Category Archives: art

Planning with light (or the Neonisation of the soviets)

We should be in Poland now. Katowice, spending some time with beloved friends after Mark keynoted the literary philosophical conference they were putting together (which I had promised to submit a paper to but failed, being broken by work. So broken. But resting now). Still, we are on holiday, a holiday slipping through fingers stuck here at home. A holiday of writing. I thought perhaps I could return to some old blogs started and not finished, but it is not helping.

When in Warsaw — we were in Warsaw, another conference just before Christmas, a fascinating city I’ve still to write — we walked to the Neon Museum. When in Warsaw, in a time when travel was still possible, when movement beyond South Manchester a privilege but not an impossibility. The Neon Museum’s driving force has been the neon collector Ilona Karwinska along with David Hill, and it is marvelous. You can find English news coverage on CNN. We brought home this documentary Neon (2014) Eric Bednarski.

Mark watched it with me with good grace, I am fascinated by this idea of planning with light, of a unique time and a language that made to neonise a verb. I am a little in love with this way of designing a city, transforming this city completely rebuilt after Nazi destruction in WWII on massive Stalinist lines in grey concrete. A collective effort of collaborative design between architects, graphic designers, painters, engineers. The celebration of it in the pages of the magazine Stolica.

The time of neon was the time of the thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953, and a new emphasis on lightness, brightness, colour. Neon became both about bringing glamour to the city, but also provided a kind of a map, allowing the orientation of self in the city through light — you see the cow you know what street you are on. It reminds me of the saints that guard and guide you through the streets of Valletta. Warsaw’s idiom was full of modernity’s promise, associated with the bright lights of Times Square or Vegas. But in many ways it has more in common with the saints, expressively noncommercial, artisanal. It is a way to know and navigate a city, imagine the maps that Kevin Lynch might have uncovered here.

The process of creating neon itself is fascinating. Blow torches are used to shape the tubes, they rely on chemistry and the composition of gasses that somehow relate more to the mysteries of alchemy than modernity to me. And in Warsaw they were all unique, made for one specific place and time without standardisation.

My favourite thing about the film was the neon designer Piotr Perepłyś, without the smallest doubt. He embodied for me the joy of neon, the beauty of it, the way it felt (I paraphrase) to see something new shining there on any street ‘we could feel we were part of the world, part of Europe’. Neon imparted a new, a different kind of vitality to architecture, it gave it movement, light, energy. It transformed the grey (but oh, there is such a sense of the drab greyness of this twisted facade of communism). Perepłyś says something like ‘in that sad grey reality of ours, neon became a brooch, a jewel, gleaming down‘.

He designed with a pen and nib, a flowing hand, the best way to create the smooth lines and joined letters needed.

But the addition of gases to create shifting lights means that it is not (necessarily) a static art, but one that allows you to add a storyline, a narrative a joke.

Most wonderful. Because they did.

I love that the city designers of Warsaw’s different areas competed in neon. Yet even so it could be up to 3 years from design to building and putting it in place. A tortuous approval process ate up this time, which included the city council — the documentary contains an awesome document montage that gives a sense of the process.

And of course there are some great stories. Like the enormous flower bouquet that disturbed the sleep of the mistress of the minister, but complain as she might, it had gone through all the stages of approval and therefore it could not be removed.

This would all change. The mid 70s would bring economic crisis and (as everywhere) issues with energy. Many companies started leaving their neon unlit even before martial law was declared in 1981 in response to the solidarity movement. A new era began of military blockade, curfews and blackout with neons forbidden.

I can’t remember who says it but it is definitely true that ‘unlit neons are very depressing‘.

As letters fell, meanings became transformed in humorous ways. Yet this signaled the beginning of the end, and by 1991 the neons started to disappear, often actively destroyed as communist remnants.

Many remain scattered through the city — though nothing like their heyday which I would have loved to have seen. There are some amazing photographs here. I am glad this many have been saved, glad they are having something of a come back. The museum is wonderful, and well worth a visit, as is wandering the surrounding area.



The City As A Work of Art

Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.

1 Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty
2 The Monumental Impulse
3 The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative
4 The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914
5 The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse
6 The Process of Urban Embellishment
7 The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna
8 Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung
9 Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna
10 Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna
11 Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values
12 London: Hidden Pleasures
13 Paris: The Garden and the Street
14 Vienna: Display and Self-Representation
15 Architecture as Historical Evidence
16 The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna
17 Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction
18 The City as the Embodiment of History

Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:

The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.

Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)

I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:

Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.

While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)

And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.

City As Monument

The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)

I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:

Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.

What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).

The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):

first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.

And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:

One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)

Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.

The City as Home

The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)

Thus, he argues:

The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)

Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:

The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)

This goes without saying

The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)

But this I hadn’t known:

And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:

And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:

And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.

Social Geography

How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.

This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.

While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)

Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:

The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.

I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:

It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)

This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:

The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.

Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.

There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:

Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.

The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.

And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain

If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)

City as Playground

This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.

Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:

We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)

Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.

Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.

The City as Document

This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,

An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)

The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)

This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).

Architecture as Language

Just a few good quotes;

The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]

1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”

Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]

From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:

Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.

Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:

What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)

Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

More medieval Misogyny, architecture and gardens — Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

I didn’t read the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili properly, eyes drooping amidst its turgid misogyny and lengthy OCD descriptions of classical architecture, sculpture and tits…I realised I had many better things to do. But I skimmed along, I liked the pictures (lol). Glasgow University Library has a great blog on it, they liked the pictures too:

Arguably the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance… Published in 1499 by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius, this magnificently crafted volume is illustrated with 172 woodcuts by an unknown artist.

So…beautiful to look at, but some choice quotes of the reactions of others Glasgow University collected:

The overall literary merit of this work is debatable, and some critics have dismissed it as unreadable. Certainly it is written in an odd hybrid of Latin vocabulary imposed upon Italian syntax; this idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.

That’s actually pretty cool, if only the content merited it.

Liane Lefaivre, for instance, suggests that it is in many ways a nondescript example of ‘a highly stylized genre’. Professor Weiss, meanwhile, declared it to be ‘a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature’.

IT IS SO BORING. But laid out rather beautifully as they say (on the right is an absurd statue that gets like two pages of absurdly erotic description — the priapic satyr? Yikes):

But I pulled out a few bits that weren’t totally boring, it does have lots to interest the gardener or aficionado of medieval clothing. I’d bought it on a whim from a used bookstore years ago, and thought after reading the Decameron (1353) I’d give it a go in this great time of lockdown.

It totally justifies some of Boccaccio’s ill will towards the Venetians.

Like Boccaccio too, it is obsessed with the ancients in all things, looking backwards always for inspiration. But being of its time, there are some choice passages on the plague, near the very end. The first book is Poliphilo wandering in a strange (yet strangely familiar) land. I liked the tiny second book stuck at the end which actually gives the history of Polia and Poliphilo the best to be honest.

These are the words of Polia, the object of the protagonist’s desire (it’s all in the name to be sure).

Very soon after this there occurred a great carnage affecting people of every age and condition. They were infected through the corrupted air by a contagious and deadly plague, and a great multitude died. Dreadful terror and alarm spread over the sickly earth, and people were struck by mortal fear. Everyone sought safety outside the city and took flight to the suburbs and country regions. Such a dreadful mass of people was exterminated that it was suspected that the fetid south wind had brought the plague from humid Egypt, where at the flooding of the turbid Nile the fields are strewn with a multitude of dead animals that putrefy and stink, and that these had infected the air. …

Ah Europeans, always blaming plagues on the dark continents and the whims of nature rather than commerce. She continues:

Due to my own frail and malignant fate, I found myself afflicted by a tumour in the groin. I besought the highest gods, on the chance that they would grant me recovery, while the spreading infection of the plague in my groin gravely weakened me. Because of this everyone deserted me, and I was left behind, except by my nurse, the kindest and best of women, who stayed to care for me and to witness my last breath and the departure of my spirit. Afflicted by the grave malady, raving and wandering, I uttered incoherent words and many a groan and lamentation. But turning inwards I did the best I could, and sincerely invoked the help of divine Diana, because I had as yet no notion of other gods and no religion but of this goddess. So I uttered many a single minded prayer in my trembling voice, and vowed myself to her cold and sacred chastity, promising in my tormented state that I would be her devotee and ever serve her religiously in her sacred temples, in strict continence, if only she would save me from this deadly contagion and sickness. (378-88)

Seems fair enough that after that she would then reject the advances of Poliphilo — also against him is the fact that he is possibly the most annoying, boring man alive, as his lengthy writing style proves beyond doubt. Sadly, he wrote the book, chose the ending, and this is clearly male wish fulfillment at its finest:

Then the fearless nymph turned to me, with her placid and charming presence showing every sign of kindness, and with a sigh uttered hotly from the bottom of her inflamed heart she spoke thus: ‘Dearest and best beloved Poliphilo, your ardent and excessive desire and your constant and persistent love have altogether stolen me away from the college of chastity, and forced me to extinguish my torch….it has cost me no small fire to keep it hidden and concealed in me, and so long suppressed. … A love so worthy should not be left unrequited and denied equal reciprocation and recompense; and consequently I am all prepared for your inflamed desires.

You may throw up just a little in your mouth here and yet it goes on

Look: I feel the fire of fervent love spreading and tingling throughout my whole being. Here I am, the end of your bitter and frequent sighs. Here I am, dearest Poliphilo, the healing and instant remedy of your grave and vexing pains. Here I am, a ready consort for your amorous and bitter suffering and a sharer in everything. Here I am with my profuse tears to quench your burning heart, and to die for you promptly and most devotedly.


And as proof of it, take this!’ She hugged me close and gave me, mouth to mouth, a luscious biting kiss full of divine sweetness, and also a few pearls in the form of tearlets, wrung by singular sweetness from her starry eyes. Inflamed from head to foot by her charming speech and by the mouth-watering and delicious savour, I dissolved in sweet and amorous tears and lost myself completely. Likewise the sacrificial President and all the others, moved with sudden emotion, could not contain their tears and sweet sighs (216-17).

Tearlets? Vomitous. At least she did try to get rid of him. I quite liked this illustration:

She’s refused him, he collapses, she drags him off to a dark corner of Diana’s Temple where he lies dead for a few days. This could have been an awesome feminist murder mystery, an early example of medieval noir.

But no. She had to change her tune, go back for him, bring him to life (of a kind) with her tears and kisses, and become a sacrificial sex doll of a woman.

That’s what counts for a plot.

There are also numerous monsters, this could have been a great medieval bestiary. I liked these drawings too:

But the skinks are too small, unicorns pull carriages and are consumed for dinner, and there is no mayhem whatsoever.

Instead this is mostly an ‘erotic’ yet somehow still boring tale of architecture, sculpture, gardens — and I love all three of these things and yet, god its boring. The illustrations are far and away the best thing about it. Here is one of the less boring descriptions of columns:

The reason that flutings were used for the temple of a goddess is that they represented the folds of feminine garments, while the capitals placed upon them with their hanging volutes indicated the braided hair of women and their ornaments. The Caryatids, which have a female head for the capital, were made for the temple of a rebellious people after their subjugation, because of their feminine inconstancy, whose perpetual memory was signified by columns thus constructed (49)

Thanks a lot.

I did like the sense of what the greatest possible imaginable luxury was of this time though, as well as menus for fine dining:

All the utensils or instruments at this supreme and splendid table were of fine gold, as was the round table in front of the Queen. Now a cordial confection was presented, which I think I am right in saying was a healthy compound made mostly of powdered unicorn’s horn, the two kinds of sandalwood, ground pearls in brandy set alight so as to dissolve them completely, manna, pine-nuts, rosewater, musk and powdered gold: a very precious mixture, weighed and pressed out in morsels with fine sugar and starch. We were given two servings of this, at a moderate interval and without drinking in between. It is a food for preventing every harmful fever and for dispelling all sorrowful fatigue.

After this, everything was taken away in an instant: the fragrant violets were scattered on the ground and the table was stripped. No sooner was this done than the table was covered once more with a sea-coloured cloth, and all the servants were wearing the same. Then, as before, they covered it with fragrant flowers of citrine, orange and lemon, and then presented in vases of beryl (and the Queen’s table was of the same stone, except for the forks, which were of gold) five cakes or fritters made from saffron-coloured dough with hot rosewater and sugar, cooled and finely sprinkled with the same musk-flavoured water and with powdered sugar. (108)

That is quite a meal, though it’s health-giving benefits seem debatable.

I did love the illustrations of classical ruins:

Indeed, the classical motif runs throughout stretching back to Egypt — there are any number of obelisks in here. That was curious.

These ‘hieroglyphics’ are awesome too, a medieval reimagining of the scripts of earlier time.

I also greatly loved these views into homes — bearing out just how different medieval homes were to ours, how much more bare with their furniture along the walls:

But with massive beds (also, love this perspective, and look at the ducks pulling the carriage! Awesome.):

And CATS. Or is that a dog?

And I did, of course I did, love the illustrations of gardens. It is splendid in illustrating medieval gardens.

Particularly this knotwork patterned garden with a list of what should be planted there: cyclamen, myrtle, mountain hulwort, wild thyme, laurentiana, tarragon, achillea, groundsel, idiosmo, terrambula, hazelwort, wild nard, golden-hair. I would like to make one.

I couldn’t recommend you read it, but a good skim through the pictures — excellent.

Colonna, Francesco (or maybe not) ([1499] 2005) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, translated by Joscelyn Godwin. London: Thames & Hudson.

Ruskin’s seven Lamps of Architecture

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Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture is an odd book, unexpected after all I had read of it. I loved many of the footnotes, poetry, sideways meanders. The Seven Lamps are also just a little bit mad: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, Obedience. So biblical. This contains so much of such desperate earnestness it cannot help but be touching. It has lovely passages that in truth could make you see and think differently. It celebrates the beauty of skilled craftsmanship and manual labour. It’s easy to see why Ruskin is always paired with William Morris in the same architectural breath.

It has passages where the earnestness goes beyond all possible bounds and I laughed out loud. Lol was in fact my first reaction, I write it here, more than once, for the first time in this blog. The purple and ponderous privilege of some of this prose erases the sting I hope. Such loftiness doesn’t quite make sense of all of Octavia Hill’s absurdities, who was his student and protege, but puts them a little more in context. He is just so very very certain about every damn thing.

From the introduction, a sad insight into a life of wealth, privilege, and difficulty in relating to other human beings.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture was written during the first year of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray, but no trace of that unconsummated, mutually humiliating, six-year ordeal can be found in its pages. (xvi)

1848-49…such momentous years! Revolutionary years. It is incredible to believe that this should be written in 1848. Europe was on fire, but he spent much of 1848 in Salisbury and Normandy studying the Gothic, then retired for the winter to Park Street, Mayfair to write. Blimey.

In the 1880 preface he writes rather poignantly, but ponderously it must be said:

I never intended to have republished this book, which has become the most useless I ever wrote; the buildings it describes with so much delight being now either knocked down, or scraped and patched up into smugness and smoothness more tragic than uttermost ruin. (xxxi)

The multiple editions allow him to comment on himself in the footnotes, one of the more enjoyable parts of the book. You can imagine him poring over prints and obsessing over things.

Ruskin | Lapham's Quarterly

He has snuck a number of aphorisms in the margins, which are in my National Trust Classics edition (again that connection to Octavia Hill) but not in the first edition which can be found on Gutenberg. I assume he wrote them later. They are tied to the prose but I rather liked the idea of separating them out, to read together, to collect what he believes to be the distilled lessons of his rather profligate prose. These are from the introductory chapter:

Aphorism 1: We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible (2)

Aphorism 2: All practical laws are the exponents of moral ones. (4)

Aphorism 3: The arts of our day must not be luxurious, nor its metaphysics idle. (6)

The Lamp of Sacrifice

Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure.

It is very necessary, in the outset of all inquiry, to distinguish carefully between Architecture and Building… To build, literally to confirm, is by common understanding to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size. … Let us, therefore, at once confine the name [Architecture] to that art which, taking up and admitting, as conditions of its working, the necessities and common uses of the building, impresses on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary. (8)

The complete opposite of modernist architecture, Gropius and Bauhaus. So what’s the sacrifice all about?

III. Now, first, to define this Lamp, or Spirit of Sacrifice, clearly. I have said that it prompts us to the offering of precious things merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary. It is a spirit, for instance, which of two marbles, equally beautiful, applicable and durable, would choose the more costly because it was so, and of two kinds of decoration, equally effective, would choose the more elaborate because it was so, in order that it might in the same compass present more cost and more thought. It is therefore most unreasoning and enthusiastic, and perhaps best negatively defined, as the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost. (10)

As I say, he often uses the footnotes to critique or bestow accolades on himself, as he does on page 24:

10There is too much stress laid, throughout this volume, on probity in picturesque treatment, and not enough on probity in material construction…But the concluding sentences of the chapter from this point forward are all quite right, and can’t be much better put.

I dearly love how ranty it all is as well — and look forward to quarantine being lifted, travel allowed, and the ability to see such wonders for myself:

I do not know anything more painful or pitiful than the kind of ivory carving with which the Certosa of Pavia, and part of the Colleone sepulchral chapel at Bergamo, and other such buildings, are incrusted, of which it is not possible so much as to think without exhaustion; and a heavy sense of the misery it would be, to be forced to look at it at all. And this is not from the quantity of it, nor because it is bad work—much of it is inventive and able; but because it looks as if it were only fit to be put in inlaid cabinets and velveted caskets, and as if it could not bear one drifting shower or gnawing frost. We are afraid for it, anxious about it, and tormented by it; and we feel that a massy shaft and a bold shadow would be worth it all. (26)

In the end though, I found this reflection on stone masons quite moving…

All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away—all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness—all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration. (28)

Aphorism 4: All architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame. (8)

Aphorism 5: Domestic luxury is to be sacrificed to national magnificence (17)

Aphorism 6: Modern builders are capable of little; and don’t even do the little they can (21)

I think I’ve heard that last one from my little brother.

The Lamp of Truth

Ah, this language!

I. There is a marked likeness between the virtues of man and the enlightenment of the globe he inhabits—the same diminishing gradation in vigor up to the limits of their domains, the same essential separation from their contraries—the same twilight at the meeting of the two: a something wider belt than the line where the world rolls into night, that strange twilight of the virtues; that dusky debateable land, wherein zeal becomes impatience, and temperance becomes severity, and justice becomes cruelty, and faith superstition, and each and all vanish into gloom. (29)

I confess there are moments I love it. But to get to the nitty gritty, w quickly move towards deceit.

VI. Architectural Deceits are broadly to be considered under three heads:—

1st. The suggestion of a mode of structure or support, other than the true one; as in pendants of late Gothic roofs.

2d. The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood), or the deceptive representation of sculptured ornament upon them.

3d. The use of cast or machine-made ornaments of any kind.

Now, it may be broadly stated, that architecture will be noble exactly in the degree in which all these false expedients are avoided. (35)

No surprise modern material should not find favour. His ranting against iron is priceless, though I know I have all the gifts of hindsight at my disposal:

IX. Perhaps the most fruitful source of these kinds of corruption which we have to guard against in recent times, is one which, nevertheless, comes in a “questionable shape,” and of which it is not easy to determine the proper laws and limits; I mean the use of iron. The definition of the art of architecture, given in the first chapter, is independent of its materials: nevertheless, that art having been, up to the beginning of the present century, practised for the most part in clay, stone, or wood, it has resulted that the sense of proportion and the laws of structure have been based, the one altogether, the other in great part, on the necessities consequent on the employment of those materials; and that the entire or principal employment of metallic framework would, therefore, be generally felt as a departure from the first principles of the art. (39)

X. But whether this be granted me or not, the fact is, that every idea respecting size, proportion, decoration, or construction, on which we are at present in the habit of acting or judging, depends on presupposition of such materials: and as I both feel myself unable to escape the influence of these prejudices, and believe that my readers will be equally so, it may be perhaps permitted to me to assume that true architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material,7 and that such works as the cast-iron central spire of Rouen Cathedral, or the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations, and of some of our churches, are not architecture at all. (40)

He notes in a footnote the sinking of the ‘Vanguard’ and ‘London’, the breaking of Woolwich Pier into splinters and thus ‘”the anarchy of iron” is the most notable fact’. The anarchy of iron is one of my new favourite phrases. I share his despair at commercialisation of urban spaces, and yet his very tone sets me at odds with him.

XVI. Touching the false representation of material, the question is infinitely more simple, and the law more sweeping; all such imitations are utterly base and inadmissible. It is melancholy to think of the time and expense lost in marbling the shop fronts of London alone, and of the waste of our resources in absolute vanities, in things about which no mortal cares, by which no eye is ever arrested, unless painfully, and which do not add one whit to comfort or cleanliness, or even to that great object of commercial art—conspicuousness. (48)

in the end it is craftsmanship that produces worth — both, as a footnote makes clear, in terms of cost of production and intrinsic value. In this we can be in complete agreement.

all our interest in the carved work, our sense of its richness, though it is tenfold less rich than the knots of grass beside it; of its delicacy, though it is a thousand fold less delicate; of its admirableness, though a millionfold less admirable; results from our consciousness of its being the work of poor, clumsy, toilsome man. Its true delightfulness depends on our discovering in it the record of thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heart-breakings—of recoveries and joyfulnesses of success: all this can be traced by a practised eye; but, granting it even obscure, it is presumed or understood; and in that is the worth of the thing, just as much as the worth of anything else we call precious.

His drawings are quite lovely and the book is full of them though it is not always clear how he intended them to illustrate the text. Here, however, he does go on a bit about gothic tracery.


He reaches towards the height of the gothic:

XXIII. The change of which I speak, is inexpressible in few words, but one more important, more radically influential, could not be. It was the substitution of the line for the mass, as the element of decoration. (60)

Now, the great pause was at the moment when the space and the dividing stone-work were both equally considered. It did not last fifty years. (61)

He hated what came next. Lol.

It would be too painful a task to follow further the caricatures of form, and eccentricities of treatment, which grow out of this singular abuse—the flattened arch, the shrunken pillar, the lifeless ornament, the tiny moulding, the distorted and extravagant foliation, until the time came when, over these wrecks and remnants, deprived of all unity and principle, rose the foul torrent of the renaissance, and swept them all away. (68)

There is another awesome footnote comment on the paragraph that follows this:

The closing paragraph is very pretty –but unfortunately–nonsense. The want of truth was only a part, and by no means an influential one, of general disease. All possible shades of human folly and licentiousness meet in late Gothic and renaissance architecture, and corrupt, in all directions at once, the arts which are their exponents. (68)

Aphorism 7: The guilt and harm of amiable and well meant lying (30)

Aphorism 8: Truth cannot be persisted in without pains; but is worth them (31)

Aphorism 9: The nature and dignity of imagination (33)

Aphorism 10: The proper structural use of iron (40)

Aphorism 11: The inviolability of Divine Law not of necessity but of ordinance (43)

Aphorism 12: Great painting never deceives. Compare, and add to this aphorism as part of it, the fourth paragraph of this chapter (45-46, how hard he makes you work! Especially as the 4th chapter is all about sin)

Aphorism 13: (expanded afterwards in “Stones of Venice”) The facing brick with marble is only a great form of Mosaic, and perfectly admissible. (50)

Aphorism 14: The proper colours of Architecture are those of natural stones (52)

Aphorism 15: Cast-iron ornamentation barbarous (56)

Aphorism 16: Tracery must never be considered or imagined as flexible (62)

The Lamp of Power

It’s not the size that counts really…but actually no, it is the size that counts.

V. While, therefore, it is not to be supposed that mere size will ennoble a mean design, yet every increase of magnitude will bestow upon it a certain degree of nobleness: so that it is well to determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime; and if the latter, not to be withheld by respect to smaller parts from reaching largeness of scale; provided only, that it be evidently in the architect’s power to reach at least that degree of magnitude which is the lowest at which sublimity begins, rudely definable as that which will make a living figure look less than life beside it. (74)

VIII. What is needful in the setting forth of magnitude in height, is right also in the marking it in area—let it be gathered well together. … Of the many broad divisions under which architecture may be considered, none appear to me more significant than that into buildings whose interest is in their walls, and those whose interest is in the lines dividing their walls. In the Greek temple the wall is as nothing; the entire interest is in the detached columns and the frieze they bear; in French Flamboyant, and in our detestable Perpendicular, the object is to get rid of the wall surface, and keep the eye altogether on tracery of line; in Romanesque work and Egyptian, the wall is a confessed and honored member, and the light is often allowed to fall on large areas of it, variously decorated. Now, both these principles are admitted by Nature, the one in her woods and thickets, the other in her plains, and cliffs, and waters; but the latter is pre-eminently the principle of power, and, in some sense, of beauty also. For, whatever infinity of fair form there may be in the maze of the forest, there is a fairer, as I think, in the surface of the quiet lake; and I hardly know that association of shaft or tracery, for which I would exchange the warm sleep of sunshine on some smooth, broad, human-like front of marble. (77-78)

There ensues then a little discussion with himself, he wrote originally:

IX. This, then, being, as I think, one of the peculiar elements of sublime architecture, it may be easily seen how necessarily consequent upon the love of it will be the choice of a form approaching to the square for the main outline.

In the footnote he comments upon himself (lol, yet I could never object to sarcasm against the love of the dividend):

Yes–I daresay! but how are you first to get the love of it? To love sublime architecture is one thing; to love a sublime dividend or a sublime percentage is another–and to love a large smoking room or billiard room, yet another (79)

He s very caustic here throughout the footnotes about those who tear beautiful buildings down to erect rubbish in their place. But I confess I really rather love this:

So that, after size and weight, the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess…And among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of thinking in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it, and the dusk leaves it; when its stones will be hot and its crannies cool; when the lizards will bask on the one, and the birds build in the other. (84)

That is so beautiful, you should pause here read it again.

It is not fair of me to pick out the beautiful and follow it on immediately with the utterly ridiculous. Yet I must.

Another hilarious footnote:

I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their context of development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this. I did not know the history of Venice when I wrote it… (96)

so to summarise:

pressing now only the conclusion, as practically useful as it is certain, that the relative majesty of buildings depends more on the weight and vigor of their masses than on any other attribute of their design: mass of everything, of bulk, of light, of darkness, of color, not mere sum of any of these, but breadth of them; not broken light, nor scattered darkness, nor divided weight, but solid stone, broad sunshine, starless shade. (99)

Lovely, but then lol again:

It is not modern work only; we have built like frogs and mice since the thirteenth century (except only in our castles). (101)

I find quite interesting his ranting about domestic architecture — his demands on it are so entirely impossible with the number of human beings alive upon the planet in his time, much less ours. Yet he is right to damn it, and I rather like his prescriptions for shadows and more shadows.

Of domestic architecture what need is there to speak? How small, how cramped, how poor, how miserable in its petty neatness is our best! how beneath the mark of attack, and the level of contempt, that which is common with us! What a strange sense of formalised deformity, of shrivelled precision, of starved accuracy, of minute misanthropy have we, as we leave even the rude streets of Picardy for the market towns of Kent! Until that street architecture of ours is bettered, until we give it some size and boldness, until we give our windows recess, and our walls thickness, I know not how we can blame our architects for their feebleness in more important work; their eyes are inured to narrowness and slightness: can we expect them at a word to conceive and deal with breadth and solidity? They ought not to live in our cities; there is that in their miserable walls which bricks up to death men’s imaginations, as surely as ever perished forsworn nun. An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome. (101)

Aphorism 17: The two intellectual powers of Architecture: veneration and domination [lol]

Aphorism 18: The religious nobleness of Byzantine architecture

The Lamp of Beauty

Ah, this strange, and strangely limited, Victorian ideal of beauty.

III. Now, I would insist especially on the fact, of which I doubt not that further illustrations will occur to the mind of every reader, that all most lovely forms and thoughts are directly taken from natural objects; because I would fain be allowed to assume also the converse of this, namely, that forms which are not taken from natural objects must be ugly. (105)

He holds by this but does, to be fair, note that most of what he writes later is all wrong (see aphorisms, lol). He has a grand diatribe on writing and alphabets and their inherent ugliness, this in particular is enjoyable about ribands. I have never given much thought to ribands to be honest, how sad that it can only flutter.

What is there like this in a riband? It has no structure: it is a succession of cut threads all alike; it has no skeleton, no make, no form, no size, no will of its own. You cut it and crush it into what you will. It has no strength, no languor. It cannot fall into a single graceful form. It cannot wave, in the true sense, but only flutter: it cannot bend, in the true sense, but only turn and be wrinkled. It is a vile thing; it spoils all that is near its wretched film of an existence. Never use it. Let the flowers come loose if they cannot keep together without being tied; leave the sentence unwritten if you cannot write it on a tablet or book, or plain roll of paper. I know what authority there is against me. (112)

On the separations of work and art (though art emerges from a combination of manual and intellectual work) so it is more about ensuring tools and certain kinds of purely functional space remain plain. Curious concept.

XIX. Hence then a general law, of singular importance in the present day, a law of simple common sense,—not to decorate things belonging to purposes of active and occupied life. Wherever you can rest, there decorate; where rest is forbidden, so is beauty. You must not mix ornament with business, any more than you may mix play. Work first, and then rest. Work first and then gaze, but do not use golden ploughshares, nor bind ledgers in enamel. Do not thrash with sculptured flails: nor put bas-reliefs on millstones. (119)

He has a particular diatribe against railway stations which seems unfair — I mean, Glasgow Central or LAs Union Station is a wonder and I wouldn’t hear a word against them, but from a man who perceives no beauty in iron I suppose there can be no wonder at all:

XXI. Another of the strange and evil tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now, if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which are necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it—who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks: at least those who would, have no sense of beauty so acute as that we need consult it at the station. (121)

but also has a go at Kings College, so it’s a least equal opportunity. Lol.

What a host of ugly church towers have we in England, with pinnacles at the corners, and none in the middle! How many buildings like King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, looking like tables upside down, with their four legs in the air! What! it will be said, have not beasts four legs? Yes, but legs of different shapes, and with a head between them. So they have a pair of ears: and perhaps a pair of horns: but not at both ends. Knock down a couple of pinnacles at either end in King’s College Chapel, and you will have a kind of proportion instantly. (126)

another (!) hilarious aside

Never give separate mouldings separate colors (I know this is heresy, but I never shrink from any conclusions, however contrary to human authority, to which I am led by observance of natural principles) (138)

Aphorism 19: All beauty is founded on the laws of natural form [footnote: The Aphorism is wholly true: but the following application of it, often trivial or false. See the subsequent notes. lol.] (105)

Aphorism 20: That is most “natural” which is most easily and ordinarily seen [footnote: This is an excellent aphorism; and I am proud of having so early seen the danger of anatomical study, so often dwelt on in my later works.] [lol.] (106)

Aphorism 21: Symmetry is not abstraction [footnote: ‘This short Aphorism is one of the most important in the book’] (132)

Aphorism 22: Perfect sculpture should be a part of the severest architecture (135)

The Lamp of Life

I think this might have been my favourite lamp.

no inconsiderable part of the essential characters of Beauty depended on the expression of vital energy in organic things … things in other respects alike, as in their substance, or uses, or outward forms, are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fulness of the life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose action they bear the evidence, as sea sands are made beautiful by their bearing the seal of the motion of the waters. And this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress of the highest order of creative life, that is to say, of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them. But most peculiarly and imperatively does the rule hold with respect to the creations of Architecture, which being properly capable of no other life than this, and being not essentially composed of things pleasant in themselves,—as music of sweet sounds, or painting of fair colors, but of inert substance,—depend, for their dignity and pleasurableness in the utmost degree, upon the vivid expression of the intellectual life which has been concerned in their production. (148)

How lovely are these figures from the Cathedral of Rouen, which I quite wish to visit.


XXIV. I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment—was the carver happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and the harder because so much pleasure was taken in it; but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living. (173)

Was the worker happy…I forgive Ruskin all his privileged pomposity just for this.

Aphorism 23: All things are noble in proportion to their fulness of Life. (148)

Aphorism 24: Perfect finish characterizes alike the best architecture and the best painting. (154)

Aphorism 25: All good work must be free hand-work. Compare §24

Aphorism 26: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;” and no other might.

The Lamp of Memory

This now, this is the most doubtful lamp. There are too many of us for whom there were no good old days.

How cold is all history how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! how many pages of doubtful record might we not often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! The ambition of the old Babel builders was well directed for this world: there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality; it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life. (178)

Men men men and their metaphorical meanings.

it is in becoming memorial or monumental that a true perfection is attained by civil and domestic buildings; and this partly as they are, with such a view, built in a more stable manner, and partly as their decorations are consequently animated by a metaphorical or historical meaning. (178)

We return again to domestic building, and again a betrayal of privilege. Not that I don’t wish all of us might have a home worthy and lasting to pass down through the ages. But ages must also have room to build anew, and it must be very hard to live comfortably in a temple.

I do love the diatribe against the Jerry builders though, before they were known as such I think.

As regards domestic buildings, there must always be a certain limitation to views of this kind in the power, as well as in the hearts, of men; still I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only. There is a sanctity in a good man’s house which cannot be renewed in every tenement that rises on its ruins…I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples—temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers’ honor, or that[Pg 171] our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only. And I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up in mildewed forwardness out of the kneaded fields about our capital—upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone—upon those gloomy rows of formalised minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar—not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely struck in their native ground; that those comfortless and unhonored dwellings are the signs of a great and spreading spirit of popular discontent; that they mark the time when every man’s aim is to be in some more elevated sphere than his natural one, and every man’s past life is his habitual scorn; when men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived; when the comfort, the peace, the religion of home have ceased to be felt; and the crowded tenements of a struggling and restless population differ only from the tents of the Arab or the Gipsy by their less healthy openness to the air of heaven, and less happy choice of their spot of earth; by their sacrifice of liberty without the gain of rest, and of stability without the luxury of change. (179-80)

This again…over the top, yet somehow embodies all the terrible Christian earnestness of which Ruskin is capable.

For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess of language and of life. (186)

Aphorism 27: Architecture is to be made historical and preserved as such. (178)

Aphorism 28: The sanctity of home, for good men (179) [poor ladies]

Aphorism 29: The earth is an entail, not a possession. Compare §20. (185) [I rather like this one]

Aphorism 30: there is nothing here 🙁

Aphorism 31: Restoration, so called, is the worst manner of Destruction (194)

The Lamp of Obediance

This is maybe the maddest lamp, also the most reeking of Christianity and backward lookingness, if I can be forgiven for making that a noun.

I have named a principle to which I would now assign a definite place among those which direct that embodiment; the last place, not only as that to which its own humility would incline, but rather as belonging to it in the aspect of the crowning grace of all the rest; that principle, I mean, to which Polity owes its stability, Life its happiness, Faith its acceptance, Creation its continuance,—Obedience. (199)

This baffles me a bit. The why of it.

if, amidst the counter evidence of success attending opposite accidents of character and circumstance, any one conclusion may be constantly and indisputably drawn, it is this; that the architecture of a nation is great only when it is as universal and as established as its language; and when provincial differences of style are nothing more than so many dialects…this one condition has been constant, this one requirement clear in all places and at all times, that the work shall be that of a school, that no individual caprice shall dispense with, or materially vary, accepted types and customary decorations; and that from the cottage to the palace, and from the chapel to the basilica, and from the garden fence to the fortress wall, every member and feature of the architecture of the nation shall be as commonly current, as frankly accepted, as its language or its coin. (202)

This is some rantiness at its best

It may be said that this is impossible. It may be so—I fear it is so: I have nothing to do with the possibility or impossibility of it; I simply know and assert the necessity of it. If it be impossible, English art is impossible. Give it up at once. You are wasting time, and money, and energy upon it, and though you exhaust centuries and treasuries, and break hearts for it, you will never raise it above the merest dilettanteism. Think not of it. It is a dangerous vanity, a mere gulph in which genius after genius will be swallowed up, and it will not close. And so it will continue to be, unless the one bold and broad step be taken at the beginning. We shall not manufacture art out of pottery and printed stuffs; we shall not reason out art by our philosophy; we shall not stumble upon art by our experiments, not create it by our fancies: I do not say that we can even build it out of brick and stone; but there is a chance for us in these, and there is none else; and that chance rests on the bare possibility of obtaining the consent, both of architects and of the public, to choose a style, and to use it universally. (206)

Ah, the negative freedoms…

VIII. It is almost impossible for us to conceive, in our present state of doubt and ignorance, the sudden dawn of intelligence and fancy, the rapidly increasing sense of power and facility, and, in its proper sense, of Freedom, which such wholesome restraint would instantly cause throughout the whole circle of the arts. Freed from the agitation and embarrassment of that liberty of choice which is the cause of half the discomforts of the world (208)

this is lol all the way

I am confirmed in this impression by what I see passing among the states of Europe at this instant. All the horror, distress, and tumult which oppress the foreign nations, are traceable, among the other secondary causes through which God is working out His will upon them, to the simple one of their not having enough to do. (210)

Aphorism 32: There is no such thing as liberty (199)

Aphorism 33: The glory and use of restraint (208)

His final footnote is awesome. It reads:

I am well content to close my thirty-three aphorisms with this most comprehensive one;–and my fifty-five notes with this still more comprehensive reduction of them to practice for the modern reader:–Build nothing that you can possibly help,–and let no land on building leases. (210)

Ruskin, John (1988 [1849]) The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Century.

The Superb Mexican Lithographs of Plovdiv

There was much to love about Plovdiv, but this…It was so unexpected. First that there should be within this gallery named for the collection of Tsanko Lavrenov a floor of lithographs from the 1970s and reproduction artifacts from Mexico. Second, not so surprising really, was just how amazing this collection really was. Four rooms, all superb. I don’t usually take pictures of these things, but these…it felt like a treasure almost entirely forgotten, not all of the names of the artists were even known. No postcards of course. Never will we see them again. But the reflections from the glass break my heart.

This is only a fraction, and those I loved most. I found something on all of the artists apart from Irma Dominguez, who is behind these most spectacular cats.

Silvia Rodriguez Rubio, whose work I cannot find but who I think is teaching at UNAM.

Emiliano Ortiz (1936-1988)

I love these so much… Ortiz is one of the few artists here I could find information for. After his suicide this article by Raquel Tibol appears, and in it she quotes Ortiz from 1972: ‘Lo poco de educación plástica que tuve fue de orden gráfico, principalmente en el taller de Silva Santamaría‘. Whose work was also to be found here (though he is originally from Columbia). I loved it also, each character…ah, I love them. Particularly the plant creature in the bottom left, but all of these spiky, dangerous absurd medieval knights are pretty awesome.

Guillermo Silva Santamaria (1921-2007)

Pedro Friedeberg (1936-), who is now from what the internet says, really quite a big deal.

Leonel Maciel Sanchez (1939-). Increible.

Tsanko Lavrenov was also a surprise look at this brilliant painting titled ‘Twenty Years Socialist Construction’.

Tsanko Lavrenov, Twenty Years Socialist Construction

I liked the rest of his work as well, but anything of ‘ideological weight’ was in storage…as if ideology were only to be found in paintings like the one above. Still, these scenes from the old town of Plovdiv are splendid.

Tsanko Lavrenov
Tsanko Lavrenov
Tsanko Lavrenov

The carvings of the stalls of St Katharine’s: Medieval iconography


This is quite a lovely pamphlet by George Claridge Druce, F.S.A. (Fellow of the Society of Antiquities) from 1917, unearthed by me years ago now (sweet Christmas, how many years ago?) while engaged in a bit of rooting through archives at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine. I’m returning to them now because I’m on holiday! And giving a bit of time to this sadly neglected blog and looking at the many things half written. I’m working on photographs as well, like the ones I took a few weeks ago at Salisbury Cathedral and full of wonder at them. Thought I’d polish this off instead of looking at the things on landscape I’ve half done as was the original intention…

Once upon a time for work I was reading a bit about misericords — like many people I so love the odd grotesqueness of much medieval carving. I was quite little the first time I saw Winchester Cathedral with all of its mysterious faces and monsters and many wonders, and remember how amazing I thought it all. Misericords are a bit harder to access, inside cathedrals and often behind ropes. It is tragic. The ones of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Limehouse are truly glorious.

So much was lost when the old liberty of St Katharine’s By the Tower was flooded to form St Katharine’s Docks in 1825-26. Some of the greatest treasures saved were a selection of the misericords and related carvings from the mid-14th century. This is from one of the books in our library, the Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, by G.L. Remnant (1998).

In the modern chapel are fourteen stalls, thirteen with carved misericords. These misericords are in perfect condition owing to the fact that the hospital, then St. Katharine’s by the Tower, was under the patronage of successive Queens of England. Three stalls on each side are returned, and the corner-pieces are said to be faithful portraits of Edward III and Philippa, the latter closely resembling her effigy in Westminster Abbey, which was from a portrait by Liege in 1369.

Both sources I found in St Katharine’s archives argue that misericords tell us more than most things about the lives of medieval carvers — but from reading them it is obvious that they tell us in the most subjective manner possible. In fact, interpretations may tell you more about the person drawing such conclusions (and your own self, through your own reactions to the carvings and to what they say about them). In his essay included in Remnant’s A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain (1969) M.D. Anderson writes:

Misericords are a very humble form of medieval art and it is unlikely that the most distinguished carvers of any period were employed in making them. The names of the men who actually carved particular misericords are never recorded.’

Yet, at all levels of quality, these carvings reflect the minds of the men who made them, and, if we study misericords as we might turn the pages of painters’ sketchbooks, they may teach us much about English medieval craftsmen which is not recorded in any other form.

They were considered so lowly that usually they were not required to follow any scheme of iconography, so that craftsmen had much more freedom in what they carved…Because of the freedom the carver’s work is often amusing in a naive way, and sometimes includes subjects which are mysterious, because he has divorced one incident from the identifying context of the full story or has worked from his inaccurate memory of a picture he had seen but not fully understood.

In their way, these carvings are as much a record of the early life of St Katharine’s as the Ordinances of Queen Philippa. But they are the work of men whose names have been erased from history. Anderson continues:

Biblical themes are always in the minority, and, even where they do appear, seem to have been chosen at random. (xxiv)

The moral allegories which figured largely in other forms of church imagery seem to have had curiously little appeal to the carvers of misericords. (xxv)

‘Amusing in a naive way’ is annoying, the desire to escape biblical themes and moral imperatives in carving quite wonderful. Instead inspiration comes from the natural world as well as bestiaries and secular literature. I suppose it’s why I love them so much.

At the same time it must be remembered that medieval beliefs embraced a very different kind of iconography, Anderson continues:

Medieval teachers, such as Hugh of Saint Victor and Honorius of Autun, regarded almost every object in the visible world as reflecting some spiritual counterpart, and this use of metaphors drawn from daily life was popularized by the preaching friars…Both cosmic majesty and grotesque humour have their place in the great structure of medieval thought and art. (xxvi-xxvii)

So these two impulses blended perhaps, hybridised. Anderson states that we have discarded the romantic 19th century image of ‘medieval carvers delighting in their own creative powers, as wholly original designs took shape beneath their chisels‘ (xxvii). But what he means by that is curious, in that woodcarvers often seemed to be working from some knowledge of standard designs, which were repeated with free variations alongside carvings of their own invention. Others were copied from wall paintings, manuscript illuminations, and woodcut pictures — he speculates that carvers were given rough sketches or spoiled pages only, due to the high value of books. These designs are often shared by the team of men doing such carving.

The loveliest, most curious oldest carvings (apart from those at St Katharine of course) he says are found in Worcester and Lincoln, Chester and the Holy Trinity in Coventry, and then there are some stalls rescued from Roche Abbey, now in Loversal Church, Yorkshire. There is a side mention of the ‘sinister quality’ of the face of the green man found in both Lincoln and Coventry and again at Loversal, which makes it recognizable as the same artist. Amazing, I will find them.

Like I will find this — he describes that in Bristol a naked woman has been carved leading a pack of apes into the jaws of Hell. This illustrates the supposed fate of the woman who dies unmarried, to which Shakespeare refers in both The Taming of the Shrew (II i) and Much Ado About Nothing. The apes are the souls of unmarried men.

Anyway, to St Katharine’s incredible carvings, that I would often visit, particularly when work was hard. This one is my favourite:

They have returned to the East End from Regent’s street where Druce recorded them, and sit in a lovely modernised chapel. They came back under the radical Father Groser, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for the working classes and I imagine loved them also.

I. Bust of bearded man wearing striped cap and cloak clasped at neck, with trailing drapery, knotted at back. Supporters: Left and Right, winged monster with long tail.

2. Grotesque head surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

3. Man’s head with long, thick moustache and forked beard. He wears a flat round cap. Supporters: Left and Right, leaf

4. Man’s head, with flowing hair and full, forked beard. Supporters: Left and Right, rose.

5. Angel playing bagpipe. Supporters: Left and Right, lion-mask.

6. Lion leaping on amphisbaena. Supporters: Left and Right, snake-monster.

the amphisbaena is a winged serpent with a second head at the end of its tail. A symbol of deceit. While Anderson mentions that lions were popular due to their use in heraldry, the symbol of the apostle St Mark is often a lion, and they also often represent the resurrection. I love this one immensely.

The amphisbaena in its unmolested-by-a-lion form:

7. Wyvern, with outstretched wings. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

Dragons tend to be a ‘symbol of the Evil One‘, and the wyvern is simply the two-legged variety.

8. Pelican in her piety, with three chicks. Supporters: Left and Right, swan, with crown encircling its neck.

The Pelican is ‘always shown feeding its fledglings with blood from its own breast. Never represented naturalistically.’ Below is this lovely bird as it appears on one of the carved armrests.

Druce gives an illustration of just such a pelican in a medieval manuscript, from which these were likely copied

On the subject of our pelican, Druce quotes extensively from the bestiaries of the 12th and 13th centuries — early encyclopedias of animals that for contained both what was known of their natural history alongside myths and moral lessons they exemplified. Medieval carvers drew heavily upon these books and their drawings to decorate England’s churches and cathedrals.

It is a bird which lives in the deserts of the Nile and is exceedingly fond of its children. When they have begun to grow up they strike their parents in the face, and their parents, being angered, strike them back and kills them. And on the third day the mother, striking her breast opens her side, and bending over her young ones pours out her blood upon their bodies and brings them to life again. So too our Lord Jesus Christ the author and founder of every creature created us, and when we were not, he made us. We, however, struck him in the face when we served the creature rather than the Creator. For that reason he ascended on the Cross, and his side being pierced there came out blood and water for our Salvation and life Eternal.

On either side of the pelican and its young are two swans that at first glance are the same, but if you look closely you can see that the swan on the left has swallowed a crown, which marks its heraldic form. There is much legend surrounding the swan as well, Druce writes

It is called ” cignus” from its singing, because it pours forth the sweetness of its song in measured tones. They say also that it sings so sweetly, because it has a long and curved neck, and that its throbbing voice must pass by a long and tortuous way to render the different modulations. Among other items there is an interesting account, adopted from AElian (Bk. XI, ch. I), of how in Northern regions swans fly up in large numbers to people who play before them on the cythara, and sing in perfect harmony with them.

It continues (and these were the days when swans were often eaten, Druce notes of the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘A fat swan loved he best of any rost’), that it sings

right sweetly when dying. Likewise when the proud man departs out of this life, he is still charmed by the sweetness of this present time, and what evil he has done comes back to his memory when dying. But when the swan is stripped of its white plumage, it is put upon a spit and is roasted at the fire; so, when the rich and proud man dies, he is stripped of his earthly glories, and descending to the flames of hell he will be tortured and tormented; and as he was accustomed when alive to desire food, so when going down into the pit he becomes food for fire.

9. Woman riding man-headed beast (perhaps head of Aristotle). Supporters: Left and Right, grotesque face with protruding tongue, in square-foliage design.

This begs the question, WTAF, but I love it immensely also…

10. Large leaf design. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

11. Hawk pouncing on duck. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

Images of hunting are common, Druce gives another manuscript example:

While hawks could symbolise cruelty, there is a more interesting interpretation also emerging from the bestiaries Druce is drawing from:

The hawk is a type of the holy man or monk “who lays hold of the Kingdom of God,” and the passage in Job xxxix, 26, is introduced to illustrate that as the hawk moults its old feathers and gains new plumage, so the religious man has thrown off the burdens of his old way of living and has put on the new wings of virtue. The hawk’s quarters , which it says should be enclosed and warm, is the cloister. As the bird, when let out, comes to the hand to be flown, so the monk, leaving his cell for good works, when sent out seeks to raise himself to the things of heaven. As it is held on the left hand and flies to the right, so it is a type of men who care for the good things of this world and the things of eternity respectively, and when it captures the dove, it is the man who, being changed for the better, receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.

12. Elephant and castle, surmounted by crowned head and surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, beast with man’s head, one bearded, the other hooded.

‘As described in the Physiologus, the elephant sometimes represents Christ, and in medieval times was always drawn with a tower on its back as the manuscript describes how eastern warriors fought from wooden towers on their backs.’

The tower is really the only thing identifying this as an elephant, really the stars of the show are the man-headed beasts.

It was most likely at some point drawn from a manuscript like this one…

A great bestiary quote about the elephant:

…the Greeks think it got its name because the form of its body resembled a mountain. For in Greek a mountain is called Eliphio. No bigger animal is to be seen, and the Persians and Indians, stationed in wooden towers placed on them, fight with darts as if from a wall. They break what they roll up in their trunks, and what they tread upon is crushed as it were like a house falling down.

If the elephant falls down, it cannot get up, for it has no joints in its knees. It sleeps, therefore, leaning against a tree, but the hunter, aware of this habit, cuts a slit in the tree, so that the elephant when it leans against it may fall down with it. But as it falls it calls out loudly, and at once a great elephant comes, but is not able to lift it up. Then both of them cry out and there come twelve elephants, but neither are they able to raise it up. Thereupon they all cry out, and immediately there comes a little elephant which places its mouth with its trunk under the big elephant and lifts it up…When the elephant was fallen, that is man, there came the great elephant, that is the law, and did not raise him up, as the priest did not raise up him that fell among thieves. Neither could the twelve elephants, that is, the prophets, as neither did the Levite him that was wounded; but the wise elephant, Jesus Christ, since he is greater than all, is made the smallest of all, because he humbled himself and became obedient unto death that he might raise mankind…

13. Winged devil eavesdropping over two busts of women. Supporters: Left, recording demon holding parchment. Right, centaur-like figure, with club and shield. (I had to do a bit of work to find this one, it sits least easily I think with our current conceptions of High Anglican tradition).

On Centaurs: ‘The man typifies Christ, the horse His vengeance on those who betrayed him.’ That’s pretty awesome.

The carvings on the armrests are also splendid, a whole collection of beast curled upon themselves

And then there is this about owls:

The Bestiaries, following Pliny, give particulars of three different kinds of owls, viz., Noctua or Nicticorax, Bubo, and Ulula, but neither in MSS. nor carvings can they be distinguished with any certainty, except that it is Bubo that is teased by other birds. This scene is illustrated in Harl. 4751 and Bodi. 764. It is a bird of ill-omen, and its slothful and dirty habits are described and made use of to denote the various misdeeds of wicked men.

These night birds are also used as a type of those who study the stars at night time and the shadowy realms of spirits, who believe that they can see to the very topmost height of heaven, describing the world by a circle. But they cannot see the light, which is Christ, nor faith in him which is close to them, because they are blind and leaders of the blind.

Yet my favourite carving is I think an owl, and he hardly seems of ill-omen. but he might not be an owl at all.

There is obviously much outdated scholarship on these lovely creatures and so much more to explore about them (the woman on the beast with Artistotle’s head? So much more to explore there…), but I enjoyed the musings of antiquity.

Tiles of Lisbon

Lisbon is a beautiful city…

Zaragoza Graffiti: For the Women Who Gave Their Lives…

Penultimate post on this short holiday that already feels so so far away. I’ve finished a report, an executive summary for a second report, and edits on two short articles since then. So sad. Unlike the awesomeness of Zaragoza’s graffiti scene, which brought me immense happiness. This says:

En recuerdo de todas las mujeres que dieron su vida por la libertad y las ideas anarquistas | In memory of all the women who gave their lives for liberty and anarchist ideas

On this wall, with its many small fishes eating the large one, and long incredible figures almost disappearing into plaster:

There was so much that was brilliant, I miss this.

A half-hearted look at a biography of Albrecht Dürer

We’re going to Germany! Nuremburg. The great keynote tour begins (not mine, you understand, I just tag along). And I found time somehow to read one solitary thing to prepare, and sadly very sadly it was this.I’ve already read Albert Speer, long ago, I am prepared for the massive architecture of awe and power. I’m more excited about Albrecht Dürer, still I’m sad to find there is a whole industry around him. I know I should have re-read Arendt, but instead…

A few fun facts about Nuremburg first.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, said upon visiting Nuremberg in 1444 in the Imperial train:

What a splendid sight this city presents! What brilliance, what lavish views, what beauties, what culture, what admirable government! … what clean streets, what elegant houses! (6)

Luther called it ‘Germany’s eye and ear.’ I’m not entirely sure I know what that means. But it is the middle point of Europe, at the centre of European trade — amber, furs, salt fish from the Baltic; gold, silver copper, horses from Hungary and Bohemia; spices, silks, luxury goods from Venice, woolen cloth from the Netherlands. I love these ancient lists, the sense of distance and far away lands and precious things. Nuremberg itself made scientific instruments and metalwares — rather a splendid trade for a town.

This was a principal town of the Holy Roman Empire for a while, the city at the foot of the medieval fortress, a ‘free’ city directly under the emperor, the Emperors rarely there though — it wasn’t so comfortable the castle, especially in winter even though the Imperial coronation regalia was kept there. So effectively it was a City State, run by its own city council, and had reciprocal toll-free trade with seventy cities despite a lack of most things needed for a succesful city.

Albrecht Dürer was born here in 1471, his father a goldsmith, his godfather also. Anton Koberger though he shortly became a publisher, the most important in Germany with 24 presses.

At 13 Dürer created this in silverpoint — a process of chemical etching in which nothing can be erased:

I have little sense, though, am failing to understand Dürer here. Maybe because there are sentences like these”

Dürer’s sypathetic portrayal of his father, and his largely positive memories of his childhood are in remarkable contrast to Martin Luther’s recital of brutal beatings at home and at school…There can be little doubt that Albrecht Dürer must have been a more agreeable child that then great Reformer… (21)

We all know children are only beaten because they are not agreeable, they bring it on themselves really. Dürer instead seems a bit spoiled, possibly because almost all of his many siblings have died (and will die). Still, in 1490, his dad sends him off on what the author calls ‘a bachelor’s journey’. She tries to trace his movements, he may have been apprenticed, it is detailed guessing.

He did this, one of my favourite self portraits of all, in Paris. Albrecht Dürer with a pillow, age 22.

From the Met’s description:

Among the masterpieces of European draftsmanship, this iconic self-portrait study evokes the awakening artistic consciousness of the twenty-two-year-old German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Probably produced with the aid of a mirror, the head and the hand were preparatory for his painted Self-Portrait of 1493 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), considered one of the earliest independent self-portraits in Western painting. Durer’s exploration of self-portraiture in several drawings and paintings is characterized by an arresting directness that was highly unusual at the time. The artist’s calligraphic precision and expressiveness of line is also found in the study of a pillow at the bottom of the sheet, a subject that he continued to explore on the reverse.

It was preparatory for this:

But what the author writes is how it is is:

showing the first tentative half-dozen hairs of what was soon to become Europe’s most famous and anachronistic beard. (Beards were not normally worn by young, or even by middle-age men in Dürer’s day–even the majority of elderly men, as Mark Zucker has shown, were clean-shaven.) (39)

I’m glad that’s been documented. Ever since Mark won my heart with the Engels’ moustache letters I have had a bit of a thing for historical facial hair. Still. I hoped for more.

On his marriage?

Neither the bride nor the groom had a great deal to say about their marriage, which was arranged, as was proper in the fifteenth century, by the two sets of parents to suit their own purposes. Such businesslike arrangements may often have been loveless, at least to begin with, but were in the long run at least as satisfactory in most respects, and a good deal more permanent, than those contracted by modern methods. (40)

No fear feminism will get in the way of the story here, then.

His fatherin-law was Hans Frey:

reported to have been a clever and charming man and the best harp player in town, as well as a good singer, had formerly been the city’s official gauger of honey and nuts. (40)

Within two months of the marriage, Dürer was off again, to Italy this time. Was he called by the Renaissance? Was it the marriage? Was it the plague, that had broken out in 1494? She asks but does not answer, maybe someone who read a different book might have a better idea.

I can’t imagine the plague, I feel like it fills all of his work. Death always seems close, no? Even when it’s not staring at you as a skull or a starving man or the horsemen of the apocalypse. Even then.

But back to the book. It doesn’t really go there.

She  goes on about the guilds, whose provision of increased security could limit an artist’s intellectual and social aspirations…we wouldn’t get on I don’t think, me and this author. Something tells me.

There are some uncomfortable passages on the expulsion of the Jews from Nuremburg in 1499, where Pirkheimer — patron and friend to Dürer, hired an armed escort. She notes it was to protect them as they left but could also be argued it was to ensure they were leaving. People did, of course, benefit from their leaving. Houses suddenly empty and that kind of thing.

Not that there aren’t interesting facts that deserve to be simple asides never to be explored further (unlike the explulsion of a large portion of the city population, the fear, the mob response, the plague). Like the fact that Pirkheimer had to leave law school BEFORE he won his degree, so he could remain eligible for the Nuremburg City Council. Like the fact that he opened a School for Poets, which lasted from 1498-1509. She writes:

Albrecht Dürer’s own authorship of quite a large quantity of truly dreadful poetry, all written in the years 1509-1510, he may perhaps have begun to attend this ill-fated institution, which was the distant ancestor of the more famous Nuremburg School for Poets of the seventeenth century. (55)

She does print some here, and for once we agree, it is truly terrible.

Still, you can see that it’s a bit hard to understand from all this where exactly the four horsemen came from between 1496 and 1498, though she does note some believed 1500 would usher in the end of the world:

The 1496 Prodigal son returning to kneel among the swine.

And look at those buildings… she makes the point that German architecture made these prints exotic in Italy and France, giving them cache on top of the incredible skill and splendour of the art itself. But surely there is more here.

I’d rather just look at his work…he loved his paintings and colours. Me, I confess I love the prints the most. He carried copies of them with him everywhere to sell in the markets, as did his wife. Imagine.

But I think I am going to stop here, because I couldn’t find what I wanted in this particular book. Not like Caravaggio. Maybe one day I’ll have time to read another, maybe the great book remains to be written on Albrecht Dürer. I don’t usually choose so badly. I confess, though, some of those terrible passage are rather enjoyable. Her apoplexies on his dirty letters to Pirkheimer are pretty awesome, but I am too tired to keep going…