A IS FOR APPLE

Vienna, 23 July 2021

I coincidentally started this blog when the London Olympics were opening – my first post was about the opening ceremony – so with the start today of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, it seems appropriate to celebrate the II Olympiad of my scribbling with a piece on the act of writing itself. Or more specifically, on the symbols which I use to commit my scribbles to (electronic) paper, the letters of the Latin alphabet. Their creation is a fascinating example of the untiring efforts of people the world over to give permanence to the sounds emanating from their mouths: verba volant, scripta manent, the old Latin proverb intones, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”.

The creation of the Latin alphabet, my alphabet if I may call it that, is also a fascinating story of trade as we shall see. Assiduous readers of my posts will know that I have often written about the material things as well as ideas that have been transmitted by trade.

The overall arc of development of my alphabet can be summarized by the letter
Turn that letter upside down, and you have:


I think readers will agree that this could be considered a very schematic drawing of a cow’s or ox’s head. And that is exactly where my A originally comes from, the Egyptian hieroglyph for ox’s head.

By what twists and turns did that hieroglyph morph over the millennia into my letter A?

The story starts somewhere in the Sinai peninsula in about 2000-1800 BC. A Semitic people there were in contact with the Egyptian civilization and were familiar with their hieroglyphic method of writing. They adopted those hieroglyphs to write down their own language. The earliest example we have is from a place now called Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, which in antiquity was the location of a very rich turquoise mine.

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This is part of some of the inscriptions there, scratched out on a rock, probably by the turquoise miners, at the beginning of the 16th Century BC.

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Initially, this Semitic people followed the basic Egyptian principle of hieroglyphs being pictograms: a picture of an ox stood for the word ox. In this, they were no different from the peoples of East Asia, for instance, who adopted the Chinese writing system – also at its base a pictogramic system – to write down their, very different, languages.

But then, relatively quickly, this Semitic people made one very crucial change: they made the picture of an ox stand for the first sound in their word for “ox”. In other words, their signs began to stand for sounds rather than whole words. This was revolutionary, because it meant that with a relatively small number of signs – some 20 in all – this people could cover all the sounds they used, and then they could string those signs together to write the thousands of words they used. This approach made it much, much easier to learn how to write because it was much easier to memorize such a small number of signs. Compare that to an Egyptian scribe, who had to memorize 1,000 or so hieroglyphs. It democratized writing: only a tiny proportion of Ancient Egyptians could ever hope to be able to write, while – in theory, at least – every one of our Semitic people could become a writer (theory only really became practice in our age, and tragically even today in many parts of the world people have not been able to learn to write).

The Phoenicians, who lived along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in present-day Lebanon and northern Israel, and who were descendants of those Semitic people in the Sinai, perfected this method of writing. They came up with a group – an alphabet as we would come to know it – of 22 signs, with which they could write any word in their language. Here, for instance, is their “ox” sign; they actually flipped the sign onto its side, like so, probably because it was easier to write with a stylus.
The Phoenician word for “ox” was ‘alep. So this sign represented the “a”-like guttural which was the first sound in the word (Phoenician, like the modern Semitic languages, used a lot of gutturals). With time, ‘alep also became the name of this sign.

For their “b” sound, the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for beth, or “house” in Phoenician. And again, beth too eventually became the name of the sign.
This sign was ultimately derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for “house”, although the sign seems to have got bent out of shape over the centuries.

For their hard “g”-sound (like in “go”), the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for giml, or “throwing stick” in Phoenician. And giml became the sign’s name.
Again, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “throwing stick” was at the origin of this sign.
I could go on, but I think readers will have got the point by now. I do think, though, that the Phoenicians deserve to have their whole alphabet shown here.

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In a wave of enthusiasm about the fantastic work they did, I have also decided to show an example of an actual text in Phoenician.

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This tablet comes from a temple that was built in about 500 BC on the Tyrrhenian coast of what is now central Italy. It is there because the Phoenicians were present in the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Which brings us to trade.

The Phoenicians were inveterate traders, trading with their neighbours to the east as well as across the whole of the Mediterranean basin; they also established a string of colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean, the most famous of which was Carthage. Not surprisingly, they took their writing system with them wherever they went, and their trading counterparts got to know about it. Many of them quickly twigged to its power and adopted it for their language. The ones who interest me are the Greeks. Around the 8th Century BC, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet wholesale, even transliterating the Phoenician names of the letters into something more Greek sounding. So ‘aleph became alpha, beth became beta, giml became gamma, and so on (and we thus got our name for a group of such signs, or letters as we can now call them: the alphabet, a merging of the names of the first two letters alpha and beta).

The Greeks did have to bring in some modifications to the Phoenician alphabet, because the sounds they used were not quite the same as the sounds the Phoenicians used. The biggest difference was in the vowels. Greek had more obvious vowel sounds than did Phoenician, which relied on gutturals. There was also the hard-“th”, the “ks” and the “ps” sounds. In most cases, the Greeks repurposed Phoenician letters for sounds which did not exist in Greek, in a few others they created new letters.

Actually, because of different dialects spoken among the Greeks, which meant that there were some variations in the sounds used, there were three somewhat different alphabets created by the Greek polities, as shown on this map.

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It’s the western Greek alphabet (used in the parts of Greece coloured orange in the map) which interests us most, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. I show this alphabet here, along with the original Phoenician “template”.
One can see the outlines of the classical Greek alphabet peeping out – the one I used as an unhappy student of ancient Greek at school. With time, the Greeks dropped some of these letters and added others, like omega. In some cases, where I show two letters in the Western Greek column, there were variants. And in those variants, one can see the outlines of letters which were to be found in the Latin alphabet and not in the classical Greek alphabet: the C, the D with the rounded “tummy”, the beginnings of the P (the loop still needed to be fully closed), the beginning of the R (the downward slanting stroke was miniscule), the S. The importance of these variants will become apparent in a minute.

The Euboean Greeks, who used this western Greek alphabet, were also, like the Phoenicians, traders and colonists. In particular, they had set up what are probably the oldest Greek colonies in Italy, around the bay of Naples: one on the island of Ischia (Pithekoussai) and one on the mainland (Cumae).

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They set them up in the 8th Century BC, pretty much when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet. No doubt the Western Greek alphabet arrived very quickly in these two colonies. There, the Euboeans came into contact with the Etruscans, who were at the time the major power in the Italian peninsula and, as this map shows, were poised to expand their power and influence even further up and down the peninsula.

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The contacts which the Euboeans had with the Etruscans were primarily through trade but, given that the Etruscans eventually enveloped both colonies, these could also have led to political alliances.

When the Etruscans got to know the Euboean alphabet they, like the Euboeans before them, must have realized the power of this writing system and adopted it, although they too had to bring in a good number of modifications to deal with the different sounds which they had in their language. I won’t list their alphabet, for the very cruel reason that their language was extinguished – so thoroughly that its vocabulary and grammar are still only partly known, in spite of more than a century of intense research.

Which brings us to the Romans, who did the extinguishing. Early on in their history, this upstart, but aggressive, tribe from the middle of the Italian peninsula were ruled over by the Etruscans, but they took them on and eventually beat them comprehensively. Along the way, though, in a pattern which must be familiar to readers by now, the Romans also recognized the power of alphabets and adopted the Etruscan one – with the usual modifications to account for different sounds in their language, including the readoption of some of the letters in the Greek alphabet which the Etruscans has dropped as not useful to them.

And so, coming back to the letter A with which I started, let me use it to show the arc of development that took place, from the Egyptian hieroglyph to the Latin letter.

Of course, the story doesn’t end with the Romans. The Latin alphabet could have disappeared at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, along with so much else that did disappear. That it didn’t is a testimony to writing’s utility to the Western Christian Church, the only organization left standing from the Roman era. Apart from the ability to more easily transmit religious ideas, the alphabet allowed the Church to – once again – give written form to languages without writing, in this case all the languages which the Germanic and Slavic tribes brought with them, often mixed in with the remains of Latin and its offshoots. As usual, there was the usual problem of dealing with sounds which didn’t exist in Latin, but interestingly enough no new letters were created. There was just fiddling around with the existing ones. So, for instance, we have Å, Ê, Ï, Ø, Ù to deal with various long vowels, and Č, Š, Ñ, to deal with the “ch”, “sh”, and “ny” consonants, in various European languages (there are lots of other fiddles, but for the sake of brevity I will leave them out). The process of using the Latin alphabet to create writing systems for various languages has gone on in modern times as the European powers colonized other parts of the world which didn’t have writing – the North American tribes, for instance, or the tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa – or even which did, for instance in Vietnam.

All of this has given me the puerile desire to create my own alphabet. I’ll use the same process of development: assign to each letter in my alphabet an object which starts with that letter, create pictograms for each of those objects, and then simplify those pictograms into letters. To identify the necessary objects, I’ll use one of those songs with which parents teach their children the alphabet, songs which go something like this:

A is for apple, a a apple
B is for ball, b b ball
C is for cat, c c cat
etc.

As an added plus, I can use the exercise to ruthlessly cull my alphabet of unnecessary letters: C, because S can be used for soft-C, K can be used for hard-C; X, because you can simply write X as KS. And I’ll come up with standardized ways of dealing with diphthongs. In the process, I’ll make English writing sound the way it’s spoken: as any non-English native will tell you, English has one of the craziest spellings in the world, there is no way in hell that you can tell what a word sounds like by the way it’s spelled.

Mind you, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my new alphabet once I have it. I’m not 10 years old anymore, with a BFF with whom I could pass notes back and forth during classes in our own secret code. And I’m past the age of being a spy, sending my minders coded messages about where the weapons of mass destruction have been stashed away.

No worries, I’ll think of something! Watch this space …

Oh, and enjoy the Tokyo Olympics!

CATCHING A FUNICULAR

Milan, 15 June 2021

It’s not often that I write about technologies, they are mostly workhorses of some sort without much else to commend them. But from time to time I come across a technology that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s because the technology in question is genuinely lovely to look at – solar power towers come to mind – but sometimes it’s simply because it’s quirky and fun and brings a smile to my world-weary, seen-it-all-before, been-there-done-that face. Funiculars fall into the latter category.

My wife and I have been taking funiculars quite often this last month or so. Actually, we’ve been taking one specific funicular quite often, the one between Como and Brunate, the village perched high above Como, on the steep hills – cliffs, almost – that plunge into the lake. It is the jump-off point for a number of our hikes.

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Wikipedia informs me that the line was inaugurated in 1894, and certainly the style of the station in Como fits with that date.

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We pile into one of those weird carriages that all funiculars have.

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They are the only thing I’ve ever come across in the real world which look just like those parallelograms we used to draw in geometry classes at primary school.

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Entering a funicular carriage is like entering a world where everything leans to one side. Luckily for us, as readers can see from the picture of the carriage its’ designers have rigged up the inside into a series of flat platforms connected by steps, so we can sit in a normal position and not like those astronauts who are about to take off from Cape Canaveral.

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At departure time, a bell rings sonorously, the doors slide shut, and the steel cable starts dragging us up this impossibly steep hillside.

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Halfway up the climb, the down-going carriage hoves to on the horizon.

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It’s on the same track as ours, and coming straight at us.

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But just before the inevitable head-on crash, the two carriages veer sideways – one to the left, one to the right – they slide past each other

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and continue on their way. Soon after, we ease slowly into the upper station at Brunate, the doors open, and we stride off to yet another hike, after briefly stopping to admire the view.

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It’s not just their quirkiness that makes me like funiculars. They are also clever pieces of design. The key design principle behind them is to have two carriages attached to the same cable. I personally haven’t dragged anything up a very steep hill, but I would imagine that it’s pretty hard work, requiring the outlay of a lot of energy – and an overseer to whip the bejeezus out of me to make me pull harder. A picture from Asterix and Cleopatra shows what I mean.

my photo from the album

Attaching another carriage to the cable means that at least the weight of the carriage being dragged up the hill is now counterbalanced by the weight of the carriage sliding down it, so the only energy you need to add to the system is the energy required to drag the people sitting in the carriage up the hill. And if you can get people into the carriage going down the hill, they can pretty much balance the people coming up, reducing even more the energy required to get the upcoming carriage to the top of the hill.

I can’t find any claim on the internet to an inventor for this key idea. I suspect it’s an old idea, with the inventor lost in the mists of time. The most immediate precursor comes from the golden age of canals, where similar systems were used to drag boats up from a lower canal to a higher one, counterbalanced by boats being let down from the higher canal to the lower one. My wife and I have walked down the slope of one such system, the Keage Incline, in Kyoto. It used to connect the canal from Lake Biwa to the canal 36 meters lower which ran through Kyoto.

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It was taken out of use in 1948. Now only tourists like us use it, especially during the Spring when the cherry trees, which have been planted along it, are in bloom.

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This clever idea of the counterbalancing act was taken one step further in a few funiculars, where a water tank was attached to the carriages. An operator at the top of the funicular would fill the tank of the downward-going carriage with enough water to make it just a bit heavier than the upward-coming carriage, so that the downward-moving carriage could pull the upward-coming carriage up the hill without the need for any extra energy input. At the bottom, the tank was emptied out, and the whole cycle started over. Unfortunately, this alternative to the funiculars’ basic balancing act was never very common, because it needs a good (cheap) source of water at the top of the hill, whereas most sources of water are at the bottom of hills. I also suspect these types of funiculars were more complicated to manage. Over the years, a good number have been switched to more conventional hauling engines, but a few still exist, for instance the Bom Jesus funicular in Braga, Portugal (the water tank is below the carriage)

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and the Neuveville-St-Pierre funicular in Fribourg, Switzerland.

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The Fribourg funicular has reached a maximum of cleverness. It uses the treated wastewater from a treatment plant located on the top of the hill to fill the tanks. At a minimum, that makes it a win-win-win solution, and I think there must be another “win” in there somewhere.

The next important invention in the funicular story does have a name and a face attached to it. Originally, cables were made of hemp or other natural fibres. As readers can imagine, they were not that strong. If the weight being pulled was too great they would snap. In practice, this meant that the hills up which things were dragged could not be too steep or the loads too heavy. This limitation was overcome when the German Wilhelm Albert figured out how to make stranded steel cables, with the first steel cable being put into use in 1834.

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Initially, the steel cables were stranded by hand, which obviously limited output, but in 1837 an Austrian by the name of Wurm developed a machine to strand cables. The German rope-makers Felten & Guillaume then got into the game and by the 1840s were churning out more, and cheaper, steel cables. We see here their factory in Cologne in the 1860s.

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This greatly expanded the scope of where funiculars – and anything else being dragged up inclines – could be used.

The final important invention had to do with track layout. In the first funiculars, each carriage had its own set of tracks. This funicular in Hastings in the UK, which was actually built quite late in the day – 1902 – shows the principle.

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Two tracks laid side by side, plus four platforms – each track had to have its own top and bottom platforms – took up a lot of space, space which was often carved out of the living rock. If only one track could be used (and only two platforms), the construction costs could be lowered considerably. But how to get the two carriages past each other when they met at the midpoint? This knotty problem was solved by a Swiss engineer by the name of Carl Roman Abt.

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He came up with this set-up for the tracks.

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As the diagram shows, to make it work the wheels on the left of one carriage are flanged on both sides, while it’s the other way around on the other carriage. Like that, when the carriages come to the passing point, the carriage flanged on the left always veers left, the carriage flanged on the right always veers right. The inner wheels aren’t flanged at all. Quite simple, really – although I’m sure the execution in real life is more complex than that two-sentence description.

Abt first used this system in 1886 on the funicular in Lugano which connects the old town to the railway station. Which is great, because it allows me to throw in a picture of one of the funiculars which my wife and I have used in our lives. Readers can see that the cars are thoroughly modern, fruit of a makeover in 2016.

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While I’m at it, I can throw in pictures of the two other funiculars we have travelled on:
The Angel’s Flight in Los Angeles (which uses a 3-rail track layout)

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The Eizan Cable Car, to the north-east of Kyoto

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I’m racking my brains to think of other funiculars we’ve travelled on but I think that’s it: four in total, counting the one in Como. Not a huge number given that there are some 300 funiculars around the world. We really have to do better. I shall review with my wife Wikipedia’s list of funiculars around the world, to see which ones we should try to ride (this could be an excuse to visit places we haven’t been to yet, like Rio de Janeiro or Santiago in Chile). And then, when (if) COVID-19 is brought under control, we can be on our way!

IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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Iris sibirica in Central Europe

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Iris haynei in the Middle East

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The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

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Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But, once again, I bow to the Experts.

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

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

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

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RED WINES FROM SOUTHERN ITALY

Milan, 24 May 2021

In an earlier post, I confessed that the amount of wine my wife and I consumed during the two lockdowns which we have endured over the past year was considerable. In that same post, I said that we focused much of our wine drinking on red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine.

I chose to buy wines from southern Italy because I didn’t know them very well, which fed into my general tendency to support the underdog and be contrarian. After sampling a few bottles, I also felt that the red wines of southern Italy had more oomph to them than wines from northern and central Italy – I beg readers not to ask me to translate that into the flowery language of the wine connoisseur because I can’t. As I once confessed in an earlier post, my general method of assessing wines is “mmh! that’s a nice wine!” or “mm … not a good wine”.

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Also – and this was important with the tightening of household budgets under lockdown – they were generally cheaper than other Italian wines.

I also felt virtuous in supporting local grape varieties. Not for me the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and the few others which dominate wine-making worldwide! No sirree, I was going to support the more than 1,500 grape varieties (yes, I kid you not, 1,500) which exist in Italy.

So from Sardinia I was buying wines made with Cannonau grapes (or to be more precise, where the Cannonau made up the largest share; the great majority of Italian wines are blends).

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From Sicily, it was wines made with Nero d’Avola grapes.

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From Puglia, it was wines made with Primitivo grapes.

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From time to time, though, we branched out into wines made with Nero di Troia grapes.

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From Basilicata, it was wines made with Aglianico grapes.

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From Calabria, it was wines made with Gaglioppo grapes.

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(For reasons which are now not clear to me through the haze of history, I chose few if any wines from Campania – a lapse to be rectified in any future lockdowns!)

At some point, though, through the wine fumes, I began to wonder how many of these grape varieties really were local. One can make the case that actually no domesticated grape varieties are really autochthonous. Archaeologists tell us that domestication and the related discovery of wine-making took place somewhere in the region between the Black Sea and Iran, between the seventh and the fourth millennia BC. The earliest evidence of domestication has been found in Georgia (the country, not the US state) and of wine production in Iran in the northern Zagros Mountains.

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Subsequently, domesticated vines and wine-making knowledge spread to other civilizations in the region, first Egypt and Lower Mesopotamia, and then to the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Greeks (at a later period vine and wine-making moved along the Silk Road to China and Japan, but that is a story for another day). The Greeks and the Phoenicians, continues this story, transferred the domesticated grape vine and wine-making technologies further west, to Italy, Spain, and the south of France. The Romans then carried the vine and wine-making further north in Europe to what are more-or-less its northernmost borders today. And then when Europe colonized the rest of the world, the Europeans took their vine and wine-making knowledge with them. So in this view of history, no domesticated grape vines are really autochthonous.

But that’s one Creation Story. Another Creation Story points to the fact that the vine species which was domesticated for wine-making (called, appropriately enough, Vitis vinifera) grows wild from Georgia to Portugal.

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So why could wine-making not have been independently discovered in several places?

A third Creation Story, and the one – for what it’s worth – that I feel is most credible, is that wine-making did indeed start in Iran or thereabouts, and cuttings of the domesticated vines were indeed carried westwards. But in their new homes, these vines could well have crossed spontaneously with local wild forms of the vine (or have been made to cross with them by the local viticulturists), thus shaking up their DNA a little and possibly affecting berry size, ripening time, sweetness, and whatever other characteristics viticulturists prized at the time. In this view of history, each locality can have vines which are hybrids of immigrant vines and local ones, which makes them pretty local. And anyway, even if a vine was brought in from somewhere else, if it’s been around in one locality for a long time surely it’s become local? (a bit like all Americans of immigrant stock nevertheless considering themselves locals) And anyway, the grape vine’s DNA is subject to spontaneous mutations (like American immigrants), which over time will distinguish it from its neighbors. All excellent reasons, I think, for declaring that grape vines which have been grown in one locality long enough can be considered autochthonous.

Of course, one could argue that all these Creation Stories are irrelevant because of the American pest phylloxera which devastated vineyards planted with Vitis vinifera in the late 19th Century (we have here a cartoon of the time, whose caption was “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines”)

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Ever since then, pretty much all commercial vineyards are Frankensteins, with Vitis vinifera grafted onto a root stock of one of the American members of the grape vine family which are resistant to the pest. Under the circumstances, I can hear some people ask, can one really call any commercial vine autochthonous?

I reject this latter argument because first, if I did accept it I wouldn’t have a story to tell, and second, because even with an American rootstock the grapes still express only the DNA of the grafted Vitis vinifera. Just as a person who has had their heart replaced is still expressing their old DNA.

So with all that out of the way, we can now focus on those wines which my wife and I (and not infrequently our son) were imbibing during lockdown, and ask ourselves the question: are the grapes that went into making them local or not? As usual in life, the answer is yes in some cases, no in others.

As one might expect, many of the local vines in southern Italy have their own Creation Stories. The cynic in me suggests that a good number of these were invented to increase a wine’s marketability, although I could well imagine that there is a desire on the part of the local people to have the stories of their vines reflect their own Creation Stories. Thus, many of the Creation Stories reflect the south of Italy’s ancient history as Magna Graecia, that arc of Ancient Greek colonies which stretched from Puglia all the way to Sicily. They suggest that the vines were brought from Greece by these early colonists. Others look to the Phoenicians as the source of their vines; Phoenicians also had colonies in Sicily and further afield. This map shows the situation in about 500 BC.

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If these Creation Stories are true, they would place the original migration episodes for the vines in question at some two and a half thousand years ago, quite long enough to claim that they are now fully local. Other Creation Stories suggest instead that the local vines are crosses between local wild stock and immigrant stock. Who can deny that such vines are fully local? Ampelographers have weighed in (these are experts in the study and classification of cultivated varieties of grape). They have given savant judgements on the heredity of countless vines by comparing the shape and colour of their leaves and their grape berries. Wonderful word, ampelographer! It rolls off the tongue like a good wine rolls down the throat. In my next life, I want to be an ampelographer, it must look so cool on a CV.

Anyway, along have come DNA studies, to cut through all the bullshit. We finally have a scientific basis for making judgements about a vine’s genealogy.

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And the white-coated scientists in their labs have discovered some very interesting things.

Take Cannonau, the grape variety that is the Sardinian grape par excellence (editorial note: since photos of bunches of grapes get pretty boring pretty quickly, I will instead be throwing in nice photos of the places where the various grapes grow).

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DNA studies have shown that actually, it is none other than Garnacha from Spain! (which, by the way, is also none other than Grenache; the French brought the vine from Spain and then frenchified the name) The most likely Creation Story in this case is that the Spaniards brought Garnacha to the island some time during their centuries-long dominion, from 1324 to 1718. Some Sardinians have tried to claim that the move was actually in the other direction, from Sardinia to Spain, but I don’t think that will wash, especially since a number of other “local” Sardinian grape varieties have also turned out to have a Spanish origin. On the one hand, I’m saddened by the fact that although I thought I was supporting a local variety when I bought Cannonaus in fact I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was pleased to learn of this Spanish connection, because I recall thinking, when I first tried Cannonau, that it reminded me of Rioja, and Garnacha grapes are one of the constituent grapes of Rioja.

Skipping to the island of Sicily, what about the Nero d’Avola grape?

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Well there, I’m happy to say, I have been supporting an autochthonous variety – that is to say, a variety which could well have been introduced several thousands of years ago by the Dorian Greeks who colonized the part Sicily where the town of Avola is located; the town does indeed seem to be the center of this grape’s distribution. The original immigrant grape could actually have been a forefather of today’s Nero d’Avola, since DNA studies have revealed a cousin-like relationship between it and two other ancient Sicilian grapes, Catarratto and Inzolia. As far as I know (although the white-coated scientists publish many of their DNA studies in scientific journals which I don’t have access to), no relationship has (yet) been found between Nero d’Avola and Greek grape vine varieties. It could well be that the forefather has vanished, as old vine varieties were replaced with newer ones; phylloxera also put paid to a large number of varieties.

Vaulting now over to Puglia, in Italy’s heel, we can have a look at the Primitivo grape.

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And here I must start by admitting that my wine choices were not supporting autochthonous grapes; Primitivo is not an Italian variety. Nevertheless, we have a fascinating story here. DNA studies have shown that actually Primitivo is a Croatian grape variety, more specifically one from the Dalmatian coast. Unfortunately, the devastations of phylloxera mean that there is hardly anything left now of the variety in its homeland – a few vines here and there. We can imagine some adventurous southern Italian sailing across the Adriatic Sea to Dalmatia and bringing cuttings back home. As far as can be judged, this was quite recent, some time in the 18th Century. The grape’s Italian name points to why viticulturists were interested in it – it was an early (“primitive”) ripener.

What makes the Primitivo story really fascinating is that DNA studies have also confirmed that it is pretty much the same as the “Californian” grape Zinfandel! (bar a mutation or two) How a Dalmatian grape variety ended up in southern Italy is not hard to imagine. But how on earth did it end up in California?! The best guess is by quite a circuitous route. Step 1 is that the variety was transferred to the Hapsburgs’ greenhouses in Vienna, when Dalmatia was part of the Austrian Empire. Step 2 is that, as part of a burgeoning global trade in plant species, horticulturalists living on the US’s eastern seaboard requested the Imperial greenhouses to send them cuttings, which they did. They probably also requested cuttings from British greenhouses, which had earlier requested them from the Viennese greenhouses. Step 3 is that one or more of these horticulturalists from the Eastern US joined the gold rush to California but took care to take vine cuttings with them. Presumably, they found that in the end it was more profitable to make wine in California than to pan for gold. (As a quick aside, one of my French cousins many times removed, who came from our family of vignerons in the Beaujolais, did something similar. He joined the gold rush to Australia but ended up making wine; I don’t know if he took cuttings with him or used the vine varieties which others had already brought to Australia. In any event, I have a whole bunch of Franco-Australian cousins whom I have never met)

But let’s get back to Puglia, to consider the Nero di Troia grape variety, which we tried from time to time during lockdown.

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DNA studies have shown that this grape has an equally fascinating genealogy – and luckily for me and my determination to support autochthonous grape varieties, I think I can safely say that it is definitely an Italian variety. DNA studies have shown that Nero di Troia’s mother is Bombino bianco, an ancient white grape variety found all along the Adriatic coast but especially in Puglia, while its father is Uva rosa antica, now only found as a very minor variety in the province of Salerno in Campania.

So far, so good. But what makes Nero di Troia more interesting than most varieties is that DNA studies have also shown that it has two full siblings (same father vine, same mother vine): Bombino nero and Impigno. Which just goes to show that grapes are like humans: you and your siblings can have the same parents but you can be quite different from each other.

What’s even more interesting is that comparisons of the DNA profile of the father, Uva rosa antica, to those in DNA libraries have revealed that this minor variety from Salerno is one and the same with another minor variety called Quagliano found only in a few Alpine valleys in Piedmont, in the very north of Italy, which in turn is one and the same with a variety called Bouteillan noir found in Provence, in France. Which just goes to show that there must have been quite a vigorous, though completely informal and unmonitored, trade in vine cuttings throughout southern Europe.

Moving on to Basilicata, the wines we tried from that region during the long months of lockdown were based mostly on the Aglianico grape.

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This is definitely one of the grapes where the locals have a Creation Story involving its introduction to the region by the Ancient Greeks through their colonies in Basilicata. Alas, DNA studies have revealed little if any relation to other existing Greek varieties, so if Aglianico was imported to Basilicata the original Greek plantings have all disappeared. Which suggests that perhaps Aglianico is actually a cross between some immigrant vine from somewhere and local wild stock. In any event, I think we can count this one as an autochthon.

Finally, Calabria. The wines we were drinking from this region are mostly made with the Gaglioppo grape.

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This is another grape variety that the local inhabitants wish to believe came originally from Greece, through the Ancient Greek colonies on the Calabrian coast. However, DNA studies have clarified that Gaglioppo is a very Italian grape, being a cross of the Sangiovese and Mantonico grapes. The latter is a very typical and ancient Calabrian grape. As for Sangiovese, viticulturists have used this grape to sire a whole series of grape varieties. At least ten are known at the moment, including Gaglioppo. There must have been something about Sangiovese grapes that viticulturists liked; if any ampelographer reads this, please tell me what it was. It doesn’t finish there, because in turn DNA studies have revealed that Sangiovese is itself the product of a cross between the Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo grape varieties. Ciliegiolo is an ancient variety from Tuscany. Calabrese Montenuovo, on the other hand, has its origins in Calabria; sadly, it is now an almost-extinct relic. We have here another example of the vigorous trade in vine cuttings, this time up and down the Italian peninsula.

I could go on. For instance, each of these grape varieties is blended with various other grapes, and many of these have had their DNA studied. But I’m running out of steam and I fear that I will soon be losing my readers – there’s a limit to how much information about DNA one can absorb before one’s mind begins to whirl like a double helix.

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I leave my readers with a final plea: considering that there are 1,500 varieties of grape in Italy, please ignore any wines made with the Top Ten grape varieties and concentrate on trying out all 1,500 Italian varieties. Cin-cin!

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HOW ARE THE MIGHTY FALLEN

Vienna, 9 May 2021

My wife and I went for a hike recently along a section of the Jakobsweg, the Trail of St. James, one of the network of pilgrim trails that lead from all over Europe to Compostela in north-western Spain. This particular Trail of St. James starts in Hungary and leads the pious walker to Vienna. From there, it goes on along the Danube, joins the Jakobsweg coming down from the Czech Republic (parts of which we hiked last year), and then wends its way across the Alps.

The particular section we walked this time took us through the village of Petronell, which lies not too far from the Danube River, downstream of Vienna. It also happens to be quite close to the remains of the old Roman town of Carnuntum, which was in its heyday (about 50 AD to 374 AD) an important hub in Rome’s line of defences along its Danubian border. Just to give readers an idea of its importance, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius used it as his headquarters for three years during his war against the Marcomanni in the early 170s (and wrote part of his Meditations there), Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor there by his soldiers in 193, while in 308, Diocletian chaired a historic meeting there, with his co-emperors Maximian and Galerius, to resolve the rising tensions within the tetrarchy. Over the centuries, several Legions were stationed at Carnuntum: the 15th Legion “Apollinaris”, the 10th Legion “Gemina”, the 7th Legion “Gemina”, and the 15th Legion “Gemina”. A civilian town sprang up around the Castrum, no doubt aided by the fact that the main branch of the very profitable Amber Road, which I’ve written about in an earlier post, crossed the Danube at Carnuntum and entered the Roman Empire, bringing Baltic amber to Aquileia in what is now north-eastern Italy. The town eventually became the capital of the local Roman province, Pannonia. At its height, it boasted a population of 50,000.

All came to an end for Carnuntum in 374, when the town – already badly damaged by an earthquake in 350 – was put to the sword by a host of “barbarians” who crossed the Danube. By then, the Roman Empire itself was decomposing. Within a century it was all over for its western portion.

The modern trace of the Jakobsweg takes the walker past this mouldering remain of Carnuntum’s greatness.

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It is the Heidentor, or Heathens’ Gate, a triumphal arch that stood on the outskirts of the town. The information board proudly informs us that it is the largest Roman remain in Austria. Indeed, the other remains in the country hardly poke out above the ground – archaeologists have had to dig them out. Here are other remains of Carnuntum.

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These are remains of Vindobona, which is now Vienna

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And these are remains of Juvavum, which is now Salzburg

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It gives me pause to see so very little left of what was once a great Empire. If you superimpose the Peutinger map, the old Roman map of the Empire’s road system, onto today’s Austria, you can see that the Romans had quite a presence in the country.

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Yet hardly a trace of any of this remains now. “How are the mighty fallen!” laments David in the Book of Samuel. And indeed how far has mighty Rome fallen.

Around the Heidentor is a wind farm.

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The windmills, wonders of modern technology, tower over the countryside, their blades slowly turning in the wind.

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They are part of our line of defence against the greatest existential threat which our planet faces, climate change. Will we succeed in reining in climate change, I wonder? Or will we fail and see our civilization, like the Western Roman Empire before it, crumble under the strain of the resulting economic dislocations and social disorders? These mighty works of our civilization will eventually come tumbling down – some already have.

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Perhaps a thousand years from now, when our civilization will have been forgotten during the dark ages which will follow its collapse, descendants of the few who managed to survive will stumble across the ruins of these windmills, covered in brambles and ivy, and they will stand there marveling, wondering what they were all for.

THE GARDENS AT VILLA DURAZZO PALLAVICINI

Sori, 16 March 2021

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

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

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

Prologue and Background
– The Gothic Avenue
– The Classical Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

The Gothic Avenue

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The Classical Avenue

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

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

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The Spring

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The Chapel of the Virgin Mary

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The Condottiere’s Castle

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The Condottiere’s Mausoleum

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

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You could also visit the Inferno by boat

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And finally the Large Lake

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as well as the Gardens of Flora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BITTER CAMPARI

Milan, 26 February 2021

Two weeks ago, my wife and I had decided to go up to Lake Como for a hike. We got ourselves all prepared, we arrived in good time at the train station … only to discover that the railway workers had gone on a half-day strike!

We were floored. It was such a beautiful day! The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, we couldn’t let it go to waste! I suggested we do instead a long urban hike through Milan and its suburbs. My wife immediately upped the ante and suggested we walk all the way to Monza. After a moment’s hesitation (“Monza? How far is that!?” Answer: a mere 16 km), I agreed and used Google Maps to find us a route.

It was … an interesting walk, shall we say, taking us as it did past the hulking remains of Milan’s industrial past mixed in with what must have once been smart villas owned by the owners of those same industrial remains; past areas which still showed vestiges of an agricultural past but which now were just dead lands squeezed between train lines and highways; past cheap suburban housing erected in haste in the 1960s and ’70s for all those people who commute to Milan and back every day.

I may one day include this walk in a more general musing about industrial decay in the developed countries. But all I want to say today is that along the way, quite by chance – as I say, I merely followed Google Map’s suggested route – we passed the old factory where, once upon a time (in the early decades of the 20th Century, to be precise) the Italian alcoholic drink Campari was made. (As the photo shows, the building is now enveloped in a massive modern building)

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I made a mental note and carried on walking. Then, a few days later, when my wife and I finally did make it to Lake Como, we came across this fountain, erected in the 1930s, which, as readers can see, also acted as a promotion of Campari.

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I knew immediately that these two chance encounters with Campari within a few days of each other were A Sign. It was clear that I had to write a post about that most Italian of alcoholic drinks! But also a post about a company which did not become one of the hulking ruins that my wife and I walked by on the road to Monza but managed to turn itself into a hulking multinational.

For those of my readers who might have been living in a parallel universe all their lives and never heard of Campari, I start with some basics. First, the look of the drink:

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As readers can see, it is incredibly red, almost scarlet, in colour. This is achieved by adding cochineal to the recipe (at least, in the original; Lord knows what artificial colourant they use nowadays) – cochineal is the protective carapace of a tiny insect that lives on prickly pears (I only mention this irrelevant fact because it allows me to make a link to a previous post I wrote about prickly pears). Here is a pile of carapaces.

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And here is a pile of the colourant extracted from these carapaces.

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As for the other ingredients, we have pure ethanol of course – it wouldn’t be an alcoholic drink without it. We have water – drinking undiluted ethanol would be undrinkable and probably illegal. For taste, we have “bitter herbs” not further specified – as I’ve discovered with other herb-infused drinks, the identity of these “herbs” is always a tightly held secret (although one article I read claimed that during the writer’s visit to Campari’s modern bottling plant outside Milan he was told that two of the herbs used were rhubarb and ginseng). We also have chinotto, a sour citrus fruit closely allied to the bitter orange.

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Those two sets of ingredients make for a bitter taste, and in fact Campari’s proper name is Bitter Campari. Finally, we have the bark of the cascarilla, a plant that is a member of the Croton family and is native to the Caribbean.

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The cascarilla adds to the bitterness but is also a so-called stomachic, something that is supposed to stimulate the taste buds, thus producing reflex secretion of gastric juices, which in turn increases appetite. This is why, rather than being considered a digestif, to be drunk after a meal as an aid to digestion, Campari was touted right from the start as an aperitif to drink before starting the meal; it got your stomach ready for what you were about to eat. I’m not sure if there is any real science behind this claim (or behind similar claims that digestifs aid digestion, for that matter), but in the old days it surely gave men (always men, of course) a good excuse to pop into the local bar and have a drink (or two) before they wended their way – perhaps a little unsteadily – home for lunch or dinner (and then they could wend their way back to the bar for a digestif or two – nice life!).

That’s the basic product. But how do you drink it? Not neat, that’s for sure (maybe there are people who drink it so, but they are weird). Nowadays, of course, when every barman – sorry, barperson – between Milan and San Francisco to the west and Sydney to the east wants to distinguish themselves from every other barperson, there are a variety of concoctions available in bars which include Campari: the Milano Torino (Campari and red Vermouth in equal parts – explanation of nomenclature: Campari was invented in Milan, Vermouth in Turin), the Negroni (Campari, red Vermouth, gin), the Americano (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with soda water), Negroni sbagliato [Negroni gone wrong] (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with a sparkling white wine), the Cinque a Zero [5-0] (8 parts white wine, 2 parts Campari), the Pirlo con Campari [Wanker with Campari] (white wine, sparkling water, Campari), the Garibaldi (Campari and orange juice), the Anita (Campari and bitter orange juice – explanation of nomenclature: Anita was Garibaldi’s wife), etc., etc., etc. But the real – the original – the only – way to drink Campari is with a shot of cold soda water: no more, no less. Anything else is just froth and noise.

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That’s the way the originator of Campari, Gaspare Campari, used to serve it, in the 1860s and beyond, in the bar he owned on Piazza Duomo in Milan, at the corner with the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The bar was, appropriately enough, called Caffè Campari. Here’s a photo of it in a later period.

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Interesting fellow, Gaspare. Born in 1828 into a family of humble agricultural workers in the province of Pavia, he had a passion for the black arts of distillation. In a different era, I could imagine him ending up as a rural alchemist or sorcerer. Instead, in the 1840s he went off to Turin and learned how to distill properly and make cordials, liqueurs, digestifs, aperitifs, and other alcoholic elixirs. He kept inventing various alcoholic concoctions all his life, giving them colourful names: Elixir for a Long Life, Oil of Rhum, Rose Liqueur, and so on. But with his bright red concoction he hit a sweet spot among his Milanese customers. Originally, he called it Bitter as Used in Holland (in reference to the apparent Dutch fondness for bitter cordials), but it became so popular and so tied to his bar that it became known as Mr. Campari’s Bitter. From there, it was but a short hop, skip and a jump to it simply becoming Bitter Campari.

I don’t know if Gaspare was just lucky or if he had an instinctive understanding of marketing – I want to believe the latter – but his decision to open a bar in Milan’s spanking new, swanky Galleria was a stroke of marketing genius. His bar became the hang-out of the Milanese chatterati, ensuring a bourgeois respectability for his bright red concoction. The business boomed. Here we have a picture of him in his prime, with his family.

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Unfortunately, Gaspare died in the early 1880s when he was in his mid-50s. Without probably meaning to, he had taken the first small steps towards creating an industrial product. While he was first and foremost a caffe owner, he also bottled and sold his beverages. But this was very much an artisanal affair: he had a room behind the bar where he did his “production” and bottling.

It was his son Davide who turned the company into a real industrial business. After taking over after the death of his father, he started by decoupling the production activities from the bar. He built a modern production plant – the one my wife and I walked past – in the outskirts of Milan, selling the products through multiple outlets and not just the bar. He ran the production side, leaving the running of the bar to his younger brother Guido.

Not that the bar was not a good business. It continued to be a mainstay in the lives of Milan’s bourgeoisie. It even was honoured in 1910 by being the backdrop of a painting by the futurist artist Umberto Boccioni, Rissa in Galleria, Fight in the Galleria.

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And Davide even expanded the bar business. In 1915, he opened a new bar, opposite the Caffè Campari on the other side of the Galleria, which he called the Camparino (the little Campari). It still exists. It’s a lovely little bar, decked out in what was then the latest fashion in interior design.

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But about five years after opening the Camparino, Davide decided to sell off both bars and focus the business on making the Campari products. This was where the real money was.

Davide’s next step was to focus the company’s production on its best selling products and shed the rest. This meant dropping all those fancifully-named products his father had created and concentrating on just Bitter Campari and one other popular product, a raspberry-based cordial. After that, he only created one more new product, the Campari Soda, which came onto the market in 1932. It was really a clever knock-off of Bitter Campari, being simply a ready-made mix of Bitter Campari and soda water. A touch of genius was to get a famous futurist artist, Fortunato Depero, to design the bottle. Depero did such a good job that the bottle became iconic and is still in use today.

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Davide also started a global expansion of the company, opening production plants in France and Argentina (in the latter case, no doubt to serve the large Italian immigrant population there pining for products from the Old Country).

Finally, Davide invested heavily in advertising (Gaspare had never used advertising to promote his liquid wares). He had understood that for a product like Campari for which there was no need, but only desire, advertising was key to increase the product’s desirability and therefore its sales. He started with some fairly standard advertising.

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But he went on to use some of the biggest names in the advertising business. Leonetto Cappiello created this poster for Campari, which is still very well known.

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Fortunato Depero – he who designed the bottle for Campari Soda – came up with various proposals, this painting being the one I like best (its title is “Squisito al Selz”, “delicious with soda water”).

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But it seems that Davide preferred using Depero’s style in black and white advertizing in newspapers, like this one (the joke is in what’s written: “If the rain were Bitter Campari”).

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In the same black-and-white vein, Ugo Mochi produced a series of posters. This example brings together in one place a number of individual posters he made for Campari.

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In his more serious (but perhaps less remunerative) moments, Mochi, who was known as the Poet of the Shadows, was an illustrator of animals, like in this example.

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In the same mode of elegance as Mochi, we have this poster by Enrico Sacchetti.

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While in a very sensual mode, we have this poster by Marcello Dudovich.

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I’m actually surprised this poster was allowed by the censorship authorities (we’re talking 1904), but they let it through (perhaps the censorship committee had been at the Campari bottle a little too much before they started their work).

Davide died in 1936, when he was just shy of 70. He and his wife had had no children, so the company was taken over by his younger brother Guido, a sister, and a nephew – as in all good family businesses, the business stayed in the family. They – and later generations – kept following Davide’s business strategy, not really trying anything new, and the company ticked along. So there’s really nothing new to report, not even in the advertising field. Finally, in 1982, the last of the Campari family sold out to two of the company’s senior managers, one of whom – Domenico Garavoglia – came out on top (how the second fellow was eliminated I have failed to establish). It is his son, Luca Garavoglio, who now runs the company.

Actually, he doesn’t run a company, he runs an empire. Like the poet, Luca came to two roads in the wood. It was the 1990s, and the growth strategy for companies in the food and drinks sector (and in the consumer products sector more generally) was to snap up well-known – and profitable – brands and create vast income flows by the savvy management of this stable of brands. Luca was faced with a choice. Either he could continue Davide’s strategy of concentrating on just one product, with the almost mathematical certainty that Campari would be bought up and become just one more brand in someone else’s stable of brands. Or he could start snapping up brands himself and manage his own stable of brands. He chose the latter road in the wood, and his decision paid off handsomely.  Luca is a billionaire and Campari currently owns 38 brands; I list here a few, the ones I am personally familiar with: Aperol, Grand Marnier, Cynar, Cinzano Vermouth, Bisquit, Glen Grant, and Crodino – in addition to, of course, Campari Bitter and Campari Soda.

Is this a good turn of events? Well, on the one hand Campari still exists, it’s not a concrete shell on the road to Monza, with broken windows and weeds growing in the old carpark. On the other hand, it exists only as a soulless multinational, buying and selling brands like kids swap in the school playground the images they find in their breakfast cereal packages. It’s no longer an Italian company – its headquarters have been moved to the Netherlands – it no longer has any real roots in the culture from which it sprang. I have already mourned this loss of local identity in an earlier post on mustard, which I think is especially critical where food is concerned. I mourn it again here.  Foods – and drinks – come from a “terroir”, as the French call it; if their link to that terroir is severed, they are merely an artificiality, a compendium of chemicals. And we are all the poorer for that.

WALKING ALONG MILAN’S MARTESANA CANAL

Milan, 18 January 2021

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

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

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

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

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This map shows the track of the canal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New blocks of flats giving onto the canal.

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

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

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

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Old houses which have been lucky enough to be renovated

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Others which are struggling against the odds.

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

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

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

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– a swirl of brightness

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– square upon square of colour

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

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

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

– “I love you Vale”

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

– “What a shitty life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But a more rural feel began to creep in.

Cottages along the waterfront.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

SACRO MONTE DI OSSUCCIO

Milan, 24 December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A couple have to do with falling from great heights.

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

HOLLY AND CHRISTMAS

Milan, 12 December 2020

It’s that time of the year again! Time to drink nice hot toddies, time to put up the Christmas tree and other sundry decorations, time to set up the nativity, time to put on the CD of Christmas carols and sing along (in my case, somewhat off-key).

“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”

Holly is a nice plant. With its lovely shiny green leaves and strongly red berries, it really does bring a brightness to our lives just when we most need it. I was struck by this most forcefully last December, when my wife and I were hiking through the woods around Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (a pleasure that is currently denied us by the latest round of Covid lockdowns). The trees were all bare and drear, the rustling underfoot as we trod over dead leaves reminding us of the lovely greenery that had covered them just a few months before. Suddenly, we spied a bright cheerful green among the trees. It was a holly tree.

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Quite soon, a few more popped up between the bare trees.

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No doubt we were traversing a zone where soil and climate conspired to give the holly a competitive advantage.

It was a pleasure to see holly in the wild. Before then, I’d only ever seen holly trees tamed and manicured to within an inch of their lives in a garden, a splash of dark green against the lighter green of lawn

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Or used as a well-trained, well-trimmed hedge.

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And of course I’d seen holly as part of the wreaths which people hang on their doors at Christmastime.

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This connection between Christmas and holly is very old. When you strip away all the layers of religiosity that envelop Christmas, it’s really a feast about the winter solstice, a celebration of when the sun, which has been dying and allowing the days to get ever shorter and nature to die, is reborn, slowly making the days become longer and nature come alive again. In our festivities welcoming the rebirth of the sun, it made perfect sense for us to use plants like holly which are still green at the winter solstice, to remind the sun of the job it had to do to make everything else green again.

Thus we have the Romans decorating their homes with holly during their feast of Saturnalia, a winter solstice feast where there was a lot of gift-giving, feasting and merrymaking (a lot of other things happened during Saturnalia which need not detain us here, but any reader interested in Roman goings on can read about them here).

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Funnily enough, when early Christians followed Roman practice and hung holly in their homes and churches, the pagans around them told them not to – I suppose they thought these bloody Christians were desecrating their festival. But at the same time the Church Fathers were also telling them not to, finding this ritual really too pagan for words. Luckily for us, the Christian-on-the- street ignored both the pesky pagans and kill-joy Church Fathers and continued to hang holly in their homes and houses of worship. Which in turn has allowed us to sing over the ages (in my case, somewhat off-key),

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la, la la la la”

Presumably, as the legions marched outwards from the Roman heartlands they took with them their Saturnalia festival. Holly (at least the species which grows around Rome) is present in just about all the European regions and some of the North African regions which the Romans conquered (the green crosses mean isolated populations, and the orange triangles indicate places where the holly was introduced and became naturalized).

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So no doubt halls were also decked with holly in the Roman colonies of western Europe and North Africa. In fact, it is possible that our Christmas love affair with holly in Western Europe has its roots in the Romans’ Saturnalia festival.

Or perhaps not. Because holly was also a special plant for the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe: the map above shows that holly was very much present in their heartlands. They too decked their halls with holly, and for much the same reasons as the Romans: the plant’s evergreen leaves and bright red berries brought cheer to an otherwise dreary time of the year, and they were a reminder that greenery had not disappeared for ever, that it would soon be back, warmed by a re-born and newly vigorous sun.

The Celts saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and imparted many magical powers to the plant. Hanging holly in homes was believed to bring good luck. During winter, branches of holly in the house would provide shelter from the cold for fairies, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the dwelling. In the same vein, holly was believed to guard people against evil spirits. So Druids wore holly garlands on their heads, as did chieftains. Holly trees were often planted around homes; because holly was believed to repel lightning this would protect homes from lightning strikes. Just as the oak tree was considered the ruler of summer, so the holly was seen as the ruler of winter, the dark time. As such, holly was associated with dreams and Druids would often invoke the energy of holly to assist them in their dream work and spiritual journeying. Here is one rather fanciful modern depiction of the magical powers of holly.

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Holly is not the only evergreen plant which has been caught up in our Christmas celebrations. There’s the Christmas tree, of course.

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“O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Thy leaves are so unchanging
Not only green when summer’s here
But also when it’s cold and drear”

The custom of using pine trees in Christmas celebrations started in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, by the way, during the Middle Ages and spread out from there. The trees were traditionally decorated with flowers made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel and sweetmeats. I would say that the original idea was to remind us that trees would soon be a-fruiting again.

Then there’s the mistletoe.

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“When I close my eyes
It’s just you and I
Here under the mistletoe
Magic fills the air
Standin’ over there
Santa hear my prayer
Hеre under the mistlеtoe”

Our wanting to steal a kiss under the mistletoe is a pale reflection of an ancient belief that mistletoe brought fecundity into a home – its white berries were considered to be the sperm of the oak tree.

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Kissing under the mistletoe will never feel the same again now that I’ve read that.

I actually have a sense that just about any evergreen plant was made part of Christmas celebrations in some place and at some time – after all, if the point of having evergreen plants around was to remind us of the newly green world just around the corner, any evergreen plant should surely do the trick. I rather like a Christmas decoration that was once popular and summed up all the ideas around the use of evergreens in a celebration of the re-birth of the sun. This was the Kissing Bough. It was a popular Christmas decoration before the pine tree dethroned it and came to dominate our Christmases. To make one, five wooden hoops were tied together in the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were then covered with whatever evergreen plants were at hand: holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or anything else (signifying the vegetation to come). An apple was hung inside the ball (signifying the fruits to come) and a candle was placed inside the ball at the bottom (signifying the re-birth of light). The Bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball (signifying the fecundity to come).

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Coming back to holly, before we get carried away with all this magical imagery and mystical meanings (and let me tell you, the Internet is awash with reams of magico-mystico stuff on holly), let’s go back even beyond our Celtic and Roman forebears to a time when we were mere hunter-gatherers. Etymologists believe that the word “holly” has its origins in the Old English word hole(ġ)n. This is related to the Old Low Franconian word *hulis, and both are related to Old High German hulis, huls. These Germanic words appear to be related to words for holly in the Celtic languages, such as Welsh celyn, Breton kelen(n) and Irish cuileann. Probably all come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to prick”.

What an eminently sensible lot, the hunter-gatherers were, to give this plant a name which stressed its prickliness! Yes, holly is nice to look at, but get close and you immediately notice something else: its leaves have very sharp spines.

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This is not a tree to hide under or climb: something I learned as a child when I was once violently pushed into a holly hedge by another, very nasty, child. Ouch, it bloody hurt!