, shows the problem.

Many of the modern roads followed the course of the old road and thereby obliterated long stretches of it when they were built, while Japan’s skyrocketing population meant that every post town expanded way beyond its original limits, further obliterating the old road, and the calls for modern housing meant many of the old inns, shops, and houses in the post towns were razed to the ground to make way for brick and concrete.

If I write all this, it is because I had hoped to be able to match up at least some of views along our walk with Hiroshige’s and Eisen’s prints. We read that the portion of the Nakasendo Way which we were going to walk along, from Oi to Karuizawa, was the most unspoiled. So when, on the first day of our walk, my wife and I visited a museum dedicated to Hiroshige, I took photos of all the prints covering our section of the walk, in the pleasurable anticipation that at least at a few points along the way I would be able to stop and say “Ooh look, see how it’s changed since Hiroshige’s/Eisen’s time!”

Alas, it was not to be. We didn’t see a single view which I could relate in any way to any of the two men’s prints. Partly it was because so much has changed in the built environment along the route. Partly it was because the organizers of the walk actually made us do large chunks off the Nakasendo Way proper so that we wouldn’t be walking along modern roads and highways. But partly it was because, as I came to realize, the two artists were not interested in giving the viewer faithful renderings of places along the road; rather, they wanted to record the sensations of being a traveler on the road.

With that in mind, let me give the readers a sense of what my wife and I saw as we hiked along highway and byway from Oi to Karuizawa. We started in Oi on a beautiful day, not at all like the day Hiroshige chose for his print of Oi, where we see luckless travelers tramping along through deep snow.

Our guidance notes informed us that nowadays the trace of the Nakasendo Way is marked by the road sporting a special top of asphalt mixed with little yellow stones.

Following this trace (which in truth we really only had for the first day or two) made me feel a bit like Dorothy and her friends on the Yellow Brick Road.

Following our speckled roadway, we passed through the old post towns of Nakatsugawa and Ochiai. These were once two distinct post towns but now have expanded outwards and bled into each other, so it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. I have already inserted Hiroshige’s print of Nakasendo. Here is his print for Ochiai.

The two can be compared to this photo of the modern town of Nakatsugawa.
It’s a little hard not to feel a sense of loss.

At the exit of Ochiai, we crossed a bridge from which we had this perspective of a waterfall.

Charming – but not as dramatic as this print by  Eisen of the river at Nojiri
Something has been lost in the taming of nature.

Thereafter, we climbed steadily up towards Magome Pass, along an old piece of flagged roadway through a pine forest

before stopping for the night at an inn.

As in all the inns we stayed at, we were invited to wash off the aches and pains of the journey in the common hot tub and change into yukatas for dinner – something travelers had been doing along the Nakasendo Way for centuries, as this print by Hiroshige attests (note the man at the back soaking in the tub).

From the window of our room – strictly tatami, and no en-suite bathroom – we had a view of the inn’s garden.

I was reminded of a haiku by the master poet Matsuo Bashō

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

Bashō traveled the old highways of Japan in the late 1600s and composed haiku along the way. Two seem particularly apposite for this autumn walk of ours:

No one travels along
this way but I
this autumn evening

Autumn evening: on a withered bough
A solitary crow is sitting now.

The next morning, the weather had turned bad and we left the inn under the rain.

With all our modern gear, we had it much better than some of the poor travelers depicted by Hiroshige tramping along under the rain

or running for shelter in a downpour.

We passed a Shinto shrine buried deep in the trees, whose entrance was guarded by a torii gate.

The same timeIess torii gate worked its way into one of Hiroshige’s prints.

The happy peasants are not so timeless, it seems. We saw no-one, throughout our entire walk, working in the fields.

We arrived in the old post town of Magome which, our guidance notes observed, is one of the better preserved post towns. And we arrived early enough to avoid the hordes of tourists which normally flood the place.


Magome is the birthplace of the novelist Shimazaki Toson. One of his most famous novels, Before the Dawn, is set in Magome at the time of the wrenching change from the Tokugawa shogunate to Meiji Restoration. As one review puts it, “Shimazaki shows that the Tokugawa shogunate, for all its repressiveness, had much to commend it; that the restoration, for all its successes, created a great deal of frustration and disillusion.” I must confess to having never read the book, but now that I’ve walked the Walk and seen all the changes that Japan’s opening up has wrought I think it’s time for me to do so.

We now began the walk up to Magome Pass. The higher altitudes were finally bringing the autumns colours to us.


The Magome Pass is nothing today but a tricky point where the walker has to be careful in crossing the road so as not to end up as roadkill.  But Eisen and Hiroshige each presented the pass as backbreaking work for those carrying heavy loads along the route.


As we walked down the other side, carrying just a small rucksack

I could not but reflect that our lives had been made much easier by the modern road: while we walked, the bulk of our luggage was being transferred from inn to inn by car.

We soon came across an old tea house, which has been serving weary travelers tea on their way up to, or down from, the Pass since time immemorial.

Hiroshige preserved one such stopping-off place in one of his prints.

Local volunteers keep the tea house going, offering tea (and, our guidance notes informed us, sometimes songs) to the walker who is willing to tarry a while, which we willingly did.

After a cup of tea, we were on our way again, reaching our inn on the outskirts of the old post town of Tsumago. As we saw later that afternoon, Tsumago was another post town which has elected to preserve itself for the tourist trade.


The only thing that struck me about the place was the strange habit which the locals had of hanging persimmons, ripe now all over Japan, outside their houses to dry. If nothing else, it made for a pretty photo.

After Tsumago, our walking deviated from the Nakasendo Way. The next day, on our walk from Tsumago to Kiso-Fukushima, we took an alternative route through the mountains, which in the old days was used when rock slides and other hazards blocked the normal route. Gone was the speckled roadway. It was rougher, wilder, and altogether more beautiful.





This brought us to Nojiri, from where, with a bow to modernity, we took a train to Kiso-Fukushima. Our entry to the town was this.

This is how the town’s entry looked like in Hiroshige’s time.

After an evening session in the inn’s Onsen (that Japanese institution of public bathing in mineral waters channeled from hot springs) and a good sleep, we started our next day with a visit to Kiso-Fukushima’s Zen rock garden, reputed to be the biggest in Japan. As an aficionado of rock gardens, I couldn’t miss it.

Well, as they say “bigger is not necessarily better”. I’m not sure I approve of that use of white lines in the design.

Here again, we strayed off the Nakasendo Way, taking the old Hida Way, a salt and medicinal herb trade route. We started at the Karasawa no taki falls.

We climbed up through some beautiful forest

to the Jizo Pass. It was marked by a little statue which someone had thoughtfully covered with a hat and a bib to keep it warm during the winter.

Just before heading down the other side, I gave a thought to those other travelers which Eisen had depicted also taking a break at the top of a pass.

After a lunch in beautiful sunshine gazing out at Mount Ontake in the distance (a volcano, I have since learned, which blew its top not too long ago)

we headed out for our afternoon walk over Nishino-toge pass, about which I have no memory and no photos – I must have been tired.

And so to our final day of walking, which saw us coming back to Kiso-Fukushima by bus, take a train to Yabuhara, and from there walk to the old post town of Narai. The walk took us to the top of Torii-toge Pass

and from there down to Narai. Narai is one long street of well preserved houses.


I could see no relation whatever with Eisen’s print of Narai

although what I saw rather reminded me of his print of another post town, Sakamoto.

A final reminder, if ever I needed one, that my initial dream of matching woodblock prints by either men to what I was seeing on the ground was an exercise doomed to failure.

After a late lunch, we hurried to the station to catch a series of trains to our final destination, the old post town of Karuizawa. As in Hiroshige’s print of Karuizawa

we arrived in darkness, although we enjoyed a slap-up meal at our inn rather than smoking what looks to me suspiciously like opium pipes. Perhaps the poor buggers didn’t have the cash for a good nosh.

The next day, we took that super-modern form of transportation, the bullet train, and headed to Osaka to catch our plane back home. My wife and I have already agreed that next year, if we go back to Japan, we will do another walk. The question is where.

________________________________

Photos: all ours, except:

Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa
Hokusai, Fine Wind Clear Morning: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine_Wind,_Clear_Morning
Hokusai, Kajikazawa in Kai Province: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39656
Edo five routes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_Five_Routes
Perry’s ship enters Tokyo Bay: https://medium.com/tomorrow-in-progress/when-black-ships-bring-the-future-9c7456050fcc
Nakasendo route on modern map: https://sites.google.com/site/kisokaido/presentation-nakasendo-kisokaido
Yellow Brick Road: http://fortune.com/2018/11/08/wizard-of-oz-script-auction/
Modern Nakatsugawa: https://photorator.com/photo/57577/spring-day-nakatsugawa-japan-
Kiso-Fuskushima station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiso-Fukushima_Station
Karasawa no Taki falls: https://www.getaway.co.za/travel-ideas/walking-through-japan/

THE PAIN THAT NEVER PASSED

Milan, 11 November 2018

Exactly a hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. Some 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians had been killed by the time the guns fell silent. May they rest in peace wherever they lie, in marked graves which circle the battlefields, or in some spot “known only to God”.

On previous anniversaries, I have written about the soldiers who fought and died in this war. Today, though, it seems more appropriate to commemorate those for whom the pain did not end on that 11th day of November in 1918, for whom the pain never ended.

23 million soldiers were wounded in the war.

For many their wounds healed, leaving only scars to carry to the grave. As Robert Graves wrote in the opening lines of his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the war ended,

Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.

But some men were so badly mutilated that they could never lead a normal life again. The German artist Otto Dix turned his unflinching gaze on these smashed men, forcefully reminding his viewers of their shattered existence and challenging them (challenging us all) not to turn away.


But turn away they – we – did, forcing these men to eke out an existence on the edges of society, like this match seller drawn by Dix.

Or like the barrow puller memorialized by the French poet Marcel Sauvage in his poem Le châtiment, The Punishment. (I give here my modest efforts at translation)

In the street
Cars
On the cobbles, like hard rattles
Taxis flying by
Red, their backs smoking
Heavy lorries
Houses trembling.
Tram lines under trolley wheels
Screeching …
On the pavements
Passersby moving, moving
The city screams
The city: Paris

A car raced along
Rich.
A barrow
Pulled by a pack animal
A man
A man in sweat
Barred its road
A Gentleman leaned out
Of that rich car,
A rich old man.
He shouted at the poor man
Poor devil caught up
In the swirl of the street:
“Idiot
You deserve to be run over …”

I looked at the man
Who dragged the barrow
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a peg leg
Was dragging a heavy barrow
Was sweating
Pinned on the lapel of his dirty jacket
A military cross
A war medal.
He was yesterday’s hero
A martyr who was sweating
Frightened, resigned
In the swirl of the street
A pack animal
In the swirl of the street
The rich man should have run him over
That poor man –
– there

Some 65 million troops were mobilized for the war. Many may not have been wounded but they carried home psychological scars from the horrors they had witnessed, suffering from what today we wrap up in the scientific-sounding term Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. My grandmother would often tell me of her cousin Ernest. He came out of three years of fighting on the Western Front physically unscathed. But his mind was shot. He couldn’t hold a job down, he began drinking heavily, he quarreled with everyone. He died at the age of 44. Some descended even further into a hell they could never escape from.

Wilfred Owen caught those who were quite smashed in the mind in his poem Mental Cases.

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

But the lives of many non-combatants were broken too, by the death of a son or husband or lover or father, leaving inside of them a void that was never to be filled. The poet Vera Brittain expressed this never-ending sorrow in her poem Perhaps, in which she talks to her fiancé, killed in 1915 at the age of 20 by a sniper.

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though you have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although you are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although you cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of you
Was broken, long ago.

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz captured the desperation of parents who lost a son in the war in this woodcut. They lost their son Peter in the early months of the war, in October 1914, in Flanders.

Her desperation passed but not the pain. Some twenty years after the war she carved two kneeling statues, of her husband Karl and herself, which are now in the German military cemetery of Vladslo, in Belgium, where Peter is buried.

Karl is holding himself tight, as if afraid of showing too much emotion, sorrowfully gazing down at the tomb holding the remains of his son and 19 other soldiers.

Käthe is bowed over, holding her hand to her face, grief stricken.

Another statue she made, of a Pietà, became the model for the statue which now adorns the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Here, we see the mother cradling her boy, who seems, almost childlike, to be retreating into the comfort of her embrace.

This statue sits in the bare space of the Neue Wache. It is one of the most moving monuments to those who have died in war that I know.

Brittain and Kollwitz could use their art to voice their grief. A multitude of others were tongue-tied, because they could not give form to their grief or because their upbringing barred them from showing it. My great uncle and his wife lost their son Max in April 1915, during an attack on German positions near Ypres. He was just 23. His body was never found. My grandmother used to tell me that Max’s parents never recovered from his death. Yet, in the printed family history that we all received, all that my great uncle could write of this terrible blow to him and his wife was “He is much missed by his family and by Catherine Peake, to whom he was engaged. A fine looking young man, with a pleasant and charming manner, Maxwell showed promise of a brilliant future.”

The same bottled-up grief comes through on this simple plaque which we saw on our visit to Verdun. It was set up on the side of the road known as the Chemin des Dames, which was at the centre of a huge French offensive in 1917.

It reads, “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment. Killed on 6 May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Missed by his mother, by all his family, and by his friends. Pray for him”. Again that word “missed” … such a small word for such a terrible agony, especially if the body could not be found so there was no grave to mourn over. As the sister of Private Richard Pick wrote in her brother’s In Memoriam printed in the Grantham Journal in 1917,

The unknown grave is the bitterest blow,
None but an aching heart can know.

Sometimes the agony of loss was so great that minds became unhinged. In his book Goodbye to All That, about his experiences of fighting on the Western Front, Robert Graves recounts how he went down to Kent to visit a wounded friend of his who was staying in the family home while recovering. He writes, “His elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and his mother kept his bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, his linen always freshly laundered, and flowers and cigarettes by his bedside.” Although Graves does not say it explicitly, one is led to understand that the mother spent her evenings trying to connect with her son through scéances with the spirits.

Violet, Viscountess Milner lost her beloved son George at the age of 18. He was killed during the retreat from Mons in September 1914. She coped by erecting a monument near where he fell and making annual visits to his grave, and befriending the local villagers.

But her grief was endless. As she noted in her diary on the twentieth anniversary of George’s death: “the sorrow, the loss, the pain, are as great today as in 1914.”

I pray – I pray – that my wife and I will never have to face the agony of losing our son – or daughter – to a war.

I leave readers with an excerpt from the poem Antwerp by Ford Madox Ford.

This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.

This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud. . .
And now! . . That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another. . .
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.

There is so much pain.

_____________________

Walking wounded: http://elsovh.hu/english/page/20/
Otto Dix, Two Soldiers: https://hanslodge.com/file/two-soldiers-by-Otto-Dix.htm
Otto Dix, Prostitute and disabled war veteran: http://www.trebuchet-magazine.com/aftermath-art-in-troubled-times/
Otto Dix, The Match Seller: http://www.germanexpressionismleicester.org/leicesters-collection/artists-and-artworks/otto-dix/match-seller/
Shell shock victim: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/body-and-mind/shell-shock-on-film/
Käthe Kollwitz Pietà, Berlin: http://blogueresdesantmarti.net/index.php/etiqueta/dones-escultores/
Neue Wache: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/545991154801328984/
Monument to Jean Dauly: http://www.mairie-chateau-thierry.net/1418/labase/dosmonumEpineChevregnymai17.pdf
Monument to George Cecil: http://www.webmatters.net/cwgc/guards_villerscotterets.htm

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire, known to us as the Southern Song, around the city of Hangzhou. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

ODD STATUES

Milan, 3 October 2018

When my wife and I are in Vienna, we very often walk down our road into the centre of the city. It is a very pleasant walk, down a historical high street with little shops lining it, in the shade of linden trees much of the way. At about the halfway point, we pass a very nice little square, with a café-restaurant on one side and a fountain in the middle. In the summer, when the weather is good, the restaurant puts tables out in the square around the fountain.

It is this fountain that interests us here. At first glance, it looks quite unremarkable. It seems a typical product of its time, which is late 19th Century. It is composed of three statues, two of which spout water. The composition illustrates some tale, which I suppose was once well known in Vienna, of a bright young girl called Elspeth who through some cleverness or other managed to outwit two infamous robbers. So, we have Elspeth, Goddess-like, standing on a column

while at her feet crouch the two robbers with their hands tied behind their back, looking disconsolate and spouting water from their mouths.

So far, so good. But actually there is something definitely odd about the composition. The pose of one of the robbers is such that it looks like he’s vomiting the water he’s spouting. Already that is a bit strange, but it takes on a surreal quality when you see people merrily eating and drinking at the tables while the statue behind them seems to be puking his guts out.

We’ve been walking past this fountain very often over the last several years, and its oddness strikes me afresh every time we pass (who knows, though? maybe I’m the only person who finds it odd). This frequent mental pause, this little stone in my mental shoe, has had the effect of making me start to think about other odd statues which I have seen over my lifetime. And I’m thinking here of statues where the oddity is unintentional; I’m not interested in statues such as this one where the oddity is very, in-your-face, intentional.

Well, there are these odd statues which my wife and I came across in Salzburg during a little trip we made there during this past summer. They are statues of pickles, or gherkins if you prefer.

The fact that anyone would spend his or her time making statues of pickles is odd enough. What I found even odder was the way the pickle statues were aligned with a very normal statue of Schiller in the middle distance.

But it seems that this was the point. The blurb which accompanied the statues helpfully explained:

A gherkin is a gherkin is a gherkin – or then again, perhaps not? …. “I find the diversity of forms, which by virtue of their uniqueness are inexhaustible, compelling” explains Erwin Wurm [the sculptor] “Although individually different,  each gherkin is immediately identifiable as a gherkin, and generically classifiable as such … analogous to man”. The forms are as different as gherkins and people tend to be: tall and short, thick and thin, rough and smooth, slender and stocky. By scaling his gherkins up to human dimensions and by creating the impression that they are sprouting from the tarmac, Wurm confers upon them the status of creatures, possessed of an intrinsic individuality. The artist leaves his work open to interpretation, hovering as it does between critical irony and playful teasing.

Indeed … Well, my take on the composition is that it looked very Star-Wars like. I could imagine that after a long journey through intergalactic space I was being brought into the presence of the (human-looking) ruler of some distant planet, whose court consisted of pickle-like creatures. In my mind’s eye, I can see them wave gently as I walk past on my way to pay my respects to the ruler, creaking a little perhaps and perhaps oozing some pickling liquid, murmuring in some incomprehensible far-galaxy language as I pass them. I would guess that they stay upright as a result of having suckers on their base. But how would they move around, I wonder?

Leaving this rather feverish daydream and coming back to earth, how about this statue?

It is of a young man, naked but for some sort of loin cloth, purposefully striding along. Its oddness comes from its location, which is in the vestibule of Milan’s main post office. The inference is clear. When he was installed, which must have been some time during the Fascist era, he was meant to be representing those thousands of postmen who stepped out every morning to do their rounds. It’s already odd enough that he’s nearly starkers. I’ve never seen any postman doing his rounds in the state in which Adam found himself in the Garden of Eden. But apart from that, the statue clashed mightily with the dominant image I had of postmen in the mid-1970s, which is when I first saw it. That image was shaped by the husband of the lady who looked after my French grandmother and who lived in one part of her house. He was the postman for the surrounding rural district. He looked something like this.

I would see him ride off on his bike early in the morning. I would also sometimes spy him delivering his letters, which invariably seemed to involve a chat, a Gauloise cigarette (unfiltered), and a glass of red plonk. By the time he wobbled home in the early afternoon, his face would be several shades redder than when he left. He would proceed to have lunch and demolish another half bottle of plonk, at which point he would put his head on his arms and pass out.

But I think first prize for oddity goes to a statue I saw on my first ever trip to Italy. I was traveling with a rail pass and staying in youth hostels. The youth hostel in Rome was near the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee. In the early 1930s, during the first decade of Fascism, a stadium had been built next to the headquarters, where Italian athletes could strut their stuff for the Committee. To make it look suitably Roman and imperial, the Italian provinces had been invited to send in statues in white Carrara marble of men intent on various athletic pursuits. Some sixty such statues duly arrived and were placed around the stadium in Hellenic style. I would look over these statues as I went by on my way to and from the youth hostel. There was one which struck me in particular, representing the noble sport of skiing.

Who on earth, I would ask myself bemusedly, would ever go skiing naked?? Because, of course, as befitted statues echoing their worthy Greek and Roman predecessors, most of them were carved strictly in the buff. I don’t remember now any of the other statues but in preparing this post I looked at some of them and found a couple which are nearly as odd:
The Naked Mountaineer

The Naked Footballer

The Naked Tennis Player

Somehow, I find that these statues represent beautifully Italy’s Fascist era: a time of bombast and chest-thumping which, though, was all rather comical.

That is what I have to date in my gallery of statuary oddities. But I will keep a weather eye out for other specimens. If readers have any suggestions to make, I will be more than happy to hear about them.

____________________________

Photos: mine, except for:

Silly statue: http://forumodua.com/showthread.php?t=318155&page=56
French postman: http://kenhtruyen.info/?i=Ann%C3%A9es+1970+en+France++Wikip%C3%A9dia
Naked skier: http://roma-nonpertutti.com/en/article/66/foro-italico-an-enclave-of-the-cult-of-mussolini-and-his-empire
Naked mountaineer: http://stadio.dei.marmi.dalbiez.eu/Stadio%20dei%20Marmi%202006.htm
Naked footballer: https://www.pinterest.at/?show_error=true
Naked tennis player: https://www.gettyimages.co.nz/search/2/image?events=50786504&family=editorial&sort=best

ART TOUR OF THE NETHERLANDS

Vienna, 9 August 2018

My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in the Netherlands. It was a birthday present for me, so we spent most of the time in art museums. A veritable smorgasbord of art my wife offered me! The Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art, all in Amsterdam; the Kröller-Müller Museum and sculpture park in Otterlo, close to Arnhem; the Mauritshuis and the Gemeente Museum in The Hague. The art we saw spanned some five centuries, from Rogier Van der Weyden’s Lamentation of Christ from about 1460

to Steven Aalders’s Phi Painting of 2016.

What this sensory overload has confirmed to me is that if I were asked the question “what of all this stuff would you want to hang on your walls?”, my very personal answer would be “pieces produced between about 1885 and the beginning of World War I”.

Don’t get me wrong, the paintings the Dutch produced during their Golden Age of the 17th Century, the kind of paintings which constitute the highlights of the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, are marvels of technique, of drama, of light effects, and I know not of what else. I mean, as you wander through the Rijksmuseum how can you not admire creations such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

or Jan Vermeer’s The Milkmaid

or Frans Hals’s Militiaman holding a Berkemeyer


or Adriaen Coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus?

And over at the Mauritshuis, how can you not murmur approvingly before Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

or Vermeer’s View of Delft

or Rubens’s Old Woman and Boy with Candles?

Yes, all very impressive.

BUT, when push comes to shove I can’t say I would want any of these paintings on my wall. They just don’t make me vibrate internally. Not so with the best Van Goghs that we saw, bursting with colour and intensity! So what if the perspective wasn’t perfect, if the figures were not necessarily well-proportioned, if the finishing was rough. His paintings spoke to my soul. One of his many self-portraits, for instance, from the Van Gogh Museum, would be welcome on my wall

as would be this painting of his from the Kröller-Müller museum, of the café at Arles where he no doubt whiled away a good few hours

or this one of an olive grove somewhere around Arles, hanging in the same museum

or of this wonderful landscape hanging in the Van Gogh Museum, which he painted in the last few months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Younger painters were dazzled by Van Gogh’s use of colour and pushed through the door he opened, with some wonderful results. I could joyously put this lovely seascape on my wall; it’s Gale from the East, by Théo van Rysselberghe, and hangs in the Kröller-Müller museum

I would also willingly take this luminous Still Life with Fruits, by Leo Gestel, in the same museum

or this wonderfully brooding work by Kandinsky, exhibited in the Stedenlijk; he painted it before he went and spoiled everything by becoming an abstract artist.

I could even welcome this painting by the Russian Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich, from the Stedenlijk (and titled, rather bizarrely, An Englishman in Moscow).

There is even a period in Mondrian’s long life when he turned out paintings which I would gladly hang on my walls. The Gemeente Museum has a particularly rich collection of Mondrians, running from his very first works like this Basket with Apples

to his very last works like this Victory Boogie-Woogie.

His very first paintings are quite standard and should be disregarded, while his last paintings – all those abstract works he is so famous for – should equally, in my humble opinion, be ignored. It is works like these that I would hang on my wall:
Trees on the Gein: Moonrise

Dunes near Domburg

Arum, Blue Flower

Mill in Sunlight

Yes, it is that period, when artists discovered pure undiluted colour and before they tumbled into meaningless abstraction, which would have pride of place on my wall. It is a relatively narrow window of time – only thirty years or so – but many jewels of paintings were created. I could have added many other paintings which we saw in our whirlwind tour of the Netherlands, but I shall desist otherwise I risk losing my readers. I will, though, in a later post take up another theme which I am very fond of and about which I have written an earlier post: the human face in art. I think that I would have to expand my answer to the question I posed myself at the beginning of this post, to say that in addition at least one of my walls would have to be devoted to portraits. I will give my readers a taste of the art of portraiture we came across in our six-day art blitz of the Netherlands.

____________________

Roger Van der Weyden, “Descent from the Cross”: http://www.twgram.me/tag/lamentation/
Steven Aalders, “Phi Painting”: https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/collection/99578-steven-aalders-phi-painting-%28ryb%29
Rembrandt, “The Night Watch”: http://www.dutchamsterdam.nl/139-rembrandt-night-watch
Jan Vermeer, “The Milkmaid”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_(Vermeer)
Frans Hals, “Militiaman holding a Berkemeyer”: http://www.jiekley.com/product/a-militiaman-holding-a-berkemeyer-known-as-the-%C2%91merry-drinker%C2%92-karya-frans-hals-1628-1630/
Adriaen Coorte, “Still Life with Asparagus”: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2099
Rembrandt, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/the-anatomy-lesson-of-dr-nicolaes-tulp-146/#
Jan Vermeer, “View of Delft”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Delft
Peter Paul Rubens, “Old Woman and Boy with Candles”: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/old-woman-and-boy-with-candles-1150/
Van Gogh, “Self Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat”: https://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/search/collection?q=&artist=Vincent%20van%20Gogh&genre=self-portrait&_ga=2.88217629.705702266.1533842349-1924679497.1533842349
Van Gogh, “Place du Forum”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/vincent-van-gogh-terrace-of-a-cafe-at-night-place-du-forum-1
Van Gogh, “Olive Grove”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/vincent-van-gogh-olive-grove
Van Gogh, “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds”: https://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0106V1962
Theo van Rysselberghe: https://krollermuller.nl/en/theo-van-rysselberghe-gale-from-the-east
Leo Gestel, “Still Life with Fruits”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/leo-gestel-still-life-with-fruits
Wassily Kandinsky, “Painting of Houses”: https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/collection/4540-wassily-kandinsky-bild-mit-hausern
Kazimir Malevich, “Englishman in Moscow”: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/malevich/malevich-room-guide/malevich-room-4
Piet Mondrian, “Basket with Apples”: https://www.gemeentemuseum.nl/en/collection/basket-apples?origin=gm
Piet Mondrian, “Victory Boogie-Woogie”: https://www.piet-mondrian.org/victory-boogie-woogie.jsp
Piet Mondrian, “Trees on the Gein: Moonrise”: https://www.wikiart.org/en/piet-mondrian/trees-by-the-gein-at-moonrise-1908
Piet Mondrian, “Dunes near Domburg”: https://www.worldgallery.co.uk/art-print/piet-mondrian-dunes-near-domburg-1910-436728
Piet Mondrian, “Arum, Blue Flower”: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/424534702365855604/
Piet Mondrian, “Mill in Sunlight”: https://www.gemeentemuseum.nl/en/collection/molen-mill-mill-sunlight?origin=gm

GUILDS AND THEIR PAINTINGS

Vienna, 14 July 2018

In our recent rapid tour of Belgium, our little group (my wife and I, a cousin of mine and his wife) visited Antwerp’s cathedral.

I suppose I could go on about it being “a masterpiece of Gothic architecture”, about its tower, “jewel of the monument, light, thin and beautifully sculpted”, about its “exceptionally large” interior whose “majestic coldness is warmed gently by numerous works of art”.

But that’s not really what caught my eye during the visit. That distinction goes to an exhibition which the cathedral was hosting of paintings from the late 16th-early 17th centuries. These paintings had for the most part been commissioned by Antwerp’s guilds and were to be mounted in side-chapels of the cathedral dedicated to these guilds. For obvious reasons, the painters had chosen scenes from the Bible that in some way reflected the work of the guilds. A straightforward example is the “Multiplication of the Loaves”, by Ambrosius Francken, commissioned by the city’s Guild of Bakers and Millers.
Here, obviously, the loaves – the backbone of the bakers’ and millers’ business – play a star role in this story from the New Testament. Guild members must have been proud to bathe in the reflected glory of the Lord through their humble product, the loaf of bread.

The same can be said of the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, by Hans van Elburcht, commissioned by the Guild of Fishmongers.
Here, too, the fishmongers’ product plays a star role in another story from the New Testament. No doubt, guild members were pleased to remind non-guild members of the holiness of their product because of its close relationship to the Lord.

A rather straightforward, though more racy, connection between guild and subject matter is also made in the “Wedding at Cana”, by Maerten de Vos.
The commissioning guild in this case was the Guild of Innkeepers, who of course would be selling large quantities of wine (and other alcoholic drinks) on their premises (just to remind those readers who may not be too familiar with biblical stories, this is the story where Jesus turned water into wine). Perhaps this was a way for inn-keepers to gently suggest that their business was nothing if not holy.

A pretty straightforward relationship also exists between the subject and the commissioning guild in the next painting, the “Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Frans Floris.
Look at that mass of writhing flesh! So thrilling. It must have been very difficult for church goers to concentrate on the mass with this painting to look at. It was commissioned by the Guild of Fencers, whose job it was to maintain public order and defend the city. So the painter has chosen as his subject the Archangel Michael and his men, arch-defender of Good, beating back the arch-representatives of Evil, Satan and his hordes, using, of course, the arms which the fencers themselves would be using. In this case, the painter had to stray from the Old and New Testaments into the Book of Revelation for his subject matter; no matter, it was part of the accepted Canon. I mean, didn’t Milton use this story for his poem “Paradise Lost”?

The painting by Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”, highlights another issue: what to do if you wanted a painter to paint a nice painting for your guild but you weren’t rich enough to afford him, and you weren’t rich enough to support a side-chapel? The answer, obviously, was for a couple of guilds to share the costs. This is exactly what the Guilds of Schoolmasters and Soap Makers did. They shared a side-chapel in the cathedral and they shared the cost of the painting. To make sure that each guild was represented in the painting, they had a triptych painted.  Since the schoolmasters were willing to pay a greater share of the painter’s fee, they got more square centimetres of painted surface for their subject matter.
More specifically, the schoolmasters got the centre panel and the right-hand panel, while the soap makers only got the left-hand panel. The scene in the centre panel is Jesus as a young boy instructing the teachers in the temple – no doubt the dream of every schoolboy and girl, and a rather strange subject for schoolmasters I have to say, unless Antwerp’s schoolmasters were a very humble lot. The scene in the right-hand panel is Saint Ambrose, patron saint of teachers and one of the Doctors of the Church (doctor as in PhD rather than in MD), baptising Saint Augustine, another of the Doctors of the Church.

The poor old soap makers had to make do with a very obscure story from the First Book of Kings (obscure at least to me). It has to do with the prophet Elijah, who miraculously ensured that the poor widow Sarepta was able to fill numerous pitchers of oil from the small jar that she had, thus allowing her to pay off her debts. For those of my readers who may not immediately see the connection to soap making, I should remind them that soap is made from boiling lye with oil (at least, it used to; God knows how chemists make it nowadays).

After that, the relationship between the subject of the paintings we saw in the cathedral and the guild commissioning it got a little more tenuous. For instance, we have the “Adoration of the Magi”, by Artus Wolffort.
This was commissioned by the Guild of Tailors. What does this subject have to do with tailors, readers may be asking.  Well, through the expensive clothes that the painter can have the Magi wearing! Viewers could be reminded of the wonderful (and expensive) clothes the city’s tailors could make. And perhaps the tailors, admiring the painting during a particularly boring mass, could find in it a confirmation of their skills.

A painting with what seems to me an even more tenuous connection between subject matter and commissioning guild is the “Lamentation” by Quinten Metsijs.
The painting was commissioned by the Guild of Carpenters. I puzzled over this one for a while, and concluded that the only connection with carpentry and wood working were the three crosses far away in the background. I guess it is a carpenter who have sawed the wood from which the crosses were made. But why not simply a painting of Saint Joseph? He was a carpenter. Maybe that was too banal a topic. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t even seem to have been the patron saint of the guild. That honour went Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, who are the subjects of the two side-panels.

Having done the tour of the exhibition, I wondered out loud to my cousin what could have been a suitable biblical theme for the guild he would have been a member of had he lived and worked in Antwerp in the 16th-17th Centuries. I should explain that until he retired my cousin had worked for many years for a company that makes trucks like these.

Of course, this particular mode of transport did not exist in biblical times (or indeed even in 16th century Antwerp) but I think we can all agree that the equivalent would have been the cart, rather like the one we have in that famous Constable painting, the “Hay Wain”.

And I’m sure there was a guild for cart-makers (or maybe carriage and cart makers).

Nothing came to our minds on the spot, but in my spare moments in Vienna I have returned to the question. What biblical scene has carts in it, which could have been a suitable subject for some famous Antwerp painter to paint? Not knowing the bible by heart, I have done the next best thing, which is to search on-line versions of it put there by various Christian associations earnestly hoping that you will dip into the Good Book. Dip I did, using “cart” as the search word. And I came up trumps! Not in the New Testament, where the word cart doesn’t appear once (no doubt a reflection of Jesus’s poverty; he walked everywhere and owned nothing to speak of), but in the Old Testament, specifically in the First Book of Samuel. The story is part of the eternal wars between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant and have borne it back in triumph to the temple of their god Dagon. But strange things happen in the temple, horrible diseases and other calamities strike the Philistines. The Philistine rulers decide to send the Ark back to the Israelites. Their diviners tell them to put the Ark on a cart drawn by two cows, add a chest of treasure as a guilt offering, and let the cows go free. If the cows go back towards Israelite territory, then all their troubles have indeed been caused by the Israelites’ God. And of course that is exactly what the cows do. The story more or less finishes as follows (I quote this for reasons which will become clear in a minute): “Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord [poor cows!]. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.”

Unfortunately, I could find no painter of the 16th or 17th centuries who depicted this scene. The best I could come up with was this depiction by a 19th century American folk artist who goes by the wonderful name of Erastus Salisbury Field.

From the short piece of text I cited above, I think readers will immediately see that Erastus was depicting the moment when the cart arrived in Beth Shemeth.

Well, after this success at finding a painting to fit my cousin’s presumed guild, what about me? First of all, what could have been my guild? Well, my last job was for the UN, and that certainly didn’t exist in the golden age of guilds, so that couldn’t be an entry point for me. I suppose UN work could be associated to government work. But government workers didn’t get a guild either – they did (and still do) nothing practical, just write and file documents of one form or another. My job before that – as a consultant – doesn’t help either. Consultants just advise, with the real work being done by others. As I wrote in my home page, I suppose the one thing which has run like a thread through all my jobs is that I had to write. So maybe I could have been a member of the Guild of Scriveners!

So now the question is, what could have been a suitable biblical scene to have painted for this guild? Scriveners are the same as scribes, and the New Testament is full of stories of scribes. But they are all negative stories, scribes being depicted as nasty people on the same level as the Pharisees. I don’t want negative publicity for my guild! So I turned once more to the on-line bible and did a search in the Old Testament. The best I could come up with is another obscure story in the Second Book of Kings involving King Josiah. Josiah instructs that the money which has been collected in the Temple be used for the Temple’s maintenance. While gathering the money, the High Priest finds the Book of Law (presumably the book had fallen out of use and this particular copy was gathering dust in some corner of the Temple). He gives it to Shaphan the scribe along with a report on how much money has been given to the maintenance crew. Shaphan comes before Joshua and reads the report but also reads him the Book of Law. Josiah tears his clothes because he realises that the Israelites haven’t been following the Law and “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book by doing according to all that is written concerning us.” I presume Josiah does something about this but I didn’t read any further. As my painting, I came up with this one, painted by the 17th Century Dutch painter Leonaert Bramer, showing Shaphan humbly reading the Book to a rather concerned-looking Josiah.
Well, this painting certainly fits with the period in which the other paintings in Antwerp cathedral were painted. Frankly, though, I prefer the painting I found for my cousin. But there you go.

Oh, and the rest of Antwerp was very nice.

POSTSCRIPT, 22 July 2018

After reading this post, a good friend of mine gave me some excellent suggestions for alternative paintings, both for my cousin’s guild as well as for my own. He was kind enough not to say it, but the key was to “think out of the box”, to put aside the straitjacket of finding a story in the Bible and to allow more creative ideas in. His suggestion for my cousin was Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Haywain Triptych”.
Pride of place in this triptych goes to a magnificent cart full of hay, the haywain, in the centre panel. The whole work is a rather delirious take – typical of Bosch – on the rather sad story of Man. On the left, after the rebel angels have been cast out of heaven (also the subject of that muscular painting above for the Guild of Fencers) we have Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with them eventually being thrown out for having disobeyed God’s instructions. Then, in the middle, as the haywain of our lives trundles inexorably along towards death on the right, we have people enacting out every possible sin of which we are capable, busily ignoring Christ our Saviour up in the clouds. The result of all this is shown on the right, where we are all burning in Hell. I suppose you could say that this is the Medieval version of “Life’s a bitch and then you die”. I will leave it to my cousin to decide if he wants his guild to be represented by such a pessimistic vision of life.

As to my guild, my friend suggested Dürer’s “St. Jerome in his Study”.

This is an excellent suggestion! St. Jerome’s main claim to fame these days is his translation of the Bible into Latin, which he spent years over in the Holy Land, busily scribbling away. I think I can definitely live with Dürer’s vision of learned and saintly paper scratching in a library-like environment as the image that my guild would want to project in its side-chapel in Antwerp cathedral. It’s a pity that Dürer only did an engraving, a painting would have been better. I could of course go for one of the hundreds of paintings on this theme which litter every self-respecting museum, but they all rather irritatingly show St. Jerome half-naked. I understand this is due to a confusion: this Saint Jerome has been conflated with another saint of the same name who did indeed go around half naked and who spent his time beating himself as penitence. To show what I’m talking about, I show a take by on the topic by Caravaggio, where the painter at least had the decency to pretty much cover Saint Jerome up.

But writing semi-naked is definitely not my style.

This mention of Caravaggio has suddenly made me think of another exciting possibility! I had quite forgotten that there are other very saintly acts of writing in the Christian Story, namely the writing of the four gospels by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Caravaggio did an excellent painting of St. Matthew writing his gospel. Actually, he did two. The first was unfortunately destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War.

The patrons who commissioned the painting rejected it because it made St. Matthew look too stupid. It is certainly true that the St. Matthew in this painting looks completely befuddled as the young angel pretty much takes his hand and writes the story for him. So Caravaggio painted another version, still to be seen in all its glory in the chapel dedicated to Saint Matthew in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

As a caravaggiophile, I would love to have a Caravaggio represent my Guild of Scriveners! I have a feeling that my guild would have chosen the second Caravaggio for the same reasons as the original patrons, although personally I would have preferred the first. I love that completely confused look on St. Matthew’s face – writing is such a difficult task, you never know where your hand (left hand in my case) will lead you.
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Antwerp cathedral exterior: http://www.visitflanders.com/en/things-to-do/attractions/top/the-cathedral-of-our-lady.jsp
Antwerp cathedral interior: http://www.medievalists.net/2011/01/medieval-origins-of-the-cathedral-of-our-lady-in-antwerp-belgium/
Ambrosius Francken, “Multiplication of the Loaves”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Multiplication_of_the_Loaves_(Ambrosius_Francken)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Hans van Elburcht and School of Ambrosius Francken, “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-antwerp-belgium-paint-miracle-fishing-scene-hans-van-elburcht-abbrosius-francken-year-september-cathedral-image77028241
Maerten de Vos, “Wedding at Cana”: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/nachrichtenfoto/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-nachrichtenfoto/526962934#/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-kadriorg-art-picture-id526962934
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Christ_among_scribes_(Frans_Francken)_September_2015-5.jpg
Artus Wolffort, “Adoration of the Magi”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Artus_Wolffort)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Quinten Metsijs, “Lamentation”: https://www.kmska.be/en/collectie/highlights/Schrijnwerkers.html
Truck: https://www.abrbuzz.co.za/mobility-beat/5689-volvo-trucks-retains-top-position-in-sales-service-and-parts-according-to-q4-scott-byers-results
John Constable, “The Hay Wain”: https://www.planet-puzzles.com/grafika-john-constable-la-charette-de-foin-1821-puzzle-1000-pieces.p46141.html
Erastus Salisbury Field, “The Ark of the Covenant”: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/ark-of-the-covenant-erastus-salisbury-field.html
Leonaert Bramer, “The Scribe Shaphan Reading the Book of Law to King Josiah”: https://www.passionforpaintings.com/en/art-gallery/leonaert-bramer-painter/the-scribe-shaphan-reading-the-book-of-law-to-king-josiah-oil-painting-reproduction

POSTSCRIPT
Hieronymus Bosch, “the Haywain Triptych”: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-haywain-triptych/7673843a-d2b6-497a-ac80-16242b36c3ce
Albrecht Dürer, “St. Jerome in his Study”: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/208995238931007942/?lp=true
Caravaggio, “St. Jerome writing”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Jerome_Writing-Caravaggio_(1605-6).jpg
Caravaggio, “Saint Matthew and the Angel”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Matthew_and_the_Angel#/media/File:Caravaggio_MatthewAndTheAngel_byMikeyAngels.jpg
Caravaggio, “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136502