Friday, April 19, 2019

Three magnificent unknown state-of-the-art discoveries

The Moscow Metro is Josef Stalin's nunderground fine arts museum -- Metro_MSK_Line5_Novoslobodskaya
(Photo: Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov -- Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

EUROPE  — Stroll around any city in the world and if you see something appealing go in and check it out. You might be surprised at what you find.

Europe, in particular, is filled with such treasures that can pop up in the most unlikely places. Here are three great examples.

Entrance hall to Zurich, Switzerland's main police station, designed by Augusto Giacometti (Courtesy: Switerland Tourism)

Blüemlihalle (flower hall), Zurich: It's difficult to dispute that the world's most beautiful police station entrance hall can be found in Zurich, Switzerland.

When the city's municipal architect, Gustav Gull, was given the assignment to convert an orphanage into a building that would house the city police station, he preserved the vaulted ceiling of the former cellar. In order to save space, he transformed into the entrance hall.

At first, light was a problem
(Courtesy: Switzerland Tourism)
Despite the architectural splendor of the site, lighting conditions turned out to be an unanticipated problem. Enter Augusto Giacometti, a distant relation to the internationally famous Giacometti family of artists from Val Bregaglia.

Accepting a commission from Gull, Giacometti took up the challenge to create a more vibrant environment between 1923 and 1925.

Giacometti wanted warm floral
(Courtesy: Switzerland
Using warm colors to create floral images, the result of Giacometti's inspiration has become a national treasure. The masterpiece, is today known to locals as the "Blüemlihalle" thanks to its majestic array of botanical depictions.

Augusto Giacometti is perhaps best known for the choral windows in the Grossmuster (1933) as well as the Fraumunster's stained glass window (1945) but the police station is unique.

The flower hall is located on Bahnhofquai in Zurich near the train station and is open to the public  (Courtesy: Switzerland Tourism)
Located on Bahnhofquai in Zurich, the flower hall is open to the public daily from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.

Of course, the other option is to get yourself arrested.

Many of Moscow's metro stations are art museums in their own right  (Photo: Punxutawneyphil and the architects Л. В. Лилье, В. А. Литвинов, М. Ф. Марковский, В. М. Доброковский -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Moscow Metro, Russia: It's a good bet you never thought a subway would be an artistic and architectural museum, but it's one you would lose.

During the Depression, Russia's Josef Stalin decided to impress the world with his country’s technology, industrialization and art by demonstrating the superiority of socialism.

The metro was Stalin's canvas
(Photo: Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov -
licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution-Share
Alike 4.0 International license)
The Moscow metro became Stalin's canvas and by incorporating elegant chandeliers, friezes, marble archways, bronze statues, stained glass windows and bas-reliefs, each metro station became unique.

The earliest stations are perhaps the most ornate and eclectic because of the intensity with which Stalin sought completion. Among the artistic depictions are representations featuring particularly Soviet cultural themes such as sports, industry, agriculture, history and, of course, the Revolution.

Mayakovskaya Metro Station, Moscow  (Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissenlicensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Stalin called his stations “people’s palaces” due to their elaborate artistic and architectural designs.  As the largest civilian construction project in the history of the USSR, the first 13 stations, which opened in 1935, are the primary locations to visit because of Stalin's personal commitment.

Among the most beautiful, and perhaps the most famous, is Mayakovskaya which opened in 1938. Dedicated to the Russian poet Vladimir Maykovsky, it is one of the deepest stations in the city because it was also designed for use as a bomb shelter.
Stalin's "People Palaces"
(Photo:  A.Savin --Wikimedia Commons

Believe it or not, another metro system, called Metro 2, was created beneath the one being used today as an escape route for high government officials.

Once the project was halted, stations became more functional and traditional, so do not expect to see a "museum" at every stop.

Though many stations are magnificent, rolling stock can be quite old, so do not expect stations to be quiet.

The best time to ride without crowds is between noon and 2 p.m. and be alert for pick-pockets.

The Church of Santa Maria Novella is in a piazza near the
(Photo: Jebulon -- available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)
Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella. Florence: On a quiet street, far from the madding crowds in the center of Florence, Italy, a tiny piece of heaven nestles hidden among the myriad of buildings that line the avenue.

Farmacia Santa Maria Novella is medicine for the soul
(Photo: Sailko -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Even when translated OfficinaProfumo, offers little description for non-Italian speaking travelers because the words “Office of Perfume” don’t even begin to do it justice.

Officina Profumo, is one of the world’s oldest pharmacies dating to the year 1221. Founded by Dominican friars who began making herbal remedies and perfumes for their monastery nearly, it took 400 years for the pharmacy to gain international public recognition.

Thanks to the sponsorship of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1612, the world learned about Santa Maria Novella’s vast range of products. Even today the potpourri is popular around the globe and continues to be produced in huge terra cotta vats using traditional essences and plants that are the same as those in the 13th century.

Like its name, and its reputation, Officina Profumo must be sought after to be enjoyed. Even when you know the address at Via della Scala 16, it's easy to walk past it if you are not observant. In fact, you may even be standing at the front door and not realize you are there.

Peer through the windows to view a long, dark corridor that gives the illusion of emptiness even when the pharmacy is open for business.

Be bold. Enter and make your way down the dimly lit hallway that suddenly reveals itself into the Sistine Chapel of Perfume.  
Officina Profumo is an 800 year old Italian (Photo: Sailko -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)"soap opera"
Each Officina Profumo product has a story, and there are many. The precious Acqua della Regina perfume, for example, was originally created for Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France in the 1500s. Known as “Water of the Queen”, Catherine made it popular throughout France. 

Nearly 300 years later, it become the first “Eau de Cologne” in history when Giovanni Feminis took it, and the recipe, with him to Cologne, Germany and renamed it “Acqua di Cologne” in tribute to the city where it was produced.

No matter. The original formula from the days of Catherine de Medici was preserved, and if you simply purchase a product called “Santa Maria Novella” you will be buying the pharmacy’s signature fragrance.

Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is not to be rushed. You are surrounded by soaps, balms, medications, perfumes and aromas all magnificently displayed beneath Renaissance arches and frescoed ceilings. You have entered a pharmacy of the soul.

You see, Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella is proof positive that sometimes traveling just makes good "scents."


Friday, April 12, 2019

The miraculous story of the Ghent Altarpiece

The stunningly beautiful Ghent Altarpiece is the most stolen major work of art in history, yet somehow it survives
(Photo: Public Domain)
GHENT, BELGIUM — In the 2014 film The Monuments Men, George Clooney claims the Ghent Altarpiece is the most important work of art in the Western tradition.

Clooney's passion for the recovery of stolen art masterpieces by the Germans during World War II may have been exaggerated but his point is well taken.

The Altarpiece story
unfolds through panels
*Photo: Public Domain)
While the Ghent Altarpiece may not rank number one, it is certainly among the most important recoveries and its story is nothing short of miraculous. In that sense, it may have been the greatest artistic rescue mission in history.

Displayed today in the Cathedral of St. Bavo's in Ghent, Belgium, the fifteenth-century collaborative masterpiece of the brothers van Eyck, Jan and Hubert, comes, as one writer put it "close in spirit to the 1970s theatrical...rock opera...Jesus Christ Superstar."

The story begins in 1426, when the mayor of Ghent Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lybette commissioned the work as part of a larger project for the St Bavo's Cathedral chapel.

Man in Turban -- Jan van
Eyck self-portrait
(Photo: Public Domain)

In general, most art historians agree the overall design of the altarpiece was created by Hubert in the mid-1420s, while most of the panel paintings were completed by younger brother Jan between 1430 and 1432.

Hubert died in 1426 however, leaving some debate as to how much he was able to contribute to the project.

Further adding to the mystery, is a now lost Latin inscription  written by Hubert van Eyck on one of the frames. The phrase maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) states that Hubert started the altarpiece, but that Jan -- labeled himself arte secundus (second best in the art) -- completed it in 1432.

Lt. Daniel J. Kern and German conservator Karl Sieber examining Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (Photo: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

The design is organized in two vertical registers with each containing double sets of fold-out wings featuring inner and outer panels. In a sense, the altarpiece represents an artistic storybook depiction of the Bible.

Other than the art itself, the remarkable history of the
altarpiece is that though it is the most stolen painting in the world, it survives nearly intact today
Throughout the decades, the 12 panels have been threatened by destruction from heretics and suffered damage by fire. 

During various wars over the centuries, some of the panels were sold while others were stolen. Additionally, many of the frames were captured by German forces during World War I, yet somehow managed to find their way back to St. Bavo's Cathedral.

The Three Marys bt Hubert van
Eyck  (Photo: Public Domain)
In 1934 two panels, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist, were stolen. In an extortion effort, Saint John the Baptist was returned provided a large ransom would be paid for the other painting.

To this day,  The Just Judges panel has never been recovered and remains the only missing frame in the display. Situated in the lower left hand corner of the altarpiece as you face it, a reproduction currently takes its place.

Neuschwanstein was one of
the first storage places
(Photo: Taylor)
In 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the painting to be seized and brought to Germany to be hidden in King Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. When Allied air raids made the castle too dangerous for the painting, it was moved to a salt mine in the region where corrosive elements took control that greatly damaged the paint and vanish.

Given the number of times the altarpiece has been disassembled over the centuries, there remains a certain amount of conjecture as to whether the current display of  panels has been reconfigured in their original positions.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is the focal point if the
Ghent Altarpiece  (Photo: Public Domain)
If nothing else, the Ghent Altarpiece, is revelatory which, in a way, is a visual biblical pun of divine "revelation." When closed, its message is compact and easier to delineate, yet when opened it becomes, as one expert observer put it, "a visual moveable feast."

In its opened format, the work is a biblical travelogue of the prophets on foot, princes on horseback, saints, martyrs and angels who are depicted in the dynamically colored focal point of the painting known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb depicts symbolic images of the life of Christ with Jerusalem in the background
(Photo: Public Domain)
It is virtually impossible to discus every element of the central painting of the altarpiece in a mere 1,000 words, much less to analyze the remaining 11 panels.

Suffice it to say, the key panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, depicts a large meadow, dotted with flowers at the center of which are two primary structures; the foreground has a lovely octagonal stone fountain, with a tall central pedestal from which flows multiple cascades of water, while the background, on a direct axis with the fountain, is an altar with a lamb standing on it.

The altarpiece is a
masterpiece of light
(Photo: Public Domain) 
The lamb has a dual meaning. First it represents a symbol of Christ and his death as the sacrificial lamb, but it also marks the equivalence of the crucifixion which is emphasized by the positioning of the lamb with the cross held by an angel.

Two significant aspects of the painting should not be overlooked. First, van Eyck pays as much attention to the beauty of earthly things as religious themes. Clothing and jewelry, the natural surroundings, the churches and landscape in the background are painted with remarkable detail.

Secondly, light and lighting are among the major innovations of the altarpiece. Several panels contain complex light effects and subtle plays of shadow found especially in reflections such as the ripples of water in the Fountain of Life depicted in the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

The city of Ghent is home to the altarpiece
(Courtesy: Visit Ghent)
In that regard, the Ghent Altarpiece represents a glorious explosion of light which is also symbolic of Christ as the "light of the world."

It is well known that Jan, who was the far more famous of the two brothers, was an exquisite painter of miniatures while working for the Dukes of Burgundy. Thus. there are many aspects of the work that are consistent with the detail work of such an artist, but there are some important differences too, not the least of which is scale. The relatively large size of the panels pushed Jan to new heights as a virtuoso in mastering the painting of light.

The story of the Ghent Altarpiece is filled with intrigue amid the rich texture of history and art. It is, indeed, a "tale of two brothers" that is a monument to the greatness of man's creativity.

Friday, April 5, 2019

April in Italy is "enchanting"

Italy burnishes the spirit with its earth-tones and sense of timelessness
(Picture: Thomas Cole -- Public Domain) 

ITALY — As April unfolds with its promises of seasonal rebirth, Italy emerges from its brief winter slumber and erupts into an explosion of spring.

Italy is the perfect blend of earth,
sea and sky ( Photo: Taylor)
Author and poet Erica Jong once described Italy as "one of the few places that tolerates human nature with all its faults.  Italy is the past, but it is also the future.  It is pagan, but it is also Christian and Jewish.  It is grand and tawdry, imperishable and decay.  And it is still, for all its layers of musty history, a place that enhances existence, burnishes the moment.”

In 1922, British novelist Elizabeth von Amin expressed similar thoughts in more detail in a book inspired by her month-long holiday in the Italian Riviera.

Italy is a garden (Photo: Taylor)
Many critics say The Enchanted April is von Amin's best work. Whether or not that is true is of little consequence because the author's greatest contribution to literature was capturing the true essence of Italy.

The Enchanted April tells the story of four unhappy British women with dissimilar backgrounds who decide to share expenses to escape the dreary, cold, dampness of England in order to bask in the sunshine of Italy.
Shimmering Tyrrhenian Sea (Photo: Taylor)

Two of the women, Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins, who belong to the same ladies' club but have never spoken to each other,  simultaneously read an ad in a London newspaper that offers to rent a small furnished medieval castle for the month of April.

Both women, who are seeking a break from unhappy marriages, come together and decide to find two other female companions to help defray expenses. After interviewing various candidates, the newly formed  partnership reluctantly adds an elderly curmudgeon named  Mrs. Fisher and a beautiful, self-centered loner who seeks privacy from the advances of male suitors, Lady Caroline Dester.

The 15th century Castello Brown was the set location for the movie Enchanted April  (Photo: Randreu -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.)

Set in the 15th century Castello Brown, which became the set for the 1991 film version of the novel, the charming story begins as a comedy of errors that is gradually transformed by the rejuvenating "pixie dust" charm of Italy's magic.

Mosaic artifact  (Photo: Taylor)

Von Anim described it this way through the observations of Lottie Wilkins:

"All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered at her feet.  The sun poured in on her.  The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.  She stared.  Such beauty; and she there to see it."

Original Roman sign dates to he time of Augustus Caesar
(Photo: Taylor)

As the story progresses, so too do the personalities of its characters who become transfixed by the healing power of their surroundings. Each woman, in her own way, is in the process of rediscovering love. Again, Lottie Wilkins:

"Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her.  A tiny breeze lifted her hair.  How beautiful, how beautiful.  Not to have died before this…to have been allowed to see, to breathe, feel this…What could one say, how could one describe it?"

No other country has been more written about than Italy. It's captivating ambiance washes over you like some grand elixir of life. Erica Jong discovered that “The seven deadly sins seem somewhat less deadly in Italy; the Ten Commandments slightly more malleable.  This is a country that not only accepts contradictions; it positively encourages them.”

Even hotel interiors are works of art  (Courtesy: Hotel Palumbo)

To which Elizabeth von Anim concurs through her main character, Lottie Wilkins:

"According to everybody she had ever come across she ought to at least have twinges.  She had not one twinge.  Something was wrong somewhere.  Wonderful that at home she could have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented.  Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish."

Typical Italian scene (Photo: Taylor)

From the moment visitors cross the border into Italy, no matter from what direction, there is a spirit of human freedom that overtakes them and presents the world for all of its faults and scars in a showcase of natural optimism that unleashes inhibitions.

Italy has its own style of
hedonism and decadence

Lottie Wilkins:

"Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.  She was naked of goodness, and rejoicing in being naked.  She was stripped.”

The intangible magic of Italy has been sought after by writers, poets and musicians for centuries. Everyone knows what it is, yet no one can quite seem to harness its energy.

As Erica Jong observes, “What do we find in Italy that can be found nowhere else?  I believe it is a certain permission to be human that other countries lost long ago.”

In the end, the early depression and sadness is washed away like an outgoing tide to bring about renewed joy and anticipation of life. So much so, in fact,  that George H.W. Bush watched the film to cheer himself up after losing the presidential election in 1992.

At the end of the day, there is nothing better than a glass of Chianti  (Courtesy:

April is with us. Elizabeth von Anim realized it a century ago and captured the essence of Italy in a glorious literary symphony. Don't try to analyze it. Just accept it as Ms. von Anim did in nine simple words, “Beauty made you love, and love made you beautiful.” 

That's Italy. That's Amore.