A friend posted this.
A friend posted this.
After a few days in the Latvian countryside, Kuldiga being of most interest, we hopped the bus taking us from Riga to Vilnius, the only Baltic republic we have yet to visit. It’s a four-hour drive in the cold gray weather through flat, unremarkable countryside. A few days later I had to make a return visit, having left my Italian passport on a pharmacist’s counter. It was waiting for me at the Italian embassy in the heart of the old town. It was just as uneventful.
The Baltic countries do not get much attention in US history classes but there is much of value and interest. We’ve been to the Ducal Palace, reconstructed on site and now offering a rather detailed story of the country, much more important up to the 1800’s than it is now. But the people here have Russia very looming on their borders, a Russia whose history of occupation dates to around 1700, with but a brief respite between the wars before the occupation resumed as the Nazis retreated. In their world view, the history of their relationship with Russia is not a side-show, of course, nor is the past respect shown them by other European nations. I expect to post more on this.
The University of Vilnius is just a few minutes from our plain vanilla apartment. I have posted some photos of the delightful, on the one hand, and strange art on the other hand, here University’s mural and fresco.
Not far from us as well is the Vytautas Kasiulis Art Museum, home of the paintings of Lithuania’s most famous painter, who came to light in Paris after escaping from his home country subsequent to the Soviet takeover. It is art worth seeing. His paintings are what I would term transitional, bridging the gap between the figurative and the abstract. Over time he increasingly removes references to the substance of the image until he gets to the essence, still figurative but just a tad away from abstraction. These photos are from the museum that bears his name, Vytautas Kasiulis
The old town section is, like that of Tallinn and Riga to the north, is a World Heritage site and the main attraction.
No visit to any of these countries would be complete without a visit to what the locals call “The Dark History,” referring to the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Here as in Riga you can visit the Gestapo/KGB head quarters for a look at this grim period. It does not seem that the extent of spying on its citizens compares with what happened in East Germany, but the torture, imprisonment and deportation to the sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union are, and they’ve well documented in the museum. The museum visit includes the dank cellar with its torture, isolation and execution chambers.
I’ll have some notes on the more cherry subject of the hope-you-like-pork cuisine – and what other observations I might have about the culture, such as the dearth of beauty parlors. They have salons where you can get your hair combed out, though.
Just a two hour flight from St Petersburg and an hour to Riga, Stockholm is built upon a scad of islands (17 in all) with a wealth of architecture set against a slew of harbors, lakes and canals, with much fine exterior decor as well as art, history and more in its many museums. The most famous of its museums is not about art – the Vasa Museum contains the 17th century ship that sank on its maiden voyage, leaving behind a storehouse of information about its time.
Most important structures show foreign influence as French and Italian architects were brought in during the 18th century. Simon de la Vallée designed the Riddarhuset, the House of Knights . His son Jean de la Vallée and the German-born Nicodemus Tessin became a leading architect with buildings such as Södra City Hall , Axel Oxenstierna Palace , Katarina Church , Stenbock Palace, and Wrangelska Palace. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_in_Stockholm
City Hall is the site for the Nobel Prize banquet, except for the Peace Prize which is awarded in Norway. The structure is in the style of the Italian Renaissance, though it was built in the early 20th century. It’s interior is astounding, by far the most impressive of the city and competing favorably with others of its ilk in other countries. It’s a fitting venue for the Nobel Prize award dinner, that it seats 3000 or so being a minor advantage. The Queen of Lake Mälaren mosaic is my favorite piece in the hall. The guide said it is in the Byzantine style, but I do not see it that way, having never seen anything quite like her and finding little in common with the Byzantine aside from the gold mosaics.
These mosaics were made in panels in Germany. There are some 8 million tiles, the gold sandwiched between each one before it is attached to the panel.
Gamla Stan, the oldest part of the city, dates from 13th c, shows the influence of the architecture of northern Germany. It retains the narrow medieval streets of the small island.
In 1697, the Castle of the Three Crowns was severely damaged in a fire, replaced by the Castle of Stockholm.
Stockholm’s many waterways make for a natural charm to contrast with man-made beauty.
It would not be at all surprising if you were not sure what constitutes Art Nouveau. Literally the term means “New Art,” new being relative to around 1890 (lasting to about 1910). Part of the problem arises from the diverse terminology used to refer to that general style. The Czech term is Secese, Danish Skønvirke or Jugendstil, German Jugendstil, Art Nouveau or Reformstil, Hungarian Szecesszió, Italian Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty or Stile floreale, Norwegian Jugendstil, Polish Secesja, Slovak Secesia, Russian Модерн (Modern), Swedish Jugend. These various countries produced variations on the general theme and can be difficult to categorize. Here are some photos of the Swedish version.
I’ll add posts on the cuisine – surprisingly good- as well as the museums, also excellent. Even without those added delights, and the friendly English speaking populace – you’d swear you were talking to Americans – Stockholm is a great visit.
Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) is an archaeological site on the Italian coast a bit south of Rome. The town, inhabited since the 6th century BCE, was destroyed in 79 CE, by the same eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Herculaneum was buried in pyroclastic rock and ash – 15- 20 meters/65 feet – and was struck by extremely high temperatures, killing all the remaining residents instantly. As a result the site offers a far greater insight into the life and death of the residents of populations destroyed by the eruption than Pompeii, and because of its greater state of preservation, is a more interesting place to visit.
Where in Pompeii there were no skeletons, just the area hollowed out in the ash by the skeleton (filled in with plaster of Paris), in Herculaneum they found some 300 intact skeletons. Analysis showed us their occupation, health, diet – we can even distinguish those who ate meat from those who did not. Some had lead poisoning, perhaps from lead pipes Romans sometimes used.
These individuals died from exposure to intense heat, in the range of 500C, close 1,000F. They were in structures built to protect inhabitants from falling debris, as the area was highly prone to earthquakes. Those in the shelter were women and children. Just outside the arched shelters on the beach – which as a result of the eruption is now some 400 meters/yards further west – they found the skeletons of a few men. A boat was nearby, so they were planning an escape.
The archaeologists found food intact, e.g. olives and flour, as well as furniture and fabrics. The relatively light weight of the fallout meant that roofs remain intact, as do other wooden elements such as doors, lintels and trim. They found wooden furniture, sculptures and frescoes with bright colors.
Here’s an excellent BBC video about the site:
Small (as in Vatican City) can be beautiful and that the Vaticano is. The Vatican Museums house some $15 billion in art, although some of it is way beyond a monetary evaluation. The popes who built the art collection, as well as the Basilica and the rest, were scoundrels who engaged in deception, fornication, thievery, hypocrisy and much more including the sale of what I call ‘get out of purgatory free’ cards: you contributed in some fashion and in exchange the Church guaranteed you would be more leniently treated by the celestial powers that be. But no one can deny that the legacy they left us is a storehouse of treasure that has enriched the world. As much as I detest those people and hate to admit it, but we are indebted to them, yet own allegiance to their means.
Vatican City is a country officially recognized by treaty between the Vatican and the Italian government since 1929 when Mussolini and the Pope came to an agreement. Before the reunification of Italy in 1861, the Pope ruled much of Italy from the Vatican, but the Risorgimento, as it is called in Italian, reduced the papal state to a mere 44 hectares, and it remains the smallest country in the world both in size and population.
You may have heard the term “The Holy See” and wondered about the meaning. The Holy See governs the religious life of the world’s 1 billion Catholics. It is the arm of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that has diplomatic relations with other countries, not the Vatican City. It’s an odd arrangement, indeed, but there you have it. Another tidbit- the word ‘see’ in “Holy See”comes from the Latin ‘Sede,’ meaning ‘Seat,’ so has nothing to do with seeing and thus not as presumptuous as it seems.
Many people confuse the Museums (there is just one entrance to all of them) with St Peter’s Basilica. Each has its own entrance- if you standing on line in front of St Peter’s you are not going into the Museums. The Museum is not free except for the first Sunday, while the Basilica is always free, though given the costs involved I would not blame the church if it decided to charge. It’s houses amazing art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, completed when he was just 23 years old.
There is additional background information following the next section.
The Sistine Chapel was completed in 1477 by Sixtus IV, for whom the chapel is named. It remains the setting for formal deliberations naming the next pope. Michelangelo, primarily a sculptor, was hired by Julius II to paint the ceiling, which he did from 1508-1512. He started with the center piece, The Creation of Adam shows Yahweh, surrounded by his buddies, injecting life into Adam. Once Michelangelo completed this section he realized the scale was too small, and it would take him too long to finish the immense project. Therefore the remainder of the work is in larger scale. He painted nine scenes in all from Genesis, and also painted the Last Judgment on the sanctuary wall.
Here’s a view of the hall. Photos are not permitted but people manage to take ones anyway. I found this one on the internet, one of the better and more interesting ones. The chapel is hard to photograph well due to its size and the side lighting.
The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous paintings of all time, and the first to be painted in the ceiling project:
This next is one of my favorite paintings in the Chapel. From the far side of the hall his legs appear to be dangling in space.
Pope Julius II, aka Giulian della Rovere (1443-1513), aggressively sought to unite Italy, to the point where he led troops in battle on at least two occasions. He engaged in an active building program, most remarkably the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica, and invested heavily in the arts, such as the decoration of the ceiling of the Chapel. His uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, had first made him a cardinal, assuming the position his uncle had vacated to become Pope. Although unmarried Giulian fathered Felice della Rovere in 1483.
He began the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in 1506, the same year he conceived of the ceiling for which he would hire Michelangelo. Michelangelo was not interested in the project, saying he was a sculptor not a painter, and besides he was already at work on the Pope’s own tomb. The latter project was set aside and remains uncompleted, housed in St Peter in Chains near the Coliseo and Domus Aurea; more about this in a coming article. The Pope prevailed but went to war for the next two years, delaying the ceiling, during which time Michelangelo continued to work on the tomb, giving us what we have today, the Moses in St Peter in Chains, the center piece of the installation in that church.
Michelangelo wanted no restrictions imposed on the project and he was granted complete control. He eventually painted some 300 figures over the course of the four years it took to complete the ceiling. He worked standing, not laying down as most people believe, using wooden scaffolding. The scaffolding was held by brackets extending from openings at the top of the windows, and allowed for work on half of the ceiling at a time. A lightweight screen below to prevent damage to the artwork and flooring below. The openings were employed for the scaffolding used in the recent restoration, which turned a much darkened ceiling into a brightly colored one we see today.
At first he encountered mold problems in the plaster, into which paint was mixed to produce what we call ‘frescoes,’ coming from the Italian for ‘fresh.’ (I often hear Italians using the word ‘fresh’ for ‘cool’ as in ‘temperature.’) An assistant developed a formula that is mold resistant, after the first applications had to be removed. This formula is still in use.
Fresco painters employ a detailed drawing into which small holes are punched to transfer the design to the plaster. Michelangelo, however, drew directly on the plaster. Each day a new section of plaster was laid, the edges of the previous day scraped off, being too dry. As a result you can still see the daily progress of the work.
The final result is greeted by some five million visitors a year, paying about 15 euros each. The Pope’s grandiose plan appears to have paid off, but I yield nothing to his immorality nor the Church of his time.
These are from the top of Vittorio Emanuele monument in the heart of ancient Rome. The monument is from the late 1800’s, commemorating the unification of Italy, but it is in the heart of things, with the Roman forums to its rear and sides, the historic center where you find the Pantheon, with St Peter’s Basilica in the background– although with my excellent Canon telephoto lens you can get quite close. Photos below the video.
Chiesa Sant’Agnese is a small domed church designed by Boromini, a contemporary of Bernini and a rival who never made it to his competitor’s stature. In my book he had nothing to be ashamed of, he just had a competitor that was outstanding and well connected. The work he was assigned was smaller in scale but he did a magnificent job of making the interiors zoom in space.
Chiesa Sant’Agnese is often termed “St. Agnes in Agony’ but this gives an incorrect translation of ‘Agone.” Agone means ‘games’ and also refers to the stadium built by Diocletian starting in 80 AD, with a circle track. So perhaps we should say “St Agnes at the Track,” as irreverent as that may seem.
The church sits on what we now call Piazza Navona, originally called “Circus Agonalis” (circus is a circle, just like Circo Massimo, Circus Maximus). Apparently the name Agonoalis morphed into Navona. Aside from the track shape of the plaza and the buildings facing it, the main feature of the plaza is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).
We landed in Rome’s Ciampino airport. We are barely on the ground and already Rome’s disarray hit us.
The last time we landed here there was only one bus to Termini, Rome’s central transit point. We presumed that was still the case when we bought our tickets from the vendor in Valencia’s airport, thinking what a good idea it was to sell tickets ahead of time. But then we walked out the front door, saw the bus platforms and four bus lines” names, but the name printed on our ticket was not there. I asked several staff and passengers to find which line was ours. We stood in that line for 15 minutes (at least we were shielded from the hot sun). The confusion was not over, however. as we were told to get in another line, whose placard was for another company. Indeed our bus appeared but as we waited we wondered if we had been mislead. Then there was getting on the bus. Italians do not stand in line, they crowd around the door, outflanking you. Eesh- I was already exhausted. And the struggle goes on and on. Why? Because Rome is chaotic like a turbulent fluid.
Traffic moves like a raging river one moment and a logjam in the next, herking and jerking until the wee hours. Yet like the fluid that finds its level, people get to where they are going, eventually, competing with each other and the buses and trams. The latter are what the drivers avoid using, but once in their cars they spend lots of time trying not to hit them and the other cars and the jillion darting scooters. Everything would work better if most everyone used mass transit, or the recently added bike lanes which they might do if there were enough buses, subways and bike lanes, but there aren’t since people spend money on cars instead.
The enormous trash bins are another sign of chaos. They are emptied daily yet each day overflow in an unsightly mess. Rome city government is getting advice on how to solve their trash mess from Palermo, of all places- that’s how bad it is. Even the upscale neighborhoods of the city have these problems, such as on Viale Giulio Cesare, which runs past the windows of our summer abode. Down a bit from our place tourists by the millions line up for St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum. The back streets are lined with upscale stores, wine bars, restaurants and made to measure shops. But trash mars the area. The platforms upon which the containers nicely sit hold four dumpsters, one for household trash and three for recycling. They need perhaps two more but there’s no room on the platform and cars take up the room otherwise available.
Rome’s other issues contribute to the strain. Refugees, street people, tax avoidance, pollution, street trash. The list is seemingly without end- this is not an easy place to run, so no wonder there’s so much dysfunction. And yet people come, because Rome eternally beckons. Where else would you find an Eternal City, a city of such high art? There are countless richly decorated and appointed churches, public buildings and monuments, private palaces such as the Pamphili Palace, still occupied by the family but mostly a museum. There are Egyptian columns and Roman era ones such as Trajan’s which tells the story of the conquest of Dacia, modern day Romania. And there is ancient Rome. Every shovel full brings up a history lesson, it seems. This is why Metro Line C is not yet done after so many years, delaying one of the remedies for the chaos. There is plenty of cultural modernity to bring you in and keep you here. Wanted in Rome publishes huge lists of things to do- concerts, expositions, talks, walks, plays and of course opera. The Italians invented this high soap. Good grief, are they melodramatic or what? http://www.wantedinrome.com/whatson/.
Summer brings the Music Fest, starting June 21. Nighttime is filled with outdoor concerts and plays and acrobats and who knows what else, all free, and all the ones I have seen have been very good. My favorite venue is atop Castel San Angelo. Order a glass of wine and enjoy the music and the view of St Peter’s!! And of course any time of day or night have a cappuccino. Maybe you’ll find a delightful something to draw.
Then there’s the odd public service we ran across. At Ottaviano metro, where you exit the subway for the Vatican, there is a free water spot. Rome has had public drinking fountains, these little green creatures called ‘nasoni, for eons.’ They run constantly. But this fountain is different, like the old milk dispensing machines, standing some 2 meters/7′ tall. You put your bottle under the spout, press the button showing the size bottle you have and presto! You can get fizzy water as well, yet it is totally free! What?
Only in Rome would you get free carbonated water. How do they manage this and yet not be able to adequately handle the trash and sweep the streets? Or perhaps more importantly, why bother with this at all? Perhaps it has something to do with the trash. Millions of plastic bottles filled with water fill landfills and float in the Tevere that winds through the city. Can we help if we give away the sparkling water? I’d say so.
The government is trying. You can see that with this strange giveaway, with the trash platforms, another metro line. But you see the challenges everywhere you go, the trash strewn streets, the refugees, the homeless, the African street vendors.