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Archive for the ‘B. The Living Artifact’ Category

Walking and the Deep Well of Memory

July 30, 2016 2 comments

Glanum? Ambrussum? Vaison-la-Romaine? Somewhere in Provence, in any case. RT has a distant but distinct memory of seeing an ancient Greek city while on vacation back in the mid-1970s. The site was small and gorgeous, oval-shaped ruins of marble sited among pine trees, not far from the sea. What made the experience especially memorable was the guide’s report of the city’s population, as high as one or two thousand people, if RT recalls correctly. And all of them sheltered in a space about half the size of a football field.

Now, RT, car-less as he often has been in his life, is doing a great deal of walking these days. It takes him about 45 minutes to walk into town by the legal but indirect route. He is actually fairly lucky, since a bike path constitutes part of the trek. At least on this section, he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car. Still, there is something distinctly humbling about walking along the path, which lacks shade trees, park benches, and water fountains, while cars zoom past on the other side of the grass border. His almost daily excursions make him wonder what life would be like if we still lived in pre-industrial communities. Or, to put it another way, could we get rid of cars?

Here are some facts: ancient Rome at its height (population 1 million) occupied about 5 and ½ sq. miles; Manhattan could hold six cities that size. Nearly all Romans lived in concrete and brick apartment buildings (called insulae), some of them nine stories high; apartments of 1,000 sq. ft. (about the size of a modern 1-bedroom apartment) housed families of five or six people. Most of these apartments offered running water. Romans went to great lengths (pardon the pun) via their aqueducts to ensure water quality—and their diet in many ways appears superior to ours. Those who survived into their teens (infant and child mortality were very high), often lived to be 60.

So far, things sound pretty good. Now back to walking: horses were expensive, and carriages for the rich. Though vehicles could be hired for transport (some featuring primitive odometers), nearly everyone walked everywhere.

RT will let readers draw their own conclusions. What remains with him is the memory of a beautiful city in Provence, built to human scale; human-powered; and healthy, communal, and intimate in a way hard to imagine in our own lives. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk to the store.

Photo: Early 2nd century A.D. apartment building, OstiaNashvilleneighbor. WikiCommons. Public Domain.

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Albert Eckhout and Dutch Brazil

August 7, 2015 2 comments

Readers may recall that RT was born in Brazil 50-odd years ago. He considered himself fairly conversant in Braziliana, at least in its 1950s and 1960s aspects, but confesses that he had never heard of Albert Eckhout when he stumbled on his work a few days back. Such things happen of course, especially when the painter in question lived hundreds of years ago, but RT was also ignorant of the fact that the Dutch established a colony in northeastern Brazil, New Holland, and held on to it for a couple of decades before being forced out by the Portuguese. The Dutch incursion might seem trivial, except that Brazil apparently owes the origin of its national consciousness to this struggle with a European competitor.

And then there is the question of Mr. Eckhout’s work; African Woman, to RT’s eye, anticipates the paintings of Henri Rousseau by several centuries. What an achievement…and if that were not enough, Mr. Eckhout has a minor planet named after him. But now we have entered the realm of true trivia.

Last but not least among RT’s recent discoveries concerning Latin America is the artistic movement known as Costumbrismo, which flourished during the 19th century. Hardly a minor movement, Costumbrismo counted adherents in every Latin American country and in Spain as well.

Who’d’a thunk it? RT is more than satisfied with the results of his latest wanderings…

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Painting: African Woman. Albert Eckhout (c. 1610–1665). WikiCmns. Public Domain.

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Discoveries

September 6, 2014 Leave a comment

640px-Dust_bowl,_Texas_Panhandle,_TX_fsa.8b27276_edit--WikiPD-2

In his research for his mother’s memoirs and family history in general, RT has run across many amazing images. He offers one such discovery here, Dust Clouds and Car, by American photo-journalist Arthur Rothstein. It’s worth noting that RT’s mom was driven by her adoptive mother three times cross country from New York City to Lake Tahoe, starting in 1937. RT has yet to find an image that captures the dangers and mystery of the 1930s as effectively as this one does.

RT has also managed to watch Grand Hotel, a classic early Hollywood talkie. Another trick-up-his-sleeve: he has run across Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, one of the great surviving silent movies, and will be watching it in the next few days. Expect reviews of both films in these pages in the next week or so.

The 1930s and 40s are widely understood as an epochal period, and we’re very lucky to be able to experience these years through the best artistic efforts of the time.

Photo: Dust Clouds and Car, Texas Panhandle (1936). Arthur Rothstein, LOC. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Berlin, Thebes, and the Reemergence of the Muse

July 2, 2014 2 comments

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RT, as it turns out, has some German ancestry; his father was half German. Well, over the last little while, he has been revisiting an interest in Berlin the city, that is its architecture and street plan. Partly, RT thinks, his interest is due to the fact that one of his maternal ancestors was a builder in California, some of whose buildings still stand, partly to the role the city has played in European history, and partly to having recently seen the movie The Reader. But most of all, RT is intrigued by the way that Berlin has been rebuilding itself since the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited. So RT over the last two days has given himself a virtual tour of Berlin, mostly via–what else?–Wikipedia. He has learned lots about the city.

The question that emerged as RT made his Wiki tour had to do with appropriateness. How can architecture and city planning be used to reclaim Germany’s capital as a great city, in view of the terrible events of the Nazi era and the city’s long post-war division into eastern and western zones? How can ghostly memories be accommodated even as the city continues forward as an important part of the human community?

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One thing to bear in mind, of course, is that any human city has had terrible things happen within its boundaries. Though cities are rebuilt time and again as one generation after another inherits them, surviving architecture reminds us of the great (and sometimes awful) events that have taken place there (just think of Rome). To judge by the number of tourists that pass through, for instance, the Pantheon, the experience of being in a particular, ancient building is important to our sense of connection with the past: this place is still here, these things really happened. This sense of connection seems to be vital to maintaining a balanced sense of  life’s possibilities.

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Planning isn’t about outcomes; it’s about possibilities. It’s not a mandate or an edict, it’s the permission that a parent gives a child. When Cadmus , that slayer of dragons, founded Thebes, he followed a cow and marked out the city where the animal lay down. Other founders have suckled the milk of wolves or planted a tamarisk tree; these acts are resonant.

Foundations are multiple. They build on each other, and the city invites them. Cadmus never did find his sister, Europe, the original reason for his departure from Tyre. Then Plato exiled the poets from his Republic.

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What can we do but hold onto the things worth saving? Berlin has done a good job of that, it seems. RT will point out only the city’s compromise decision to reconstruct three facades of the old imperial palace and behind them build a modernist museum to contain art from Africa and other foreign cultures. Something new and brilliant has blown in on the winds of change.

As for the rest, RT will confine himself to remarking that there is something unmonumental about the reemerging Berlin. He will even go a step further, and say he detects a note of humor in some of the city’s recent architecture, as witness the new Chancellery. As we and the city learn to forgive, we will see more of this, a long-delayed, much needed healing. The poet with his horn, the muse with her flirtatious smile, may be seen once again outside the walls of a museum.   RT

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Photo: The Federal Chancellery, Berlin. Uploaded by Madden. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 BY-SA.

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Ah, Madrid!!!

RT never managed to visit Spain while his family was posted in France; the deal was that he got to go to Russia, and his younger brother visited Spain the following year. RT has always been satisfied with the trade-off.

But this marvelous early-modern view of Madrid makes him wonder. The seat of the Spanish government pretty much continuously since 1561, Madrid boasts an impressive inventory of architecture, museums, and Bohemian venues. And then there is the rest of Spain; RT at the moment wouldn’t mind spending a few days in Toledo, Spain’s “City of Three Cultures.”

RT has heard that an intense, spiritual beauty is to be found throughout the Iberian peninsula, in part the gift of a long, complex, and passionate history.

DrawingView of Madrid from the west, facing the Puerta de la Vega (1562). Artist: Anton van den Wyngaerde (called in Spain Antonio de las Viñas). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Karnak, Thebes, and the Hedjet

File:Karnakfrieze1.jpg

As May draws to a close, RT offers this photograph of a magnificent frieze at Karnak, the temple district of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world, and RT is beginning to suspect that Thebes played a primary role in the evolution of ancient Mediterranean religion.

In part, RT’s interest in Thebes is based on its frequent appearance in Greek myth, in part on the fact that the ancient crown of Upper Egypt, the Hedjet, looks remarkably like the crown worn by Baal, the chief god of ancient Phoenicia. Though Thebes was not the capital of pre-dynastic Upper Egypt, it was the administrative center of Upper Egypt under the Pharaohs (and is located not far from Nekhen, which was the capital of p-d Upper Egypt.) How did the epochal unification of Egypt (c. 3000 BC) under Narmer (or Menes), king of UE, affect developing religious beliefs?

Unfortunately, RT can say little at the moment about the significance of the scene recorded in the frieze, other than that it is located in the precinct of Amun-Re. A date and translation of the inscription would help greatly; there’s more research ahead for RT.

Photograph: Panorama of a frieze at Karnak. Author/Source: Bialonde. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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The Cherokee Phoenix–Never Say Die

February 21, 2014 3 comments

File:Cherokeephoenix-5-1828.png

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The Cherokee Phoenix, published from 1828 to 1836, was the first native-language newspaper published in the United States. Readers of this blog will remember that the Cherokee use a syllable script invented by Sequoyah in 1821.

Even a casual mention of the Cherokee Nation stirs memories of the Trail of Tears. But today, the CP publishes once more, this time online. Though the paper is now published in English, RT hopes that at some point in the not-too-distant future, a bi-lingual edition might make an appearance.

Sequoyah lives!!!

RT

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ImageCherokee Phoenix Newspaper front page May 21, 1828 (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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