PLANTS, FRUITS, FLOWERS

Milan, 2 May 2020

Two days to go until we can roam the streets again …

Well, having covered the animal kingdom in my last two wanderings around the apartment, it seems fair to now cover the vegetable kingdom. And here’s an interesting thing I’ve discovered on my wanders: while humans and animals often take centre stage in the pieces which I reported on earlier – they are the piece – plants are almost always – at least in this apartment – relegated to the role of mere decoration of something else. Let me show my readers what I mean.

For starters, many of our plates, bowls, and jugs are decorated with plants or flowers or fruit. Take this plate, for instance, which I bought many years ago in New York and which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

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The plate itself is a copy of an old Ottoman design, depicting a spray of wild flowers. I spy a tulip, a carnation of some sort, a sweet William perhaps. Lovely. But still, only decoration on a plate. In theory, we could cover all those flowers with a greasy meat sauce (I say in theory, because we never actually use this plate, it would feel sacrilegious to do so).

Or take this plate, which my mother-in-law bought.

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Plants are much more aggressively centre stage here. We have four large leaves surrounding a small fruit. Lovely piece of design. But still only a plate. We’ve sometimes covered those leaves with olives, small onions, and other hors-d’oeuvres, to serve at table.

Or how about this little milk jug, which once must have been part of a larger tea set (and which I recently discovered, by studying the marks on the bottom of it, to have been made by Richard-Ginori).

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Simple but beautiful design. But only decoration on a jug.

From the other side of the world but the same idea: a sake bowl and its companion cups, which my wife and picked up on our travels in Asia.

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Here, we have the ever popular presence of bamboo in Asian design. Very handsome. But only there to be admired as one drinks one’s sake from them – which my wife and I have often done.

At a larger, more rustic scale, we have this series of water pitchers, all of which use plants and flowers as their decoration.

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All, except for the pitcher with the wisteria, were bought by mother-in-law, who had a great fondness for pitchers. The pitcher-covered wisteria was instead given to us by a friend. They were made by her aunt, a potter. It came with a similarly decorated oil and vinegar cruet and salt cellars.  Every time I shake salt on my food, I admire those wisteria, a flower I adore. Lovely – but still only decoration on a utilitarian object.

Sometimes, the vegetal decoration gets so abstract as to almost disappear from view. Take this vase, for instance, another piece which my mother-in-law bought.

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It’s really very handsome. But you have to study the vase a bit to see the flowers and the leaves. The more distracted eye, using it perhaps to hold cut flowers, just sees a swirl of browns and yellows.

It’s the same with this glass ashtray.

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Only a closer look will discern a leaf in the rippling glass. The distracted smoker will see nothing but a receptacle for his butt-ends.

The fading of vegetal decoration into abstraction is even more marked in other objects. Take this carpet, for instance (another of my mother-in-law’s purchases), which in these days of confinement my wife and I  are regularly using as a exercise mat.

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Only from time to time, as I groan my way through the exercises, will I focus and spy the flowers peeping out from the highly geometric design of the carpet.

It’s the same with the massive cupboard in our bedroom, inherited from my in-laws. Only sometimes, as I open one of its doors searching for a piece of clothing, will I register the rather stylized vegetal design carved in the wood.

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I wonder why it is that the vegetable kingdom plays such a modest, secondary role in the pieces with which we surround ourselves. Why don’t we have a statue of a flower in the apartment, for instance? Perhaps it’s because we can more easily have the real thing – the potted plant, a living statue as it were. At the moment, for example, we have this splendid bunch of flowers slowly opening up before us.

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If you can have the real thing, why bother with inanimate copies?

Stay safe.

ANIMALS

Milan, 25 April 2020

Nine days to go before – maybe – we’re let out onto the streets again …

Well, I’ve gone for another wander around the apartment, this time looking for pieces involving animals – that seems to me a suitable way to follow up the last two posts devoted to humans.

I should start by pointing out that neither my wife nor I are really animal people. My wife’s parents never had any pets when she grew up. My mother used to tell me that we had a dog in the house when I was very young, but I have no memory of it. My wife used to go riding as a child and liked it. I used to go and hated it. We never had pets when the children were growing up – apart from a goldfish which our daughter brought home triumphantly after a field trip somewhere and which very rapidly died. We still don’t have any pets. As a result, I think, we don’t really have that many pieces in the apartment that have to do with animals. But let me show readers what we have!

As usual, I start this wander in the living room, with a piece we bought – once again – in the Museum Art shop in Vienna (several pieces I mentioned in the last two posts were also bought in the shop; there was a time when I visited it very often).

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Like all the pieces we bought in the Museum Art shop, it is a modern copy of a very old original, which in this case is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. My copy is made of resin, but the original is in terracotta covered with a red slip. It comes from the Iranian plateau and dates from the 12th Centry BC. The Louvre’s website has this to say about the piece: “their terracotta objects were highly original. Used for funerary libations, they were often in the shape of animals, the most remarkable being the hump-backed bulls with a “beak” for the ritual pouring of water”. I love it for the simplicity of its lines, while still portraying the power of the animal. Here’s a photo of the real thing, a magnificent Zebu bull.

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The next piece takes us to Africa.

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It was once again bought at the Museum Art shop, by my son and wife, as a birthday present for me. It is also, once again, a copy. The original, a Chi Wara Bamana headdress made of wood, hails from Mali. It is held in the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris. The blurb which the shop gave us states: “Originally fixed to a wicker cap, this sculpture is a headdress that is used in the agricultural rites of the Bambara, organized by a society of initiates called Chi Wara, “champion of cultivation”. This figure is a combination of three animals that inhabit the bush: the antelope, the pangolin, and the anteater.” Here is a photo of one of them in use.

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My wife and I bought the next piece during a trip we made (with my mother-in-law) to Mexico in the early 1980s.

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I definitely don’t like cats (I tolerate dogs), but I’ve always been fond of this ceramic stand-in. We’ve had him quietly sit on a shelf wherever we’ve been.

We bought this next piece at the UN in New York, back in the mid to late 1980s.

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At the time, there was a shop in the building well stocked with “ethnic art”. It’s a delightful piece, from Peru if I remember correctly. Formally it is a candlestick, and we have used it for that purpose a couple of times. But really it’s just a wonderful piece of art, with a cheerful bird as its crowning figure (which is of course the reason why I include it here).

We move on to the kitchen, where we have several animal-themed knick-knacks on our shelves. My favourite is this one.

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It is a ram with extremely long fleece standing on a pile of rocks. My wife and my mother-in-law bought it when they went for a holiday to Scotland in the mid to later 1970s. It stayed with my mother-in-law and we inherited it when the good woman died. It is signed “P. Nelson” on the bottom, but who he or she is I have no idea.

My mother-in-law bought the next two pieces.

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For obvious reasons, we have the two rabbits sitting on the same shelf. Interestingly, they both serve the same function, as a receptacle. The rabbit to the right is ceramic, but I’m not sure what the rabbit to the left is made of. Could it be zinc? My wife thinks it’s silver; if it is, it must be alloyed with something else. Rabbits are animals I’m quite fond of. My French grandmother had a number of them in a hutch, and I would go and stroke them. I was shattered when one of their babies died of myxomatosis. I remember still my wails when the poor thing was taken out and buried. Of course, my grandmother didn’t keep rabbits because she was fond of them, she kept them to eat. And I have to say that rabbit is very yummy.

These next two cups were a gift – along with two other cups – from a friend of my wife’s. There was one cup for each member of our family. The two seen in the photo are the cups of our children.

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They were made by the Hadley Pottery Company, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky. My wife’s friend chose the duck for our son and the lamb for our daughter (their names are on the other side of the cups, that’s how I know). I let readers guess what might have been the reasoning behind the choice, although I suspect that it might be something as prosaic as the lack of any other suitable animals to choose from. The cups are too precious a memory for us to use them now. In fact, one them (mine!) fell to the floor one day and broke. I glued it back together again, but there are pieces missing.

Gluing things back brings me to the last piece (sharp-eyed readers will notice that the beak has been glued back on).

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It is a loon, a common bird on the lakes of North America, and one with a wonderfully haunting cry. I remember it vividly from my little canoe trip on Lake of the Woods (which I wrote about in an earlier post). It was made by an Inuit artist, although which one I don’t know. Because of this Arctic connection, I insert here a photo of an Arctic loon.

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I bought it as a Christmas present for my soon-to-be-wife in the same shop, the Snow Goose, where some six months later we bought the much larger Inuit piece which kicked off my post on the human face. In fact, it was because I had bought this piece there that we went back to that shop. Fate then led my wife to the Face Spirit.

Well, that completes that tour. I let my readers guess what the subject of my next post will be.

THE HUMAN BODY

Milan, 20 April 2020

13 days to go before we are let out on the streets again – if we are let out; the Government is being very cautious about relaxing the lockdown, for fear that the virus will spring to life again. Here’s to hoping.

Anyway, as I continue my wanderings from room to room in the apartment, I’ve decided to do an extension of my previous post on the human face, this time looking at pieces which celebrate the whole of the human body – in other words, statues (or base reliefs in a couple of cases) of one form or another.

I start with the biggest statue that we possess, our “nail man”.

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As I said, he is big: a little over a metre tall. My wife bought it at an auction of African art at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna. The blurb we received at the time of sale states: “Nail fetish, tribe: Bakongo, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood, on a plinth, one foot set on a small animal as an expression of power, right hand lifted and holding a spear to defend from evil influences [the spear has disappeared], large oversized head with a wide-open mouth and all-seeing glass eyes, body covered all around with nails and iron pieces, with a glass-locked belly box filled with magic substances giving the figure power, suspended amulets, dark patina, age damage, 2nd half of 20th Century”.

We refer to him fondly as the nail man, but he’s actually a Nkondi. The purpose of a Nkondi was to house a spirit (living in the belly box) which could leave the statue to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies (this hunting role explains why the statue has his arm raised and used to hold a spear; pity that got lost). People would drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness – particularly of contracts and oaths. The purpose of the nailing was to “awaken” the spirit to the task in hand and sometimes to “enrage” it if nasty guys needed to be hunted down (before nails were common, it seems that this awakening was done by banging two Nkondi together).

Staying with Africa, the next piece originated in Gabon.

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My wife also bought this, at the Dorotheum (she has been in charge of buying our African art). The Dorotheum’s blurb has this to say about it: “Ritual house door leaf, tribe: Tsogho, Gabon, wood, polychrome, front decorated with a relief-like, very stylized “stick figure”, tribe-typical facial features, lattice pattern, age damage, 2nd half of the 20th century”.

Africa also brought us this next piece, once again bought by my wife at the Dorotheum.

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Once again, I turn to the Dorotheum’s description: “Wall plaque, tribe: Yoruba, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, two carved out column-figures in relief, in caricature fashion: Colonial officer in white uniform with tropical helmet, walking stick and briefcase, next to schoolgirl in a carrier skirt with book in hand, recognizable age damage, 2nd half of 20th century”.

All the previous pieces are probably no more that eighty years old. The next piece, in and of itself very young, is a copy of a far, far older piece which is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

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My wife and I bought the piece at the Museum Art shop in Vienna (which I mentioned in my previous post). The original came from Cyprus, where it was made in about 2100-2000 BC. The piece I have is made of resin, but the original was modelled terracotta, with a polished red slip. The description which the shop gave us states: “This figurine has a rectangular body and is decorated with necklaces. The arms and facial features are stylized by engraved furrows ending in cupules. The ears are treated as pierced projections. These figurines used to be placed in tombs and should be interpreted as a female symbol of fertility. Given their size and shape, they might also have been worn by women as pendants.”

Well, those were the pieces in the living room. I shall now move to the kitchen, where we have a series of shelves where we keep many of our knick-knacks.

The first piece I will present is this ceramic clown.

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This was another piece which we inherited from my mother-in-law (readers can refer back to my previous two posts to understand better the role of this good woman in our knick-knack collection). It’s a fun piece, although I’m not sure I understand how it is meant to be used. My wife says that it’s a candlestick; you put the candle into that little bowl which the clown is balancing on his extended foot. I must try it one day, to see if works.

Staying with the circus theme, we have this piece.

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I imagine the young lady to be one of those women which I remember in my youth seeing in circuses jumping on and off cantering horses.

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It was given to my wife as a present by her colleagues when she left her job here in Italy to move to Vienna. It’s actually a calendar. You move the red, green, and yellow balls to indicate the right date (outside circle) of the right month (middle circle), and the right day (inner circle). It doesn’t really serve its purpose, since it’s so very easy to forget to change. I reset it just before taking the photo yesterday, and it will probably remain frozen at yesterday’s date for several months until someone else decides to set it right. But it is cheerful to look at.

Moving from one female figure to another takes us to this piece.

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It’s actually a grater. My wife and I were so enamoured by the design that we bought two of them, one for each of our children. We gave our son his. This one is our daughter’s, waiting patiently to be picked up some day. Since it’s such a fun piece, we’re quite happy that it stays with us sine die.

The next piece was another one handed down to us by my mother-in-law.

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It’s a wonderful piece of ceramic, depicting as it does two Daughters of Charity singing. Until the reforms of Vatican II, Daughters of Charity used to wear this very striking wimple. Lord knows why they wore it, though.

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We have no idea where my mother-in-law picked the piece up, but I silently bless her whenever my eyes happen to fall on it.

We also inherited the next piece from my mother-in-law.

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I’m guessing that it’s Don Quixote. I find the caricature rather well done: a noble-looking head above, thin bandy legs below. Some 15 years ago, my wife and I visited Burgos during a tour of Spain. I was astonished to see a shop offering pretty much identical pieces as this one, in all sizes. My wife reckoned that our piece must have been brought back from Spain by her father. She had a memory of him going to Burgos for a conference. I was suddenly assailed by a sense of his ghost walking down the road ahead of us.

I definitely know where this quartet comes from.

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My wife and I bought them in Poland, in the main square in Cracow.

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We happened to be there on market day, with stalls laid out in the square. Together with our daughter, we were on our way to pick up our son, who was playing in a baseball tournament somewhere in the middle of Poland. (We went on from there to have a holiday in Finland, but that story is for another day).

I’ve said several times in this and the last two posts that my mother-in-law made some admirable choices of knick-knacks to buy. But not always. This quintet of figurines is a case in point.

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As far as I can make out, they represent soldiers from the 18th, possibly early 19th Centuries. The Dorotheum is full of this stuff, and I always give it a wide berth. I simply find pieces of this kind to be too “precious”. But we have them and I’m not going to throw away things which someone took quite a lot of trouble and time to make (but I might see if we can’t sell them one of these days).

My mother-in-law did much better with the next trio.

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Formally, they are candlestick holders, although I’ve never seen them used as such. They are clearly Italian pieces; the statue to the right indubitably represents a carabiniere. The statue to the left looks vaguely military. I don’t know if the woman in the middle represents anything except a nice housewife off to do her shopping. My wife wonders if they are not characters from some old Italian folk tale. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law never explained – or if she did explain we weren’t listening – so we will probably never know.

My mother-in-law also bought the very Baroque-looking bishop in this next photo.

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Normally, I would have tut-tutted and put it away in some dark corner out of view, but I rather like the way it contrasts with the African statue next to it. Both men are bearded. Both are somebody important – The African is possibly a chief. And both hold a staff of office. But the solemnity, the gravitas, of the African piece just highlights the essential frivolity of the Baroque piece. The contrast between the two encapsulates everything I disapprove of in the Baroque.

Up to now, the statues have all been standing. But we have a few pieces where the subject is sitting. This first example is quite splendid.

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It’s one of our more recent acquisitions; we bought it a few years ago during our annual visit to Kyoto (I give a course at the University on sustainable industrial development). It caught my wife’s eye as we were nosing around a flea market which was being held in the compound of one of the temples there. It is some type of Japanese doll, made of papier maché, and seems to represent a Japanese lord or warrior.

The next example is more traditional, but it has great sentimental value for my wife and me.

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My wife found them in a little shop in Vienna which sold bric-a-brac, a short while after I was informed that I would be going to Beijing to take over my organization’s office there. Her buying them was a way of celebrating our move to China, a move which neither of us never regretted. I started this blog there and many of the earlier posts were about China.

In this final example of seated figures, both come from my mother-in-law.

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They are not pieces that I would buy, but I recognize the wonderful workmanship that went into both of them. I’m not sure what the old man represents. He has by his side a bag of gifts and toys, so I wonder if he’s not meant to be Saint Nicholas.

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But my figurine doesn’t have a mitre on his head, which as the picture above shows, he really should have. I also don’t understand why he would be holding a sheet of music, apparently composing. So the jury is out on that one.

It’s very clear, on the other hand, what the old lady represents. She’s an old peasant woman with a delicious cheese in her hands and a crate of vegetables at her feet.

My mother-in-law was rather fond of figurines representing peasants in one garb or another.

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Of course, there is a strong tradition in Italy of having figurines such as these peopling the Christmas crèches or presepi. As I have discussed in an earlier post, these presepi are wonderful and I enthusiastically set up our family presepe every year, lovingly setting out the figurines in the necessary “tableau”. But I’m not too fond of them on their own, so I’m afraid all these figurines of my mother-in-law’s have been relegated to a dark corner of the living room.

I’m rather more tolerant of this other figurine which my mother-in-law bought, also of a peasant, but this time of a Chinese peasant. Since he’s holding a fish, I presume it’s a fisherman.

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Since I started with the biggest statue that we have in the apartment, I will finish with the smallest statue that we have, a standing Buddha.

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It’s a mere 9 cm high. I bought it in Sri Lanka while there on a business trip. It was the first of several Buddhas which I have bought over the years. Perhaps one day I will write a post devoted to them (all the other Buddhas are in Vienna, so that post will have to wait until we manage to get back to Vienna – Covid-19 has currently closed the border between Italy and Austria). Ever since I bought it, I have been looking for a suitable plinth on which to place the statue, but so far I have found nothing.

Well, that finishes this particular wander around the apartment. Over the next 13 days of lockdown maybe I can come up with a couple of other trips through the knick-knacks we have here.

A CELEBRATION OF THE HUMAN FACE, PART II

Milan, 15 April 2020

Some seven years ago (Goodness me, in my mind’s eye it doesn’t seem that long ago), I wrote a post about a visit which my wife and I made to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The post was made up of a collection of photos which I took of human faces, from all periods and all regions of the world, looking out at us from the art spread out before us, as we criss-crossed the museum going from one exhibition to another.

Now, in this period of lockdown, I have done the same thing, wandering from room to room in the apartment and taking photos of pieces which my wife and I – and my mother-in-law before us – have collected of the human face.

I start my wanderings in the living room, with this piece from Canada.

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I went there with my wife (who was then still my girlfriend) during the summer of 1977. It was she who spotted the piece in a shop close to the National Art Gallery in Ottawa which sold Inuit art, called the Snow Goose. The blurb we were given at the time of purchase gave its title as Face Spirit and stated that it was handmade by an Inuit artist called Sharky who lived in Cape Dorset in Canada’s far north. When we brought it back, my mother-in-law fell in love with it. Since we were both going on to graduate school that Autumn and therefore by definition would be “of no fixed abode”, living in cheap, rented accommodation, we were happy to give it to her on a long-term loan. We took back possession of it some 15 years later when our life was finally on a more even keel. Some 15 years after that, when I was in Montreal for a conference, I spotted a gallery which sold Inuit pieces and visited it. The pieces were all quite modern. When I said that I had bought a piece of Inuit art back in 1977, the lady exclaimed, “Oh, you have an antique!” Readers can imagine how that made me feel about myself.

My wife bought this next piece for me as a birthday present in Vienna in the Noughties.

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There was at the time a shop behind the Kunsthistorisches Museum which sold copies of pieces from various world-famous museums (sadly, the shop has stopped offering such pieces). One of these was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the original of this piece is located. In fact, as I report in the post I mentioned earlier, I came nose to nose with the original during our 2013 visit to the Met, which gave me a bit of a shock. The blurb from the museum’s website has this to say about the original: “This magnificent head portrays a king of the late third millennium BC. Its heavy-lidded eyes, prominent but unexaggerated nose, full lips, and enlarged ears all suggest a portrait of an actual person. While the date and place of manufacture of this piece have been much debated, its close similarity to the magnificent bronze head found at Nineveh make a late third millennium date most likely.”

This next piece is also a copy, but this time of a piece in the Musée Guimet in Paris.

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I bought the piece online (probably the first thing I ever bought online, come to think of it). It is the head of Jayavarman VII, who was a king in the Khmer Empire. He reigned at the end of the 12th/beginning of the 13th Centuries. He is probably best known for the Bayon temple at Angkor Wat, where this same face is repeated over an over, and on a much large scale, all across the temple.

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In fact, I bought this piece after my wife and I had visited Angkor Wat, also during the Noughties. I had found this slightly smiling face totally fascinating.

After Asia we go to Africa. This group of pieces were give as presents to my mother-in-law by an old boyfriend of my wife’s.

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They are of wood, but of a wood so dense that they seem to be made of iron. Appropriately enough, they are probably made from a type of ironwood, although which type I have no idea. One day, I’ll try putting them in a basin of water to see if they sink: true ironwoods are denser than water.

This next piece is also from Africa, but is in a completely different, quasi abstract, style.

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The unknown artist who made it wound copper wire around a wooden core and used copper parts to make the eyes and nose. It is a really striking piece. I bought it in Ghana in the dying years of the 20th Century during a business trip there.

The next piece brings us back to Europe, although it actually refers to the wars between Europeans and “Africans”.

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They were bought by my mother-in-law. They are modern copies of the heads of “Saracens” (i.e., peoples from North Africa) which were used in the Sicilian puppet shows of the 19th Century.

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These shows retold the stories of the wars between European knights and their Saracen adversaries (guess who always won), and were roughly based on Medieval classics such as the Chanson de Roland, Gersualemme liberata and Orlando furioso. To the heads of the puppets, normally elaborately carved, would  be attached clothes and a reticulated set of arms and legs.

My mother-in-law also bought the next piece. My wife thinks she bought it in Sardinia in the second half of the 1970s.

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It’s a very small piece, only some 10 cm high, and very dark, so it’s quite easy to miss on our cluttered shelves. It represents a woman whose face is hidden in the deep folds of a very big shawl she has wrapped around her head. I find the mystery which emanates from it quite tantalizing. Who was she? Why was she so anxious to hide her face?

You couldn’t miss this next piece, even if you tried.

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I bought it for my wife a few years ago, as a present for her first birthday in our retirement. The artist, Caterina Zacchetti, entitled it “Vento tra i Capelli”, Wind in her Hair.

Which sort of brings us to the world of ceramics (the last piece being terracotta). My wife and I bought this next piece in Vienna.

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The shop we bought it at is Harro Berger Keramik, located in the old town, which specializes in bright and cheerful ceramic objects.

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However, the shop’s most spectacular offerings are modern copies of the old ceramic stoves which you find in Austria (two of which are in the photo).

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I have always lusted after these stoves. Once, when we were apartment hunting in Vienna, we were shown one which had just such a stove in the corner of the living room. I was sorely tempted to take the apartment just for the stove, but good sense prevailed – it was too small for us.

My wife made this next piece during the one and only ceramics class we have ever taken together, in Vienna.

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She made some excellent pieces during that course, which are now scattered here and there. From an inscription on the bottom of this piece I rather think that my wife made it for our daughter. As our mother-in-law did for us, I think we can keep it on a long-term loan and our daughter can take it back when we finally shuffle off this mortal coil.

Talking of my mother-in-law, it was she who bought the next two pieces, in New York as I recall, when she was visiting us there once.

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They are wonderful cups, so precious that we never use them for their intended purpose. I’ve no idea who their maker was. There is a mark on the bottom, OCI (I think), and a date, 1984. My memory tells me that there were originally three cups. If there were, one has disappeared along the road of life.

My mother-in-law also bought the next three pieces, which – at least formally – were all made for the same purpose, to hold liquids.

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The piece on the far right is a typical Toby jug, from the Royal Doulton porcelain works. My mother-in-law picked it up during a trip she made to the UK with my wife in the mid-1970s. The other two pieces are Italian. We’ve seen very similar jugs to the one in the middle being sold at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, so it must be a popular design. It is Sicilian, if my memory serves me right. I have no information on the piece to the far left.

Sometimes, a face is used to hide your face. I mean, of course, masks.  We have a few of those. My wife and picked up this typical set of Venetian masks on one of our trips to Venice – there was a time in our lives when we went there quite frequently.

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The top-left mask, the baùtta, was a mask frequently worn, by both men and women of the Venetian aristocracy, as this painting by the Venetian painter Pietro Longhi attests.

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The other three masks are from characters in Venice’s commedia dell’arte. From top right clockwise, we have the Plague Doctor, Brighella, and Arlecchino. Here, we have a line-up of the many characters that populated commedia dell’arte.

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We go back to Africa for the next mask.

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My wife bought it at the Dorotheum. The brief blurb that accompanied the piece states: “Helmet mask, Tribe: Ibo, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, hints of facial features, towering, tapering top, jagged ornaments, dark crusty patina, original repairs, 2nd half of the 20th century”.  Quite what ceremony this mask would have been worn in I don’t know. Perhaps one day, if and when I buy a thick tome on African masks, I will find out.

I finish where I started, in Canada. We bought this mask on that same trip of 1977.

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It is a modern copy of a corn husk face, which would have been used in the Mohawk Tribe’s Gajesa Society rituals as the mask of a medicine man. It was made by Ga’haur (I’m not sure I got the spelling right, the original label has faded during the intervening decades), a woman from the Mohawks’ Turtle clan.

Well, that’s taken me around the whole apartment as I’ve scoured it for examples of the human face. By my reckoning, we have only two and a half weeks to go before they let us out (if they let us out), time enough to wander a few more times around the apartment and report back on some of the other things we’ve collected here.

Stay safe.

COUPLES

Milan, 12 April 2020, Easter Sunday

Well, I’m on a roll here! Having plumped for internal beauty rather than – the currently forbidden – external beauty, I’m ready for another post.

Today being Easter Sunday, my previous post on egg cups would have been a good topic. But since I have already done that, I will turn to my other little collection, on couples.  It is a celebration of my wife and me, of our coupledom (if that is a word), so I suppose it is a good topic for today, a day when – at least in this part of the world – families would normally get together and celebrate.

I started the collection with this piece, which I picked up in Singapore. I was there to lead an environmental audit of a microelectronics factory.

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It’s carved in wood. Apart from its flowing lines, I rather liked his hand (perhaps this is patriarchal of me, but I feel that He is looking down at Her) cradling her head.

I got this next piece, also carved in wood, in one of the Alpine valleys behind Milan. I and a couple of colleagues were doing a job up there on a factory that had been closed down; we were doing an evaluation of what residual environmental problems there might be.

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A hint of sadness, perhaps, in this couple? Or just quietness together? I’ve never been able to make up my mind.

I’m not quite sure where I got the next piece, made of ceramic and painted. Since it’s a knock-off of Botero and he’s Colombian, I rather suspect it was in Colombia’s capital Bogotá where I went once for a conference (for the life of me, I cannot remember what the conference was about; the only thing I do remember about the trip – etched into my memory for ever more – was having my travel bag stolen just hours before I was meant to leave: the joys of business travel…).

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I know a lot of people like Botero, but to be honest I find him rather dull. He stumbled on this idea of painting fat people decades ago and that’s all he’s done ever since. It really gets a little tedious after a bit. But what’s there not to like about this happy couple?

I must have picked up this next piece, also painted ceramic, somewhere else in Latin America. I rather suspect it was in Central America. There was a moment when I was going there quite frequently since I was managing projects to establish Cleaner Production Centres in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala.

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Judging from the couple’s ethnicity, I suspect it was El Salvador or Guatemala. A little-known fact about Costa Rica is the thorough ethnic cleansing that country undertook in the 19th Century.

I know exactly where I bought this next piece. It was in Cambridge (the English Cambridge, not the American one). I had taken my son there for an interview, and while he was interviewing I was wandering around the town centre. When I saw this piece, my brain said “it must be mine!” The craze that comes over collectors …

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The piece, by the artist Lynn Muir, is made of wood and painted. It celebrates a song that came out in the 1930s or ’40s (I haven’t been able to pin this down). The tune was derived from one of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos. I throw in the song’s lyrics since they explain the piece.

And when we meet, music starts
Upon the strings of our hearts,
And we don’t speak through the song,
For words are weak when love is strong.
And when we kiss there’s a sound of violins all around
And then the moment when we kiss again
Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two,
For me and you.
And when we kiss,
There’s a sound like violins all around,
And then the moment when we kiss again
Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two,
For me and you.

I just love the way her hair flows out behind her as she listens to his song! Formally, the piece is a box, but we’ve never used it to contain anything. All I have in there is a sheet of paper, giving a quick bio of Lynn Muir.

I’m not sure where the next piece comes from, or even if I bought it – I rather suspect our daughter did.

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Its design harks back to the first piece – one head holding up another. It’s carved in stone, soapstone I think. Unfortunately, the stone is quite soft and the piece has got chipped over the years. But that doesn’t take away from the piece’s intimacy.

The final piece in this modest collection definitely comes from our daughter. There was a moment when she was charmed by this little collection and wanted to add to it. I hope she is still charmed by expressions of a couple’s love.

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Like the previous piece, it is carved in stone. Unlike all the other pieces, it is she who supports him – he grows out of her, as it were, the opposite of the old Biblical story that Eve was created out of a rib in Adam’s side. A sign of the times perhaps?

With that, I wish all of my readers a happy Easter – or to  put it in slightly less religious terms, a happy start to Spring!

OUR EGG CUP COLLECTION

Milan, 10 April 2020

I cannot believe it! We’ve been condemned to another three weeks of lockdown!! We are now scheduled to creep out of this apartment – pale from lack of sun, low on muscle mass, masked, jittery around other people – on 3 May. What a misery … I feel that I have been robbed of my Spring this year.

The worst of it is that I have written so little on this blog. I have been cut off from the outside world, which has nearly always been the source of my inspiration. (It’s true that I’ve also been sick; we’ve been debating ever since what I got: Covid-19 or just an ordinary flu? I was very asymptomatic – no fever, no cough – so I plump for the latter, but we will have to wait for a confirmatory test some time in the future when there are enough tests to go around). For the last three weeks, we have been forced to turn inwards, wandering from room to room in the apartment. This photo, which was emailed to me by an old colleague and is no doubt doing the rounds on social media, captures the feeling well.
Well, I’ve finally decided to make the best of a bad job. If I can’t go outside, I shall look for inspiration for this blog in our apartment, and more specifically in all the knick-knacks which my wife and I have collected over our years together, as well as those which we inherited from my mother-in-law, a great collector of knick-knacks. I will start with our little collection of … egg cups.

I start with this trio of egg cups.

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These were bought by my mother-in-law, who had a great eye for the picturesque knick-knack. I find them really cute, especially the middle one, with its blue and white striped socks.  It’s my favourite egg cup for my boiled egg at breakfast. We didn’t really know much about them until that time we went to visit my friend Mark in the UK (who tragically died a few weeks ago). His wife Helen, who in retirement had gone into the antiques trade, had one exactly like them. She told us that they were collector’s items. I have since learned that they were made by Carlton Ware, a pottery manufacturer based in that bastion of English pottery, Stoke-on-Trent. The company was established in 1890, went into receivership in 1989, and was resurrected in 1997. My mother-in-law can’t possibly have bought them here in Italy. We have concluded that she must have come across them during a trip she did to the UK in the early 1980s with a busload of friends. They must have caught her eagle eye in some shop they visited.

My next trio of egg cups completes our egg-cup collection – as I said, a small collection.

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My mother-in-law picked up the two bald-headed newspaper readers. Where she picked them up we have no idea. The pieces carry no identification marks, so its designer and manufacturer must remain in the shadows (unless a kind reader could help identify them?). I love them, but I musty admit they are not very practical. As anyone who eats boiled eggs knows, you really need 360 degrees access to the top of the egg to be able to eat the insides of the egg with ease. The newspaper rather blocks that access. So I do use them for my boiled egg at breakfast, but only from time to time.

The middle piece is my one and only addition to my mother-in-law’s egg-cup collection, and I must confess that I bought it more out of a sense of desperation than anything else. I had promised myself a number of years earlier that I would add to my mother-in-law’s collection, but I had failed to come across any picturesque egg cups. This one sort-of fitted the bill. It’s a little too obvious in its picturesqueness, and its actual depiction of a face rather spoils the idea of using the egg to complete a human figure with a faceless head. But it was the only egg cup I had come across after years of looking around that came anywhere close to the central theme of my mother-in-law’s collection. As a result, I hardly ever use it.

There is one piece that waits to be added to the collection. Last year, during our annual visit to our daughter in LA, I had accompanied her to the ceramics classes she was taking at the time. I used the occasion to make myself an egg cup, basing myself on the design idea behind my mother-in-law’s collection (the egg is the faceless head of a human body). We had already left when the piece was finally fired, but the idea was that when we went to visit our daughter this year, I would pick it up and bring it back. But this damned Covid-19 virus put a spoke in the wheels of that plan! Our flights were cancelled and we had to give up the whole trip. Hopefully, I can pick it up next year when we go and visit her.

If any of my readers know of any picturesque egg cups which would fit into my mother-in-law’s collection, I would be glad to hear about them. When we finally get out of this bloody apartment, I might be able to track them down.

SAILS

Milan, 6 January 2020

A week ago, my wife and I were taking a walk from Santa Margherita Ligure up to the National Park of the Monte di Portofino, a park we walk in often when we are in Liguria. At some point, as we climbed, we got a magnificent view over the Gulf of Tigullio – it was a beautiful sunny day, with a little haze. Out there on the waters, I could barely make out the white sails of two sailing boats.

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Those sails might have been mere specks on the water’s surface, but the sight of them was enough to bring me back to my – very modest – experience of sailing on the Norfolk Broads when I was a young lad.

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I have always been fascinated by the three-dimensional shapes which more-or-less triangular or square sails will take under pressure from the wind. I’m sure there are articles which will give you mathematical descriptions of these three-dimensional shapes – I tried just now to find such an article but failed to find any for which I didn’t have to pay. But the point is that sails taut in the wind are just beautiful shapes to look at, whatever mathematical formulae are used to describe them.

Many artists from ages past have also been touched by the sheer beauty of sails, so in memory of those days which I spent as a young boy looking at those sails taut and humming in the wind, I include here a little gallery of some of the nicer paintings I came across of boats under sail.

Simon de Vlieger’s “A Dutch Ferry Boat before the Breeze”, from the late 1640s

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Charles Powell’s “Shipping in the Downs”, from the early 1800s

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William Bradford’s “Clipper Ship ‘Northern Light’ of Boston”, of 1854

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His “The Kennebec River, Waiting for Wind and Tide”, of 1860

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James Webb’s “Seascape”, from the 1860s, 1870s

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Konstantinos Volanakis’s “Boat”, from the 1870s or thereabouts

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Anton Melbye’s “Laguna di Venezia”, of 1878

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Winslow Homer’s “Sailing off Gloucester”, probably from the 1880s

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Antonio Jacobsen’s “Sappho vs. Livonia, Americas Cup, 1871”

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His “Rounding the Mark, NYCC Regatta”, of 1886

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His “Tidal Wave and Dreadnought”, of 1908

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His quieter, more reflective “Lumber Schooner in New York’s Lower Bay”, of 1894

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In a more “modern” (i.e., Impressionist) key, we have Monet’s “Sailboat at le Petit-Gennevilliers”, of 1873

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and Maxime Maufra’s “Tuna Boat at Sea”, of 1907

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At this point, photography took over, black and white at first, then colour. So to complete my gallery, I throw in a couple of modern photos of old yachts.

The yacht “Orion”

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The yacht “Vagrant”

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The yacht “Mariette”

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Happy 2020!

LAND OF WATER, LAND OF MOSS

Milan, 30 October 2019

After I had finished giving my course on sustainable industrial development at Kyoto University, my wife and I took a week off to walk the woods of Japan. Last year, we walked the Nakasendo Way. This year, we hiked along the old Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail. Just as had been the case when we walked the Nakasendo Way, we were struck by just how much water Japan has. In all its forms – rills, brooks, streams, rivers, waterfalls – the water welled out of the mountains we traversed and trickled, ran, poured off their flanks. The noise of water running across rock and stone was our constant companion.

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No wonder water is such an integral part of Japanese gardens, from falls

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to streams and ponds

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to small water elements.

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All this water, and the rain which is the source of it, means that there are high levels of humidity in Japan, excellent conditions for the growing of moss. I have read that of the roughly 12,000 species of moss known worldwide, some 2,500 varieties are found in Japan alone: one-fifth! That’s pretty good going. And they certainly beautify Japan. Moss casts a lovely green sheen on everything it touches. This is true everywhere but it is particularly true in Japan. On our walks there, we’ve seen it growing luxuriantly on felled trees and tree stumps.

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We’ve seen it clustering thickly around the base of standing trees.

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and throwing a gauzy veil over their trunks.

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We’ve seen it throw a light mantle over rocks.

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It doesn’t stay in the forests. It will colonize the artifacts created by man.

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We’ve even seen it make the ugly concrete edges of a road look lovely!

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The genius of Japanese garden designers is to have fought off the instinct, which we seem to have in the West, of banishing moss from their gardens. Instead, they have welcomed it in with open arms and integrated it into their designs. As a result, no self-respecting Japanese garden is without its moss.

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Given my weakness for Zen gardens, I love the way the designers of these gardens have incorporated moss into their designs.

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Some gardens use moss the way we would use grass, creating “lawns” of moss.

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If the light is right, the effect can be quite magical.

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A good number of temples have extensive moss gardens, where moss covers the floor of the whole garden. The most famous of these is Saiho-ji temple in the western outskirts of Kyoto. It’s become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s difficult to visit. You have to book months in advance, using a system of return postcards, which is really primitive in this day and age and very difficult to do if you don’t live in the country. But we managed it this time.

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A good number of years ago, as I relate in a previous post, I built my own Zen garden in a corner of our balcony. I had no moss, though, in that garden. The micro-climate on the balcony was too dry and harsh. But maybe, one day, somewhere, I’ll make myself another Zen garden, and this time I will try to incorporate moss.

FRANCESCO BARACCA, ACE OF ACES

Sori, 3 June 2019

My wife and I were recently walking to the library of the Italian Alpine Club, with the idea of looking at some guide books on a walk in the Dolomites which we will be doing in a few weeks (and on which I hope to write a post or two). The walk took us through a part of Milan with which I’m not familiar, and so it was that I found myself walking for the first time through a little square. In the middle of it was this very intriguing statue.

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As readers can see, it consists of a man emerging from a stone plinth, naked but for some sort of cap with ear flaps on his head, holding a lit torch in one hand, and wearing a heroic expression. The name carved into the base of the plinth was Francesco Baracca. I asked my wife who it was. She wasn’t sure – a First World War general, she hazarded? But I wasn’t convinced. The cap looked too much like those leather caps worn by the early aviators. I mean, who doesn’t remember Snoopy on his way to fight the Red Baron?

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In my memory, there were also pictures of Biggles from the boys’ books of my youth.

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No-one who is not British and not my age or older will know who this Biggles is. He was a fictional World War I fighter pilot about whom a series of exciting books were written. He was a very heroic figure and a Jolly Good Chap.

A bit more seriously, here is a photo of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to manage a solo crossing of the Atlantic non-stop, which he did in 1927.

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Well, it turned out I was right. Francesco Baracca had indeed been an aviator. And not just any old aviator! He was Italy’s Ace of Aces during the First World War, racking up 34 recognized victories, the highest score for any Italian fighter pilot. Here we have him sitting in his plane with his flying cap on (and, contrary to his statue, with his clothes on; very sensible, it’s cold up there), ready to go and let the enemy have it.

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While here we have him posing in front of one of the enemy planes he had downed.

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Of course the government squeezed all the propaganda benefits they could out of his exploits. Anything heroic that could take the public’s mind off the bloody and ineffectual meat grinder of trench warfare was to be welcomed. And anyway, there was something terribly dashing about these aerial duels; it was the modern equivalent of Medieval knights jousting. As a result, he was lionized by the Italian public, who followed his every victory with enthusiasm.

It wasn’t just Italians who were enthused by the new forms of warfare in the air. On all sides of the war, the exploits of these new heroes of the air were followed avidly. But perhaps the Italians had a particular penchant for the exploits of aerial warfare. After all, it was in Italy that the Futurismo art movement was born, which had a total commitment to modern technology. To make the point, here are some key excerpts from two of the Futurist Manifestos that were published in 1910.

This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:

We want to fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish worship of the past … We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time … Comrades! We declare to you that the triumphant progress of science has brought about such profound changes in humanity as to excavate an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us, free, and confident in the radiant splendour of the future. … In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whitened with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn … In this land of illiterates, schools are multiplying; in this land of “dolce far niente” innumerable workshops now roar; in this land of traditional aesthetics are today taking flight inspirations dazzling in their novelty. Only art which draws its elements from the world around it is alive. Just as our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls, so must we inspire ourselves from the tangible miracles of contemporary life: the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown. 

 

And this is from the Futurism Manifesto penned by the poet Marinetti, the “Father of Futurism”, who laid out a decalogue of futurist thought.

1. We want to sing of a love of danger, and the practice of energy and rashness.

3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the punch.

4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

9. We want to glorify war – the only cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of liberals, beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.

10. We want to destroy the museums and libraries, the academies of every type, and combat moralism, feminism, and against every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness.

11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; we will sing of the multi-colored and polyphonic tide of revolutions in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and construction sites, enflamed by violent electric moons; the ravenous railway stations, devourers of smoking serpents; the workshops suspended from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges which, like giant gymnasts, leap across rivers, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; the adventurous steamers sniffing at the horizon, and the great-breasted locomotives, pawing at the rails like enormous steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers flutter in the wind like a flag and seem to applaud like an enthusiastic crowd.

 

Pretty incendiary stuff …

Right from the start, Futurist paintings reflected this adoration of speed and power, although initially the focus was on terrestrial technology. For instance, from 1912-1913, we have Luigi Russolo’s Dynamism of an Automobile.

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From 1922, we have Ivo Pannaggi’s Moving Train.

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(which rather reminds me of the opening credits of the Poirot TV series)

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From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists

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It was only in the 1930s that Futurist painter’s started painting airplanes. For instance, from 1930 we have Tato’s Flying Over the Colosseum in Spirals.

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Perhaps it took a while for the painters to get into a cockpit and experience the sensation of flying.

Coming back to Baracca, he was eventually shot down, in June 1918. For propaganda purposes, the Italian government put it out that he had been hit by ground fire (to perpetuate the myth that no other aviator could shoot him down), although the Austrians claimed with good evidence that he was taken out by one of their planes. However it happened, his body was recovered and he was given a hero’s funeral. He was finally laid to rest in his home town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna. Several decades later, the Fascists erected a large statue of him in the main square (this time with his clothes on)

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while his co-citizens opened a museum about him – might as well make some money off the town’s most famous son …

This story has a fascinating coda, which was really why I wrote this post. To explain it properly, I have to go back a bit and give readers a thumbnail biography of Baracca. He was, as I said, a citizen of Lugo, a small town located close to Ravenna. His parents were well-off and to some degree aristocratic – his mother was a countess. After his schooling, he chose to join the army. After studying at a military academy, in 1909 he was assigned a regiment. Given his social status, this was a cavalry regiment, the 2nd “Royal Piedmont”, a regiment created in 1692 by Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. Because of its importance to my story, I insert here the regiment’s traditional banner: a silver prancing horse on a red field.

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In 1912, after watching an aerial exhibition in Rome, Baracca became wildly enthusiastic about the future of military aviation. He asked to join the newly-created aviation arm of the army, a request that was granted. He went for training in France and by the time Italy joined the War in 1915, he was trained and ready to go.

As his number of victories climbed, the High Command fawned over him. In 1917, he was given his own squadron, the 91st, and allowed to choose his own pilots. He took all the other Italian aces, so the squadron became known as “the squadron of the aces”. On the right side of his plane’s fuselage, he placed the squadron’s insignia, a rampant griffin. On the left side, he placed his personal insignia. For this, in recognition of his earlier affiliation with the 2nd cavalry regiment, he chose its prancing horse. He changed the colour scheme, though, making the horse black on a silver background. Here we see him standing in front of his plane on which we see plainly his personal insignia.

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The insignia was an instant hit with the public, especially when the pilots of his squadron all adopted it in his honour after his death.

Fast forward a few years after the war, 1923 to be exact. I now introduce another character to this story, that of Enzo Ferrari, the fabled creator of the Ferrari racing team and car manufacturer. In 1923, he was just a driver for Alfa Romeo, racing their cars on various circuits. Racing was very popular in Italy, and the successful drivers were stars, rather like Baracca had been – and they wore the same leather caps as aviators.

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In any event, in that year Ferrari won a race near Ravenna. On the race’s edges, he met Baracca’s father. This led to a second meeting, this time with Baracca’s mother. He must have told them how much he had admired their son. And maybe they saw the racing of cars as an honourable descendant of what their son had been doing with planes. Whatever the reason, Baracca’s mother uttered these fateful words: “Ferrari, put my son’s horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.” And that is exactly what Ferrari did seven years later in 1930, when he created his own racing team. From then on, his cars sported Baracca’s prancing horse. The only changes he brought were to make the field behind the horse canary yellow, to honour his home town, Modena, whose coat of arms has the same yellow field, and to raise the horse’s tail.

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And that is why, dear readers, Ferrari cars to this day sport a shield with a black prancing horse on a yellow field.

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SIX-LEGGED, BACKWARD-LOOKING, FIRE-BREATHING SHAGGY BLACK DOG

Milan, 17 April 2019

One of the nice things about being in Milan at this time of the year is that it allows my wife and me to visit the various exhibitions which make up the city’s annual Design Week. This last week saw us tramping the highways and byways of Milan and dropping into exhibitions of design, mostly of furniture and furnishings, this week also being the time that Milan was holding the Salone del Mobile, its huge international exhibition of furniture and furnishings. I cannot say that I saw anything that knocked my socks off, or even just rolled them down. But it did allow us to visit a good number of old palazzi which were hosting exhibitions and which are out of bounds to the general public the rest of the year. It also allowed us to visit a small botanical garden that is tucked away behind the Brera Academy in the heart of Milan’s fashion district, a garden which neither of us knew existed. It is that visit which started off this post.

Our reason for going to the botanical garden was that ENI, Italy’s huge national oil and gas corporation, was holding an exhibition there on the theme of circular economy. This is an idea that is currently growing in importance in the environmental world and one which I have been running trainings on, and I was curious to see what ENI had to say on the subject. The short answer is: not terribly much. But I came away with this picture.
For readers who might be interested, the white core of this ring is composed of fungal mycelium, which ENI reminds us is completely biodegradable, and the outer casing is made of birch wood, which ENI says will be reused once the exhibition is over. Without much exaggeration, that pretty much sums up what ENI had to say about the circular economy in its exhibition.

Of greater interest for this post is what the makers of this ring have etched into the mycelium: apart from the title of the exhibition and the company’s name, the company’s logo: the six-legged dog. It is this dog which is the subject of this post. Or rather, given where this post started, it is the design history of this dog which I will write about.

My story starts in 1949, when Enrico Mattei, the charismatic boss of Agip, Italy’s national oil company, announced that oil and gas reserves had been discovered in the Po River plain. In truth, the finds were quite modest: the oil fields were to run dry quite quickly, while the gas fields, although they continue to chug along, have only a very modest output. But Mattei talked up the finds, offering a vision of Italy finally being self-sufficient in the fuels it needed to power its economic development, and thereby created a huge national stir. By late 1951, Italian refineries were beginning to produce the first petrol derived from Italian crude oil and Mattei’s PR office had come up with a name for this purely Italian petrol: Supercortemaggiore (Corte Maggiore being the place where the find had been made). In May 1952, Mattei decided to crank up excitement levels by announcing that Agip would hold a public competition open to all Italian citizens, inviting them to come up with, among other things, a publicity poster for Supercortemaggiore petrol. He made 10 million lire (or about 160,000 euros in today’s money) available in prize money to further whet people’s appetites. He composed a jury of very eminent persons to judge the entries; to give readers an idea of their eminence , the chair of the jury was the world-famous architect Giò Ponti.

Creative Italy got to work. By the closure of the competition in September, some 4,000 entries had been received. The jury ploughed through the submissions and for the Supercortemaggiore poster, it plumped for this:

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The caption read: “Supercortemaggiore: the powerful Italian petrol”. But what really dominated the poster was a six-legged shaggy black dog blowing out a red flame over its back. The whole poster had a bright yellow background. The original drawing as submitted actually had the dog facing frontward with the flame shooting out forward. Mattei decreed that this was too aggressive, people could imagine they were faced with a canine version of a flame-thrower. No problem! The head was swiveled 180 degrees so that the flame flared harmlessly back over the dog’s back. The net result was that by late 1952 Italians up and down the land found themselves faced with huge billboards such as these.

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Most advertising ideas work OK, some are a complete flop, and some work spectacularly well. The six-legged, fire-breathing, backward-looking, shaggy black dog falls into the last category; it was an instant hit with Italians. So popular did it become that in 1953, when Mattei created the new national oil and gas holding company, the Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi or ENI, with Agip as one of its subsidiaries, he decided that the dog should become the corporate brand. And so quite soon when Italians went to fill up at their local Agip petrol station they were faced with something like this.

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In fact, this was how I first came across this intriguing dog. This was in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, where I was born a year or so after the shaggy black dog burst upon the scene. As an ex-Italian colony still full of Italians in the 1950s, Agip had a monopoly on the country’s petrol supply. It took a little while for the new ENI/Agip logo to grace every Agip petrol station, especially when the petrol stations were as far away from the center of the ENI empire as those in Asmara were. But they eventually got there, and I would have first seen the dog in 1958-59, from the back seat of the car as my father filled her up at the petrol station just behind our house.

Just to finish the design part, the dog has gone through some discreet remodelling as ENI has redesigned its look over the years. This is what it now looks like: slightly shorter than it was at the start and half out of the box rather than all in it. But the essentials are all still there.

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At some point, everyone who looks at this dog asks themselves “why six legs?” or the more-or-less equivalent question “what kind of animal is this, actually?” To discuss this properly, I need to take a step sideways and relate a dramatic turn of evens which occurred in 1983, 30 or so years after Mattei held his competition. In that year, the startling news broke that Giuseppe Guzzi, the person who everyone had assumed was the creator of the dog – because the submission to the competition’s jury was in his name – was not in fact its author! He had been merely the front man for the dog’s real creator, Luigi Broggini, a respectable Milanese sculptor. Broggini died in 1983 and his children, who broke the news, felt that it was time for the real creator of the famous dog to get the credit he was due. It seems that Broggini was a bit of a cultural elitist; he felt that being linked to such a vulgar enterprise as designing a publicity poster for a brand of petrol was unworthy of a true artist such as he. This is a typical product of his artistic inclinations.

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The cynic inside of me whispers that he probably didn’t deign to take the prize money; I only hope he shared it fairly with Guzzi to reward him for agreeing to be his front man.

So now we can return to the question of why six legs. Unfortunately, because Broggini died before his true role in this whole affair was revealed, we will never be able to ask the dog’s creator what he had in mind. I presume Broggini never told Guzzi, because it doesn’t seem that Guzzi ever gave any coherent response to this question. Maybe he would just smile mysteriously when asked and invite the questioners to come up with their own theory.

And come up with theories people have. One suggests that Broggini, thinking about the fact that the original crude oil lay underground, looked for possible models to the panoply of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses that peopled the shadowy underworld. Cerberus, the dog which guarded the entry to Hades, is considered one model. Cerberus was normally described as having three heads, a serpent for a tail, and snakes writhing out from his body in various places. But he had the normal amount of legs and he didn’t breathe fire. Here is a Greek vase depicting him.

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The idea to have a fire-breathing animal no doubt comes from petrol’s readiness to burn. But what animal breathes fire? The answer is the dragon.

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So another theory suggests that Broggini took a cue from a local Lombard legend of a dragon named Tarantasio which lived in a lake near Lodi, south-east of Milan (and perhaps not coincidentally quite close to the natural gas finds which Mattei announced in 1949). It was said that its breath was pestilential and it liked to devour little children. The Visconti, Lords of Milan, claimed that their ancestor had killed the terrible child-eating dragon and took it as the symbol on their coat of arms.

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So maybe Broggini was imagining a dog from the underworld with dragon-like characteristics. Adding a dragon to the mix might explain the flaming mouth, but as far as I can make out dragons are, like dogs, four-legged. So we still have no explanation for the six legs. The best I can think of is that Broggini liked the idea of using Cerberus as a model, perhaps allied to a dragon-like ability to breathe fire, but didn’t think having multiple heads was a good idea and so decided on multiple legs. Whatever the reason, the ENI PR office came up with a really pathetic slogan: “the dog with six legs, faithful friend to the man on four wheels”. And the man who came up with this slogan was none other than the great film director, Ettore Scola! As I always say to my wife in cases like these, he surely needed to pay his rent and electricity bills.

Let me finish this post recounting what happened to the man who started the whole business of the competition which brought us the dragon-dog, Enrico Mattei. For Mattei, the real point of the competition was to strengthen public support for a strong national oil and gas company, which he could translate into political support. He succeeded spectacularly well. A year after the competition, he got the politicians to back his idea of creating ENI. He used the profits which Agip petroli and its sister company Agip gas made from the Italian oil and gas finds to fund his ventures in foreign countries rich in oil and gas. His long-term strategy was for ENI to become a competitor to the Seven Sisters (a term he invented to describe the seven – mainly US – corporations which at that time dominated the world’s oil and gas markets). To make this happen, he went to places the Seven Sisters couldn’t or didn’t want to go to, he offered the countries really good deals in the share of profits, and he wasn’t above offering succulent bribes. Judging by ENI’s heft today in the world market, I would say that Mattei got it right. But in the process he stepped on many, many toes. In 1962, he died when his private plane crashed while coming in to land at Milan airport. The inquest was rushed through and arrived at the conclusion that it was an accident. But this is Italy. Rumors continued to circulate that his plane had been sabotaged. In the early 1990s, his body and that of one of the two passengers on the plane with him were exhumed, and examination of metal fragments in their bones showed they had been deformed by an explosion. In 1994, the case was reopened and eventually the episode was reclassified as a homicide by a person or persons unknown. There has been enormous amounts of speculation as to who these “unknown persons” might be. At one time or other, the finger has been pointed at the British Secret Service, the French Secret Service, the OAS (the French irredentists for a French Algeria), the CIA, the Mafia (as a favour to their cousins in America, the Cosa Nostra), one or more of the Seven Sisters, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. We’ll no doubt never know.

But we can all thank Mattei for that splendid six-legged, backward-looking, fire-breathing, shaggy black dog which he bequeathed the world!