LAGO D’ORTA

Milan, 29 November 2019

My wife and I recently accompanied our son on a short business trip he was making to a small place to the north of Milan, near Lake Maggiore. He was going there to look over a company. We went along to share the driving and visit the local area. The company he was visiting happened to be very close to the point where a few weeks previously we had given up a walk in the area (the one where we had stumbled across several very lovely varieties of mushrooms), so we decided that we would use the occasion to visit what would have been the end point of our walk had we finished it.

That end point was the village of Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Orta. This is a small lake, the most westward of that series of lakes which form a necklace at the base of the Alps, between Verona to the east and Novara to the west. Readers with good eyes will see Lake Orta, marked with a red pin, to the far left on the map below.

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Once we had deposited our son at the gates of the company he was visiting, we set off to Orta San Giulio. It was not, truth be told, the best day to visit anything: it was grey and drizzly, the kind of day that in my mind will be forever linked to the UK. But that didn’t stop us appreciating the scene that unfolded before our eyes as we arrived at the lake’s southernmost tip and took the road which hugged its eastern coast. My wife and I took no photos during our little tour, and the lake under the rain seems to have no fans among the legions of persons who post photos on the internet, so I can only describe to readers what we saw.

As we wound our way along the coast, with the wipers sweeping regularly across the windscreen, the trees covering the slopes which fell steeply into the lake’s waters – trees vested in their brown and reds of late autumn – began to give way to large estates with equally steep but more manicured grounds, the kinds of estates which I associate with the late 19th Century. Out on the water, dimly at first but ever more visible as we got closer to the village of Orta San Giulio, we discerned through the drizzle an island, the Isola San Giulio. The road began to climb to the top of the ridge of the peninsula along whose outer edge Orta San Giulio is built. Once we reached the top, we turned off the main road and made our way down to the village itself, passing as we did other, smaller estates climbing the side of the hill. When the road reached the water’s edge, it turned cobbled and narrowed into a single lane. We found a place to park and continued on foot, huddling under our umbrellas. Apart from a cat or two, we had the place to ourselves. Soon we were walking between rows of old houses on both sides of the street and only got an occasional glimpse of the lake down a side alley. But all at once, we entered the village’s main square, Piazza Motta, and there had a full view, across the square’s wet and windswept flagstones, of the lake and Isola San Giulio hovering on its waters in the middle distance. We could now make out the buildings on the island, in particular a Romanesque campanile on the water’s edge and a big hulking building, looking in all respects like an army barracks, which dominated the island’s centre point. We admired the view, looked curiously at an old hotel, now very much worse for wear, which occupied one whole side of the square, noted the street at the back of the square which, the signposts informed us, took one up to the Sacro Monte d’Orta, the Sacred Mountain of Orta, and then headed back to the car. It was time to go and pick up our son, and anyway it really was too wet and cold to explore any further. “For another time!” we promised each other. Maybe this Spring; there is a train we can take from Novara to Orta San Giulio.

In the meantime, though, I feel I must give my readers some idea of what we saw, or perhaps more accurately what we might be seeing when we come back in better weather. As is my habit, I’ve also been mugging up on the lake’s history and so can use this occasion to tell my wife – faithful reader of my posts – and any other interested readers about what I’ve learned.

So here is a photo album which I’ve cobbled together with other people’s pictures posted on the internet.

This is what the lake looks like on a good day from its south end, the end that we first saw it from.

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Isola San Giulio is visible, along with a few houses of Orta San Giulio to the right. The pre-Alps rise up in the background.

As we turned off the main road down to Orta San Giulio, we passed this frothy building.

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It is Villa Crespi. It was commissioned in 1879 by a wealthy cotton merchant by the name of Cristoforo Crespi and built in the Moorish Revival style. I suppose it is a somewhat outlandish example of what was happening around all of northern Italy’s lakes during that period: rich (or enriched) industrialists and bourgeois joined the aristocracy in building summer homes on the lakes. The same phenomenon certainly happened on Lakes Como and Maggiore (we see those villas every time we walk around those two lakes) and no doubt on Lake Garda (which still awaits a visit from us). Quite frankly, this particular building reminds me of some of the cinemas which dotted British cities when I was young, but at least this one continues to serve a decent purpose: it is a luxury hotel and home to the restaurant of one Antonino Cannavacciuolo (a well-known chef on Italian TV, I have read).

Certainly Lake Orta must have been a popular playground for the wealthier classes of the late 19th Century. It hosted the first ever European Rowing Championship in 1893 (rowing in Italy being considered a very aristocratic sport) and various national rowing championships thereafter, as this poster of 1909 attests (for an event, readers will note, “under the patronage of HM the King” [of Italy, of course]).

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What happened in the following decades is a classic example of how not to manage a lake – but we will get to that later.

This was the narrow street we walked down after parking the car: Via Giovanetti.

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It was pleasant to walk along under the rain; it looks even more pleasant on a sunny day.

And this is the village’s main square, Piazza Motta.

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I’m not an expert on real estate but it does seem strange to me that the old hotel we see across the square in the photo (called, rather prosaically, Hotel Orta) has not been snapped up by someone and refurbished. There cannot be many places which have this nice a view when one steps out of the lobby onto the street:

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Down by the lakeside at the foot of the square one catches the boat to go over to the Isola San Giulio, which, as we get closer, will look like this,

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while we leave Orta San Giulio literally in our wake.

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I think a little bit of history is in order here, because Isola San Giuglio has always been at the centre of the lake’s story.

The island gets its name from St. Julius, a possibly legendary saint who is said to have christianized the area around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is narrated that Julius and his brother Julian were two Greeks who somehow made it to Italy and were instructed by Emperor Theodosius I to destroy pagan altars and sacred woods and to build Christian churches. Which they did with a vengeance. The little church which Julius built on the island is said to have been the hundredth – and last – church he built. There are the usual colourful stories of his doings like, for instance, this one: having decided that he would build his last church on the island but finding no-one willing to take him there he laid his mantle on the water and miraculously sailed over to the island. As a final aside on this saint, he made it to sainthood, but – rather unfairly, I think, since the two worked hand-in-hand in their proselytizing mission – his brother Julian did not.

In any event, the first little church was succeeded by a larger one built in the 6th Century, which itself was succeeded by an even larger one built in the 12th Century; it was later nominated a basilica. That is the building we see today (although it has been much remodelled inside, as we will see, and squeezed in between houses built in later centuries). It is its campanile which we noticed when we were standing in Piazza Motta that cold and rainy day gazing out towards the island.

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The island’s religious vocation was always in conflict with its obvious military importance. As this map shows, Lake Orta was one of two natural passageways for anyone crossing the Alps at the Simplon Pass to get down into the Po River plain and all its riches – the other was along the shores of Lake Maggiore. The red pin shows the location of the Simplon Pass in the map.

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Having crossed the Simplon, armies would march down (or peaceful merchant trains would lumber down) the valley of the River Ossola and then either go along Lake Maggiore or march up to Lake Orta and then pass through the valley at the other end. A Frankish army did that in 590 AD, marching into territory that was claimed by the Longobards. A Longobard Duke, Mimulfo by name, who was entrenched in the island, seems to have just let the Franks through. For this betrayal, the Longobard King Childebert had Mimulfo beheaded on the island. (A French Corps also crossed the Simplon in 1800, as part of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy; I have no idea which of the two routes they used to get to Milan)

The island was also a useful place to hole up if hostile armies were around. To this end, a castle was built there as early as the 900s AD, reconverting some of the church buildings to military use and generally constricting how the church and its buildings could be expanded. By then, the Longobards had been defeated by the Carolingian Franks and northern Italy had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperors were traditionally also Kings of Italy, and northern Italy was therefore impacted by Imperial policies and politics. Around the turn of the first millennium, a struggle started in northern Italy between the smaller noble houses, many of Longobard origin, and the larger noble houses and the bishops, who owed their positions and land to the Emperors. The smaller nobles wanted – not unsurprisingly – to have their own, local king, while the bigger nobles and bishops wanted to continue to be beholden to an Emperor far away on the other side of the Alps who left them to pretty much run the show as they wanted. In 945, at a time of Imperial weakness, the smaller nobles got the upper hand and elected one their own, Lothair, as King of Italy. He was quickly replaced by Berengar, whose family was powerful in the region around Lake Orta. By this time, the Empire was back on an even keel and, at the request of the Northern Italian bishops, the new Emperor Otto I sent his son Liudolf with a large army over the Alps to deal with this upstart.  Berengar’s family split up and holed up in various castles which the family controlled. Berengar, together with one of his sons, chose the castle on Isola San Giuglio. There, he was besieged by Liudolf and eventually surrendered. For some reason, Liudolf let both Berengar and his son go free. They went off and holed up in another castle of theirs in Romagna. Several months later, Liudolf died, officially of a fever although it was whispered that Berengar’s people had got to him and poisoned him. With Liudolf’s death his army melted away, and Berengar came out of his castle in Romagna to proclaim himself King of Italy once more. More Italian bishops headed north over the Alps, besieging Otto to come personally to deal with Berengar. This he did in 961, but first he went to Rome to have the Pope proclaim him Emperor and then to Pavia to have himself proclaimed King of Italy. By 962 he was ready to deal with Berengar, who adopted the same strategy: split up the family and hole up in various castles, except that this time it was his wife Willa who got to be in the castle on Isola san Giuglio (together with the family treasure) while Berengar headed for the castle in Romagna. Otto decided to go after Willa and history repeated itself: a siege of several months of the castle on Isola San Giulio followed by its capitulation. Again, Willa was allowed to go free (but not the family treasure) and she joined her husband. This time, though, Otto made sure that the castle stayed under Imperial control. As for Berengar, he died four years later and none of his sons seem to have made any attempts to retake the throne. There was another revolt by the small nobles some 40 years later, when Berengar’s grand-nephew, Arduin, was proclaimed King of Italy, and Northern Italy was put through the same circus: The Emperor (this time Henry II) came over the Alps with a large army and put Arduin in his place; he went back to Germany with his army and Arduin came out of whatever castle he was hiding in and proclaimed himself King again; Henry II came back over the Alps with another large army and dealt with Arduin again, this time for good (without, though, putting him to death; I think the Longobard king Childebert had the right approach: off with their heads!) Italy was not to have an independent King again until Italian unification nearly 900 years later.

After that, Isola San Giulio seems to have been pivoted away from its martial use back to its religious vocation and the whole area became a bit of a rural backwater. Over the next two hundred years, the successive bishops of Novara maneuvered to gradually have the Emperor give over to them the southern part of the lake as a feudal principality, which they then ruled with what seems to have been distant benevolence for some five hundred years; the local notables were generally allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid the necessary tithes and taxes to the prince-bishop. I don’t know if the prince-bishops used any of these funds to make life better for the peoples of their little principality. They certainly did use some of their funds, as did pious pilgrims, to make the basilica ever more beautiful. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the church’s look was “modernized”, with the latest Baroque additions giving the inside of the basilica its current look, and frescoes were added on every available surface, with the later ones sometimes obliterating the earlier ones. We have here the “modern” frescoes in the vault and dome (the picture also shows the baroque “scarification”).

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while here we have one of the earlier frescoes, which are now tucked away out of sight in the lateral aisles.

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I have already made my feelings abundantly clear about baroque and later religious art in earlier posts, so I need hardly say that I prefer the earlier frescoes.

While all this religiosity was going on, life was not completely trouble-free in Isola San Giorgio and the surrounding principality. The end of the 15th, beginning of the 16th Centuries were agitated times in Italy and while this quiet corner of northern Italy was largely able to avoid the troubles, for a decade or so, 1520-30, the troubles came to it. In 1523, the plague broke out, in all likelihood brought to the area by refugees from Novara which had been sacked and pillaged by French troops fighting the Spaniards. But worse were the predations by the neighbouring lordlets, many of them from the Visconti family, who were attracted by the relative prosperity of the principality. Although officially the Duke of Milan was exhorting the lordlets to be good boys – these were church lands, after all – he probably unofficially supported them in their rapine, because he had his own quarrel with the Bishop of Novara over the ownership of this little principality: Novara and its province had come under Milanese dominion some two hundred years earlier. On some excuse, Orta San Giulio was sacked in 1524 by one Visconti lordlet and prisoners taken for ransom. In 1526 and ’27, the principality was forced by another Visconti lordlet to put up, for free, a company of Imperial soldiers. In 1528, the same Visconti lordlet decided to become Governor of the principality and moved into the castle on Isola San Giulio. When the locals besieged him there, a third Visconti lordlet came to his rescue and sacked Orta San Giulio a second time. In early 1529, a random Imperial army invaded the principality and demanded a huge payment to leave. The locals refused to pay and escaped to the island and the relative safety of its castle. After trying to take the castle a few times, the army gave up and left, sacking and pillaging as it went. A few months later, the third Visconti lordlet decided it was time to pillage some more and marched into the principality at the head of a band of soldiers. This time, the locals were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore”, as the saying goes; they were determined to resist. Grabbing what arms they had, they met the invaders and brought them to battle. The invaders made the classic mistake of thinking that these were just a bunch of peasants who would run away when the going got tough. But they didn’t; they fought like madmen. They were helped, it has to be said, by the marshy ground they had chosen, which meant that the invaders’ horsemen were neutralized. The result was that the Visconti lordlet and a good portion of his men were massacred. The other lordlets of the area took heed and desisted in their predations (probably aided by the fact that a general peace was finally brokered between the Great Powers fighting over Italy).

Thereafter, Isola San Giorgio and the rest of the principality slipped back into its state of feudal somnolence for another two hundred years. In 1735, Novara and its province were handed over by the Austrians to the House of Savoy. The-then Duke of Savoy (and King of Sardinia) Charles-Emmanuel III had no patience with quaint feudal relics in his lands like the Bishop of Novara’s principality around Lake Orta. Pressure was brought to bear and slowly, slowly the bishops divested themselves of their feudal rights to the principality in favour of the House of Savoy. By 1819, the deed was done: the principality was no more. It was just one more district in the lands of Piedmont and, after 1861, in the newly-unified kingdom of Italy.

As a sign of the changes, the remains of the castle on the island were dismantled completely in 1841 and in their place a huge seminary was built – it is that big blockhouse of a building which I thought were old army barracks.  We have here an old postcard celebrating the seminarists.

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The seminary is no more; it lasted a little less than a hundred years. But the religious vocation of the island continues. The basilica and seminary have been handed over to a congregation of Benedictine nuns – we have one here going through the rite of becoming a Bride of Christ.

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The nuns have an interesting vocation. They study and translate ancient texts, and restore ancient fabrics and tapestries.

It is time to go back to Orta San Giulio and take that street at the back of Piazza Motta which we had noticed that cold and drizzly day, and which carries one up past this church to the Sacred Mountain of Orta.

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The Sacred Mountain of Orta is one of a number of Sacred Mountains which were created in the late 16th, early 17th Centuries in Northern Italy. They were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (whose very large nose I have mentioned in an earlier post). The original idea was to create places of pilgrimage which could stand in for the Medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was becoming harder and harder for pilgrims to reach. For San Carlo Borromeo, the Sacred Mountains were also to be a way to teach the little people, who had not had the benefit of an education, in an easily understandable way such mysteries as the Trinity but also the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and great saints. To this end, the Sacred Mountains were made up of a series of chapels containing life-sized models in terracotta, backed up by frescoes on the chapel walls, each telling a story in a holy person’s life or making a point about some tricky theological concept: little theatrical pieces, if you will. I have mentioned the use of art to teach illiterate people about religion in an earlier post. With the growth of Protestantism, the Sacred Mountains took on a third purpose, that of combating these horrible heresies. That no doubt explains why there are so many Sacred Mountains in Northern Italy, where they were created as bulwarks against the tide of Protestantism that could be washing over the Alps at any minute. In fact, the Sacred Mountain of Orta is part of nine such Sacred Mountains in northern Italy which are now inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In September, my wife and I visited another of these nine sites, at Varallo in Piedmont (where, coincidentally, we were once again accompanying our son on one of his business trips). I mentioned another of these sites, at Varese, in an earlier post I wrote about the fondness of religions around the world for sacrilizing mountains.

The Sacred Mountain of Orta is dedicated to the life of St. Francis, which pleases me no end since he must be my favourite saint, as I have mentioned in an earlier post. There are 20 chapels, laid out in a wooded landscape.

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I don’t propose to show readers photos of them all. Just two can give readers a sense of what would await them were they to visit this Sacred Mountain (or any of the other Sacred Mountains for that matter).

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I hope these scenes are in better shape than the ones we saw at Varallo, which were really rather tatty. Luckily, they were in the midst of being restored when we visited.

You get beautiful views over the lake from the Sacro Monte.

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As you gaze down on this sunny scene, it’s hard to believe that a mere thirty years ago the lake was dead. Everything in it had been killed off by industries which were discharging their crap into the lake, turning it into the most acidic lake in the world. It started back in 1927, when the German company Bemberg, which was making rayon fibre using the cuprammonium process, set itself up on the lakeside. The plant’s copper and ammonium discharges quickly acidified the lake, killing all life in it in about two years. Bemberg made limp efforts to control the discharges, which did begin to finally show noticeable reductions in the late 1950s. But by then Bemberg had been joined by a host of small plants making metal consumer products; two of these companies, incidentally, went on to become global brands: Bialetti and Alessi.

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Many of these plants included electroplating in their processes (that Alessi kettle is heavily chromed, for instance) and consequently toxic heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper and nickel were added to the filthy mix being discharged into the lake. As if that weren’t enough, the acidic waters of the lake released aluminium from the natural and normally harmless imissions of aluminosilicate into the lake, adding yet another toxic metal to the stew. Things only got better when the legislators eventually banged their fist on the table and passed Italy’s first water protection law in 1976 (the Legge Merli; I know it well, I referred to it countless times when as an environmental consultant I would tell Italian companies they needed to control their water discharges). Suddenly, companies which had claimed for years that it was impossible to control their discharges and remain in business found – surprise, surprise – that actually it was possible to control them and stay in business. But it took more than just forcing companies to properly control their discharges to get the lake’s pH back to normal. A massive liming operation was required, where calcium carbonate was added to the lake. A boat was specially made for the purpose. Lime was first sprayed on the surface.

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But that wasn’t enough. Lime had to be injected deep into the lake, below the thermocline. It took twenty years to restore what had taken a mere two to destroy. The lake is now more or less OK: “fishable, swimmable”, in the catchy phrase of the US’s first water protection law, although the planctonic populations are not quite right yet.

Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, I leave my readers. Maybe some of them will make it to Lake Orta one day. My wife and I certainly will, when Spring comes rolling round again.

SAINT JOHN OF NEPOMUK

Vienna, 17 September, 2019

I had never heard of this particular saint until my wife and I came to this part of the world, but once here we saw him repeatedly, not only in Austria but also in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, and in Hungary (and Wikipedia informs me that we could come across statues of his in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and even further afield). Here is a photo of a typical statue of him.

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This particular photo comes from a web site devoted to statues. The site has listed a little over 200 photos of statues of John of Nepomuk, mostly from the catholic lands of Central Europe but with a smattering from elsewhere, which gives some idea of the saint’s popularity in this part of Europe. The photo shows a “typical” statue of John: bearded, clothed as a priest, wearing the priest’s three-peaked biretta, holding a cross, and with a halo of five stars around his head (what is also often found, but is missing from this particular statue, is a martyr’s palm). The statues are often found on bridges or close to them, for reasons which will become clear in a moment. They often look lost and forlorn, engulfed by modern expansions of what were once little villages.

I suppose John of Nepomuk really came into focus for me when, relatively soon after our move to Vienna, my wife and I decided to visit Prague with the children. As anyone who has been to that city knows, no visit is complete without a crossing of the Charles Bridge.

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The most striking thing about the bridge (apart from the fine views it affords of both the old and the less old parts of the city) is the thirty or so statues which line both parapets.

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For the most part, they are of various saints who presumably were important to the city – or to the donors who paid for them. One of them – actually, the oldest of them all – is a statue of St. John of Nepomuk.

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The reasons why some of the other saints got a privileged position on the bridge may not be entirely clear, but in John’s case it is crystal clear. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic (and, before the Czech Republic existed, of Bohemia). As if that weren’t enough he was killed by being thrown off this very same bridge, which was nearing the end of its construction when he was summarily tipped over the parapet.

Well! It’s not every day that you stand on the very same spot (more or less) from which a saint was dispatched to his death. And such an interesting death! I don’t want to sound too morbid, but the way he was killed – according to my guide-book, sewn into a goatskin bag before being heaved into the river below – was considerably more quirky than most run-of-the mill deaths of saints I’ve come across. Thoroughly intrigued, I began asking myself what John of Nepomuk had done to deserve being declared a saint (being killed isn’t enough, otherwise we would have millions if not billions of saints).

After reading various accounts of his life, I’m afraid I have to conclude that he did nothing to deserve his title of saint. His sainthood was an act of pure politics.

Perhaps it is time for me to give a thumbnail sketch of John’s life and times. He was born in the 1340s in the Czech (Bohemian) town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk). I would guess that his father – a burgher of the town – decided that his son should make his career in the Church. John must have been a bright lad because after the usual schooling he was sent to the University of Prague, completing his studies of theology and jurisprudence in 1374. Somehow he caught the eye of John of Jesentein, who later became archbishop of Prague. Here is a statue of the good Archbishop on the cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (if this is a true likeness, he seems to have been a merry fellow).

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John of Jesenstein became Archbishop in 1378 and made John his first secretary. Presumably the Archbishop decided that John needed to further his studies and he went off to the University of Padua in 1383, returning home in 1387 with a doctorate in canon law in his pocket. Upon his return, he received – no doubt from the Archbishop – various positions: canon in the church of St. Ægidius in Prague, canon of the cathedral in Wyschehrad in 1389, Archdeacon of Sasz and canon of the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague in 1390, president of the ecclesiastical court shortly afterwards, and finally the Archbishop’s vicar-general (a sort of deputy for administrative matters) in 1393. It all sounds like the very rapid ascent of a very able fellow in the Church hierarchy. No doubt a brilliant career beckoned.

All this was taking place against a turbulent political background. Wenceslaus IV was King of Bohemia at the time. We see him here with his wife Sophia (more of her later), in a miniature from his bible.

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From what I read, he was a rather weak man. He certainly didn’t seem able to control his overweening family members, who were constantly undercutting him. His nobles, perhaps already restive but perhaps sensing his weakness, spent their time being obstreperous. He made matters worse by relying on favourites, something which nobles everywhere have always disliked; they feel that by reason of their birth they should be getting the positions being doled out to lower-born favourites. I have to say, Wencelsaus reminds me a lot of Richard II of England.

It was Wenceslaus wanting to reward a favourite which brought him on a collision course with the Church. The crisis came to a head pretty much immediately after John took up his post as the Archbishop’s vicar-general. Wenceslaus wanted to found a new bishopric for one of his favourites. His eyes fell on the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby, an abbey which still exists. This picture gives us an idea of what a juicy piece of real estate it must have been.

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It so happened that its abbot was dying. Wenceslaus ordered that upon his death no new abbot was to be elected. Instead, the abbey’s territories were to be turned into a bishopric and his favourite installed as its bishop (his idea was that the bishop could then return the favour, using the abbey’s resources to support the King in his struggles with family and aristocracy). Now, if there was one thing the Church hierarchy really objected to, that was having Kings telling them who should fill what Church posts, especially when those posts carried with them rich benefices which would be lost to the Church. So when the old abbot finally copped it, the monks of Kladruby held an election post haste and chose one of their own monks to be the new abbot; John, as vicar-general, promptly confirmed the election.

When he heard the news, Wenceslaus blew his top; I am reminded of Henry II of England who, driven to distraction by his Archbishop Thomas à Becket, cried out “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, a cry which led four knights to travel to Canterbury and slaughter Thomas on the steps of the cathedral’s high altar. In this case, Wenceslaus had John and three other top Church officials who had played some role in the decision arrested and thrown into gaol. In good medieval fashion, they were all tortured to get them to change the decision. The three others cracked and agreed. But John of Nepomuk held firm. So finally Wenceslaus ordered that he be placed in chains, paraded through the city with a block of wood in his mouth, and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the river. His executioners added the bit about being sewn into a goatskin bag. This fateful final event in John’s story occurred in March of 1393.

I’m not quite sure what the fall-out of all this was. The Archbishop certainly hot-footed it down to Rome, accompanied by the new abbot of Kladruby, to make a formal exposition of all that had happened (thus giving us the earliest written account of John’s death). In that exposition, he wrote of John being a martyr, presumably wanting to clothe in holiness a death that was really about quarrels between Church and State and who was more powerful, swirling around what was – let’s face it – a nice juicy piece of real-estate.

Regardless of what went on in the corridors of power, John’s death caught the imagination of the “little people” of Bohemia. A cult gradually grew up around him. By 1459, so some 70 years after John’s death, a more fanciful – and somewhat more holy – story appeared about the reason for his death; I suppose grubby little arguments about power and money didn’t seem suitable. It was now said that John had been Queen Sophia’s father confessor, that Wenceslaus had pressured him to tell if the Queen had confessed to having a lover, that John had refused to spill the beans citing the secrecy of the confessional, and that the King had lost it, leading to John being tossed into the river. This story is why John is quite often shown with his finger on his lips, as in this painting in the Church of Santa Maria Anima in Rome.

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When, after Emperor Ferdinand II smashed the Protestant forces of Bohemia at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and the forces of the Counter-Reformation were in full flow to forcibly turn Bohemia back into a Catholic state, it was decided to build on John’s popularity with the little people and push for his canonization. A very thick report was put together which emphasized the fanciful story of his death over the real reason for his death, and it was forwarded to the relevant authorities in Rome. The Roman Curia was happy to comply, so John was beatified in 1721 and canonized in 1729.

John’s sainthood of course drove the creation of art. Some of this was what we could call High Art. For instance, the years between his beatification and canonization saw the building of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk, a church that is famous in the Czech Republic and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (its rather fanciful shape is apparently based on an interpretation of the Cabbala).

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My wife and I have never seen this church, although it looks like a good candidate for a visit; I shall talk to her about it. On the other hand, I am firmly of the opinion that John’s Baroque tomb in the cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague can be skipped.

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Not only does it have in spadefuls all that I dislike about Baroque art – all flash and no substance – I really disapprove of the fact that two tonnes of silver were used to make the tomb; the money used to purchase the silver should have been distributed to the poor.

That’s the High Art. The Low Art generated by John are all those thousands of statues of him scattered around Central Europe and beyond. As readers can imagine, based on the fanciful explanation of his death, John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of good confession, confessors and penitents. But – more interestingly, to my mind – because of the way he died, he is also believed to protect against floods and troubled waters, and so is considered a patron saint of bridges and fords. Certainly the latest statue of him that my wife and I came across was in Lilienfeld during our walk along the so-called Via Sacra between Vienna and Mariazell. The statue was situated on the bank of a river, next to a bridge.

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This statue is somewhat more exciting than most statues of this type, showing John in the act of being thrown over the bridge’s parapet by a fellow who looks quite mean and nasty.

The river itself flowed quite placidly when we crossed the bridge.

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But the news is often filled with stories of rivers which have flooded and killed tens or hundreds of people. Why, only a few days ago we were treated to pictures of extreme flooding in Spain.

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I can imagine that the little, humble people have always had great respect for the power of rivers. They bring life-saving water to the crops, but they also unleash death and destruction when angry. I’m sure rites to propitiate the river gods are as old as civilization itself. The Greeks and Romans had their river gods and goddesses. So did the Celts. In fact, so did just about every other culture: Wikipedia has an entry on all these deities. I’m sure that the medieval Bohemians used John as a way of christianizing their age-old river gods.

Of course, if you have a saint to whom you pray to stop floods and the heavy rain which creates them, it is not a great step to also ask him to intercede in the opposite case, the case of drought. That’s why you will also find statues of John in the middle of farmland, like this one from a place called Burlo in Germany (although the field behind looks rather sodden in this case).

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So there we have it. An actor in a Shakespearean drama of power and money who was, over the centuries and for various political reasons, turned into a saint. But below the official Catholic radar, a man who by chance became the means for a mostly rural population to officialize their magic to try to manage water, one of their most precious resources.

P.S. After reading this post, my wife began to see statues of John of Nepomuk everywhere we hiked. They really are common in this part of the world!

LAMENTATIONS OVER A LOVED ONE

Milan, 8 June 2019

During the month of March, my wife and I went to Bologna for a short visit (I should have written up this post quite a while back; but hey, as they say, better late than never). It’s a nice little town, somewhat off the tourists’ beaten track, which makes it all the nicer. It had been decades since either of us had been back – my wife studied there for a year in the late 1970s, and I had visited her one Christmas before we went off for a little jaunt to Puglia. So it was nice to visit a few old haunts, although in truth her memories of the town were somewhat hazy and mine were almost non-existent.

But actually, what I had really been looking forward to visit was a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Niccolò dell’Arca from 1463, which is located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita (tucked away behind Piazza del Nettuno). I had come across it a decade or so ago when I was methodically leafing through the 1,000 pages of the book 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space.

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This very – very – thick book purports to summarize the best art that we humans have created ever since we started making things: the first entry in the book is from c. 28000 BC, the last is from the mid-1990s. Its entry for the year 1463 is Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation (on page 685, if anyone is interested). When I saw it, I said to myself, “One day, I must go to Bologna to see this!”

The Lamentation in question is not a painting. Rather, it is a collection of terracotta statues making up a sort of “tableau vivant” of the scene of sorrow around Jesus’s dead body, after he has been taken down from the cross and before he has been deposed in his tomb. It seems that Lamentations of this kind were quite common, at least in Italy (and not just in terracotta; I recently saw the remains of two other Lamentations made of wood, in the Pinacoteca of Milan’s castle). The statues represent a set of stock characters: Jesus, of course, lying on the ground after being taken down from the cross; Mary, the mother of Jesus (whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Madonna, to avoid confusion with the three other Marys); St. John the Evangelist; the three other Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Salome; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. Here is a typical example of the form, which we also saw in Bologna, in the cathedral, made by the artist Alfonso Lombardi between 1522 and 1526.

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Very nice, very dignified, very composed.

But now consider the Lamentation which I wanted to see.

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Talk about lamentation! Look at the faces of the women!
Mary, mother of Jesus, first of all

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Next to her, Mary Salome, gripping her thighs frenetically in her anguish

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At the feet of Jesus, Mary of Cleophas, trying to shield herself from the awful truth

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Finally, next to her, Mary Magdalene, shrieking out her horror at what she sees.

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The weeping, the wailing – the shrieking – going on in that circle of people is all heightened by Mary Magdalene’s clothes streaming behind her in a most dramatic fashion.

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The explanation given in the church is that she was running to the scene and the artist caught her – as if in a cinematic still – at the moment when she burst into the circle around the body and saw with horror that Jesus was dead.

In contrast, the two men in the group are quite subdued. St. John’s expression can only be described as that of someone who is feeling somewhat miserable

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while Joseph of Arimathea simply looks phlegmatic.

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(for those of my readers who might be asking themselves this, Nicodemus was either not part of this particular group or he disappeared in the intervening 400 years)

This male-female contrast in emotions brings to mind an exchange we as a family had on WhatsApp about Theresa May’s resignation speech in late May. Our son commented that it was somewhat embarrassing to see her cry, at which our daughter leaped to her defence. I quote: “I thought her speech was pretty good. She got emotional when talking about the honour of the job and the fact that she was the second ever female UK prime minister (and not the last) – I think it’s fair to get emotional at that stage! We need to stop vilifying emotional releases such as tears. Women are physiologically more prone to crying – our tear ducts open more easily. If we see tears as a sign of weakness we are inherently disadvantaging women. Anyway, the premise that being “strong” means being unemotional I also think should be changed. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme but her release was very appropriate.”

Well, Nicolò dell’Arca certainly seemed to think that grown men don’t cry, but that women do, and copiously!

It struck me that I could use the various Lamentations paintings created over the centuries to explore how painters felt about this gender difference in the showing of emotions, or simply about the showing of emotions at all. I should add a warning here that my personal take on this is that in real life the scene at the centre of the Lamentations would have been highly emotional: your son, or your leader, who has had you believing that he is heralding the arrival of the end of time and the start of the reign of Yahweh, has instead been shamefully put to death by the colonial authorities and now lies before you, dead. All your hopes, all your beliefs, smashed to smithereens. If I had been there I would have been a total puddle, even if I am a man. But let’s see what painters thought.

We can start this exploration some two centuries before dell’Arca’s composition, with Giotto’s Lamentation of 1303, which is to be found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padova (and on page 615 of the Very, Very Thick Book).

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Here, everyone who is gathered around the dead Jesus is crying – not wailing as the women are in dell’Arco’s composition, but definitely crying. Even St. John – the person standing over the women huddled around Jesus – is crying. In fact, I would say that St. John is in transports of sorrow, more so than the women. Even the angels are in anguish. It is true that the two fellows to the right – believed to be Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – are quite composed, but one could argue that they were not close companions of Jesus and so not as committed to the cause that he represented. It could also show that Giotto thought it was OK for young men like St. John to show their emotions, but that older men should keep their upper lip well stiffened.

Jumping forward to 1440-42, we have a Lamentation by the Dominican monk Fra’ Angelico, in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.

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Here, no crying, just a gentle preparation of the body for the tomb behind, by the women and St. John (who has his back to us) (the fellow in the background is St. Dominic, seeing all this in a trance). A typical work of Fra’ Angelico, I would say, as gentle as the man himself. Maybe strong emotions frightened him. Maybe he preferred to choose a moment slightly after the tears and the wailing, when practical considerations kicked in: the dead body needed to be prepared for the grave.

We can go forward another fifty years, to Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1489, hanging on the walls of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera just up the road from where I write this (and which can be viewed on page 707 of the VVThB, by the way).

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Looking at the painting, readers can see that next to Jesus there are three people – the Madonna, St. John next to her, and a third person you can just make out over the Madonna’s shoulder. They are all crying copiously. It seems that Mantegna, rather like Giotto, believed in everyone showing their emotions.

On the other hand, in Botticelli’s Lamentation of almost the same period (1490-92), now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, the artist only has the women lamenting (although in a very stylized way, it seems to me; shades of things to come). St. John simply looks grim. So Boticcelli appears to be with dell’Arco on this one: women show emotions, men don’t.

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The painting also has that stock situation, common in later times, and which I must confess to find most irritating, of the Madonna fainting from the emotion of it all. This really is the male assumption about the weakness and frailty of women: when the going gets tough, women faint. The other men, saints of various kinds, are simply there to witness the scene, like St. Dominic in Fra’ Angelico’s version, so do not show much emotion (I do think, though, that Botticelli had some cheek in including St. Peter – the fellow to the right, clutching a big key – since according to the Gospels while Jesus was being taken down from the cross and being buried he and the other – male – disciples were all cowering in a room somewhere, in fear of imminent arrest).

This next Lamentation is by Bellini, executed at the same time as Botticelli’s (1485-95). It is one of many Lamentations which he painted. This particular one is in the Uffizi in Florence. Here, everyone is even more composed: the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, and St. John seem to be sniffling a little while everyone else is looking calmly noble. Bellini does not believe in showing emotions, it would seem (although in fairness to him, some of his other Lamentations seem somewhat more emotionally charged).

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On the other hand, in this Lamentation by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, from exactly the same period (1485) (and now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), both the Madonna and St. John are in absolute agony, with the latter literally howling (it is true to say, though, that Mary Magdalene is more contained).

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It would seem that Crivelli was a believer in showing strong emotions, like dell’Arca, and was quite happy with men showing such emotions.

But now look at this Lamentation by Perugino, again from the same period, 1495 (and now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).

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I mean, everyone, man and woman, looks ridiculously calm and noble! (there is one half-hearted attempt at gesticulation, by the lady in red at the back, but it’s very unconvincing). Perugino must have thought that emotions weren’t necessary to the scene.

From 50 years later, 1547, we have this Lamentation by Paolo Veronese (it seems that every artist worth his salt had a go at this theme), now in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.

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Again, everyone looks calm and dignified. The Madonna looks a trifle pale, but that’s about it. No emotions please!

A decade on, 1560 or thereabouts, Tintoretto painted this Removal from the Cross bleeding into a Lamentation, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.

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This is best described as baroque, although it’s a bit early for that. We have a fainting Madonna, dramatic gesticulation, contorted clothing – but not a single tear. Drama is required, but not emotions.

The same message comes through 45 years later in Caravaggio’s Deposition of 1603-1604 (which also contains some Lamentation in it), now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

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The drama here comes from the play of light and dark and the angle from which it was painted. But the women seem quite composed in their sorrow; the gesticulation of the girl at the back feels contrived.

If real emotions seem to have drained away from the Lamentations painted in Italy, to be replaced first by Olympian calm and then by drama, there never seems to have been any real emotions at all in the Lamentations painted north of the Alps. The genre crossed the Alps at about the time that Giotto painted his Lamentation in Padova and became very popular. I have not been able to find any tears, or even much emotion, in these Northern European versions of the genre. For instance, this Lamentation from 1455-60, by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus (and now in Brussel’s Royal Museum of Fine Art) has the Madonna in a tasteful swoon, a lady to the right possibly wiping away a tear, and a woman to the left meekly wringing her hands. But everyone else is quietly going about their business.

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This Lamentation by the Burgundian Early Netherlandish painter Simon Marmion is from a little later, about 1476 (and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).

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Not a shred of emotion here. No drama, either. “Oh dear, he’s dead” is all I get from it.

Dürer, a few decades later (c. 1500), managed to include one person in his Lamentation who is gesticulating, although in a quite contained manner (you almost feel that Dürer included her because it was the done thing to do). The other women just look a little sad, while all the men are simply standing around. (This is another painting in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek)

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This next Lamentation, in London’s National Gallery, is by Gerard David, another Early Netherlandish painter, and is from a few decades later still, 1515-1523.

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It looks a polished work, but I still see very little emotion. A certain quiet sadness is all I get from the painting, from everyone involved.

I could add more paintings – like I say, every painter worth his salt seems to have had a crack at this one – but I think we get the gist. If there is any trend in later paintings, it’s towards the dramatic – exaggerated gestures, contorted clothing – but with only the women showing – theatrical – emotion; the men simply look stolid.

So what conclusions can we draw? – because we have to draw some conclusion. I have to say that I agree with my daughter on this one. Perhaps it is physiologically easier for women to cry than men, but I also think that European culture (and possibly all cultures) have evolved and now strongly suggest that men should have stiff upper lips while it’s OK for women’s (and children’s, male and female) upper lips to tremble.  I also think that it is expected for our leaders not to cry – stern anger, for instance against the enemy is OK, but no tears. Tears imply weakness, and our leaders must not be weak. Which is why the Renaissance painters stopped showing these ordinary people around Jesus, which Christianity had turned into leaders, crying – and why our son felt a certain embarrassment at seeing May crack up at her podium in front of No. 10. But I think we men should stop trying to look strong and weep and wail when we feel the need to, especially when we have lost someone very near and dear to us.

Oh, and do go to Bologna to see dell’Arco’s Lamentation. it’s really worth the visit – and Bologna is a nice place, with very good food.

 

TWO PANETTONI FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

Dedicated to my son, who too often gets strep throat

Milan, 3 February 2019

updated 14 January 2020

Today is February 3rd!

This exclamation of mine will, I’m sure, leave all of my readers puzzled, so I need to explain: February 3rd is the feast day of Saint Blaise!

I fear, though, that this piece of information will still not help my readers much, so let me plough on.

Saint Blaise is one of those delightfully obscure early Christian martyrs, lost to us in the mists of time and fog of hagiography. His story is quickly told. He lived in the late 2nd, early 3rd Centuries AD. He was the Bishop of Sebastea, now Sivas, deep in the heart of modern Turkey. He was a holy man and a miracle worker. It is one miracle in particular that interests us here. A young mother came rushing to Blaise with her son, who was dying from a fish bone (or possibly a fish scale) stuck in his throat. As someone who, at the age of 12 or 13, got a fish bone stuck in my throat, I can deeply empathize with the poor boy. Luckily, I wasn’t dying but it was an incredibly painful experience. After various home remedies had been tried, I was taken to a doctor who extracted it. It so happens that Blaise had also trained as a doctor, but it seems he favored a faith-based approach to healing (I don’t know whether this was merely a reflection of his strong faith or a commentary on the parlous state of medicine at the time). So he laid his hands on the boy’s throat and uttered the – extremely sensible – words: “either come up or go down”. The fish bone (or scale) duly came up, or went down, and the boy was saved. This is the best painting I have found, by the Neapolitan painter Pacecco de Rosa, commemorating this touching scene.
Blaise was caught up in a final burst of persecution in the Roman Empire against Christians, which was the fruit of a vicious power struggle between the co-Emperors Constantine and Licinius. It is narrated that Blaise was arrested and dragged before the local governor and “invited” to abjure his faith. Here we have the scene commemorated in a stained glass window from Picardie, in northern France.
Of course, Blaise did no such thing. In fact, he used the occasion to lambaste idolatry (no doubt using strong and colourful language to make his point). At which, the governor in a fury ordered his men to torture Blaise. Which they did, with gusto, using combs or brushes with pointed metal teeth to tear his flesh to pieces. This is the best painting, by Filippo Vitale, another Neapolitan painter, which I could find of this painful event. I particularly like the Caravaggesque approach adopted by the painter. I have to say, I also find the pop-eyed torturer fantastic.
I feel moved, however, to also add a picture here of a section of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted Saint Blaise, because he made a great a depiction of the saint holding a wicked-looking pair of combs. Imagine having your skin scraped with those things!
In passing, I have to say that I am always amazed at the wonderfully inventive tortures early Christian hagiographers came up with for their martyrs. The muscular-looking lady in the green dress below Saint Blaise in the Last Judgement is Saint Catherine, holding the spiked wheel which she was meant to be broken on. I have written an earlier post about the flaying of St. Bartholomew. I went to a school whose patron saint was St. Laurence; he was basically grilled like a pork chop over a fire. The list of incredible tortures is endless …

But I digress. For some reason – no doubt because he was a saint – Blaise survived this harrowing of the flesh. He was thrown into jail, presumably to give his jailers time to think up even more hideous ways of torturing him. But they were clearly not up to the task, for the next thing we are told is that the governor ordered Blaise to be drowned in the nearby river. His men duly threw him into the river, where he miraculously floated. In frustration, they hauled him to the shore and cut off his head. And that was the end of Blaise (although I have to ask myself, if he could miraculously float in the river why could he not also miraculously stop the sword from cutting his head off? But, as they say, God moves in mysterious ways).

Blaise might have been dead but his reputation lived on. Over the centuries, he became the patron saint of various things. The one that interests us here is that he is the saint to whom one prays if one has a sore throat. Well, sore throats are a very common ailment for us humans, especially at this time of the year, but they are not life-threatening. So initially I found it somewhat surprising that people in the old days felt the need for a saint to intercede specifically for sore throats. But then it occurred to me that perhaps I was actually just reflecting the modern state of our health. Perhaps in the old days a sore throat was actually often the harbinger of something much more deadly creeping up on us, especially if we were children. For instance, scarlet fever starts with a sore throat. It predominantly strikes children between the ages of 5 and 15. Scarlet fever is now treatable with antibiotics, but in the pre-antibiotic days, i.e., any time before World War II, it could be deadly, as I have just seen in the film Little Women. Strep throat, which is a cousin of some sort to scarlet fever, also comes to mind. This is another disease that predominantly strikes children – it is responsible for as much as a third of their sore throats. It is incredibly painful, as I remember from my one run-in with the disease at the age of 10. To make the point, I throw in here a picture of a nice case of strep throat.
Strep throat is now also treatable with antibiotics, but perhaps in the pre-antibiotic days strep throat was more deadly. Then there is whooping cough, which I would assume has a component of sore throat (luckily, never having had whooping cough, I wouldn’t know). Until quite recently pretty much every child caught whooping cough and a not insignificant number died as a result (and still do in developing countries, because they don’t get vaccinated as we do in the developed world). And perhaps there are other diseases out there where sore throats are a warning signal of death around the corner, especially for children – I welcome further elucidation from any of my readers with a medical background.

In any event, my fancy tells me that early Christians had noticed a sometimes deadly correlation between youth and sore throats, and concluded – based on his miracle with the little boy and the fish bone – that Saint Blaise was the ideal saint to pray to when sore throats reared their ugly heads. Out of all this grew a custom that had the faithful flocking to churches on February 3rd, Saint Blaise’s feast day, to have their throats protected for the rest of the year with a special blessing. Although not so common now (I would say that we generally have greater faith in our doctors being able to cure us), it is a custom that lives on. And it’s not just any old blessing that one receives, no sirree! A pair of lit candles are crossed at one’s throat while the blessing is pronounced.
I have never been blessed in this way, so I don’t quite understand how it is that one’s hair isn’t set alight in the process; I would be extremely nervous about the whole thing. Where the idea of involving candles in the ceremony came from I have no idea, although it must be an old tradition. Here is a painting of Saint Blaise by Hans Memling, where readers can see that the Saint is serenely holding a candle.
All of this brings me to the real reason why I’m writing this post. It has to do with Milan, where I am currently spending the winter. The Milanese, like all other good Christians, firmly believed in Saint Blaise’s powers to cure sore throats. Indeed, there is a saying in Milanese dialect which proclaims: San Bias el benediss la gola e el nas, “Saint Blaise, he blesses the throat and the nose” (it seems that the Milanese sensibly extended the saint’s miraculous powers to the nose, or perhaps they simply wanted to make the rhyme). Nevertheless, the Milanese have added a special twist to this credence. Somewhere along the line, they concluded that eating panettone was just as good at protecting their throats as were two crossed candles and a priest’s benediction. So the ceremony in church was followed by a sit-down at home to eat a slice of panettone.

For those of my readers who are not familiar with this glory of Milanese cuisine, I throw in a picture.
Panettone is a type of sweet bread loaf. It’s been around since at least 1599, date of the first credible mention of it in the written records. What we see today, though, is not what our ancestors would have seen in 1599 or indeed at any time before 1919. In that year, the manufacture of panettone was revolutionized. An enterprising Milanese baker by the name of Motta introduced a new proofing step, where the dough was allowed to rise in not one but in three separate stages over a period of 20 hours. It is that which ensures the panettone’s tall domed shape as well as its wonderful fluffiness. A few years later, he was copied (“the recipe was adapted”) by another enterprising Milanese baker called Alemagna. The Motta and the Alemagna brands of panettone have been battling it out ever since.

I suspect that panettone originally looked more like a fruitcake (or plum cake to the English), which my French grandmother was very fond of and liked to buy for the Christmas festivities.
This too was the original role of panettone. It was a special, sweet bread that the Milanese made for Christmas. Like all these things, I would imagine that the “fruit” that Milan’s housewives and bakers added to their panettoni were closely guarded family secrets. Nowadays, as the Italian Government strives to give the panettone a DOP certification, the additions have been standardized: raisins – dry and not soaked! – as well as the candied zests of orange, lemon, and citron (the last of which I have written about in an earlier post).

I’m sure my alert readers will have noticed a problem. Panettone was originally made only at Christmas while the feast day of Saint Blaise is on February 3rd. Undeterred, the Milanese made it a habit of setting aside part of their Christmas panettone to eat on Saint Blaise’s day after they had braved their annual encounter with the crossed – and lighted! – candles. How exactly they kept their panettone from going stale in the meantime I don’t know. The web is full of suggestions on this topic for fruitcake, my favourite being to wrap it in towels soaked in brandy or wine and then in something like oiled paper. And anyway, as my wife sensibly remarked, if the panettone had become a trifle stale it could always be dunked in milk or tea or coffee.

But nowadays the Milanese don’t need to bother putting aside a piece of their Christmas panettone. No foodstuff is seasonal anymore, and panettone is no exception; you can buy it any time of the year. In fact, in a canny marketing move, sellers of panettone in Milan will offer two panettoni for the price of one on Saint Blaise’s day. Which is really why I’m so excited that it’s 3rd February today. I can buy two wonderfully delicious panettoni for the price of one! The moment I’ve posted, I’m off down the road to buy them, like this gentleman has (although he seems to have scarfed down half a panettone before even leaving the shop).
And maybe on the way back I’ll pop into a church to have my throat blessed. You never know …

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Saint Blaise blessing the child: http://necspenecmetu.tumblr.com/post/46439176152/giovanni-francesco-de-rosa-pacecco-de-rosa-the
Saint Blaise before the governor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Blaise
Saint Blaise being harrowed: https://www.flickr.com/photos/91590072@N04/15982366258
Saint Blaise in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/galleries/michelangelo_last_judgment
Strep throat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streptococcal_pharyngitis
Blessing of the throat: https://www.gazzettadiparma.it/scheda/246883/San-Biagio—la-benedizione.html
Saint Blaise holding a candle: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_de_S%C3%A9baste
Panettone: https://www.buy-me.it/panettone-classico-1kg-pasticceriabiasetto/
Fruitcake: http://dish.allrecipes.com/holiday-baking-fruitcakes/
Two panettoni: http://gateau.catamarcainfo.com/what-to-eat-with-panettone/

NATIVITIES IN THE WOODS

Sori, 1 January 2019

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

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

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

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Pictures: all ours

OH NO, IT’S HALLOWEEN AGAIN!

Kyoto, 31 October 2018

Halloween is upon us once again! Time to don the costumes of ghosts, goblins, zombies, skeletons, witches, and other assorted weirdos which we’ve been storing in our wardrobes since last year, and roam the streets drinking booze and checking out each other’s costumes!

Time to light the candles in those pumpkins which we’ve been patiently carving into hideous faces (or we just bought ready-made in plastic at the local store) and plonk them down in front of our door!

A dim and distorted reflection indeed of the beliefs of our ancestors that this was the night when for a short while the thin membrane separating the world of the living from the world of the dead became permeable, allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the land.

A time not to be out and about, risking to be set upon by evil spirits. A time to stay safe at home with your family.

Our ancestors also thought that, born as they were at that moment when real world and spirit world temporarily connected, Halloween babies had the ability in later life to commune with the spirits. When, 32 years ago, I wrote to our friends telling them that our son had been born in the early hours of 31st October, I jovially added that I looked forward to him having a successful career as a medium. Somewhat like Whoopi Goldberg in the film Ghost, although she initially was frightened stiff by her gift.

As of this writing, our son has shown no such gift although he has done well enough in other ways.

I am no believer in spirits – I am, as I have said in other posts, a child of the Scientific Revolution and the rationalism that came with it – but I do find it sad that what was for our ancestors an important and holy feast day has degenerated into a twee happening fueled by companies egging us on to consume.

Even the Japanese are getting into the act! Here in Kyoto we are constantly coming across the same Halloween-related consumeristic crap that we see now from Seattle to Budapest and beyond.

Halloween, it seems, is following in the steps of Christmas and going global: any excuse is good to get us out of the house and do some shopping.

Better by far that we just stay at home and enjoy each other’s company over a glass of wine. That’s certainly what my wife and I intend to do.

___________________________

Halloween party: https://sf.funcheap.com/marin-singles-halloween-costume-party-san-rafael/
Jack-o-lanterns: http://www.maniacpumpkincarvers.com/jackolanterns/
Medieval living and dead: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/the-medieval-walking-dead/
Whoopi Goldberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsI5bREF20Y
Halloween shopping: http://www.halloween-online.com/articles/halloween-articles-budgeting.html
Holiday shopping: https://me.me/i/fox-10-holiday-countdown-days-until-halloween-400-days-until-2900508

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________

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

ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

____________________

Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING

Milan, 25 December 2017

I suppose it’s a sign of old age creeping up on me that I recall with ever greater fondness the memories of my youth, and in this festive season no more so than to Christmases past – here, to get us into the spirit of things, I throw in a picture of Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past.

There is one Christmas in particular which comes back vividly to mind.  I must have been six years old, old enough to remember things forever more and young enough for incidents to be deeply impressed into my still malleable brain. I can still see in my mind’s eye the living room of our house in Eritrea – this was probably the last Christmas we spent there; we would be leaving it forever within the coming year. The furniture had been moved around to make room for a Christmas tree in the corner and a nativity scene along the edge of one of the walls. Following the cultural divide in our family, my British father was responsible for the tree while my French mother was responsible for the nativity scene, or crèche as she used to call it. The tree was a source of endless fascination to me, covered as it was with those glittering balls and other baubles. This picture of a Christmas tree from the 1950s captures well the glittering fantasy I beheld.

The balls in particular were a magnet for my little fingers, which was a problem because they were incredibly fragile in those days, made as they were of some very thin, very easily breakable material.  Alas, despite numerous parental warnings to keep out of the living room, I could not resist sneaking in and touching those beautiful balls, with a broken ball and a sore bottom being the inevitable result.

The crèche was an equal source of fascination: the little manger, the figurines of Mary and Joseph, the Mum and Dad to that little baby, Jesus, lying in the hay, the donkey and the cow, very much like the ones I saw when we went for drives in the countryside around the town, the shepherds hanging around the manger, who also looked pretty much like the shepherds I sometimes saw out in the countryside, the angel which hung by a thread over the manger, the three old fellows and a camel who, day by day, were brought closer and closer to the manger until they reached it some time after Christmas … all wonderful stuff. The crèche photographed here has the rough and ready look which ours surely had – in fact, it looks already to be one level above whatever it is that we prepared, although to my innocent eyes ours was a work of art.

I had little understanding and, frankly, zero interest in the theological profundities which were being exposed before us. What I loved were all those little figurines which we could move around! Our mother made it even more interesting by allowing us to add our own figurines to the mix. I don’t recall what I brought but I remember that my elder brother came with his toy cowboys and indians which he proceeded to hide behind the various trees and bushes dotting the papier-maché landscape.

In all my Christmases Past, I have had a particular fondness for these Christmas trappings, even though for reasons which are now not clear to me the crèche quite quickly dropped away in my parents’ Christmases, leaving only the tree and its baubles. When my Italian wife and I started having our own Christmases the decorated pine tree also dominated, although my wife remembered with great fondness the crèche, or presepe as she calls it, which her father would create when she was young. As she described it to me, it seemed very much like the crèche of my memory, although her father had inserted a pond into the landscape using a mirror and had rigged up a little light driven by a battery which would shine in the star above the manger. Since it was very much my father-in-law’s project, I suppose that after his early death my mother-in-law never had the heart to take the presepe out and set it up, even when our children were young and might have appreciated it. But we took them along to the local churches – every self-respecting Italian church will have a presepe set up in one of the side chapels at Christmas.

This year, as I did my annual trek to the attic to bring down our Christmas tree (made of plastic and reusable; I have to walk my talk, after all, and I can’t stand those piles of dead and dying pine trees on pavements after Christmas), I spied in the corner the box where my mother-in-law had stored the presepe materials, an old box which had once contained a humidifier and which still had her handwritten note on the top of it – a message from the past.

Since it was to be a family Christmas this year, with both our children joining us, I decided on the spur of the moment to set up the presepe. I brought the box down, took everything out, and carried out a general inspection. I decided to drop the pond; I didn’t approve of this novelty. The electrical system was kaput, so I ditched that. The main actors were all there – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ass and the ox, the shepherds and their sheep, the angel, the three Wise Men and their camel. But I was going to need some extra characters, to make up for the cowboys and indians which in my wiser old age I recognized as very incongruous – and anyway I had no cowboy and indian figurines at hand (I had some of my son’s Warhammer figurines in the back of a cupboard, but they would have been even more incongruous).

I decided to check out the greatest of all presepi in Italy, the ones made in Naples, which had brought the art of nativity scenes to heights of splendour. I mean, look at these two!


Now that’s what I call nativity scenes worthy of kings! (and queens) Making one was to be my KPI!

A little research informed me that there are a certain number of stock characters in Neapolitan nativity scenes. There is Benino, the sleeping shepherd, a reference to the line in the gospel that the shepherds were out in the fields at night (and therefore presumably snoozing). There is the wine seller, a reference to the Eucharist, but there is also Cicci Bacco, who is a reference to earlier pagan rites. There’s the Fisherman, symbolizing the fisher of souls. Then we have the two pals Unc’ Vicienzo and Unc’ Pascale, personifying Carnival and Death. There’s the Monk, who is meant to symbolize the union between the sacred and the profane in the Neapolitan nativity scene. There’s a Gypsy Girl, whose symbolism is uncertain but who is fun to have around. There’s Stefania, around whom there is an elaborate tale which I will not relate here. There’s the Prostitute, who is there to form a contrast with the purity of the Virgin and who normally is made to hang around outside the tavern – where else? Finally, there are the sellers in the market, one for each month of the year: butcher for January, seller of ricotta or cheese for February, seller of chickens and other birds March, seller of eggs April, a married couple holding a basket of cherries and fruit for May, baker for June, tomato seller July, watermelon seller August, fig seller September, wine seller October, chestnut seller November, fishmonger December.

A rapid comparison of what I had inherited from my in-laws told me that we had a lot of gaps. I had a Benino, a fisherman, a fishmonger, a young girl with a basket who could be one half of the married couple of May, a young girl who could be Stefania. And that was about it. I had a number of other figurines who it seems are not part of the stock players in a Neapolitan nativity scene. There were a couple of figurines of men playing various instruments, maybe referring to a tradition which was still alive – just – when I first came to Italy in the 1970s and which saw men appearing a little before Christmas playing the Lombard equivalent of bagpipes and inviting donations from passers-by for their efforts. There was also a neat little figurine of a fellow making polenta, no doubt part of an effort to defend the honour of northern Italian cuisine. My wife had come across by chance a little shop which sold a medley of figurines for nativity scenes, so we stocked up on a few of our missing characters. We also bought some sheets of coloured paper to use as backdrops, a bag of moss to sprinkle around as generic vegetation, and some little houses to create a nearby Bethlehem.  Then we got to work, my wife on the tree and me on the presepe alla napoletana. The result is not so bad, even if we say so ourselves.

But there is still much to do on the presepe! Luckily, I am a believer in the philosophy of continuous improvement. Next year, we will make our presepe somewhat better, the year after that better still, and on and on. If I’m lucky enough to celebrate many more Christmases Yet to Come we will finally end up with a magnificent Neapolitan-style presepe! – with some tweaks to distinguish ourselves from our southern cousins.

 

Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Buon Natale!

____________________

Ghost of Christmas Past: http://www.wisegeek.com/who-is-the-ghost-of-christmas-past.htm
Christmas tree: https://it.pinterest.com/suehirtle1/1950s-christmas/?lp=true
Manger: http://www.unionesarda.it/articolo/sardegna_agenda/2017/11/29/a_villamar_un_corso_per_salvare_l_arte_del_presepe-122-671332.html
cowboys and indians: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/hajosc49/toy-land/
Parish church nativity scene: http://www.valcenoweb.it/2017/12/10/chiesa-parrocchiale-di-pione-bardi-inaugurato-il-presepio-venerdi-8-dicembre-2017/
the presepe box: my photo
Warhammer figurines: http://www.sickchirpse.com/peta-campaign-against-warhammer-fur/
Presepe napoletano: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presepe_napoletano
Presepe napoletano-2: http://www.oggiroma.it/eventi/mostre/il-presepe-religiosita-e-tradizione-popolare/27671/
The finished Christmas tree: my photo
The finished presepe: my photo
Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adorazione_dei_pastori_(Ghirlandaio)

LUXOR, EGYPT

Milan, 19 November 2017

My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in Egypt (I also went to do some consultancy on a project proposal in Upper Egypt, whose objective is to create small businesses around the reuse of agricultural and agro-processing waste; but that is a story for another day). We primarily visited Luxor, so the main thrust of our visit was the monuments of Ancient Egypt.

I must confess to being quite ignorant about the art, culture, and history of Ancient Egypt. Of course, I have a passing knowledge about all the usual things: the rather icky mummies

and the richly decorated Russian-doll like cases which enclose them

the – rather static and boringly repetitive – statues which fill halls in various Worthy Museums in Europe (here’s the British Museum’s, which I suffered through as a child).

Having read articles from time to time about King Tut and his tomb, I have of course absorbed a certain amount of his story, but to give an idea of the shallowness of my knowledge I have a very clear memory of doing a long line when I was young to visit a King Tut exhibition at the British Museum, but for the life of me don’t remember anything I saw in the exhibition itself.

I was also entertained in my childhood by the presentation of Ancient Egypt in the comic books I read: Tintin first of all

with the amusingly absent-minded Egyptologist Philémon Siclone

then Asterix

with the Egyptians speaking in hieroglyphics.

In more recent times, I have been tickled by films relating to various Curses of the Mummy.

And that’s about it. In short, I was really very ignorant about Ancient Egypt.

The hotel we stayed at in Luxor continued the comic-book theming of Ancient Egypt. We were staying in the Nefertiti wing, with the Cleopatra wing close by. These two pastiche statues greeted us every day as we made our way to the breakfast room


and the hotel’s walls were decorated with this kind of pastiche fresco.

Luckily, the French-speaking guide we had hired over the Internet turned out to be very competent. He had put together a nice programme which covered many of the best of the sites in and around Luxor: the temple of Karnak, with its large-scale bas-reliefs on its walls

the temple of Luxor, which we saw at night

with its avenue of sphinxes

Luxor Museum, which had some lovely pieces

several of the tombs in the valleys of the Kings, Queens, nobles, and in the village of the artisans, with their incredibly fresh frescoes


the temple of Dendera, with its amazing astronomical ceiling

the temple of Abydos, with its lovely bas-reliefs inside the temple

the temple of Hatshepsut, with its dramatic setting

and finally the Ramesseum, with the green fields fed by the Nile’s waters lapping at its feet.

I won’t pretend that by the end of it all I was an Egyptologist, but I do think I now have a passing understanding of the history of the 18th to 20th dynasties (noting, though, the rather depressing fact that there were 30 dynasties in all before the Romans put a halt to pharaonism; I have much more to learn). I also think I have a – still very sketchy – understanding of ancient Egyptians’ religion. Finally, I have a passing knowledge of the architectural principles underlining the buildings that we saw.

I do not propose to bore readers with a breathless precis of what we saw, heard, and sort-of understood. I’ll just comment on some of the things that particularly struck me as we went along.

The sun truly dominated the thinking of the ancient Egyptians. After our two weeks there I can understand why. I saw clouds just once, and that was in Cairo. In Luxor, we had a clear, hard, lapis-lazuli sky the whole time, with the sun climbing slowly from the eastern horizon

up to its apex

and then falling slowly to the western horizon, as we moved from site to site.
It must be like this all the year round, so I can understand how the sun played a primordial role in ancient Egyptian religion. I particularly liked, then, to hear that the obelisk, that most Egyptian of things, was considered a petrified sunbeam.

What a lovely idea! A ray of the sun, congealed – frozen – in stone, driving into the earth. The equivalence would have been even stronger in the old days, when obelisks’ pyramidal capstones were covered with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver; the tips of the obelisks would have flashed and glowed in the sun.

In Cairo, we were told the same thing of the pyramids, but it was more difficult to imagine pyramids as rays of the sun in stone.

The place of the sun in Egyptian religion reached its extreme under the “heretical” pharaoh Akhenaten: he abolished all deities in the Egyptians’ pantheon except for the solar god Aten. In his frescoes and bas-reliefs, he had Aten depicted as a disc from which emanated rays that ended in hands.

The sun caressing the Earth and all that is on it … a beautiful idea! For doesn’t all life on this planet ultimately depend on the warmth of the sun?

Akhenaten was an interesting fellow, not least because of the way he had himself depicted in his official statuary, with an elongated, sensual face, quite different from everything that came before and after.

(the statues of him in the National Museum in Cairo are even more intriguing, with a body that looks distinctly feminine, to the point that some claim this is actually his wife Nefertiti)

The sun even played a role in the design of the bas-reliefs which covered the walls of temples and tombs. We saw two types of bas-reliefs. The more delicate ones were true bas-reliefs, with the background cut down until the subjects were in light relief, like the ones I showed above from the temple of Abydos. The second type were created instead by cutting deep grooves along the outline of the figures and finished with some light molding of the figures. These were very striking in a raking light – in the late afternoon, for instance – when they stood out, almost like charcoal drawings on the walls.


It seems the effect was deliberate, to make reliefs that were readable in the country’s strong light.

The Egyptians held that the goddess of the sky, Nut, swallowed the sun at sunset and gave birth to him again in the morning. She was the wife (and sister) of the god of the earth, Geb. The story goes that she wanted to lie on him perpetually, but Ra ordered their father Shu, god of air, to force them apart. But Nut managed to keep her hands and feet touching Geb. I just loved the way the artists depicted these stories. The artists painted Nut – very often on ceilings, as one might expect – with her feet touching the Earth in one corner, her hands touching it in another, and her thin, lithe body curving along the edge of the ceiling between these two corners.

See how in the first of these two photos, Nut is shown giving birth to the morning sun and about to swallow the evening sun, while in the second Shu is holding Nut and Geb apart.

Originally, Nut was goddess of the night sky, and night skies are a common decoration of ceilings. We saw many ceilings painted blue and sprinkled – sprayed might be the better term – with a multitude of white stars.

It was a charming effect, and in the tombs certainly gave all those mummies lying on their backs a beautiful night sky to gaze upon for eternity – in the case of the photo above Nefertari, the main wife of Ramesses II.

I finish with the so-called Colossi of Memnon, although actually they are statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. Tourists who passed through here a couple of thousand years before us – the Ancient Greeks – misnamed the statues.

Truth to tell, they are not much to look at; they have suffered much at the hands of time. As we stood there, a muezzin nearby started singing his call to afternoon prayers.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.

Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-llah.
Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah.
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah,
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah.
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala,
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala.
Hayya ‘ala-l-falah,
Hayya ‘ala-I-falah.
Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar.
La illaha illa-llah.

God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.

As the song floated over the shattered statues before us, I reflected on the seemingly inevitable passing away of civilizations and their religious constructs. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians was thrown onto the dust heap of history in the 3rd Century of the Common Era, after surviving 3,000 years or more, with a triumphant Christianity taking its place. After a mere 400 years, Christianity in Egypt was in turn overrun by Islam. Today, after 1,400 years, Islam stands seemingly secure in the lands of the Nile. But one day, when the statues before me will have crumbled to mere stumps of stone, Islam will no doubt have given way to something else. Nothing man-made survives the test of time.
_________________

Royal mummy: https://islampapers.com/2013/01/09/the-identification-of-the-pharaoh-during-the-time-of-moses/
Mummy cases: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130823091144.htm
Egyptian statue room, British Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/rowan925/egyptian-exhibit-british-museum-artifacts/
Cigares du pharaon cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Tintin-Tome-4-Les-cigares-du-pharaon-32559.html
Cigares du pharaon egyptologist: my photo
Asterix et Cléopatre cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Asterix-Tome-6-Asterix-et-Cleopatre-22950.html
Asterix et Cléopatre speaking hieroglyphics: my photo
The Mummy movie poster: http://www.impawards.com/1999/mummy_ver1.html
Pastiche statues and fresco: my photo
Temple of Karnak: http://www.nilecruised.com/tours/karnak-temple/
Temple of Luxor: https://www.traveladdicts.net/2011/10/karnak-temple-luxor-temple-egypt.html
Avenue of sphinxes: http://www.travelphoto.net/a-photo-a-day/wordpress/2005/04/15/sphinx-avenue-at-luxor-temple/
Luxor Museum: http://egypt-magic.com/category/luxor/
Tomb, Valley of the Kings: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shelbyroot/1164944359
Tomb, Village of the Artisans: https://archaeology-travel.com/archaeological-sites/deir-el-medina-luxor/
Temple of Dendera ceiling: https://paulsmit.smugmug.com/Features/Africa/Egypt-Dendera-temple/i-BJPQ24h
Temple of Abydos bas-reliefs: our photo
Temple of Hatshepsut: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/mortuary-temple-hatshepsut-deir-el-bahri-002777
Ramesseum: https://www.egypttoursplus.com/ramesseum-temple/
Sunrise Luxor: http://www.news4europe.eu/6369_entertainment/4797559_egypt-s-newly-discovered-artifacts-to-help-revive-tourism-in-luxor.html
Sun high in sky: http://www.psdgraphics.com/backgrounds/blue-sky-with-sun/
Sunset Luxor: my wife’s photo
Obelisk, Luxor Temple: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luxor_Temple_Obelisk.JPG
Obelisk with golden capstone: http://www.riseearth.com/2016/08/mythical-benben-stone-landing-site-of.html?m=1
Sun rays with hands: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/art-amarna-akhenaten-and-his-life-under-sun-002587
Akhenaten head: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/2105526
Akhenaten statue: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/312437292872997702/
Grooved bas-reliefs: our photos
Goddess Nut, Dendera: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-egyptdenderaptolemaic-temple-of-the-goddess-hathorview-of-ceiling-68990173.html
Goddess Nut, tomb Ramses IV: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/news-photo/egypt-thebes-luxor-valley-of-the-kings-tomb-of-ramses-iv-news-photo/88701257
Stars on ceiling, Nefertari tomb: https://www.pinterest.com/ancha_no1/inside-egyptian-tomb/
Colossi of Memnon: our photo