A WALK ON THE WILDER SIDE

Sori, 10 December 2016

It’s a sad fact that the coast of the Riviera – as well as that of the Côte d’Azur, which takes over at the Franco-Italian border – has been much overbuilt. Ever since this part of the world – harsh, inhospitable land, from which generations of peasants had barely eked out a living – was discovered in the late 19th Century by the growing middle classes of Northern Europe, who were attracted to its mild winters and dramatic rocky landscapes, brick, concrete, and asphalt have been poured with wild abandon over a narrow strip of land following the shoreline. Sometimes, when I look out over this mass of houses, shops, supermarkets, banks, roads, railway lines, bridges, and all the other infrastructure of modern life, and when I hear the continuous background noise of traffic, I wish I could travel back in time to see these places when they were more pristine and unspoiled, or wave a magic wand and make it all disappear.

At such moments, it is time to pull on the hiking boots and head for the hills. For the overbuilding dies away quite quickly as one ventures up into the deep, narrow valleys giving onto the sea, valleys which are the defining geological feature of this part of the coast. Thus it was that a few days ago, all booted up, we boarded a small bus in front of the village school. At the appointed time it left, taking the road that initially follows the valley floor, jumping from bank to bank of the stream that runs down-valley, before it begins to climb, with the road at this point becoming horridly narrow and sinuous. We climbed through a couple of small villages before being dropped off at the head of the valley. Since this was still a hundred or so meters below the crest, a 3 km tramp up the road was required before we finally arrived at the top. The view of the sea, glittering far below, was magnificent.
image
We popped quickly into this restaurant
image
to say hello to the owners. In earlier days, when the children were young, we would come up here quite regularly to have a magnificent plate of lasagne al pesto and go for a short walk or let the children kick a ball around. This time, we could only manage hurried greetings. Normally, this is a place patronized by very local people – it was here that I was first exposed to the local dialect in its pure, undiluted form – and the number of diners is manageable. But this day was a public holiday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the restaurant was crowded with foreigners (the term “foreigners” covering even the citizens of nearby Genova) and everyone was in overdrive.

A short walk down the road brought us to the start of the trail we were taking today. The aim was to walk along the southern crest of our valley to Sant’Apollinare (the starting point of the first of this trio of walks) and so back down to the village. This panoramic photo taken a few days’ later from our balcony shows the crest we followed.
image
The walk was all I desired to get away from the madding crowd. Almost immediately, most signs of modern life disappeared. As we tramped along what was probably an ancient mule track, we met hardly anyone; it was just us and nature. The track took us through woods
image image
where small flowers unknown to me still grew in this late season on the trackside.
image
The track took us across high pastures, bereft of animals at this time of the year
image
and past numerous hides – hunting being a particularly popular pastime in the autumn, with the excuse that the ever-increasing populations of wild boar need culling.

At points, the vistas opened up, towards the sea on one side
image
and towards the other side of the valley, the side which our bus had climbed
image
and back towards head of the valley, start of our walk
image
and way over the range of valleys up-coast and down-coast.
image
image

As we neared our destination, we got a lovely view of Monte di Portofino, the location of the walk in my previous post.
image
We were tiring by now, hoping for a smooth final leg. But it was not to be. The ground got very much stonier, the path harder.
image
Civilization also came butting in. Two men on noisy, smelly motorbikes suddenly appeared on the path, wanting to get by, while the dull roar of the motorway, which was passing under our feet, wafted up.

We reached a monument to Christ the King, put up by enthusiastic parishioners decades ago. We thought we had finally more or less arrived, but 20 minutes of hard and confused slogging over rocks and through woods awaited us still.

image

But we finally made it to the small church of Sant’Apollinare, just as the sun was beginning to sink.

Bone tired, we headed down the last stretch in the gathering darkness, down
image
down
image
down
image
back into the coastline’s overbuilt environment.

image

___________

photos: all mine

A WALK FROM ONE SAINT TO ANOTHER

Sori, 10 December 2016

We started in San Rocco, which is perched on a rocky spur high above Camogli.

image
The last time we visited it, we huffed and we puffed our way up the old mule track that snakes its way up from Camogli. This time, we took it easy; we took the Recco-Rapallo bus and hopped off at Ruta, which lies on the saddle between Camogli on one side of Monte di Portofino and Santa Margherita on the other, and took another little bus from Ruta to San Rocco.

A little aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Rocco, known in English – if at all – as Saint Roch (I found traces of a couple of British churches named after him), lived in the late 1200s, early 1300s, dividing his time between what is now southern France and northern Italy. He is the patron saints of dogs and bachelors (a strange combination) and was especially invoked in times of the plague – hence this painting of the saint pensively pointing to a plague bubo on his leg.
image
In any event, fresh from our relaxing bus drive, and fortified by a cappuccino and a slice of focaccia, we set off down the path which led to Punta Chiappa, a low rocky ledge jutting out into the sea at the furthest reaches of Monte di Portofino. The idea was to have lunch in a restaurant down at the water’s edge just before Punta Chiappa and, suitably fuelled up, toil our way back up to San Rocco. We started losing height through a series of long flights of steps
image
we wended our way through woods
image
through which struggled a few remaining olive groves.
image
We finally arrived at San Nicolò, a small collection of houses clustered around a pretty little 12th Century church.
image
The original monks who had ministered to the small community of fisherfolk clinging on to this steep hillside finally moved away in the face of continuing depredations by Barabary pirates (I suppose church plate was considered good loot) and the church fell into disuse. Recently, suitable renovations have been undertaken, although there was little left of the original decorations to restore.

Another quick aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Nicolò, Saint Nicholas in English, lived at the juncture of the 3rd and 4th centuries. He was a bishop in Asia Minor and was famous for working miracles (he seems to have been particularly good at this). Of relevance to this story, he is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
image
But he also is responsible for a whole host of other professions including coopers, archers, pharmacists and – somewhat bizarrely – broadcasters. Somewhere along the line, no doubt because he is the patron saint of children, this very worthy saint morphed into that very heathen Santa Claus.

One of the few fragments of the original decorations left is this piece of fresco.
image
It shows St. Nicholas saving two sailors from drowning as their ship founders: that nightmare of all sailors and the subject of famous paintings
image
as well as a myriad of humbler ex-votos, normally dedicated as in this case to Mary in her role as Stella Maris, Star of the Seas.
image

I am moved to insert here those lovely lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in the short section of the poem entitled Death by Water:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current underseas
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

From San Nicolò, we got the first good view of the Golfo di Paradiso, the woods having obscured the view in the upper reaches of the walk.
image
Hunger drove us on. We dropped still further towards the sea,
image
finally reaching the restaurant. Alas! Contrary to what we had been assured in the café where we took our morning cappuccino and focaccia, it was closed. We were mournfully counting the tangerines we had brought with us and reckoning on the number of stairs we would need to climb to get back to San Rocco on a nearly empty stomach when we saw a boat coming in to dock. We hurried forward and discovered that by sheer serendipity we had arrived just in time to catch the boat to San Fruttuoso, from whence we could get a boat back to Camogli! Light of stomach, but also light of heart, we hopped on, took a seat, and admired the passing views as we rounded Punta Chiappa
image image
motored past forbidding headlands
image
until the small fort protecting San Fruttuoso hove into sight,
image
where we turned into San Fruttuoso’s bay and chugged in towards the village itself.
image
image

image

Calling this a village is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, composed as it is of the ancient abbey (currently under renovation)
image
a somewhat less ancient watchtower
image
and a few fishermen’s houses clustered in between.

It’s a charming site, much frequented in the summer by people who come to lie on the beach (as it was when we visited it, during a long weekend). We took the easy way in, but hardier folk can take one of a number of paths crisscrossing Monte di Portofino which pass through San Fruttuoso. Well rested and after eating our meager cache of tangerines I went off to visit the Abbey while my wife read her book on the beach.

A final note on the lives of obscure saints: San Fruttuoso, Saint Fructuosus in English (a saint so obscure in the English world that I could find no church named after him), was a bishop of Tarragona in Spain in the second half of the third century.
image
His main, in fact his only, claim to fame was that he was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is so obscure that no group has claimed him as their patron saint, which is a bit sad. Given his name, makers of fruit juices could perhaps apply …

How an abbey in Italy got to be dedicated to him is a bit of a mystery. The story goes that when the Vandals invaded Spain some monks from Tarragona, anxious that his remains not be despoliated, carried them off by sea. After a certain amount of wandering around the Mediterranean, they ended up on the Monte di Portofino. I find the story to have a lot of holes in it, but hey, who am I to question its veracity? Suffice to say that the Abbey grew quite wealthy from donations of land. Wealth put it in the sights of the Barabary pirates. Like San Nicolò, it went into decline after repeated depredations and was eventually abandoned.

In the early afternoon, our return boat docked. We piled in and returned to Camogli
image
for a well-deserved late lunch of focaccia al formaggio.

image
______________

All photos: mine, except as follows

San Rocco: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camogli-chiesa_di_San_Rocco_(Ruta)-DSCF0645.JPG
Saint Roch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Roch
Le radeau de la méduse: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Radeau_de_La_Méduse
Ex-voto shipwreck: http://www.ottante.it
Saint Nicholas: http://aristidhmilaqi.blogspot.it/2011/06/saint-nicholas-patron-saint-of-sailors.html?m=1
Saint Fructuosus: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructuosus
Camogli: http://www.cepolina.com/Camogli-sea-beach.html
Focaccia al formaggio: http://www.italianbotanicalheritage.com/it/scheda.php?struttura=499

A WALK IN THE SETTING SUN

Sori, 8 December 2016

We decided not to struggle up the path which leads from the railway station up along the spur of the hill to the small church of Sant’Apollinare at the top. We did it a few weeks ago and it’s brutally steep. Instead, we took the bus that starts from in front of the village fishmonger, timed to leave just after school breaks up. Together with one shy schoolgirl we zipped up the road which zigs and zags its way up the hillside. 10 minutes later, just shy of 4:30, we were deposited on the small parking area by the church. The sun was beginning to set over the Riviera on the other side of Genova, bathing the little church and the distant Monte di Portofino in its ruddy rays.

image
image
We were taking the path that led down to the little town of Recco, nestled at the foot of the Monte di Portofino. We needed to get down before it got too dark. We started walking, passing through olive groves where the hillside’s exposure to the sun was good
image
and through Mediterranean maquis where it was less good
image
and where earlier farmers had not bothered to terrace the hillside and plant olive trees.
image
We passed the Torre dei Saraceni, the Saracens’ Tower, which according to local legend was built as a lookout to warn local villages when raiding parties of Barbary pirates based in Northern Africa (or maybe closer in Corsica and Sardinia) were approaching, looking to carry away loot and people to be sold as slaves in the market places of Tunis and Algiers (a plague which Italy’s coastal communities suffered until the 1800s).
image
When we were young and foolish, my wife and I had fantasized about living here, brushing aside such practical questions as where the nearest shop was to buy food.

On we hurried, with the Monte di Portofino looming larger.
image
Out to sea, ships were hurrying also, to reach the safety of the port of Genova.
image
We watched as the sun finally set across the Bay of Genova, silhouetting the Torre dei Saraceni.
image
We went on in the sunset’s afterglow, down dimly-lit steps

image
arriving finally in the small village of Polanesi on the outskirts of Recco. Our path skirted the parish church

image
into whose dim interior we quickly dipped. Its floor hinted at some tragedy 200 years ago
image
while its outer walls proclaimed a more recent tragedy, the retreat from Russia in 1942-3, in which many Italians died.
image
The moon alone was now shining in the sky.

image
By its dim light, and in places by the light of my phone, we stumbled down the last steps to finally reach the Via Aurelia.
image
When I was young and foolish, I thought this really was the trace of the old Roman road, but I discovered later that the Romans never bothered to build a road through this wild and mountainous region; they just went by boat along the coast.

A short walk brought us to Recco, now enveloped in darkness.
image
We lowered ourselves into the chairs of the nearest bar and had ourselves a well-merited Aperol Spritz.

image

_______

all photos: mine, except for

Aperol Spritz: http://www.aperolspritzsocials.com

AMBER AND ITS ROAD

Bangkok, 15 August 2016

I’ve just finished a fascinating book about the peopling of Europe, entitled Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings, by Jean Manco. The book describes the various waves of people who have settled Europe, peacefully or not, from 40,000 BC to 1,000 AD.

One thread in the rich tapestry of the peopling of Europe is the trade networks which sprang up as neighbouring tribes traded whatever useful or interesting resources they controlled inside their territories. The really high-value resources could in this way travel very long distances from their point of origin, as people passed them on – at ever-increasing value, no doubt – to people further away from the original source. In an earlier post, I’ve mentioned the Stone Age long-distance trade in obsidian, which made excellent, sharp arrowheads. Gold, the subject of my next-to previous post, was also traded over long distances. Amber was another such material.

In the early days of Europe’s history, by far the richest source of amber was the Baltic coast of Poland (it probably still is), where nuggets of amber would wash up on the beach, broken off from the amber deposits on the sea bottom.
image
The biggest market for amber, on the other hand, and from time immemorial, were the civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament contains pieces of Baltic amber, for instance
image
while Heinrich Schliemann found necklace beads of Baltic amber in the Mycenaean tombs he excavated.

Thus sprang up several “amber roads”, trade routes which brought Baltic (and other Northern European) amber south.
image
The one that most interests me is the amber road which led from the general region of Gdansk down to the Roman provincial capital of Carnuntum on the Danube River (the Danube became the Roman Empire’s frontier in 9 BC), on down along the network of Roman roads to Aquileia in North-Eastern Italy, the terminus. This map shows, more or less, a detailed trace of this amber road.
image
I say “more or less” because while the route taken by the amber after the Danube River crossing is pretty clear – it followed the Roman roads down to the Italian peninsula – how it got to the Danube River from the Baltic coast is less so. There were just tracks through the forests and around the bogs in this part of Europe, and I’m sure every Germanic trader followed his fancy, depending on what else he was buying or selling along the way, as well as what the weather was like and who was fighting who. There seem to have been a few fixed points on the itinerary: Wroclaw (Breslau in German; the British historian Norman Davies, in collaboration with Roger Moorehouse, has written a fascinating biography of this city, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City), the Moravian Gate (a pass between the Carpathian and Sudeten mountains, used since remotest antiquity as a passageway), and the Morava River which flows into the Danube just across from Carnuntum.

Once the raw amber arrived in Aquileia, it was turned over to workshops which turned it into desirable luxury products. Aquileia’s amber products were famous not just in the Italic heartlands but throughout the Roman world. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder – rather dismissively, it seems to me – says they were in demand among women only. He also says that amber was thought to have protective properties for illnesses of the throat, which might explain why so many of the amber products found in the Italian peninsula are pendants.

I have to say I’m not a big fan of amber, at least as used in modern jewelry. But I must admit that some of the amber pieces made in the Italian peninsula, both before its domination by Rome and after, are really very lovely. Here, in no particular order, are some pieces whose photos I found on the net. The first two are pre-Roman (Italic and Etruscan, respectively, to be precise)
image
image
while the remainder are from the Roman period; a number of them, if not all, were made in Aquileia’s workshops. This is Dionysius
image
while this must be Pan.
image
This is a perfume bottle
image
while this little set-piece is “Eros and a bitch”.
image
Lovely little pieces …

Let me go back a step now and explain my interest in this particular amber road. Or rather interests, for there are several. I first got to know about it, and the ancient amber trade in general, when my wife and I lived in Vienna. It so happens that Vienna is located close to Carnuntum. It always tickled me pink to think that Vienna, which gives itself such airs as the capital of the (defunct) Austro-Hungarian Empire, was once upon a time no more than a minor garrison town called Vindobona on the far edges of the much mightier Roman Empire. I’m sure officers and soldiers alike in little Vindobona looked with envy at their more powerful neighbour Carnunutum, which not only had the rich amber trade passing through it but also was the capital of the province. So many more important things went on there! The Emperor Marcus Aurelius chose Carnuntum as his base for three years during one of the periodic Roman campaigns against Germanic tribes across the Danube River (he also wrote part of his famous Meditations there, a copy of which graces my bookshelves). Another Emperor, Septimius Severus, was also based in Carnuntum when governor of Pannonia, and he was proclaimed Emperor there by his troops. Carnuntum hosted a historic meeting between the Emperor Diocletian and his co-emperors Maximian and Galerius, to solve rising tensions within the tetrarchy. Among other things, the meeting led to freedom of religion for the Roman Empire. And on, and on.

In contrast, like in all garrison towns, probably nothing much ever happened in Vindobona (although Marcus Aurelius’s death there in 180 AD must have caused a ripple of excitement). W.H. Auden caught well the tedium of garrison life on the Empire’s frontier for the ordinary soldier, in his poem Roman Wall Blues. The poem is about another of the Empire’s frontiers, Hadrian’s Wall, but I’m sure the tedium was the same, whichever frontier you were assigned to.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

But I suppose Vienna had the last laugh. It still exists, whereas Carnuntum is now but a very modest pile of ruins, having been systematically sacked by Germanic tribes in the 4th Century (I suppose in a way the Germanic tribes had the last laugh too, after all the denigration they received from the Romans). Sic transit gloria mundi, as I am ever fond of repeating: “thus passes the glory of the world”.

This particular amber road also caught my attention because it gave me an alternative route to the ones we always took to go back to my wife’s home town of Milan: either head south out of Vienna over the mountains to Graz and then over more mountains to Klagenfurt and Villach, slip through the Alps at the Tarvisio pass, then speed past Udine down to Venice, whence turn right and make for Milan; or, head west out of Vienna towards Linz, then Salzburg, and then into Bavaria, turn left at the River Inn and enter Austria again, at Innsbruck turn left again and climb up to the Brenner pass, down the other side to zip by Bolzano and Trento, exit from the Alps at Verona, and turn right there to head for Milan. Now my wife and I could take a lower road (a considerable benefit when traveling in winter, when both the other routes can be unpleasant), as well as one steeped in history. Travelling along the ghosts of old Roman roads (all of which disappeared long ago) we would head south past the tip of Lake Neusidler, shared by Austria and Hungary, to Šopron and then Szombalethy, both in Hungary, on to Ptuj, Celje, and Lubljana in Slovenia, to finally slip through the Julian Alps at Gorizia and on to Aquileia, where we would need to finally get on the A4 motorway and speed on to Milan!

Great idea, except for one slight problem – time. There is no speedy highway linking all these towns, so it would take far longer to get to Milan. Since we were working, we couldn’t afford the time; we were always time-starved. But that will all change in a mere two weeks’ time, when I retire! Then, we will have all the time in the world, and I am determined to finally follow in the footsteps of the legions and pass through what were once the Roman towns of Scarbantia, Savariensum, Poetovium, Celeia, and Emona. There’s not much Roman left in them, though. Like Carnuntum, and like the terminal point Aquileia (of whose total destruction I wrote about in an earlier post), they were all thoroughly sacked and resacked by Germanic, Gothic, Hun, Lombard, Slav, or Hungarian war parties (or some combination of these) during the period of the “Barbarian Invasions” or the “Migration of the Peoples”, the Völkerwanderung (take your pick, depending on your ideological point of view).

I always feel a point of melancholy when faced with these moments of destruction in history. And it’s not just in the remote past. On the northern end of this amber road, tremendous destruction, of places but also of people, was wreaked a mere 70 or so years ago as first, German troops swept through on their way to enacting Hitler’s policy of lebensraum, expanding the living space of the Aryan, Germanic people at the expense of Slavic people, and then again, as the Soviet troops fought their way back to Berlin. Along with many other Polish cities, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Poznan, all sitting astride the amber route, were almost totally destroyed, their Jewish populations annihilated, their Polish populations much depleted, their industrial infrastructure stripped away. What a waste … so much human creativity swept away by the animal desire to destroy.

_________________
Raw amber on a Baltic beach: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_amber#/media/File%3ABaltic_beach_sand_containing_amber.jpg
Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament: https://hu.pinterest.com/pin/249598004324238999/
Amber necklace, Mycenae: https://sites.google.com/site/ambranathistplinio/home/etimologia-e-proprieta
Amber routes map: http://www.ambergallery.lt/en/disp.php?itm=en_museums_3%2Fen_museums_3_9
Amber road through Carnuntum: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amber_Road
Ram’s head, Italic, 500-400 BC: http://museumcatalogues.getty.edu/amber/intro/16/
Boar’s head, Etruscan, 525-480 BC: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/19/entertainment/la-et-getty-ambers-20130119
Mask of Dionysius, Roman, 1st C AD: http://amberregina.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html
Perfume bottle, Roman, Aquileia workshop, 2nd C AD: http://www.antiquitiesexperts.com/rome138.html
Eros and bitch, Roman: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1128_-_Archaeological_Museum,_Udine_-_Ancient_Roman_amber_Eros_and_bitch_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_May_29_2015.jpg

SOÑAR NADA CUESTA

Bangkok, 23 April 2016

There is a small olive orchard abutting the path that runs behind our apartment in Liguria. It’s in a sorry state, seemingly sorrier every time my wife and I pass it on our way into the hills. I’ve never taken a picture of it, but it looks something like this, only worse.
image
It’s the sad fate of many of the terraced olive orchards in Liguria. It makes no economic sense any more to harvest olives in this part of Italy, and as the peasant-farmers who own them die off their children and grandchildren abandon the orchards to their fate. And so the brambles and nettles and vines and finally maybe some scrubby oaks recolonize the land. Harvesting Ligurian olives is now a labour of love.

My wife and I could lavish that love on that derelict olive orchard, once I’m retired. I have a dream of us identifying the owners and making a deal with them. Let us clear the orchard, I tell them, let us give those poor olive trees a bit of TLC, so that they can once again shake out their branches and drink in the Mediterranean sun.
image
In return, I say in this dream dialogue with the owners, let us have the olives which those trees, in their gratitude, will give birth to.
image
Neither my wife nor I have ever picked an olive in our lives, but in my dream this is not a problem. My wife and I would extend under the spreading olive branches those orange and green nets I’ve seen so often in Liguria to catch the olives as they fall (would we have to shake the branches, I wonder?)
image
And then, arm-in-arm, we would bring our harvest of olives to the local olive press.
image
Actually, an internet search has informed me that the nearest local olive press is 10 km away, so a car ride rather than a stroll would be in order. Also, it doesn’t use stone presses, that is passé; something along these lines is used – more modern, more sterile, but, the internet assures me, more efficient.

image
No matter, one way or another the oil from our olives would be squeezed out

image

and after some filtering, some racking, and some other things (I’m going to have to learn the olive oil lingo), we would become the proud owners of several bottles like these of cold-pressed, organic, extra-virgin olive oil.image
We would drizzle this nectar of the gods on our salads for a year, until the next harvest was brought in.
image
Or might we want to pickle the olives? A quick whip around the internet persuades me that it’s not that difficult to pickle olives; you just need time and brine.

image

OK, it’s decided: we will follow what happens in the global olive market, we will pickle 10% of our olive harvest and use the rest to make our very own olive oil.

Lovely dream. Of course, there might be a few snags in the real world. We may never find the owners, the owners may tell us to bugger off, the trees may be too old or too sick to fruit any more, the fruit or even the trees themselves may be attacked and destroyed by what seems on cursory reading to be a vast army of animalcules just waiting to sink their fangs or similar organs into fruit, leaf, or bark. But like a colleague of mine in Colombia recently wrote to me, “soñar nada cuesta”, to dream costs nothing.
_______________________
Abandoned olive orchard: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6n7eBKRLQ80
Clean olive orchard: http://www.vinoemozioni.com/blog/tag/anfosso/
Olives on olive tree: http://www.tavoladautore.it/contenuti/id/22/Gli-ulivi-di-Liguria–cultivar-e-caratteristiche.html
Nets under olive trees: http://www.casalefiliberto.com/gallery/gallery_oliveto/index.html
Old olive press: http://www.casait.it/it/toscana-grande-villa-vendita-vigneto-uliveto-S96J/
Modern olive press: http://www.oliofrantoioamoretticarlo.it/frantoio-da-olive.html
First press oil: http://novellaevignolo.com
Bottled olive oil: http://www.mraxani.it/prodotto/olio-extravergine-di-oliva-agrintec/
Olive oil on salad: http://www.foodinitaly.com/news/fotogallery/OLIO_EXTRAVERGINE_D’OLIVA_LE_REGOLE_D’ORO_PER_SCEGLIERLO-2527.html?start=4
Pickled olives: http://www.yaffa.co.uk/product_p/ogt1.htm

CITRON

Bangkok, 19 March 2016

In the recent trip which my wife and I made to Italy, we managed to squeeze in a visit to our apartment near Genoa, where I was particularly delighted to see so many lemon trees in fruit. It’s wonderful to see trees heavy with lemons peeping over a wall or hanging over a garden fence.

lemons Liguria

Once back in Bangkok, I decided to do some research on the lemon and its history: how did this lovely yellow fruit end up in Liguria? But delving into the lemon’s history inevitably dragged me into the history of the citrus family. It turns out that the lemon does not have a long or distinguished pedigree. It is the citrus equivalent to a mutt, a fairly recent hybrid. In fact, most citrus fruits with which we are familiar are fairly recent hybrids. It seems that the members of this family love to hybridize, and of course humans – being intrusive busybodies by nature – have been only too willing to assist them. The result is a family tree of bewildering complexity.

As I tried to make sense of all this, my attention was diverted by something I read about the citron. I think I need to insert here a few words about the citron, since I’m sure there are many readers who are not familiar with this citrus fruit. It is relatively difficult to find these days since it has little use – except for one very special one, which I will come to in a minute. It looks like a large, warty, lemon.citron

Coming to what I read, it seems that during a ceremony in the Temple of Jerusalem marking the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot, in one of the years around 100 BC, the Jews pelted the High Priest with citrons and got massacred for doing so. Now that was something worth finding more about! How I would have loved to use citrons, rotten tomatoes, eggs, dog-eared hymn books – anything, really – to pelt the priests with for subjecting me to excruciatingly boring sermons during the Sunday Masses of my childhood! It turns out, though, that the Jews were not horribly bored with what the High Priest was saying, but horrified by what he was doing. It is reported that he deliberately poured the water of libation over his feet rather than over the sacrificial animals. I can’t say that I can get quite as excited about this action as the Jews did, but the fact is that they did, and satisfyingly peppered the High Priest with citrons.

Of course, it does come spontaneously to ask oneself why on earth the Jews were carrying citrons around in the Temple in the first place. It’s certainly not the item that would immediately come to my mind as expecting to see in the hands of Jews within the sacred precincts of the Temple. It turns out that the citron plays an extremely important role in the ceremonies of Sukkot. Every morning of this seven-day Feast, Jews are required to ceremoniously wave the “four species”. Citron is one of these, the other three being the date palm, the myrtle, and the willow. We see here the Tosher Rabbi of Montreal waving the four species.

tosher rabbi of montreal

One can therefore assume that the Jews were carrying their four species when the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet, and in the horror of the moment they blindly grabbed their citrons and threw them at the impious prelate. It seems that they must have also thrown something harder – stones, no doubt – since it is reported that the stone altar was damaged. I can’t really see citrons doing damage to a stone altar.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why the citron ever became one of the four species, because it is not native to the Near East, whereas the other three species are. The citron, like all the original citrus fruits, originated somewhere in the region of South-East Asia-Yunnan in southern China-the Himalayan slopes of India. So how did it end up in the Near East? There is general agreement that the fruit was first cultivated in northern India. From there, it migrated, presumably along trade routes, to Persia. What happened next is a hotly debated issue – at least, in certain circles. One hypothesis has the citron migrating to Egypt, where its essential oils were used in embalming, and from whence the Jews brought it with them to the Promised Land when they escaped from bondage in Egypt. A second hypothesis has the citron being carried from Persia to the Mediterranean basin in the baggage of Alexander the Great’s returning soldiers, who somewhere along the way dropped it off in the Levant. Yet another hypothesis has the citron migrating from Persia to Babylonia, where the Jews came across it during their Babylonian captivity and brought it with them when they came back to Israel.

These are all suppositions, with no real evidence to back them up. A very clever piece of archaeological sleuthing suggests a more concrete hypothesis. We need to first recall that after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiled Jews to return home, Israel was a Persian province for several hundred years. Israeli archaeologists have been excavating a site quite close to Jerusalem which turns out to have been a Persian palace with an extensive garden around it. Here is a reconstruction of the site.

persian palace

The archaeologists wanted to see if they could find evidence of what was planted in this garden. They therefore looked for traces of ancient pollen. None could be found in the earth of the garden – whatever had been there had decomposed long ago. So they decided to try their luck in the plaster with which the walls of an ancient pool in the garden had been coated. The thinking was that pollen grains could have got stuck in the plaster while it was drying and been preserved. They were right – and one of the types of pollen they found was that of the citron. From the other types of pollen found – a number from species not present in Israel – the archaeologists deduced that this was a garden planted with rare plants, designed to show off the wealth and power of the palace’s resident, either a Persian satrap or a Babylonian Jew close to the Persians and sent there to keep an eye on the locals. Perhaps it was here that the Jerusalem Temple elites, coming to pay their respects to the Palace’s resident, first saw the citron and admired this strange and exotic fruit. Maybe it became the rage to have a citron tree in one’s garden in emulation of the Persian masters.

Assuming this is somewhere near correct, how did the chicness of the citron eventually segue into its strong religious symbolism? Here, I shall hazard an explanation which I found written nowhere but which satisfies my fertile imagination. One has to know that the adoption by the Jews of the four species in the rituals of Sukkot derives from a text in the Book of Leviticus, where it is said (in the English translation):

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”

The text specifically names two of the plants: the palm tree and the willow. For the other two, though, it is quite vague. Talmudic tradition eventually settled on the citron as the “fruit of beautiful trees” and on myrtle as “boughs of leafy trees”.

The choice of myrtle makes sense to me – it is satisfyingly leafy.

myrtle

But the choice of citron as the fruit of a beautiful tree? That is really quite odd. In no way can the citron tree be considered a beautiful tree. It is low and scrubby, more bush-like.

citron tree

It seems, though, that the Hebrew text is grammatically ambiguous. Although the phrase in Leviticus is typically translated as “fruit of a beautiful tree”, it can also be rendered as “a beautiful fruit of a tree.” At first sight, this doesn’t seem to fit the citron either. As the picture above shows only too well, it is warty and knobbly, really quite ungraceful. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. The citron’s name in Persian, turunj, derives from the Sanskrit suranga, “beautifully coloured”. In today’s world, our lives are so saturated in bright colours that it is difficult for us to appreciate the impact on our ancestors of the few naturally brightly coloured things. As the photo above also reveals, the citron does indeed have a lovely yellow colour, and there really aren’t that many fruits that are so beautifully yellow (lemons come to mind, but that doesn’t count because they are a hybrid of the citron). Maybe the Persians, and the Indians before them, and the Jews after them, found the citron’s colour captivating.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, let me suggest another reason. Under proper conditions, the citron is the only tree that can flower and bear fruit throughout the year. Even more distinctively, it can retain its fruit from one year to the next. So the citron tree can have buds, blossoms, and mature fruit all at the same time. This is a unique property, and one which may have aroused awe and reverence in our ancestors.

If that explanation doesn’t satisfy my readers, how about this one? Both the Greek philosopher, Theophrastos, and the Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, mention the citron in their botanical writings. And both stress the fact that the citron, fruit and leaves, has a very strong scent, that typical scent which you also get from the zest of the lemon. It is so strong, they say, that if the fruit is put among clothes it acts as a moth-repellent. This seems a little weak as a reason for nominating the citron as a “beautiful fruit”, although as every woman knows scent can be an important ingredient in beauty. And maybe the elites of India, Persia, and Israel were particularly receptive to the idea that their magnificent – and expensive – clothes could be protected from those pesky moths by the citron.

Either one of these explanations, or all three, must explain not only why the Jews adopted the citron as a religious symbol but also why anyone bothered to cultivate the citron in the first place and then bothered to carry it along to different parts of the world. From a utilitarian point of view, and our ancestors were nothing if not supremely utilitarian when it came to their natural environment, the citron really does seem a singularly useless plant. As I’ve said, the tree is low, scrubby, and bush-like, so it cannot be used as a shade tree. It is sickly and prone to disease, so is difficult to cultivate. The wood is no good for timber. Even the fruit is not much good to eat. It is mostly pith with hardly any flesh, and what flesh there is, is dry with relatively little juice.

cut citron

Whatever the reason, by the time the High Priest poured the water of libation over his feet (no doubt with a sneer on his lips) the practice of using the citron as one of the four species in the ceremonies of Sukkot was fixed.

It was this deliberately offensive act at the altar of the Temple which set me off on this quest to know more about the citron. But I can’t stop here, because the continuing history of the citron is equally fascinating. So I hope my readers will bear with me if I take them on a journey into the fruit’s more recent history.

From the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70,  the European history of the citron has been indissolubly bound up with that of the Jewish communities in Europe, so let me switch to using its Hebrew name, etrog (which, by the way, derives from the citron’s Persian name, turunj, via Aramaic, strengthening the idea that somehow it was the Persians who brought it into the lives of the Jews). The Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem, which ended Temple-centred worship for the Jews, meant that the feast of Sukkot began to be celebrated wherever the Jews happened to live. Since the citron was now indispensable in the celebrations of Sukkot, it followed the Jewish diaspora as the latter spread out through the Roman Empire into Greece, Italy, and Spain. With time, more and more attention was given to ensuring that the etrogim used in Sukkot were the most beautiful: after all, they were offerings to the Lord our God and nothing but the most beautiful should be offered. Detailed guidelines were issued about what constituted a “perfect” etrog, and considerable sums of money were paid for the most perfect ones.

All was under control until the Diaspora began to move northwards into parts of Europe where the climate was too cool for the citron to grow. These more northerly Jewish communities therefore urgently needed etrogim to be brought to them from lands further to the south – no other fruit would do since the four species had been prescribed in the Talmud. This brings us back to where this post started, Genoa. Because of its climate, but also presumably because of its flourishing, and ancient, Jewish community, there were citron orchards around Genoa. It also happened to be a dynamic trading port, so it wasn’t long before Genoa dominated the trade in etrogim to northern Europe. With time, Genoa seems to have gotten out of the business of actually growing etrogim. Instead, it picked up etrogim as far south as Calabria, still a source of etrogim for some Jewish communities, and all points in between, as well as in Corsica, a Genoese colony, and shipped them north.

Genoa’s monopoly on the etrog trade began to be undermined when the Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain, filtered eastward across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and discovered the etrogim being grown in Corfu and other Ionian islands, presumably for the very ancient Jewish communities of Greece. These were very beautiful as defined by the guidelines on etrog beauty, and they began to seriously compete with the Genoese etrogim. At first, there was resistance in some of the Ashkenazic communities in northern Europe. To explain why, I have to go back to what started me on this post initially, the lemon. The first substantial cultivation of the lemon in Europe only occurred in the mid-15th Century, in Genoa – Genoa again (the sour or bitter orange arrived earlier, in the 11th Century, while the sweet orange arrived somewhat later, in the early 16th Century). European growers of citrons discovered – or maybe they picked it up from the Arabs – that grafting citrons onto lemon stock gave plants which were much hardier than pure citron trees. But grafting created an enormous problem for the Jews because the mixing of species was non-kosher, and etrogim used in a religious Feast had to be kosher. We now know that grafting doesn’t actually lead to a mixing of genes, or hybridization, although 400 years ago it was quite easy to think that it did; after all, everyone knew that if you crossed a horse and a donkey, you got a hybrid, the mule. Many in the Ashkenazic communities suspected that the Greek etrogim were actually so beautiful because they were grafted onto lemon trees. Various rabbis were prepared to certify that they were not, and anyway the Napoleonic wars cut off the traditional supply of etrogim from Genoa. And the Greek etrogim really were so very beautiful …

So the Greek etrog triumphed and trade from Corfu flourished. Eventually, this got the Greek farmers greedy. They calculated that they had the Jewish communities over a barrel – they needed beautiful etrogim, the etrogim from Corfu were the most beautiful, hence they would pay whatever it took to get them. In 1875, they therefore created a cartel and jacked up the price. They turned out to be wrong. The Jewish communities reacted vigorously and successfully boycotted the Greek etrogim. They bought from Calabria, from Corsica, and more importantly from Israel, to where we now turn.

As more and more European Jews immigrated to Palestine in the 1800s, they discovered a local variety of etrogim. They surmised that these must be descended from the etrogim used in Temple worship before the Temple’s destruction. A number of rabbis therefore decided to promote these etrogim from Palestine, which were surely more authentic than etrogim grown elsewhere. They also thought it would help the poverty-stricken economy of Palestine to be able to export high-priced etrogim to Jewish communities in Europe. The problem was that although these etrogim might be more authentic they weren’t nearly as beautiful as the Greek etrogim. On top of it, Sephardic communities which had immigrated to Palestine brought in seeds of Greek citron trees and started planting orchards of the beautiful Greek etrog there. The stand-off with Corfu helped boost sales in Palestine, both of the original as well as of the Greek etrogim transferred there. However, authentic Palestinian etrogim were suffering from the competition.

Coming back to Corfu, the Greek farmers eventually backed down and brought their prices down again. But they didn’t forget or forgive. Some 15 years later, when the body of an unknown woman was found just outside the Jewish quarter in Corfu, the local etrog growers claimed that the woman had been murdered by Jews. This sparked off a pogrom against the local Jewish community, which left 139 people dead. And then it was discovered that the dead woman was actually Jewish. That finished off the etrogim trade from Corfu.

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, the transplanted Greek etrog was pushing the local variety off the market. Eventually, the Greek etrog, which did not adapt very well to the climate in Israel, began to be grafted onto stock of the original etrog, a graft which is kosher. This was a marriage made in heaven: the beautiful Greek etrog with the original, Temple-era etrog. It is this variety which now dominates the modern etrog market, and is no doubt the one being intensely studied by these Orthodox Jews prior to an eventual purchase.

jews purchasing etrogim

I cannot finish my story of the citron without mentioning the one way of usefully consuming it that was eventually discovered. For this, I have to back up a little and say a few words about the history of cane sugar. Cane sugar, brought west from India by, once again, Alexander the Great’s troops (they seem to have been great collectors of plants …), was first exploited in the Near East. It was the Crusaders, who came across caravans of this “sweet salt”, and who brought sugar to the attention of Europe. Until then, Europeans had only had honey as a sweetener. Genoa’s fiercest rival, Venice, was the first to make sugar available in Europe. It also brought another Arab invention, candying of fruit, to Europe. Not to be outdone by its hated rivals, the Genoese also finally got into the candying business. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of candying the citron, or rather its pith, of which there is so much, as the photo above shows. Leghorn (Livorno) became the centre of production: citrons from the south all the way to Sicily, from Corfu and the other Ionian islands in the east, and from Corsica in the west, were sent, de-pulped and brined, to Leghorn. There, the citron pith was de-brined and steeped in progressively more concentrated solutions of cane sugar. Once dried and chopped into small pieces, it was shipped, no doubt in Genoese ships, all over Europe to be added to cakes, sweet bread loaves, and other patisseries. I have a particular reason to mention all this because the panettone, that glory of my wife’s home town, Milan, was originally made with candied citron pith (as well as candied orange and sultana raisins).

Panettone

More humbly, the original recipes of the English plum pudding of my youth also called for candied citron from Leghorn.

Plum-Pudding

Alas! I believe this market has declined drastically – or perhaps citrons from elsewhere have cornered the candying market. The fact is, Leghorn is no longer a centre for candied citron production, the Calabrian citron hangs on by managing to keep a foot in the etrog market, while the Corsican and Corfu citron production is down almost to nothing; the few which are grown there are only used to make a local liqueur. Here’s the Corsican variety. Somehow, it seems apt that the bottle stands next to one made with myrtle, another of the four species.

cedratine and myrtheLet’s lift a glass to the citron a.k.a. the etrog! Cin-Cin!

_____________________________

Lemons in Liguria: https://i0.wp.com/www.bbfauno.com/wp-content/gallery/amalfi/limoni-amalfi-coast.jpg (in https://misshome.wordpress.com/tag/italian-language/)

Citron: http://whileshenaps.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/6a00d834515cdc69e20133f4767038970b-pi.jpg (in http://whileshenaps.com/2010/09/make-a-paper-mache-etrog.html)

Tosher Rabbi of Montreal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species#/media/File:Fourspecies.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_species)

Persian palace: http://www.haaretz.com/polopoly_fs/1.410535.1328143655!/image/3938862120.jpg_gen/derivatives/headline_857x482/3938862120.jpg (in http://www.haaretz.com/jerusalem-dig-uncovers-earliest-evidence-of-local-cultivation-of-etrogs-1.410505#acid)

Myrtle: http://www.polyvore.com/cgi/img-thing?.out=jpg&size=l&tid=65106807 (in http://www.polyvore.com/outdoor_plants/collection?id=3359765)

Citron tree: in gardening.stackexchange.com

Cut citron: http://www.tropcrop.nl/citr02fr.jpg (in http://www.tropcrop.nl/citron.htm)

Orthodox Jews purchasing etrogim: http://pix.avaxnews.com/avaxnews/64/a4/0001a464_medium.jpeg (in http://avax.news/fact/Symbolic_Citrus_Israeli_Jews_Inspect_Fruit_for_Sukkot.html)

Panettone: http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2014/09/Panettone-Vergani-Enrico-Su—-Ummarino.jpg (in http://www.italianfoodexcellence.com/tag/panettone/)

Plum pudding: http://cookdiary.net/wp-content/uploads/images/Plum-Pudding_12165.jpg (in http://cookdiary.net/plum-pudding/)

Cédratine and myrthe, Corsica: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/A8WYT4/myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-A8WYT4.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-myrthe-and-cedratine-liqueurs-for-sale-in-a-shop-corte-haute-corse-6963651.html)

MIMOSA

Sori, 25 February 2016

We’re in Italy at the moment, spending a week here to get things in order for my impending retirement. We decided to make a quick visit to our apartment on the sea, by Genova, to check if all was well but also to see the mimosa in flower. The flowering of mimosa on the Ligurian coast is a wondrous sight to behold
image
especially when you’re toiling up a hill like these hikers are and find yourself in front of a flash of canary yellow, a harbinger of the Spring to come.
image
All was well with the apartment but alas! we were too late for the mimosa. It had reached its peak some two weeks before and the flowers were already very much past their best.

image

Disconsolate, I decided to do the next best thing, a little internet surfing to learn more about mimosa.

I had half expected to discover that mimosa originally came from China. After all, that had already been my experience with several plants, from wisteria to the willow. But no! I was delighted to learn that mimosa comes from south-eastern Australia. Here is a photo of it in the State of Victoria, in what is probably its natural state, cohabiting in this case with mountain gums.

image

Mimosa is actually a bit of a misnomer, for which it seems we have to thank Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern system for giving scientific names to living things.
image
What I call mimosa is actually an acacia (or perhaps was an acacia; more on that in a moment). For some reason, Linnaeus decided to also give the genus acacia the name mimosa. The confusion was cleared up later, but not before this particular type of acacia got stuck with the name mimosa. Confusion on nomenclature doesn’t stop there, for it seems that acacia is also a misnomer in this case. I don’t follow taxonomic decisions with bated breath, but Australian acacias should apparently now be called racosperma. The august scientific body which makes these kinds of decisions decided so back in the late 1990s or thereabouts, but the Australian botanists, indignant at the thought of having to change the name of their cherished acacias, managed to get the vote reversed in 2005. However, I now understand that the vote was re-reversed. In all of this confusion, I think we should just go with the common name, the wattle. Since there are nearly 1,000 species of wattle in Australia, I have to be a little more specific and say that the “mimosa” planted here in Liguria is the silver wattle.

How mimosa got to this part of the world is not that clear – at least, I didn’t find any clear description of that journey. Another distinguished botanist, Joseph Banks
image
who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific and whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post on kangaroos, brought the wattles to the attention of the Western world. But who actually brought the living plant back, or its seeds, and propagated it I don’t know. Whoever it was, the peoples from Portugal to the west all around the rim of the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean Sea and on into the Black Sea to the east have a huge debt to him (or, who knows? her). Every spring, they can enjoy magnificent bursts of yellow, like this one in Odessa in the Ukraine.

image

Actually, given that the golden wattle, another member of the large wattle tribe, is now the floral emblem of Australia, I was expecting to find a photo on the net of a mimosa in flower in the ANZAC cemeteries of Gallipoli. But no. Photos there are of the cemeteries
image
but none with a flowering mimosa. Perhaps no-one visits the cemeteries in the early Spring. But if instead it’s because mimosas are not planted in Gallipoli, I think a move in this direction is in order. Should not an earlier immigrant to Europe from Australia welcome the Spring every year in that corner of the Mediterranean where Australians lie in their eternal sleep?

___________________

Mimosa in Liguria: http://helpilivewithmyitalianmotherinlaw.com/2013/03/07/the-magic-of-liguria/
Mimosa on the hills: http://lemiegite.escursioniliguria.it/gita_per_gita/gita_per_gita_2014_2016/2015-02-01_sori_cordona_nervi.html
Mimosa in Australia: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/foto/mountain-gums-and-silver-wattle-victoria-australia-fotografie-stock/128394637
Linnaeus: http://linnaeus.sourceforge.net
Joseph Banks: http://lggardendesign.com/it/linvasione-della-rosa-banksiae/
Mimosa in Odessa: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/365143482264046608/
ANZAC cemetery, Gallipoli: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/621860/FIGGIS,%20SAMUEL%20DOUGLAS%20JOHNSTONE

SPADES, CLUBS, HEARTS, DIAMONDS

Bangkok, 8 January 2016

In a previous post, I sketched out a rough agenda for my retirement. I think my wife was pleased with it. But she does have certain anxieties about this upcoming event. She has recently been reading about some Japanese syndrome called Retired Husbands Syndrome which attacks Japanese housewives. Suddenly, this guy whom you’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years – being a good Salaryman, he’s been leaving the house at 6 am and not getting home till midnight – is now constantly hanging around, getting in your way, messing up your routines, and expecting you to do things for him. Not unnaturally, the stress levels rocket up. While we’ve maintained a more balanced lifestyle, she does have fears of me moping around the house, lounging around on the sofa, eating natchos and watching TV all day. This dystopian view of hers is not helped by a number of films we’ve seen recently, describing exactly this situation. Nor is it helped by my fondness (my wife thinks more obsession) for playing Spider Solitaire on my iPad. She’s afraid that come retirement all I’ll do all day is compulsively play Spider Solitaire, with a little Freecell on the side.

It is true that I tend to play the game whenever I have a spare moment. I do admit that it can get a little out of hand. But I’m sure it’s good for my aging brain to carefully plot my strategy for getting the cards out. And those little electronic cards, with their glossy black spades and clubs and glowing red diamonds and hearts, and kingly Kings and queenly Queens and knavish Jacks, are really very pretty.
image
I was thinking about their prettiness the other day during a Spider Solitaire game, and when it became clear that I was dribbling towards defeat I decided to quit and do a little research on the history of playing cards, principally to understand where the suit design of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs originally came from. I was very pleased that I did so, because I discovered that what we have here is yet another example of the Great East-West Exchange which took place along the Silk Road and other trade routes that once criss-crossed the Eurasian continent. Of course, most of what was exchanged was traditional goods, but ideas also flowed along these routes. So did less obvious things, like the the willow tree and the pomegranate, both of which I’ve had occasion to write about in the past. Now I can with pleasure write about a third such item, playing cards.

Our story starts in China. Some time in the Tang Dynasty, around the 7th-8th Century, it seems that someone in the Imperial Court came up with the idea of a pack of playing cards, divided into four suits. The suits were Coins, Strings of (1,000) coins, Myriads of strings (10,000), and Tens of myriads. Like our modern cards, each suit contained cards with different numbers of pips. Here we have a Three of Coins and a Three of Strings-of-coins.
image
These packs also included face cards, like this one from the Ming dynasty.
image
These ‘chi-pai’, which is Chinese for playing cards, are still in use. This next photo shows the cards from a three-suited variant. Note how the design of the suits became highly stylized – this is important for our story.
image
I’ve no idea what games exactly were played with these cards back in Tang Dynasty times, I’m not sure anyone knows, and actually it’s not important for our story. What is important is that the use of cards spread westward. This could have happened through trade; I can imagine Chinese merchants whipping out a pack of cards to while away their down time in the caravanserai that dotted the Silk Road.
image
Alternatively, it could have happened through conquest, with conquering soldiers picking up new habits from the conquered. In this case, the Mongols, who conquered China in the 13th Century, seem a very good candidate. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Ukraine.
image
Any new fads picked up by Mongol troops in China could have spread, through many an evening around soldiers’ camp fires, all the way to Kiev.

I don’t think the two diffusion mechanisms are necessarily exclusive. I could imagine that the Mongol conquest also amplified diffusion of card playing through trade. The two maps above superimpose quite well, and in fact the period of the Mongol Empire brought political stability to Asia which in turn encouraged a surge of trade along the Silk Road.

Whichever way, Chinese playing cards diffused westward. Some time in the 13th-14th Century, maybe earlier, so-called Ganjifa playing cards started being used in Persia. The etymology of the word Ganjifa is uncertain. Some see its root in the Persian word gunj, which connotes treasure, treasury, or money, and suggest that this connects them to the money-suited Chinese playing cards. Others see a more elaborate etymology, proposing that Ganjifa is actually a corruption of ‘han-chi-pai’, or ‘Chinese playing cards’. In this case, there would be a very clear line of descent from China. In any event, variants of Ganjifa playing cards began to be used throughout the Muslim world, as well as in India (brought there in the saddle bags of the Mughal conquerors). What interests us most is the variant used by the Mamluk in Egypt.

The Egyptian Mamluk were an interesting bunch of people. Initially, they were slave soldiers recruited by the Ayyubid dynasty. For the most part, they were drawn from the Cumans-Kipchaks, a nomadic group who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea. They were conquered by the Mongols and then absorbed into the Mongol Empire as the Golden Horde. Some time in the 13th Century, the Mamluk slave-soldiers kicked the Ayyubids out and reigned in their place. This happy state of affairs continued until they were in turn defeated by the Ottomans and their territories subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for them, the Ottomans kept them on as governors of Egypt.

Perhaps because of their Mongol connection, or in some other way, the Mamluk picked up this new fad of card playing and brought it to Egypt some time in the 14th Century. What is of interest to us here is the fact that Mamluk packs of cards had four suits: Coins, Polo-sticks (the Mamluks were great polo players), Cups, and Swords. In addition, each suit had three face cards, the king, the first vizir, and the second vizir. Some clever people, who know more about the history of playing cards than I do, see a link between these four suits and those used in Chinese playing cards. Their thinking goes as follows. There is no problem in seeing the Mamluk Coin suit being derived from the Chinese Coin suit, that’s an easy equivalence to envisage. After that, it gets trickier. The clever people propose that the Chinese String-of-coins suit was transformed into the Mamluk Polo-stick suit, on the grounds that a String-of-coins pip could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with this very Chinese way of dealing with coins. It is true that the String-of-coins suit in the photo of Chinese playing cards above has been so stylized as to look stick-like. Then the clever people suggest that the Chinese Myriad-of-strings suit became the Mamluk cup suit, on the grounds that the Chinese character for myriad, 万, which was often used as a sort of pip, was simply inverted by the Mamluks, at which point it does indeed look cup-like. Finally, the clever people suggest that the Chinese Tens-of-myriads suit, where the Chinese numeral for ten, 十, was often used as the pip, was simply interpreted as a sword by the Mamluk and so gave rise to their suit of Swords. The ice over which we have been scrabbling these last few sentences is indeed thin, but the romantic in me is willing to believe this wonderful story of Central Asians scratching their heads over these strange-looking cards which had come all the way from China and giving their own interpretations to the drawings on them. To enliven all this text, I throw in here a photo of one of the rare Mamluk playing cards to have survived, a Six of Coins, found in Istanbul’s Topkapi palace.
image
The next leg of our journey is somewhat easier to envisage, the transit of the Mamluk playing cards to Italy. I’m guessing that Venice was the entry point, although there could have been more than one. Until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for the Spice Islands, most of the spices which Europeans lusted for entered Europe through Venice, which in turn picked them up in Egypt. In addition to picking up spices, I can imagine Venetian sailors and merchants picking up packs of Mamluk playing cards to while away the long journeys back to Venice. Once in Italy, the use of playing cards spread rapidly, with each region having its own particularities. Here, for instance, is a pack of cards from Bergamo.
image
Italian playing cards basically adopted the Mamluk suits, except that they changed Polo-sticks to Clubs – the game of polo was unknown in Europe at that time and I suppose the polo-sticks looked club-like to the Italians. They also adopted the idea of three face cards per suit but Europeanized them into king, upper marshal, and lower marshal.

There followed a fairly rapid diffusion of playing cards throughout Europe as the craze for card playing caught on. The Southern Europeans – Spain and Portugal – kept to the Italian design for their suits, with some minor modifications. The Northern Europeans instead experimented with a lot of different suit designs. Given the aristocratic background of many players, the suits were often hunting-themed like this pack from Flanders.
image
Through the newfangled technology of printing, in which they were leaders, and through which they were the first to produce cheap packs of cards, the German lands popularized the use of the following suits:
image
Personally, I don’t see much connection between these suits and the Italian versions. I think the Germans just used their fantasy. In any event, here are some old German playing cards with suits of Bells and of Acorns.
image

Not to be outdone, the French came up with a somewhat different set of suits.
image
The Hearts suit was taken as-is from the German suits. The Spades suit seems to be a slight modification of the German Leaf suit. The Clubs suit could be considered a geometric transformation of the Acorns suit – the sides of the acorn shell pulled out, the acorn itself shortened. The circular Bells suit of the Germans was replaced by a different shape, the diamond. As the cards above show, the French also introduced Queens, who displaced the upper marshal.

The French suits have since become those most used worldwide. Why that should be is not completely clear to me. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the French suits are easier to read; I would have got really confused using those German cards I show above – “wait, is that an Eight of Acorns I have in my hand, or a Nine?” Or perhaps it was because the French were the arbiters of good taste in Europe until World War I. Or perhaps it was because the British adopted the French suits and happened to become the most powerful country in the world with the biggest colonial Empire, which allowed them to impose their choice of card suits and card games on their colonial subjects. Or perhaps it was because the Americans, who took over the title of the most powerful nation, followed the British in choosing French suits for their playing cards. For any or all of these reasons, or maybe others again, French suits now stare up at me from my games of Spider Solitaire and Freecell.

Well, now that I’ve figured all that out, I can go back to what I was doing and actually win my Spider Solitaire game.

____________________
Old Chinese cards, coins and strings of coins: http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Wilkinson/Wilkinson.html
Old Chinese cards, face card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card
Chi-pai three-suited cards: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_playing_cards#Money-suited_cards
Silk Road: http://archive.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx
Mongol Empire: https://mapcollection.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/the-mongol-empire/
Mamluk card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card#Egypt
Bergsmasche deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_playing_cards#/media/File%3ACarte_bergamasche.jpg
Flemish hunting deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Hunting_Deck
German suites: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_playing_cards
Old German playing cards, acorn: http://www.spielkarten24.de/flohm.htm
Old German playing cars, bells: http://deerbe.com/unt/59680-___alte_spielkarten_playing_cards_dondorf_301_deutsche_spielkarte_1868___.html
Old French playing cards: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=BERGERET%20Pierre%20Nolasque&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1

TROMPE L’OEIL AND STINGINESS

Bangkok, 27 July 2015

Trompe l’oeil is a very respectable art form, with a long and distinguished presence in the world of art, at least in Western art. I am told that the Greeks and Romans practiced it, although I do not recall ever having seen an example. In any event, artists took it up again with a vengeance during the Renaissance, and art thereafter is littered with pieces which “fool the eye”, tricking the viewer to see three-dimensional depth where there is none. We have a beautiful example just up the road from our apartment in Milan, in the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. My not-yet wife took me there on my first trip to Milan in 1975 and my eyes were indeed fooled.
image
What I had taken to be a deep apse behind the altar is actually an almost flat wall. The clever artist in question was Bramante, who painted it in the 1480s. In this case, he didn’t do it just to show how good he was, it was to give a feeling of greater depth to a church which was squeezed in between the adjoining buildings.

I could go on giving other examples from High Art, but actually I want to focus on a lower form of the art found in the province of Liguria. We’ve just come back from spending a week by the sea, near Genova, the province’s capital (and from where I managed to launch several of the previous posts).

One of my recurring pleasures as I walk the streets of any conurbation in Liguria, from Genova down to the smallest village, is to come across houses like these.
image
This form of trompe l’oeil is only found in Liguria, to the extent that the practice is almost a D.O.C.. In these cases, the painter (I hesitate to call him artist) embellishes what is otherwise the drab and flat facade of a house (you see an example to the right in the photo) with architectural elements which are painted so cleverly as to fool the eye into thinking that they are three-dimensional and “real”. The result is to make an ordinary house look more imposing, which in the old days no doubt (and perhaps even today) raised the residing family’s social standing a notch or two. It is even a way of making up for unfortunate blemishes in a facade, like the absence of a window which mars the symmetry of a house.
image
What is nice is to see is examples which run from the fresh and new to various states of weathering and finally decrepitude brought about by sun, rain, and more recently pollution.
image
image
image

image

Of course, one has to ask oneself why this art form is so popular in Liguria and nowhere else. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it is a reflection of the well-known stinginess of the Genoese (and more generally Ligurians). In Italy, the Genoese have the same reputation as the Scots in England for being tight fisted, and there are loads of jokes about it, as indeed there are in the case of the Scots (“There was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman in a pub. The Englishman stood a round, the Irishman stood a round, but the Scotsman just stood around”; sorry, I thought I would just quickly throw that one in). According to this theory, then, the Genoese (and by reflection the Ligurians) preferred to paint architectural elements onto their facades à la trompe l’oeil rather than go with the real things, because it cost them less.

I’m sure the Genoese must feel that this typing of them as scrooges by the rest of Italy is grossly unfair and they probably find it very irritating to be the butt of incessant jokes about it. But as they say, “there is no smoke without fire”. There must surely be some reason why they got this reputation. Curious to see what I could find out, I did an internet search on the topic (in truth, my wife did it since she’s very good at internet searches). Several suggestions popped up. One is that Liguria is in general a very poor land, made up of steep hills and little good agricultural land. People who live in such lands tend to be more careful with their hard-earned wealth scratched out of an unforgiving earth than those of us from richer lands (I’m sure this is the basis for the Scots’ reputation for stinginess). Another suggestion is that the Genoese in particular made much of their wealth in banking (they were the bankers of the Spaniards in the 16th century), and like all bankers got into the habit of not throwing their money around like we foolish non-bankers do. A third, which I like so much that I have adopted it, is a variant on the second (I have to thank Grimaldina, a citizen of Genova, for bringing it to my attention).

In 1586 or thereabouts Philip II, King of Spain, decided that he was going to invade England, to uphold the Catholic cause of course, but also to teach the damned English a lesson for attacking Spanish treasure fleets and shipping more generally. The worst offender was this gentleman, Sir Francis Drake

image

A great Englishman for the English, but nothing more than a damned pirate for the Spaniards.

To invade England, Phillip was going to need a navy, and a big one. As I said, the Genoese were the bankers of the Spaniards, so he came to them for the funds to build the necessary ships. I suspect the King made the Genoese an offer they couldn’t refuse. In any event, after much hesitation because it was a huge amount of money, and no doubt after extracting juicy concessions about trading monopolies for Genova in England once conquered, the Genoese accepted to fund the venture. Thus was built the Spanish Armada, or the Grande y Felicísima Armada, the “Great and Most Fortunate Armada”, as the Spaniards called it. And here, just for the hell of it, I throw in pictures of Philip II and Elizabeth I (it’s clear already from the pictures who’s going to win; I mean, look at Phillip II, have you ever seen such a nasty scowl?)
image

image

Alas, the Spanish Armada was perhaps great but it was not fortunate. After several engagements in the English Channel, where overall the Spaniards got the worst of it
image
the Armada was driven by the winds up into the North Sea, all the way up to Scotland. At that point, the Spanish commander decided to give up and go home. His idea was to round the top of Scotland, head out into the Atlantic, and then turn south. He turned too soon. His remaining ships found themselves too close to the west coast of Ireland, where, hit by terrible Atlantic gales, many were driven ashore. Of the 130 ships which left Spain only 67 limped home. The English cheered, but the Genoese cried; their fortunes had sunk to the bottom of the sea along with the ships. Genova went into a steep economic decline thereafter, from which it never really recovered. Thus was born the Genoese’s parsimony (and not stinginess, as stressed by Grimaldina). Like all great families which fall on hard times, it had to keep up appearances with less money in its pocket: ideal conditions for heavy adoption of trompe l’oeil.

________________

Santa Maria presso San Satiro: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/27/Sansatiro5.jpg (in https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bramante#Santa_Maria_presso_San_Satiro_.281482-1486.29)
Genoese facade-1: http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/images/phocagallery/villesamp/litoraneo/pallavicinocreditoitaliano/thumbs/phoca_thumb_l_dsc_0617.jpg (in http://www.sampierdarena.ge.it/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=94:villa-pallavicino-sec-xvi-via-sampierdarena-71&catid=48:litoraneo&Itemid=59)
Fake windows: https://dearmissfletcher.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/finestre-6.jpg (in https://dearmissfletcher.wordpress.com/2015/03/page/5/)
Genoese facade-2: https://timelessitaly.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/20131103-175731.jpg (in http://timelessitaly.me/tag/nervi/)
Genoese facade-3: http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/files/2015/06/IMG_6719.jpg (in http://rotellando.vanityfair.it/2015/06/16/piemonte-10/)
Genoese facade-4: http://cdn.pleinair.it/wp-content/uploads/106011.jpg (in http://www.pleinair.it/meta/viaggi-camper-l-impero-dipinto/)
Genoese facade-5: http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/getImage.php?id=779&w=100&h=100&c=0&co=1&f=0 (in http://www.liguria.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/136/percorsi-tematici/3/5/3)
Sir Francis Drake: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Gheeraerts_Francis_Drake_1591.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Phillip II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Philip_II,_King_of_Spain_from_NPG.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)
Elizabeth I: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg ( in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait).jpg)
Spanish Armada fighting English ships: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada#/media/File:Invincible_Armada.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada)

DREAM JOURNEY: PART IV

Bangkok, 22 May 2015

Normally, we would be rather groggy as we drive our MG off the ferry in Bari at 8 am in the morning, coming in from Dürres and the previous post. I certainly would be; I never sleep well on ships. But this is a dream, so I decree that we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we roar off the ferry. Our goal is Otranto, very near the end of Italy’s high heel. We head down the old Via Traiana, now more boringly called the Strada Statale 16, as far as Brindisi. There we take the SS 613, which follows the trace of a previous local Roman road that was too modest to have a name. We pass through Lecce, where we pause. Lecce is known for its plentiful baroque buildings constructed in the 1600s, all using a beautiful local white stone, so I throw in a picture of a square there as a visual memorial to this city.

Lecce

We continue on to Otranto, and drive straight up to the Cathedral. For this is the objective of our visit to Otranto – or rather the floor of the church is. When visitors enter the church, they are greeted by this magnificent floor.

otranto-mosaic-1

It is the largest floor mosaic in Europe. It brings me back to that other floor mosaic which we visited in the first leg of our trip in Aquileia, although eight centuries separate them. Some clever fellow took this photo from the ceiling, showing more or less the full extent of the mosaic.

otranto-mosaic-2

The subject of the mosaic is a Tree of Life, and you can indeed see the trunk of the tree working its way up the nave. Strangely enough, the narrative of this tree flows from the top down, and so near the high altar we have various scenes from the story of Adam and Eve, of which I throw in one photo.

otranto-mosaic-3-adam eve snake

Honestly speaking, the story is difficult to read, so I shall just insert a couple of photos of other parts of the floor. This is King Arthur

otranto-mosaic-4-King Arthur

and this, Satan

otranto-mosaic-5-Great Satan

while this is said to be a self-portrait of the floor’s designer, a monk by the name of Pantaleone who hailed from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole, a little to the south of Otranto.

otranto-mosaic-6-Pantaleone_ self-portrait

The mosaic was laid down in the 12th Century when this part of Italy was Norman, along with Sicily. In fact, the design of the floor rather reminds me of that other great masterpiece of Norman art, the Bayeux tapestry. I include here one photo of that tapestry, the famous scene where Harold Godwinson is killed by a Norman arrow through his eye.

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

Next stop: Palermo in Sicily. We’ll get there by cutting across Italy’s heel to Taranto and then along the instep and sole of the Italian boot all the way to Reggio Calabria, where we’ll catch the ferry over to Sicily. I take the back roads to get to Taranto, because I want to drive through the small town of Copertino. As far as I know, this town is known for nothing special except a large castle and a saint. But to us, it has a great importance: my wife’s maternal grandfather came from Copertino and so it is the source of one-eighth of my children’s DNA. He emigrated to Milan in the early 1900’s, part of the massive migrations out of the south of Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. In typical migratory fashion, his departure eventually brought all his brothers and sisters up north. Family lore has it that his father ruined the family by taking the new Italian State to court over the expropriation of some of his land. He took the case all the way to the Court of Cassation, where he eventually lost the case, by which time he had also burned through all his money. Even though this is a very modest place with nothing special to write home about, I feel I must throw in a photo to commemorate it.

copertino

Onwards to Taranto, although in truth as we approach the city we turn our heads away and drive on. Taranto has been devastated by the plans of successive Italian government in the post-war period to develop the south of Italy through the implantation of heavy industry (I’ve already mentioned this in another post on Sicily). What were then the biggest steel works in Europe were plonked down here in the 1960s, and other heavy industry followed. By the 1980s, when my wife and I went to Taranto for the first time, the investment was in trouble. But the government couldn’t let it go down the tubes, it was politically too important. So money – half of it wasted through corruption and graft – was poured in to prop everything up. It’s stayed propped up – just – but in the meantime the industrial complex has poisoned half the population. Talk about sustainable development …

taranto

We are now driving through what was once Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies which dotted the underside of the Italian boot as well as the coasts of Sicily (and even the shin and calf of that shapely Italian boot). The glittering stone in this string of cities was undoubtedly Syracuse in Sicily, where Archimedes – he of the original eureka moment – was born and was killed. But all the cities along here, from Taranto in the East to Selinunte in the West, were once flourishing and prosperous city-states. One of them, Sybaris, even became a byword for self-indulgent opulence – it was said of one of its citizens that he slept on a bed of rose petals, and if even one of them was folded over he could not sleep. The town’s name has entered the English language, a sybarite being a voluptuary or a sensualist. Now, Sybaris lies under four meters of mud. The only claim to fame of the surviving Calabrian towns is that they are infested by the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s answer to Sicily’s mafia. It is said that John Paul Getty III, kidnapped in Rome back in 1973, was kept hidden in these parts. He was returned after his family forked over a ransom of $3 million – paid a good deal reluctantly (his grandfather is reported to have said, “I have 14 grandchildren. If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren”) and only after one of his ears had been cut off and sent to a newspaper. It is whispered that many a new house around here was built with Getty money.

We stop for a moment in Crotone, on the ball of Italy’s foot, not because it’s any less dreary than the other towns we’ve passed through, but because something momentous happened here: Pythagoras set up his first school and came up with all those clever mathematics, among which was his theorem which I, like every child of 11 or so, learned in geometry class: “a2 + b2 = c2“, or in plain English, “in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides”. At least, that’s what I was told by proud Crotonesi when I was here 20 years ago to do an environmental audit. Alas! It was not so. Pythagoras did indeed come to Crotone, but all he did was to set up some sort of mystical, esoteric sect which dabbled in the quasi-magic of whole numbers. It’s very unlikely that he personally came up with any of the mathematical cleverness attributed to him; his disciples did, but later. I think this painting, by a 19th Century Russian painter, captures nicely the strongly mystical (and to my way of thinking, rather weird) overtones of the initial Pythagorean movement.

pythagoreans celebrating sunrise

What Pythagoras and his sect did do in Crotone was to eventually take over the city’s government, and it was during his time in office that Crotone destroyed Sybaris. Several other cities in the area also espoused Pythagorean forms of government, but after a while there was a backlash. Back in Crotone Pythagoras was chased out, to end his days in nearby Metapontum, another city now lying under meters of mud. But Pythagorean schools continued, although they restricted themselves to maths and “natural philosophy” and left politics to others. Probably better that way …

I take one last look at the industrial plant I audited all those years ago – another industrial works plonked down here, and another one that has closed, leaving nothing but bitterness in its wake.

pertusola

It’s time to move on.

When we reach Reggio Calabria, although my wife is reluctant I insist: we must go to the Museum of Magna Graecia to see the two Bronzes of Riace. Neither of us have ever seen them, and it would be a pity not to take advantage of our passing through Reggio to have a peek. I know the objective of our trip is early Christian mosaics, but other wonders along the way should not be ignored. No sooner said than done! With a click of the mouse, I have us parked in front of the museum and magically transported past the queues of people waiting to enter the climate-controlled, earthquake-proofed room where they stand.

bronzi di riace

What magnificence! And what we see today are stripped down versions of the original. Each would have been coiffed with a Corinthian-style helmet, would have carried a shield on that raised left arm, and would have held a lance in the other. The latest theories hypothesize that they represent two of the Seven Heroes who set off from Argos to fight against Eteocles, king of Thebes and son of Oedipus (he of the complex), and died at the city’s seven gates. One expert suggests that they were originally part of a group of seven statues which stood in the Agora of the city of Argos. How they ended up on the sea bed off the coast of Calabria is anyone’s guess. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that during Roman times Argos was hard up, and rich Romans, avid for Greek art, came along and offered to buy the statues. Why not … In later centuries hard-up Italians sold their Renaissance treasures to rich Englishmen, avid for Italian art, and later still these Englishmen, hard up in their turn, sold these same treasures to rich Americans. In any event, they were being shipped to Rome, but when the ship was off the coast of Calabria a violent storm blew up, and the captain, rather than losing his ship and his life, tossed the heavy stuff overboard.

Time to catch the ferry over to Sicily, home to some of the most beautiful Byzantine-style mosaics still extant, created when the Normans controlled Sicily. The web helpfully informs us that there is a ferry over to Messina every hour or so. In this dream trip, we will not have any difficulty in catching the ferry, unlike real life 30 years ago when my wife and I decided to take her mother to spend Christmas and the New Year in Sicily. We arrived in Reggio Calabria on the evening of 23 December, along with a horde of Sicilian migrant workers returning home from Northern Europe for the holidays. We discovered to our horror that the ferry boat crews had just decided to strike for more pay. Those bastards had chosen this particular time to strike because they knew it put the owners under huge pressure to settle. Settle they did, but not before we had spent a miserable night in the ferry car park. When those ferry boat crews arrive, as they assuredly will one day, before the Pearly Gates, I hope they will be kicked off down to Hell, to roast in its fires for Eternity (anyone curious to know what that might look like can refer back to the posting with which I started this dream journey and study the photo I inserted there from the back wall of the church on the island of Torcello).

Once on the other side,  we set off for Palermo. I firmly decide that we will take the normal roads to get there. In this dream we’re in no hurry, and I prefer by far the “reeling roads”, the “rolling roads”, that “ramble round the shire”, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in his most famous poem “The Rolling English Road”. Yes, I prefer by far his “merry roads” and his “mazy roads” to the smooth monotony of sterile highways. We pass Milazzo, where you can catch the boat to the Aeolian Islands – a trip for another day – and where I did yet another environmental audit 20 years ago for another struggling industrial complex, which mercifully has not closed – yet. We hum along until we arrive at the small town of Cefalù, nestling under the mighty headland which gives it its (Greek) name. We head, yet again, for the Cathedral, constructed by the Normans in the first half of the 1100s. There, some beautiful mosaics still cling to the apse and the last bay of the choir.

cefalu-duomo-1

The Pantocrator gracing the apse is “for many the greatest portrait of Christ in all Christian art”, in the words of John Julius Norwich (I am quoting from his history of Sicily).

cefalu-duomo-2

The style is clearly mature Byzantine, a style we’ve already seen in Istanbul as well as in the lagoons of Venice, and would have seen in Daphni and Saint Luke in Greece had we made the detour from Thessaloniki. The Normans got Byzantine artists, or artists trained in Byzantine workshops, to make the mosaics.

It’s time to go on to Palermo, which is our final destination on this leg of the journey. We hug the coast, coming into the city on its seaward side. Once we reach the port, we swing up Via Vittorio Emanuele (there’s one of these in every village, town, and city in Italy, along with a Via Garibaldi), which is the main thoroughfare through the city’s old center. When we get near the Martorana church, we miraculously find – free! – parking (this is a dream, after all) for our little MG and head over to the church.

The church has been much modified over the centuries, not least of which by a brutal Baroque make-over in the front part of the nave in the 17th Century. But once we get past these horrors and enter the upper nave, we are greeted by some lovely mosaics: Christ in majesty in the dome of the church

palermo-martorana-1

the annunciation

palermo-martorana-4

the nativity

palerno-martorana-7

the dormition of the Virgin Mary

palerno-martorana-6

As we leave, I want particularly to see these two mosaics. In this first one, we have the greatest of all the Norman kings of Sicily, Roger II, having himself cheekily crowned by Christ himself, as if he were a Byzantine emperor

palermo-martorana-2

It was he who first brought this Byzantine art form to Sicily.

And here we have the original donor of the church, George of Antioch, Roger II’s admiral, humbly offering his church to the Virgin Mary (much like we saw in Cariye Kamii in Istanbul)

palermo-martorana-5

A final note about this church: it belongs to the Italian-Albanian community in Sicily, the remnants of the Albanians who fled to Italy in the 15th and later Centuries as the Ottomans methodically went about conquering their home country. So it is not just geographical proximity which led the modern Albanians back in late 1990s to escape by their thousands to Italy as Albania imploded after the collapse of Communism (with many of these new arrivals squatting in and around Otranto, as it so happens).

We go back to the car and continue up Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palace of the Normans, which actually was originally built by the Arabs. This rather severe building houses the Cappella Palatina, which was built by Roger II as the King’s private chapel. It houses some magnificent 12th Century mosaics.

palermo-cap-palatina-1

palermo-cap-palatina-6

palermo-cap-palatina-5

This last one shows also the ceiling, a wonderful piece of Arab carpentry work, an example of which we last saw in the Alhambra palace in Granada.

palermo-cap-palatina-4

Roger II understood that in this island with large Greek and Arab populations, he had to be open to their cultures if he was going to maintain the peace. Indeed, he welcomed this mixing of cultures. It is part of Sicily’s tragedy that later rulers did not continue this practice of toleration and openness.

We are not finished yet! We vault into the car (after constant badgering by our children we’ve taken to doing a lot of exercise recently, so I can imagine ourselves vaulting jauntily over the doors and dropping into our seats) and we keep on going up Via Vittorio Emanuele, which has now morphed into Via Calatafimi. We go on and on until we hit the hills behind Palermo, at which point we start climbing and finally find ourselves in Monreale, once a village on the outskirts of Palermo but now a suburb. We head – of course – for the cathedral and casually park the car in front of the cathedral. We walk into this late 12th Century church and I suddenly feel that I am back in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna, where we started our dream journey.

monreale-duomo-1

Biblical scenes on fields of gold unfurl along upper tiers of the nave

monreale-duomo-6

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

to reach the theological high point in the apse, with its assembled saints and angels presided over by a rather severe Pantocrator.

monreale-duomo-2

But how the styles have changed in the intervening six centuries! Then, it was still Roman art, although of a rough-and-ready sort. Now, it is early medieval art in all its stiff, hieratic splendour.

After all that gold, we go up on the roof of the church and drink in the astringent blue of the sky, which is rather like eating a lemon sorbet after a heavy main course so as to cleanse the mouth of all that richness. We gaze out across Palermo and over the “wine-dark” Tyrrhenian Sea beyond (to borrow Homer’s rather strange description of the sea’s colour).

monreale-panoramic-view

Tonight, we will catch the ferry and cross that sea to Naples – another Greek colony long, long ago – and from there drive up to Rome, our last stop on this exhaustive, and mentally exhausting, tour of early Christian mosaics.

_________________

Lecce: https://youthfullyyoursgr.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/lecce-it.jpg (in https://youthfullyyoursgr.wordpress.com/%CF%80%CF%81%CE%BF%CE%B3%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BC%CE%BC%CE%B1%CF%84%CE%B1/get-up-stand-up-be-healthy-guys-youth-exchange-lecce-%CE%B9%CF%84%CE%B1%CE%BB%CE%AF%CE%B1-22-29072013/)
Otranto-mosaic-1: http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Cattedrale/Images_Mosaics/800/Mosaic_Floor-Nov06-DC9997sAR800.jpg (in http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Otranto.htm)
Otranto mosaic-2: http://www.swide.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Reasons-to-travel-puglia-apulia-italy-mosaics-Otranto.jpg (in http://www.swide.com/food-travel/reasons-to-travel-to-puglia-apulia-italy-top-20-things-to-do/2014/06/30)
https://canvas.harvard.edu/courses/305/pages/the-mosaic-of-otranto
Bayeux Tapestry: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bb/Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_death.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_Tapestry)
Copertino: http://www.amedeominghi.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/PiazzaMazzini.jpg (in http://www.amedeominghi.info/nuovedate/)
Taranto: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilva#/media/File:ILVA_-_Unit%C3%A0_produttiva_di_Taranto_-_Italy_-_25_Dec._2007.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilva#Unit.C3.A0_produttiva_di_Taranto)
“Pythagoreans celebrating the sunrise”, by Fyodor Bronnikov(1827–1902): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras#/media/File:Bronnikov_gimnpifagoreizev.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras)
Pertusola: http://www.ilcirotano.it/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Ex-Pertusola.jpg (in http://www.ilcirotano.it/2012/10/09/viaggio-nella-pertusola-sud/)
Bronzi di Riace: https://news.artnet.com/wp-content/news-upload/2014/08/Riace-bronzes-e1408562456865.jpg (in https://news.artnet.com/art-world/italy-risks-priceless-riace-bronzes-for-cash-82747)
Cefalù-duomo-1: http://commondatastorage.googleapis.com/static.panoramio.com/photos/original/74677063.jpg (in https://geolocation.ws/v/P/74677063/abside-del-duomo-di-cefal-cristo/en)
Cefalù-duomo-2: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Cefal%C3%B9#/media/File:Cefalu_Christus_Pantokrator_cropped.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Cefalù)
Palermo-Martorana-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c0/Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg/640px-Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martorana#Interior)
Palermo-Martorana-2: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana#/media/File:Palerme_Martorana168443.JPG (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana)
Palermo-Martorana-3: https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/848/flashcards/3299848/jpg/palermo_chiesa_20martorana_mosaic_nativity-13F311CF74763DF1FB7.jpg (in https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/ecb-final-review/deck/8598474)
Palermo-Martorana-4: http://www.wga.hu/art/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.jpg (in http://www.wga.hu/html_m/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.html)
Palermo-Martorana-5: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg)
Palermo-Martorana-6: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana#/media/File:George_of_Antioch_and_Holy_Virgin_2009.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_della_Martorana)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappella_Palatina#/media/File:Cappella_Palatina_in_Palermo_Sicily.JPG (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappella_Palatina)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-2: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina5.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-3: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina0.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Palermo-Cappella Palatina-4: http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina10.jpg (in http://www.scherminator.com/italy/sicily/cappellaPalatina/cappellaPalatina.html)
Monreale-Duomo-1: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale#/media/File:MonrealeCathedral-pjt1.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale)
Monreale-duomo-2: https://ofsplendourinthegrass.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/p1110054.jpg (in https://ofsplendourinthegrass.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/monreale/)
Monreale-duomo-3: http://giazza.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/pal-dome-2.jpg (in http://giazza.se/?p=1506)
Monreale-duomo-4: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale#/media/File:Sicilia_Monreale2_tango7174.jpg (in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Monreale)
Monreale-panoramic view: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/87/3f/dc/panoramic-view-from-the.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g666663-d4470498-i126304220-Norman_Cathedral_of_Monreale-Monreale_Province_of_Palermo_Sicily.html)