Archive

Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

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…

*

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

*

Advertisements

Berlin, Thebes, and the Reemergence of the Muse

July 2, 2014 2 comments

«»

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?

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

*

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

*

 

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.

*

The Dholavira Signboard and Harappa

File:The 'Ten Indus Scripts' discovered near the northern gateway of the Dholavira citadel.jpg

Here it is, folks: the Dholavira Signboard, all ten symbols of it. What the heck is it trying to tell us?

The mystery surrounding the inscription, if that’s what it is, seems to RT to characterize the Harappan Civilization (mature phase, 2700-1800 B.C.) that produced it. Here we have an ancient polity larger than Mesopotamia, characterized by mud-brick cities, an emphasis on cleanliness and ritual baths, and wide-spread urban planning. It conducting trade with Sumer and presumably Sargon’s Empire, but nonetheless has offered up only a few tantalizing examples of its writing system and pretty much disappeared after centuries of existence, leaving no successor civilization behind. What happened?

RT first got interested in this puzzle because he’s convinced that the Indus River valley represents the sharpest, most significant cultural boundary in the ancient world. East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet got its start here. And sure enough, stark differences can be seen right at the beginnings of recorded history, starting with the fact that Mesopotamia produced a civilization devoted to its writing system, one that was practically drowning in written words and that continued to use cuneiform for a couple of millennia, while the Indus valley evidently possessed some kind of writing system, but one which faded away with the civilization that produced it. Following the disappearance of Harrapan society, writing did not reappear in the Indian subcontinent until the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. We must confront an astonishing fact: India went without a written script for more than a thousand years.

Or did it? We know that the Bramhi script used to record the Rig Veda and other early surviving Sanskrit manuscripts was written on highly perishable materials such as tree bark, so it conceivable that the same was true of the Harrapan writing. But why would the Indus valley adopt such perishable media when it knew of cuneiform written on clay tablets? RT confesses himself flabbergasted. Why were the Harappans so transitory?

Here is RT’s speculation about the Signboard. The Harappan writing system clocks in at about 400 characters, which indicates it probably was an ideograph-syllable script, like cuneiform. The graphic quality of the letters suggests a compromise between a script designed to be carved on stone and written on bark–that is, the characters are constructed of angular shapes softened by slight curves. The letterforms themselves evidently have little relationship to proto-cuneiform. This writing system appears to have developed independently of other scripts.

Then there is the matter of the “wheel-form” symbol which appears four times in the signboard. Forty percent of the inscription relies on a single concept, and not just any concept, but one which might well be connected to the wheel of Rebirth, that powerful concept in Indian religion, which today appears on the Indian Republic’s flag. Could this sign be the symbol for Harappan civilization? Could its concurrent star-like shape suggest the gods or heaven? How does it relate to the fifth symbol, the open diamond/ellipse?

We will have to wait to find out. With so few examples of the script to work from, linguists have not yet deciphered Harrapan writing or been able to identify the language that it recorded. We may never know, or a Harappan Rosetta Stone may turn up. In the meantime, excavation continues.

*

Inscription: Dholavira Signboard: User: Siyajkak. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported. Map: Maximum extent of Harappan Civilization. Author:  Rajesh Rao. WikiCmns. CC 3.0 Unported.

*

Coney Island and my Grandfather

January 14, 2014 4 comments

Coney_Island_beach_July4--CC2.0generic

*

Information can appear from unexpected sources. My grandfather the actor registered for the draft (WWI) in 1917 while he was performing in Montreal. He gave a Coney Island address near Mermaid Avenue; the building has apparently been torn down. The chronology I’m compiling of his life is spilling over onto page 5, with new plays being added at a fairly regular clip.

Just what was Coney Island all about? It appears to have had several incarnations: as a distant resort for New Yorkers in the mid-19th century, then as a day trip once NYC transit arrived at the end of the century, then as the amusement park/area in the 1920s…and then into decline after the WWII…and now reviving again with a stadium for minor-league baseball (don’t quote me on all that, but i think it’s more or less correct).

Which was the Coney Island that my grandfather knew? Why did he choose to live there? Was he, in his mid-20s, in possession of sufficient cash to be able to send money home to his mother, as he claimed on his draft card (“supporting mother”)? To that last question, given his steady work and good reviews, RT is inclined to answer, yes.

And by the by, just exactly what did actors get paid in say, 1915?

Stay tuned for more…  RT

*

PhotoBeach patronage on Coney Island, New York on Fourth of July 2006. Author: Jaime Haire. WikiCmns. CC 2.0 Generic. 

*

Federal Subjects of Russia

October 23, 2013 Leave a comment

File:Russian Regions-EN.svg

*

and, on a totally unrelated note, here is a map of Russia’s component provinces and republics. A demographically and politically complex country…   RT

*

Map: Federal Subjects of Russia; author: Luís Flávio Loureiro dos Santos. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.

*

Douglas Street Bridge

October 19, 2013 2 comments

File:Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge 1938 LOC 11763u.jpg

After doing some research, RT is pretty certain that his mother traveled over this bridge into Omaha when her mother took her cross-country to Lake Tahoe in 1938. The story is part of A Daughter’s Song and Dance, his mom’s memoir of her childhood years. (RT has been working on Chapter 3, which relates the cross-country trek).

A great photo…   RT

*

PhotoThe Ak-sar-ben toll bridge (A.K.A., the Douglas Street Bridge) between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska in 1938. Farm Security Administration. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

*