Saturday, 30 March 2013

"the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery" - Francisco de Goya

"Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels." (Francisco de Goya)

30 March 1746: Today, 267 years ago, Francisco de Goya was born in Fuendetodos in Aragón. The Spanish painter and printmaker was a wanderer between the worlds, an old master as well as a modern, a court painter who had the nerve to paint the king and his family  like "the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery" (Théophile Gautier), as well as illustrating still lifes, bull fights and spiritual as well as physical abysses.

Francisco de Goya: “Charles IV of Spain and His Family” (1800)

When the corrupt monarchy in Spain fell, political turmoil and finally Napoleon's invasion of Spain and the Peninsular War followed, Goya became a chronicler of the atrocities of the age with a series of deeply unsettling paintings and prints.

After the restauration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, Goya, like many guerilleros, freedom fighters and liberals, fell out of favour and had to spent the last years of his life depicting his inner life, his demons and the perception of his late years.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

By Jingo! - The Outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854

"Well, here we are, the French and ourselves, at war with Russia, in order to protect Turkey. Ve-ry good. What shall we do, then? Better attack Russia, eh? H'm, yes. (Pause). Big place, ain't it?“ (George MacDonald Fraser, "Flashman at the Charge")

27 March 1854, France and Great Britain declared war on the Russian Empire over spheres of influence in the Balkan territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

A contemporary cartoon from "Punch" - "The Queen visiting the imbeciles of the Crimea", labelled "Medical Treatment", "Routine" and "Commissariat", i.e. the distribution of supplies and provisions to the troops.

The "Russian War", as the British called it, or "Eastern War" in Russian usage, became later known as the "Crimean War", since most of the conflict took place on the Crimean Peninsula and was a failed theatre general rehearsal of modern warfare with a cost of life of more than 500.000 fighting men and civilians during three years of conflict.

While the Royal Navy stood the test rather well, the Western European armies, despite unrest and revolutions abundant on the continent, hadn't actually fired a shot in anger since Napoleon surrendered at Waterloo 40 years before, let alone organised a campaign that spanned the whole of Europe from Portsmouth, London and Toulon to the Black Sea or adapted to technological innovation since 1815.

What followed bordered on a humanitarian disaster in medical treatment of injured and sick soldiers, leading to the emergence of modern nursing practises - not only on the battlefield - by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole and showed the complete incompetence of the British and French General Staff in almost every action, from logistics to the fatal orders Lord Raglan gave when he murdered the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854.

The Crimean War also marks the beginning of modern war reporting by the press, when Billy Russel's (The Times) articles reached London on a daily basis via telegraph and especially Roger Fenton's documentation via photographs.

What saved the Allies was the simply incredible discipline, bravery and skill of the common soldier, petty officers and junior officer ranks and that the Russian commanders were equally unorganised and clueless.

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Monday, 25 March 2013

"Where Venice sate in state"

"I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; A palace and a prison on each hand; I saw from out the wave of her structure's rise As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand: A thousand years their cloudy wings expand Around me, and a dying Glory smiles O'er the far times, when many a subject land Look'd to the winged Lion's marble pines, Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles." (Lord Byron, "Childe Harold" IV,1)

25 March 421: Today, 1.592 years ago at noon, "La Serenissima", the City of Venice, was founded with the dedication of San Giacomo at the islet of Rialto.

What began as a settlement of incolae lacunae ("lagoon dwellers"), refugees from the Migration Period when the Western Roman Empire fell, naming the place after the ancient Veneti led there, according to Livy by the Trojan Antenor, became an increasingly independent Byzantine outpost, a thorn in the flesh of the Lombardic and Frankish kingdoms in Italy, until the mighty merchant families decided, they'd fare better without neither Holy Roman nor Byzantine emperors as the maritime Republic of Venice.

Venice became a dominant naval power, an immensely rich thalassocracy that soon outstripped Constantinople itself until the Age of Discovery shifted Europe's focus away from Mediterranean trade.

However, see Venice and die, as the old saying goes, the "Queen of the Adriatic", the City of Masks and Bridges and Canals and whatnot had become an inspiration all by itself, a cultural breeding place with few equals, with its architecture, customs and the artists Venice bred and the multitudes it inspired.

The painting above is J.M.W. Turner's view of Venice from the Canale della Giudecca (1840).

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Sunday, 24 March 2013

I saw him -- in his golden prime, / Of good Haroun Alraschid

"Thereon, his deep eye laughter-stirr'd / With merriment of kingly pride, / Sole star of all that place and time, / I saw him -- in his golden prime, / Of good Haroun Alraschid." (Alfred Tennyson, "Recollections Of The Arabian Nights")

24 March 809: Today, 1.204 years ago, Caliph Harun al-Rashid died in Tus in Transoxania at the back of beyond of his vast empire.

Harun is probably the best known Caliph in the West, at least by name, since the early Middle Ages, when he received an embassy from Charlemagne in 799 and sent back magnificent gifts back to the Franks, the famous elephant Abul-Abbas among them.

Even though the Abbasid Caliphate was at the height of its power during his reign, Harun al-Rashid's legacy is not uncontroversial by far in the Islamic world, the West remembers him as wise and resourceful ruler though, roaming through the streets and taverns of nightly Baghdad in disguise to get first hand information about his subjects' sensitivities.

Thus, during the 19th and early 20th century literary reception, Harun al-Rashid became synonymous with a wise, generous and fabulously rich Islamic fairytale ruler, from Burton's translation of "One Thousand and One Nights" to Longfellow, Joyce and Yeats.

The painting above is a Romantic fantasy depicting the reception of Charlemagne's embassy at Harun al-Rashid's court (Julius Köckert, 1864)

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Saturday, 23 March 2013

Art Deco fantasies - Sir Arthur Evans and the Palace of Knossos

"So Daedalus designed his winding maze / And as one entered it, only a wary mind / Could find an exit to the world again --- Such was the cleverness of that strange arbour." (Ovid, Metamorphoses)

23 March 1900: Today, 113 years ago, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began his excavation of the lost Minoan Palace of Knossos 5 miles south of Heraklion
on the island of Crete, allegedly on a flower-covered hill.

Evans was 49 years old when he started the excavation that occupied him for the next 35 years and earned him the knighthood in 1911 and even went one better than to settle for his undeniable merits as archaeologist and tried to reconstruct the ruins of the palace - in a quite controversial manner, a pure 1920s Art Deco fantasy, as some claim while others hold them to look quite true to the original.

The palace's hundreds of chambers might have inspired the legend that the mythical polymath Daedalus constructed the place as the labyrinth where King Minos, the namesake of the Minoan civilisation, kept the minotaur, half man, half bull, fathered upon Minos' queen Pasiphaë by a bull sacred to Poseidon she had fallen madly in love with.

The picture above shows a part of the reconstruction of the palace facade by Evans, together with a bull fresco. The bull was indeed a sacred animal in ancient Crete, featuring in sacred, but bloodless bull fights. Picture found on:

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

"For Brutus is an honourable man"

"... they began to consider of Caesar's will, and the ordering of his funeral. Antony desired that the will might be read, and that the body should not have a private or dishonourable interment, lest that should further exasperate the people. This Cassius violently opposed, but Brutus yielded to it, and gave leave; in which he seems to have a second time committed a fault. For as before in sparing the life of Antony he could not be without some blame from his party, as thereby setting up against the conspiracy a dangerous and difficult enemy, so now, in suffering him to have the ordering of the funeral, he fell into a total and irrevocable error." (Plutarch, "Marcus Brutus", translated by John Dryden)

20 March 44 BCE: Today, 2057 years ago and five days after the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, the funeral rites for the dictator began and Marc Antony gave his famous speech that Shakespeare immortalised as one of the most gripping orations in history.

Marlon Brando as marc Antony in MGM's film adaption of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" from 1953, giving the famous speech from Act III Scene II

Marc Antony had brought the Plebs of Rome already to his side when the crowd gathered on the forum around a miniature replica of Venus Genetrix' (allegedly Caesar's ancestor) temple wherein the dictator's bloodied toga had been laid out. As Plutarch records, Marc Antony first read Caesar's will and let the crowd know about the 75 Drachma to be paid to every man jack and his gardens to be left to the people, than, as Caesar's body was carried to the forum, Caesar's old general who turned master orator held up the blood-stained garment and pointed out "the many places in which it had been pierced and Caesar wounded"- the gathered crowd went riot.

The crowd seized the body, plundered the surrounding shops and staked their self-made funeral pyre on the forum from the debris. Then, half-burned brands were grabbed and the plebs marched to burn the homes of the conspirators. The Wars of the Second Triumvirate had begun.

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Tuesday, 19 March 2013

"missionary, traveler, philanthropist" - David Livingstone's 200th birthday in 2013

"And if my disclosures regarding the terrible Ujijian slavery should lead to the suppression of the East Coast slave trade, I shall regard that as a greater matter by far than the discovery of all the Nile sources together."  (Livingstone in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald)

19 March 1813 - Today, 200 years ago, David Livingstone, "missionary, traveler, philanthropist"  - as the marker in Westminster Abbey reads - was born in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

"Dr Livingstone, I presume?"

Livingstone spent 25 years of his life exploring in East and Central Africa, from the northern fringes of the Kalahari to the Victoria Falls of the Zambezi he discovered, Lake Tanganyika and the source of the Congo River. He never reached one of the great mid-19th century mysteries, the source of the River Nile though. He abandoned the search on the banks of the Lualaba River when he witnessed the massacre of a village by Arab slavers in July 1871.

But his actual aim was never to make actual discoveries anyway, but to spread the gospel and fight slavery in Eastern Africa and set a good example in the treatment of native members of his expeditions, in contrast to worthies like Morton Stanley whom he famously met while presumed lost in November 1871.

And while his explorations and setting up of his missions and mission schools as well as furthering agriculture and cotton production opened up Central Africa for European colonisation in the second half of 19th and early 20th century, the same institutions were centrepieces in inspiring the process of decolonisation.