Milan, 15 June 2021

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


Vienna, 9 May 2021

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

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

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

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


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


These are remains of Vindobona, which is now Vienna


And these are remains of Juvavum, which is now Salzburg


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


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

Around the Heidentor is a wind farm.


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


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


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


Sori, 14 February 2021

As my wife and I were walking down into Vernazza on our latest hike along the trail which links together the Cinque Terre, I noticed this on the steeple of the village church.

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I suspect it’s a little difficult for readers to see what I mean, so I throw in this close-up photo of the steeple.

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“This” is a weathervane. As I’m sure many of my readers will know, in the pre-modern world, where weather satellites didn’t exist and TV channels didn’t give you weather forecasts every hour on the hour, the function of weathervanes was to tell people which way the wind was blowing, a pretty good indicator of what the weather was going to be like. And of course peering at weathervanes went along with some of the weather-related sayings people were fond of quoting, like this one about the winds:
“When the wind is in the east, it’s good for neither man nor beast.
When the wind is in the north, the old folk should not venture forth.
When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fishes’ mouth.
When the wind is in the west, it is of all the winds the best.”

I can imagine some great-great-great grandfather of mine looking up at the weathervane on the barn and saying “Aah, wind today’s from the north. Like they say, ‘old folk shouldn’t venture forth’”, no doubt using this as a good excuse to wend his way to the village pub to fritter his time (and money) away.

But weathervanes are also excellent examples of how we human beings transform functional objects into art. Take that weathervane on Vernazza’s church. If readers look again at my photo, they’ll see that the weathervane-maker turned the sail, which a weathervane needs if it is to work, into a rather pudgy angel. The things which weathervane-makers have turned the sail into, and continue to turn them into (this is by no means a dead art), are endless. I throw in here, in no particular order, some of the designs which have caught my fancy.


The eventual owners of weathervanes will often choose designs that comment on something: their profession, their beliefs, their interests, the times they live in, even the racehorses they have bet on … No doubt it was in that spirit that Pope Nicholas I, way back in the 9th century, ordered that the rooster be the emblem used on weathervanes placed on Christian churches. It seems that Pope Nicolas was harking back to a comment made by Pope Gregory the Great even further back in time, in the 6th Century. Gregory had decreed that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity, being the emblem of St Peter – he is referring to the story in the Gospel where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, here captured in a painting by Francesco Rosa in San Zachariah church in Venice.


Personally, I find this a rather strange reason to choose the rooster as an emblem on churches, referencing as it does a moment of shameful betrayal by the man who was to become the first Pope. I rather think that Popes Gregory and Nicolas were doing something which Christians had been doing since the dawn of their religion, putting a Christian gloss on what were actually thriving pagan traditions (“if you can’t beat them, join them”). For the Goths and no doubt other “barbarians”, the rooster, crowing as it does at dawn, was an emblem of the sun. What better emblem to put on churches! Wasn’t Jesus (apparently) born at the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn?

In any event, from the 9th Century on, rooster-themed weathervanes became the norm on Christian churches (which no doubt explains why, in English, another name for the weathervane is the weathercock). The oldest surviving weathervane in Europe – from the 9th Century – is a rooster which, until 1891, graced the Church of Saints Faustino and Giovita in the city of Brescia.


And the Bayeux tapestry, my favourite tapestry and one I’ve mentioned several times in these posts, clearly shows a man installing a rooster weathervane on Westminster Abbey (the scene is actually about the burial of King Edward the Confessor; I presume the nuns who made the tapestry were adding local colour).


Now, I’m sure that at this point my alert readers are saying, “Hang on a minute, why does the weathervane on that church in Vernazza have an angel and not a rooster, then?” Well, it seems that at some point the Church authorities relaxed the rooster rule somewhat. Other emblems were possible, although normally ones which were linked to the saint or saints to which the church was dedicated. In the case of the church in Vernazza, it is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch. A quick zip around the Internet tells me that a weathervane emblem connected to her (completely apocryphal) life could be a dragon: one of the more dramatic moments in her life was that she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. Dragons are popular emblems for weathervanes. Here’s a nice example.


Or the emblem could be a hammer. She is often depicted, especially in Orthodox icons, as hammering the Devil – once no doubt she had been regurgitated alive by him. My wife and I saw a great example of such an icon in a museum in Athens a few years ago (for some reason, the Orthodox call her Marina rather than Margaret).

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Here’s a nice example of a hammer, although it’s put together with a saw (“hammer and saw”).


But no, we have an angel. OK, I guess angels are pretty saintly and so a good emblem for a church – as long as they look serious, like this emblem (for some reason, most of the weathervanes have the angel blowing a horn).


But no, if readers go back to my original photo, they will see that the weathervane-maker seems to have made more of a cherub. Raphael painted the most iconic of cherubs.


And here we have a nice weathervane example (also tooting a horn; it seems that angelic figures are expected to be horn players).


The example on Vernazza’s church doesn’t seem nearly as cute. As far as I can make out, the cherub there has gone to seed; a cherub who has spent rather too much of his lockdown time eating and drinking and not enough time working out in his living room.

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I’m not sure how the weathervane-maker got this pretty non-religious weathervane past the parish priest. Perhaps the weathervane-maker was the parish priest. Or perhaps the parish priest was a jolly fellow who liked a good laugh. I have in mind someone like don Camillo as played by Fernandel.


The parish priest must also have calculated that his bishop would never come to this Godforsaken village during his tenure – until quite recently it was pretty difficult to get to Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre; you either walked over the hills or you took a fishing boat, neither of which I see any self-respecting bishop doing.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the backstory on this weathervane. In the meantime, I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye to see where I might have come across weathervanes in my life. Only one episode comes back to me, from my days at prep school (in British vernacular this being a boarding school for primary-school-age children). As I ascertained after a quick zip around the Internet, the school still exists. The only change I can see is that it has gone co-ed in the intervening years, an excellent thing. The school has taken over a building with venerable origins, as this picture of the main lawn attests.


But the main reason for my putting in this photo is that discrete weathervane on that small tower in the centre of the photo. I throw in here an enlargement.


It’s a rather boring weathervane, taking the shape of a flag (the first instruments used to figure out which way the wind was blowing were no doubt flags; indeed, the English word “vane” is derived from the Old English word fana, meaning flag). Nevertheless, I know that weathervane well. One year, my dormitory gave onto the roof covering the gallery (those windows we see to the left of the base of the tower). I was a naughty boy and friends with other naughty boys. We would regularly sneak out of the dormitory window at night onto that roof and go for a walk, just for the dare. Sometimes, that weathervane would be silhouetted against the moon. I see it still … aahh, the good old days!

One other memory I have of weathervanes is their figurative use in cartoons, especially political cartoons. As we all know too well, politicians are notorious for going “whichever way the wind blows” (a popular wind-related saying). Cartoonists have always had a field day with weathervanes, using them to show politicians who chop and change their opinions, “trimming their sails” to prevailing opinion (another popular wind-related saying). I remember a British cartoon mocking the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for acting like a weathervane over the independence of British colonies in Africa. I couldn’t find that particular one on the Internet. But political cartoonists have been busy with the weathervane metaphor in the intervening years. Here are some recent examples.


For some reason, the use of weathervanes seems to be especially popular among American cartoonists. Could it be that the extensive use of interest groups in American politics makes American politicians chop and change their opinions more frequently – and, given the pervasiveness of TV news teams, the evidence of their chopping and changing is more obviously there for everyone to see?

Politicians are of course sensitive to the charge of behaving like weathervanes. Quebecan politicians are so sensitive to the charge that the provincial Assembly has banned the use of the term, considering it a slur. I never knew politicians were quite that thin-skinned …

Well, that still leaves the mystery of my pudgy angel. Maybe, next time my wife and I are in Vernazza, I’ll drop into the church and try to find an answer.

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If I find one I will report back.


Milan, 18 January 2021

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

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

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


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


This map shows the track of the canal.


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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New blocks of flats giving onto the canal.

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

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

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

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Old houses which have been lucky enough to be renovated

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Others which are struggling against the odds.

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

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

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

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– a swirl of brightness

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– square upon square of colour

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

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

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

– “I love you Vale”

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

– “What a shitty life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But a more rural feel began to creep in.

Cottages along the waterfront.

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

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

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

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



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

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

my photos

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

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

my photo

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

my photo

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


Milan, 6 January 2020

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

My photo

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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


His “Tidal Wave and Dreadnought”, of 1908


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


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


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


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

The yacht “Orion”


The yacht “Vagrant”


The yacht “Mariette”


Happy 2020!


Sori, 3 June 2019

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pretty incendiary stuff …

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


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


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


From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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



Milan, 19 January 2019

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was one area where Leonardo excelled with his daydreaming and tinkering, and which I suspect was the main reason Ludovico Sforza kept him around: the organization of spectacular festivals for the Duke’s eminent visitors, festivals where Leonardo could use all his mechanical aptitudes to create shows that would amaze and delight the Duke’s visitors. Many of them left detailed accounts of these wonderful, quasi magical, shows. By the end of his time in Milan, the organization of these festivals were Leonardo’s main source of income: he had turned into a magician, albeit a very good one.

Looking back over what I’ve written, I sense that I might have projected a somewhat jaundiced view of the Great Leonardo. His tendency to restlessly flit from one thing to another like a butterfly, without finishing anything on time, or sometimes without finishing them at all, irritated his contemporaries, especially his clients to whom he had promised deliveries by certain dates and who had paid up-front. If I had met Leonardo, I suspect he would have ended up irritating me too. In my 40 years in the workplace, I came across a number of such characters, golden-tongued men (they were all men for some reason) who made many promises but failed to deliver on them, leaving the rest of us having to scramble around to fill the gap. Right royal pains in the ass they were, the lot of them! “But he was brilliant!”, I can hear readers exclaim. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for unreliability. And with that little sermon, I leave readers with that famous drawing of Leonardo in his old age – I hope his melancholic look shows that he is bitterly regretting a lifetime of faffing around.

Ninja turtle Leonardo:
Leonardo self-portrait:
Leonardo Horse, Milan:
The Last Supper:
The Last Supper copy by Giampetrino:
Castello Sforzesco:
Sala delle Asse:
Virgin of the Rocks-Louvre:
Virgin of the Rocks-National Gallery:
Madonna Litta:
Portrait of a Musician:
Lady with an Ermine:
La Belle Ferronière:
Codex Atlanticus-1:
Codex Atlanticus-2:
Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Milan:
Heath Robinson cartoon:
Leonardo drawing of a lock gate:
Lock gate on a Milan canal: my photo
Self-portrait of Leonardo as an old man:


Milan, 26 May 2018

A week or so ago, my wife and I were at our place at the seaside near Genova; my next to last post was about one of the walks we did in the hills while we were there. One morning, being sore of leg from our walks and uncertain as to what walk to do next, we decided to go down into the village centre instead to have ourselves our morning cappuccino. Being in no hurry, we dawdled along looking in shop windows and at anything else that caught our attention. One such thing was the door of the local police station, which was festooned with various notices about Important Local Things. As I idly scanned the notices, one caught my attention in particular. It stated, in Italian of course, something to the effect that the part of the main road lying between km X and km Y was particularly risky for centaurs, and that the public authorities were devoting their attention to how to minimize the risks.


Puzzled, I turned to my wife to ask for elucidations, and she informed me that this was a term used in Italian to describe motorcyclists. What a wonderful idea! What, I wondered, had led an Italian at some point in recent history to make this connection? I mean, early motorcyclists didn’t really much look like centaurs, although with a bit of poetic fancy once could sort of see a human torso on top of a beast on wheels.

For once, the internet was not of great help. One thread suggested that it had to do with the huge amounts of horsepower in the engines, allowing the rider to roar off much as a horseman could gallop off. Another thread claimed it had to do with fanatical motorcyclists hardly ever getting off their bikes and thus being seemingly welded to them much as centaurs were human torsos welded to a horse’s body.

Of course, either or both of these explanations could be correct. I can think of another, which has to do with the Bad Boy reputation of both motorcyclists and centaurs. For most Ancient Greeks, who invented centaurs, these creatures were the epitome of barbarism. They were wild, lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, violent when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents, living on the edges of the civilized world and needing to be kept under control. Greek myths were replete with stories of heroic warriors taking on centaurs and beating the shit out of them. Greek sculpture and painting naturally followed suit. Here, from a pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, we have a representation of the story of the centaurs fighting with the Lapiths (a popular story in which centaurs are invited to a wedding, get drunk, and one of them tries to rape the bride, with – as may be expected – mayhem ensuing). The calm fellow in the middle is the god Apollo.

Here, we see the right hand part of the pediment showing more clearly the naughty centaur carrying off a woman and a noble Greek warrior about to make him pay for it.

Here, to equal things up a bit, we have the same story from a frieze at the temple of Apollo in Bassae, with the centaur seemingly the one winning.

Here, we have a more humble piece of Ancient Greek art, a painting on a vase, showing the same story.

Here again, to equal things up, is a painting on another vase where the centaur seems to be besting his opponent.

Just in case readers are thinking that the fight between centaurs and the Lapiths is the only Greek story about the centaurs, I throw in here a picture of a vase painting showing Hercules fighting with a centaur (the centaur was a certain Nessus, who carried away Hercules’s wife Deianeira, and Hercules killed him).

In any event, whatever the medium, I think we can all agree that the centaurs are made to look fairly rough types. The centaurs’ bad reputation and the need to beat the shit out of them pursued the poor beasts into the Roman period and on into Europe’s medieval period and beyond. This sculpture from the early 1800s by Antonio Canova greets us every time my wife and I climb up the grand staircase at Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum. It shows Theseus about to brain a centaur – for some reason, Theseus was at the Lapith wedding feast.

This sculpture, on the other hand, depicts Hercules about to brain Nessus.

It was sculpted in 1599 by the Flemish Jean Boulogne, known to the world as Giambologna. It graces the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

Painting also got into the act. Here, we have a painting by Sebastiano Ricci from 1705 showing the brawl at the Lapith wedding.

Perhaps some classics-loving Italian saw similarities between these badly behaved centaurs and the badly behaving modern bikers – at least as they were often represented in popular culture. Think of the 1953 film “The Wild One”, in which Marlon Brando is the leader of a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town.

Or consider the 1966 film “The Wild Angels”, in which Peter Fonda is the nihilistic leader of a chapter of the Hell’s Angels causing mayhem in some small town.

Or more extremely, we have the 1973 film “Psychomania”, where a gang of bikers kill themselves, only to become alive again as zombies and go around wreaking havoc on the living.

Personally, and without a shred of evidence to back me up, I prefer to think that the Italian who gave bikers the new title of centaurs made quite another connection between the two: the fact that both are gentle, peaceful souls. On the centaur side, there was a view, an admittedly minority view, in Classical times that centaurs – at least some of them – were wise and noble creatures. The centaur Chiron was particularly famous in this regard. It was said that he was so wise that had taught great heroes like Achilles, Ajax, and Jason. This fresco from Hercolaneum, destroyed like Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, shows him teaching Achilles how to play the lyre.

This strand of thinking which saw centaurs as wise and gentle beasts was taken up with enthusiasm by C.S. Lewis in his children’s books about Narnia, and it was in my reading of these books as a child that I first got to know of centaurs. I still remember with fondness the wise and noble centaurs which peppered the Narnia books. Here, for instance, is Roonwit, who graces the pages of “The Last Battle”, talking strategy with Prince Tirian and the unicorn Jewel.

Given my age, I think it no shame to admit that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books (although I did accompany my daughter to a few of the films when she was young). I understand, though, that J.K. Rowling also included wise and gentle centaurs in her books (confirmed through WhatsApp by my daughter). This is the centaur Firenze with Harry in (I think) the Forbidden Forest.

As for bikers, there are those who argue forcefully for a gentle, peaceful, soulful side to motorcycling. Many is the motorcycling writer who has written lyrically about the joy of being out on the open road, with the wind in your hair and your thoughts your only company. My most recent read in this vein was Oliver Sack’s autobiography, “On The Move: A Life”, where he writes about the long motorcycle rides he took in the American West in his early days in California. Appropriately enough, the cover photo is the author on his beloved bike.

There is even a semi-serious book of philosophy, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which, according to Wikipedia, “is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey the narrator made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son. … The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science”.

(I must confess that although I have started the book a couple of times I have never finished it).

Films, too, have played their part in depicting the lyrical side of motorbiking. We have the 1969 film “Easy Rider”, in which Peter Fonda stars once again, but this time accompanied by Dennis Hopper. The two set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans on Harley Davidsons to discover America (and get killed by rednecks in the process).

Or there is the 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries”, about the bike journey which Che Guevara and a friend made in the 1950s across Latin America, and which opened his eyes to the poverty, hardship, and political oppression experienced by many on that continent.

As I said, I have not a shred of evidence that gentleness, nobility, peacefulness, wisdom, etc. etc. were the common threads that some Italian of yesteryear saw between bikers and mythical centaurs. But it pleases my contrarian spirit for it to be so, and so it shall be.


Early biker:
Centaur fighting Lapith – Bassae:,_marble_block_from_the_frieze_of_the_Temple_of_Apollo_Epikourios_at_Bassae_(Greece),_Lapiths_fight_Centaurs,_about_420-400_BC,_British_Museum_(14073581678).jpg
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia:
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia-2:
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-1:
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-2:
Hercules fighting Centaur:
Canova-Theseus fighting the centaur:
Giambologna-Hercules fighting Nessus:
Sebastiano Ricci-Lapiths and Centaurs: By The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,
“The Wild One”:
“The Wild Angels”:
Chiron and Achilles: By upload by muesse –, Public Domain,
Oliver Sacks, “On the Move; A Life”:
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:
“Easy Rider”:
“The Motorcycle Diaries”:


Vienna, 4 June 2017

Many – many – years ago, when I was but a lad of six or seven, I was the proud owner of a scooter, one of those good old-fashioned scooters which you kick along with your foot. It looked very much like this, although my memory tells me it was blue rather than red.

Honesty impels me to clarify that it was not bought for me. Like many things in our large family where I was towards the tail end, it was a hand-me-down from one of my elder siblings. But I cared not! On this machine I was king of the pavements, sailing along at what seemed to be vertiginous speeds after a series of brisk kicks.

In my memory, the scooter’s use is entangled with a “girl next door”, a girl a few years older than me with whom I would whirl around the local pavements. Her name is gone, her face is a blur, but I think it’s true to say that I had a crush on her. I also had a crash with her, on my scooter. The details are now fuzzy, but I think we were playing a game of follow-me, wherein I was following her every twist and turn. All was going swimmingly well until she suddenly put on the brakes. I ran into her, somehow flipped over the handlebars and landed on my nose. Argh, the pain! the blood! The upshot, as I learned a few days later, when my mother finally took me to see a doctor, was that I had broken my nose.

As readers can imagine, this incident left me with somewhat conflicted feelings about scooters. I suppose I must have continued to use mine for a while, although it disappears from my memory at this point, along with the girl-next-door. Bicycles take over.

In fact, over the years that followed it seems to me that scooters generally lost their popularity with children. I don’t remember seeing many around when I was in my teen and early adult years, my children never emitted the desire to have a scooter, and none of their friends had one. And it certainly was never an adult thing.

So it was with some surprise that I registered, when we came back last September from our seven years in the East, an efflorescence of scooters on the pavements of Vienna. And being kicked along not only by children but also by adults: young adults like this one, who one could argue may not yet have completely grown up

but also by older adults like myself, who in an earlier period I would have said should stop making a fool of themselves in this way.

Now that we have come back up to Vienna for the summer and the weather is getting good, I am struck by the same phenomenon: scooters whizzing by carrying adults.

Clearly, something is up! Surfing the web, I get the impression that the trend towards adults getting on scooters has to do with beating traffic jams to get to work and doing some healthy exercise while you’re at it (although the growing use of electric scooters rather undermines this last part).

Before I’m accused of sexism, I quickly throw in a picture of a businesswoman with a scooter, although this picture is obviously posed.

It helps a lot that scooters are easily foldable

so that there are no parking problems and one can walk into one’s office (or cubicle, if that’s the company’s culture) casually carrying the scooter under one’s arm.

As usual, once something catches on the designers move in and start offering cool designs. From this, which seems to be the fairly standard design although in quite cool colours

we have this, an electric version

or this big-wheel design

(which rather reminds me of penny-farthing bicycles of yore).

Big wheels makes me think of fat wheels

while here we have a Y-shaped design, which is moved by a scissor-motion of the legs.

This is an interesting one, a luggage scooter.

In airports, you can drop down the platform and back wheel attached to the suitcase and whizz along to your gate. This last one is unutterably cool although I’m not quite sure how you are meant to ride it.

There are many more designs out there but I’ll leave it at that.

I think my wife and I need to get into this new trend, so that we too can zip by normal pedestrians, our hair fluttering in the wind. I casually asked her a few days ago if she had had a scooter as a child, to which she said no. This is going to make it tricky to persuade her to try since I feel that a residual nostalgia (and acquired expertise) from childhood would make it easier to accept looking a trifle silly on scooters at our venerable age. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.


Old scooter:
Young man on electric scooter:
Older man on electric scooter:
Businessmen on scooters:
Businesswoman with scooter:
Folded scooter:
Normal scooter with cool colours:
Cool electric scooter:
Cool scooter with big wheels:
Cool electric scooter with fat wheels:
Y-shaped scooter:
Luggage scooter:
Unutterably cool scooter:


Bangkok, 26 October 2014

My wife has been busy getting to know Bangkok in her usual favorite way, taking the bus (with me joining her on the weekends). When she told the very nice Thai couple whom we have befriended in the building that she takes the bus to get around, they stared at her and finally managed to ask, “the aircon buses?” When she said no, no, the normal buses, they tittered nervously. When pressed, they confessed to have not taken a bus in twenty years. (This reminds me of a scene early in our marriage. It was downtown Baltimore, 1978 or 9. We wanted to get somewhere, I forget where, so we approached a nice young man sitting on a bench eating his lunch and asked him what bus we might take. He confessed that he had no idea, that he had never taken a city bus in his life. We stared at him: how could it be that someone had NEVER taken a bus? The difference between a European and an American, I suppose. But I digress.)

It is true to say that the (non-aircon) buses of Bangkok are not the most handsome of buses. In fact, they obviously have had a hard-scrabble life.
And their technology looks – and sounds – very old-fashioned. For instance, whenever the drivers change gears (using a huge gear shift as big as the seated drivers themselves), it sounds distinctly like they are double-declutching (a term which I would imagine is meaningless to anyone below the age of 60). The drivers are always in a tearing hurry, no doubt due to being perennially bottled up in Bangkok’s terrible traffic, so getting on and off buses is an athletic accomplishment. To get on, wave down the bus, rush for the door, swing in as the bus already starts to move off. To get off, ring for the stop, balance yourself on the balls of your feet, hustle down the steps the moment the doors start clattering noisily open, and drop down into the street as the bus already moves off. And while inside, hang on for dear life as the bus barrels its way down the city’s streets, riding roughshod over every pothole and other imperfection in the road’s mantle.

But as I grimly hang on in the bus, bouncing up and down on the (really quite comfortable) seats, I cannot help but wonder at the beautiful parquet floor which the buses have. Look at that! Who has ever seen parquet floors in buses?
Well, “parquet” may be pushing it a little, but this is really nice wood they’ve used. No trash soft wood here, being rubbed to pieces by passenger’s dirty shoes. This is close-grained hardwood. I would be proud to have a floor of that in our living room, sanded down and waxed into a rich red-brown color, instead of the fake plasticized “parquet” which our miserly landlord has laid down and which rings hollow every time we walk across it. I wince when I see how this beautiful wood has been mercilessly screwed down onto to the bus chassis, with big, gleaming, screws. Aie-aie-aie!

The only thing that worries me here is the wood’s provenance. This is not plantation wood, nor I’m sure is it certified wood from responsibly managed forests. I fear that this is just brutally logged wood from Myanmar or Laos or perhaps Indonesia (Thailand has already cut down much of its forests).
Perhaps it would be better for Bangkok to shift to modern, gleaming, air-conditioned, buses with plasticized floors
imageand leave this beautiful wood standing in its wilderness, soaring up towards the sky.

Bangkok bus: (in
Bangkok bus floor: my photo
Illegal logging: ( in
Modern city bus: (in
Mahogany tree soaring: (in