IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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Iris sibirica in Central Europe

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Iris haynei in the Middle East

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The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

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Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But, once again, I bow to the Experts.

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

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

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

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A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
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A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

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The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
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I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
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A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
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Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
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A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
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In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
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A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
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With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
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That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.

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Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
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We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
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Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi