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Monday, February 29, 2016

Chocolate Art

All chocolate, all competition winners
Ergonomic chocolate
I am sitting here before my desktop keyboard at the moment eating a square of Lindl 70% dark chocolate. It's not candy, It's chocolate, and it's even said to be good for me. Scientists say dark chocolate contains flavonoids which are instrumental in reduc-ing the likelihood of my devel-oping certain types of cancers. Sounds good to me. However, from what I've read, the medical jury is still out on that. More research needs to be done. Where do I volunteer? It would appear, according to the photo at left, that as soon as I finish typing this, I could also eat my keyboard (with a game controller for des-sert).

Roasted Cocoa Beans
A Chocolate Jester
Chocolate has been prepared as a drink for nearly all of its history. One ceramic item found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico, dates chocolate's preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC. By the 15th century, the Aztecs controlled a large part of Central America adopting cacao into their culture. They associated chocolate with Quetzalcoatl, who, according to legend, was ostracized by the other gods for sharing chocolate with humans. The Aztecs valued cacao beans so much they often used it as a form of money. A turkey cost 100 cacao beans while an avocado was worth three beans. The Spanish may have encountered the cacao bean as early as Columbus' fourth voyage though it wasn't until they took it home and added sugar or honey to counteract its natural bitterness that chocolate began to catch on. The chocolate habit made its way from Spain to Austria and within a hundred years, was prevalent in its various forms throughout most of Europe.

Chocolate candy and the telephone came along about the same time,
but the first chocolate telephone had to wait a century or so.
Chocolate Sculpture by Mandrak
An unfortunate result of this growth in popularity was its hastening of the slave trade in the Americas as cacao plantations sprang up amid the tropical jungles. Producing cacao was a very labor intensive enterprise. Then in 1815, a Dutch chemist introduced alkaline salts to chocolate, which reduced its bitterness. A few years later he created a press to remove about half the natural cocoa butter fat from chocolate liquor, which made chocolate both cheaper to produce and more consistent in quality. This innovation had much to do with why Dutch chocolate is so highly regarded to this day. For the first time chocolate took on the solid form used in sculpting. By 1875, Henri Nestle had invented powdered milk, which he added to the chocolate liquor to create milk chocolate. Cadbury was manufacturing boxed chocolates in England by 1868. Milton C. Hershey purchased their technology and introduced chocolate candies to the U.S. around 1893.

A chocolate sculpture tableau in progress. Notice the missing hand and arms. These are mostly carved except for the repetitious clothing decorations. Virtually all chocolate sculptures of any size or complexity are assembled from separately created units.
A Statue of liberty, 1986
version--tthirteen feet tall,
2.5 tons of chocolate.
As an art medium, chocolate comes in two basic colors, white (without any cocoa solids), and dark, which contains alkaloids such as theobromine and phenethylamine (both of which can be fatal for pets). Sweet chocolate is produced by adding fat and sugar to the cacao mixture leaving as little as a 15% concentration of chocolate liquor. The Europeans require a minimum of 35% cocoa solids. Semisweet chocolate is a dark chocolate with a low sugar content. Bittersweet chocolate is usually about one-third sugar with, more cocoa butter, vanilla, and sometimes lecithin added. Though more expensive than other types of chocolate, bittersweet (or unsweetened) is the preferred medium for artist choosing to carve their chocolate creations (it's denser and thus more stable). Although chocolate is most typically cast into sculptural shapes using molds, insofar as I'm concerned, that's manufacturing rather than sculpting. Typically, artists use molded chocolate when they need to attached repeated shapes to their work. The chocolate Statue of Liberty (above, left) was cast from a scaled down mold (intended for clay) created by the original sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi himself.

Virtually any common, everyday item can be replicated in chocolate. These "pumps" were likely made using molds, their decorations applied by hand using stencils.
Chocolate Eagle
Chocolate is not archival. There is no way to preserve a chocolate sculpture for more than a few months. And if it is to be consumed, anything more than a few days results in a layer of dust settling over the surface, making it, if not inedible, at least distasteful. Therefore, despite all the work, exhibitions of chocolate sculptures are usually quite short, seldom more than a few days. Moreover such works are also prone to breaking and melting unless adequate, and often quite extensive precautions are taken. For that reason, chocolate sculptors are a competitive lot, often going to extreme lengths to outdo one another and attract headlines (and most of all photos) publicizing their work. That was certainly foremost in the mind of Karl Lagerfeld and chocolatier Patrick Roger when they used 10.5 tons of chocolate to create an entire hotel room complete with a semi-nude guest relaxing in his "tighty-whities" (below). The installation was sponsored by an ice cream company.

Chocolate Hotel Room, Karl Lagerfeld and Patrick Roger
Some critics scorned the colossal "waste" of chocolate, not to mention the questionable taste involved in consuming chocolate coated ice cream confections in bed. Yet this piece is relative sedate compared to Death by Chocolate (below) depicting a dismembered human body, its entrails, sickeningly splattered across the display surface. While it may be creative, and certainly daring in concept, (whether rendered in chocolate or some other medium), such work also forces the question as to whether there may be some content areas which simply should not be explored under the guise of art. Human roadkill, to my way of thinking, would certainly come under that heading.

Death by Chocolate. Going too far?
White Chocolate Sandstorm, chocolate as a painting medium.
(Only the painting uses chocolate.)

For real chocolate art lovers.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Carel Weight

The Coronation Procession Returning to Buckingham Palace, 1953, Carel Weight.
Few Americans know what it's like to live through a war which threatens the very survival of their nation. Yet it's happening today, in places like Syria, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan and the Ukraine (to name just a few). It's been 150 years since the American Civil War. And even during the worst years of WW II, the survival of the United States of America was never in doubt. However, at various points in time, nearly every country in Europe was so threatened. All survived. None remained unscathed. As horrifying as wartime encounters are, they also strengthen the moral fiber of those who survive, not without scars, but with a new appreciation for their culture, lifestyle, system of government, and the abiding freedoms for which they so desperately fought. Art has long been used by governments as a means of spreading these intensely felt, patriotic elements to succeeding generations. Art also serves to remind those of us, who have been fortunate enough to escape such horrors, of what might have been and what could be. The British government in particular was exceptionally cognizant of how valuable the work of artists could be in this regard. During both world wars, they had a small legion of artists, at home and on the fronts, charged with capturing on paper and canvas some semblance of their very real struggle to survive, and the immense price paid by military and civilians alike in winning the war. Carel Weight was one of these artists.

Tolstoy wrote War and Peace. Weight painted the British version.
Evening Walk, Hampstead Heath, Carel Weight
Carel Weight was born in 1908 to middle class, working parents. He grew up in the Paddington section of central London. The rough treatment he experienced at school and the squalor which his classmates endured had a profound effect on his later work. Weight joined the Hammersmith School of Art in 1926 before continuing his education at Goldsmiths under artists such as Gardiner, Mansbridge, and Kokoshka. Weight's first exhibition came in 1933 and was well received. When war came in 1945 Carel was very briefly recruited for active duty before Kenneth Clerk helped him gain an appointment as a war artist. He produced images of the war in London, Greece, Italy and Austria. Whether at home or abroad, Weight's paintings usually depicted suburban settings in which unexpected human dramas occurred, some humorous, some frightening. In each case the painting's location was chosen specifically for its abstract structure. The people grew from the artist's imagination.

Weight was briefly destined for combat and apparently went through British army basic training. How else could he have later captured the experience so accurately?
Ponte Vecchio, Florence, 1944, Carel Weight
During the war, Weight seems to have spent a great deal of time following the British army north, up across the "boot" of Italy, judging by the number of paintings documenting the wartime destruction in cities such as Rome, Pisa, Verona, Florence, and several smaller towns along the way. One of his scenes from Florence, a painting not of the city's famous Ponte Vecchio, but from it, (right) bears witness to the creative impulses so dominant in Weight's work despite the restrictions and difficulties to be encountered paint-ing a war in a foreign country. His painting Between Two Fires: A Dream (below) depicts St. Peter's Square, provideing a rarely seen viewpoint of a city largely spared from wartime destruction.

Between Two Fires: a Dream (St. Peter's, Rome), 1956, Carel Weight
As impressive as Weight's foreign service work as a war artists may be, his paintings of the intense, prolonged, firebombing of London during the Blitz captures not just the random destruction of large city neighborhoods, but the terror endured by the residence of the city as the war blasted its way into their homes, businesses, and workplaces, leaving them with scars as much psychological as physical.

Along with the horrors of war, there was humor too. Weight painted four piece series detailing the trials and tribulations of trying to recapture a Zebra which escaped from the London Zoo during a bombing raid (below). Animals try to escape the terrors of war just like humans.

In 1947, following the war, Weight began teaching at the Royal College of Art, where he served as a professor of painting from 1957 until his retirement in 1973. Weight's 1952 painting,The Coronation Procession Returning to Buckingham Palace (top) captures the immense pride, pomp, and circumstance of a nation in crowning a new queen, Elizabeth II. Even in peace time, no nation is without tragedy. Weight's The Battersea Park Tragedy (below) depicts the 1970 fire which took place at the London amusement park. A rollercoaster accident in 1974 resulted in the deaths of five children permanently closed the Fun Fair section of the park.

The Battersea Park Tragedy, 1970, Carel Weight.
Notice the "angel of death" in the upper-right section of the painting.
In 1962 Weight was appointed to The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the arts and sciences, his work with charitable and welfare organizations, and his public service outside the Civil Service. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1965, and became a senior R.A. in 1984. His work is owned by the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Weight's most important post-war commission came in 1963 in the form of a painting over the entrance to the chapter house of the Manchester Cathedral. Titled Christ and the People (below) the mural painting, using acrylics and oils on stone, is done in such a way that it appears at first glance to be a stained glass window. Weight died in 1997 at the age of 88.

Allegro Strepitoso, 1932, Carel Weight


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Victorian Interiors

Victorian--heavy, dark wood, dark upholstery (often red) and an excess of machine-carved details.
About a month ago I penned the second of several posts having to do with the historic development of interior design in the United States. I moved from Colonial to Early American in the first two items and this time I will attempt to cover Victorian interiors. I used the work "attempt" advisedly in that, inasmuch as Queen Victoria of England ruled from 1837 to 1901, that's one hell of a long period both in terms of world history and in the design tastes of her realm and ours. The fact is that it includes such design styles as Gothic Revival, Regency, Empire, Italianate, French Provincial, Arts and Crafts, and even Anglo-Japanese. As if all this wasn't bad enough, in trying to organize the design tastes of the Victorian era into some manageable whole, the word "eclectic" keeps coming up, meaning that very often all these individual influences got stirred together into an ungodly amalgamation that truly defies description and organization. It's little wonder that with the death of Queen Victoria and the ushering in of the pre-World War I Edwardian era, of staid, restrained, masculine simplicity, interior designers the world over breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was during this time that the seeds of the Modern Era were allowed to germinated and burst forth.
A Victorian era painting supposedly displaying the ultimate
in design tastes of the period.
The reason interior designers of the Victorian era were so able to "mix and match" items of different style is that, until this period "interior decorators" as they were called then, were something of a rare breed, available only in big cities and to those with big bucks. Everyone else just looked through the Sears catalog or the window of some big department store and bought whatever struck their fancy with near total disregard for the overall impression to be made it dumping it all together. It's little wonder the Modern Art mantra, "less is more" came down the road when previous the byword had been, "more is not enough." Unfortunately, when buyers dictate their choices to present day designers, or simply ignore their availability, the latter phrase continues to dominate. And while few, (if any) modern day homeowners would opt to do their entire home in a Victorian style, there's still much the same tastes and thinking to be found in the cluttered, over-decorated, excesses of many living rooms today. I know. I grew up in such a morass. My mother thought she knew something about interior furnishings. Her tastes were nothing if not eclectic.

The place for polite conversation and the occasional board game on the floor
--checkers anyone?
Okay, let's start in the parlor. That translates to living room in today's vernacular, which is most appropriate in that there wasn't much "living" done in Victorian parlors lest someone break something or soil the upholstery. Kids played outside or simply "elsewhere." Even many adults of the time found their museum-like showplace unbearably stuffy, preferring instead the relaxed, breezy informality of the front porch (or the terrace, if you had two half-dollars to rub together). The various examples above depict the Gothic Revival influence (top-right) and some lingering Classical tastes. Draperies were heavy, dark, and often drawn. The concept of "privacy" was relatively new at the time and strictly enforced when possible. The parlor, more than any other room in the Victorian home, became a showplace for wealth and supposed good tastes. In fact, it was often neither in that few outsiders ever set foot in the place and good tastes were quite arbitrary.

Hey, you, at the other end of the table, please pass the peas!
The dining room was every bit as heavy, dark, and formal as the parlor; so much so that in many households, it served as a room for dinner dining only. Victorians preferred the light, airy qualities of the "breakfast room" for the first, and often the second meal of the day (above-right). White wicker was very much in style." The custom of men pulling out chairs and helping to seat the ladies was very nearly a necessity. The damned chairs were so heavy some of the men had to struggle. Even adding little wheels (casters) to the feet of chairs didn't help much. They rolled too easily on bare hardwood, and barely at all on deep, Victorian carpets. In general, there was a direct correlation between the wealth of the family and the weight of the furniture. Furniture design during the Victorian period evolved from light and delicate English woodworking to the sculptural monumentality of the Italians. Carpets began to be woven by machines which could be "programmed" (in the most elementary sense) to repeat patterns endlessly, resulting in the florid florals floating freely across Victorian floors. That was also much the case where fabrics and wallpaper were concerned as illustrated below.

Not one square inch upon which to rest the eyes.
For more than a century, the one room in the American home which had changed little was the kitchen. However, the lengthy two-thirds of a century marking the Victorian era, that room changed immensely as open fireplaces were replaced first with wood-burning stoves and then various natural gas "ranges" (I have no idea where that term came from). By the end of the Victorian era, the wealthy were even starting to outfit their kitchens with crude, ammonia refrigeration units (a gas leak could be deadly). Cupboards were outfitted with glass to better display the family china while tables evolved into counters with doors to hide everything else. Kitchens were seen as functional first, with barely a thought as to making them "beautiful." Nonetheless, by the latter years of the Victorian era, kitchens had evolved to the point that today, one can (with a few compromises) craft a relatively attractive kitchen featuring authentic Victorian influences (below, top-left).

During the Victorian era, kitchens evolved from whitewashed Colonial (bottom-right) to the downright institutional "appliances" (bottom-left).
When we think of Victorian bedrooms, two images come to mind--the brass bed and the dark, heavily-carved mahogany, horizontal throne replete with heavy draperies swooping down from a regal crown near the ceiling. The earlier canopy beds lost favor as homes became easier to heat and the need to keep bugs and various vermin from dropping from the ceiling lessened. As with many other rooms in the Victorian home, heavily curtained darkness and privacy seemed to provide an essence of security. Perhaps more than any other room, style was dictated by family wealth, not for flaunting, but in providing a feeling of personal comfort and wellbeing.

The Victorian style imitated great wealth (bottom-right).
Modern Victorian incarnations (top-right) are an imitation of that imitation.
During the Victorian era, for the first time, American homes began to acquired modern (more or less) indoor plumbing. If the Victorian kitchen was fundamentally functional, the newly minted "bath" room was all the more so. They were far from attractive in appearance. If someone tells you they have a beautiful Victorian bathroom you have my permission to laugh in their face. There was no such thing at least until well after WW I. Very often they were cramped, fitted into existing closets or under attic eaves. At best they were a small room partitioned off from a bedroom featuring a claw-footed, cast iron, porcelain tub, a simple pedestal sink, and the all-important "crapper" invented by that brilliant Englishman, Thomas Crapper (no joke). Floors were sometimes ceramic tile but more often simple hardwood like the rest of the house. Walls were enameled wood or plaster. Windows were non-existent or tiny. Inasmuch as there was seldom more than one such room per household, relaxing through a long, hot, lingering bath was mostly myth. You went in, locked the door, did your business, flushing once or twice, then got out so someone else in the family could do the same.

The Victorian bathroom--form follows function.
The Victorian bathroom was very much an anticlimax to the trek up the heavily ornamented Victorian stairways in getting to it. Nowhere else in the Victorian abode was ostentation so flagrantly and tastelessly displayed. The railing along the side was not so much for safety as an opportunity to display machine turned woodwork. The longer the set of steps, the more gracious and impressive as ladies with their floor-length gown glided down them while men often dashed toward the top taking two or three steps at a time. Deep carpeting was a must in cushioning the fall if the lady of the house took a Scarlett O'Hara tumble to the bottom. Numerous "landings" no doubt got their name as a means of shortening the fall.

Some Victorian stairs seem to us downright scandalous in their over-the-top ostentation.
Although there was no digital revolution during the Victorian era allowing both husbands and wives to work outside the office, the home-office (or study) had been a mainstay of American homes for several generations even before Queen Victoria. Fathers were just as likely to bring back "homework" from the office as their offspring were from school. Businessmen-fathers needed a place of peace and quiet to work, read, study, and relax away from their noisy, obnoxious progeny. Even the White House had a home-office (below-right).

Ladies had their "drawing" rooms. The man of the house had his study, den, or library.
(Man caves hadn't been invented yet.)
Speaking of the White House, I've shown some of the best and worst the Victorian era had to offer. Now let me show you two rooms from the White House that, over the years, have become the gold standard for Victorian interiors--the Red Room and the Lincoln Bedroom. It's not surprising that the quintessential Victorian room in the White House should be done in red. Rich, dark, deep red was the one color most favored by Victorians. In the years following the early 1950s rebuilding of the White House, the story has it that President Truman called in an interior decorator from a local department store. It would seem, his Red Room (below-right) could use "a touch of red" here and there. Jackie Kennedy came to its rescue in 1962. Her Red Room (just below) is virtually unchanged today.

The room tinted green was a mix-up. The Red Room and its sister, the Green Room, on the
opposite side of the Blue Room are virtually indistinguishable in a black and white photo.

Back during the Victorian era, First Ladies apparently had little else to do besides
redecorate the White House.
That's not the case with Mrs. Kennedy's choice of d├ęcor for the Lincoln Bedroom, the other major Victorian room in the White House. Her room, while fairly authentic according to period photos, appears harsh and sparse, perhaps the way Lincoln would have liked it. (He never slept there, by the way.) The bed is his, though, specially built to accommodate his six-foot, four-inch height. Although the room has been a bedroom at least since the 1920s, and probably since the building of the West Wing, during Lincoln's time, it was, in fact, his office, the scene of many historic photos and paintings.

The current Lincoln Bedroom Victorian nbsp;(top-right) is somewhat more typically elaborate than Mrs. Kennedy's 1963 version of the room (bottom-right).
Having grown up living amongst the lingering vestiges of the Victorian era (the furniture was really built to last), I can say quite truthfully Victorian styles are not a personal favorite. In our first home (a mobile home during my college years) I was a fervid devotee to furniture store modern. Later, I began to appreciate Italian Mediterranean stylings. In more recent years I've veered away from that to light, bright, simple, sleek, contemporary, so long as it's comfortably overstuffed. In closing, let me leave you with one of the most astounding (and humorous) examples of Victorian exuberance I've ever seen (below). Notice, the steps continue up to at least the third floor. How'd you like to have that just inside your front door?

This makes Scarlett O'Hara's Victorian tastes seem tame.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Gerda Wegener

les Femmes fatales (The Fatal Women), 1933, Gerda Gottlieb Wegener,
Although it's not exactly common today, neither is transgender a particularly controversial or taboo topic of discussion. There's even a medical name for the underlying condition, Klinefelter Syndrome, where a male has XXY sex chromosome karyotype (the number and visual appearance of the chromosomes in the cell nuclei of an organism). However, during the early years of the 20th century the condition was unknown and the cure (of sorts) was known as Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS). It, too, was practically unknown and certainly not the topic of polite conversation except perhaps in the rarified company of French Bohemia making up the social milieu of Paris during the 1920s. Gerda Wegener was a woman, probably a lesbian. Her husband, Einar Wegener, was a man who became a woman (or tried to). Both were artists, both were homosexual, both they and their art enjoyed a degree of popular notoriety during the 1920s and 30s. Together, to this day, they constitute one of the strangest artists' relationships ever recorded.

Fashion Illustration,
1914, Gerda Wegener
Normally I don't mention an artist's sexual orientation unless it has a direct impact on his or her work. Gerda Wegener was a fashion illustrator and sometimes painter born Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb in 1886 near the city of Grenaa on the eastern coast if Denmark. To say that her sexual orientation had a major impact on her work would be putting it mildly. Today, both she and her work are most remembered for their lesbian erotic themes. Roughly two-thirds of her work I could never post here. Much of it even goes beyond erotic art, transgressing in the realm of porn-ography. She painted women almost exclusively, ex-cept when her husband modeled for her, and even then, she painted him as a woman--Lili Elbe. I told you this was a strange story. Let me add here and now, it gets even stranger.

The Ballerina Ulla Poulsen in the Ballet Chopinian, Paris, 1927, Gerda Wegener.
The Wedding, Gerda Gottlieb Wegener.
Gerda Gottlieb first met Einar Wegener sometime around 1900 when both were stu-dents at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Cop-enhagen. They were married in 1904. She was eighteen; he was twenty-two. Gerda's big break as an artist came just after graduating from the Academy in 1907 when she won a drawing contest spon-sored by a major Copenhagen newspaper. Gerda was in-spired by fashion design, working as an illustrator for Vogue, La Vie Parisienne, and other magazines. She had become a well-known artist in Paris where she was more successful than in Denmark. There people found her work too controversial. She held exhibitions at popular art galleries around Europe, culminating, in 1925, when her art won a prize for at the 1925 World Fair in Paris. She was known for her advertising illustrations while also being sought-after as a portrait painter. She befriended Ulla Poulsen, a famous Danish ballerina (above), who became a frequent model for her paintings.

Dressed as a man, Einar Wegener was sometimes mistaken for a woman
 impersonating a man. However, with his slender physique and delicate
features, dressed as a woman, he looked and felt the part.
After they were married, Gerda and Einar Wegener traveled throughout Italy and France. They eventually settling in Paris in 1912. The couple immersed themselves in the Bohemian lifestyle of the time, befriending many artists, dancers and other figures from the art world. At the time, many considered Einar to be the more talented artist, so he toned down his own work to help his wife's career. Then one day, when one of Gerda's models failed to show up, Gerda persuaded her husband to wear stockings and heels so his legs could substitute for those of the model. He found women's clothes to be surprisingly comfortable. Soon thereafter Einar Wegener took on the name and persona of "Lili Elbe." Lili became Gerda's favorite model. Over time, Gerda became famous for her paintings of beautiful women dressed in chic fashions. However, in 1913 their secret got out. The art world was shocked when they learned that the model who had inspired Gerda's petite femmes fatales (below) was, in fact, her husband.

Einar eventually identified as a male-to-female transgender woman. In 1930, he/she had the first publicly known SRS in history. When out in public, Gerda introduced Elbe as Einar Wegener's sister. The whole scandalous outrage came to a climax in October of 1930 when Denmark's King Christian X, declared the Wegeners' marriage null and void. Lili died the following year from complications resulting from what was to be her fourth and final sex change surgery. Her body rejected the implanted uterus and surgically constructed vaginal canal. Hormonal tests taken just before her first surgery indicated more female than male hormones (in the days before hormonal therapy). Some reports indicate that Elbe also had rudimentary ovaries in her abdomen.

A Summer Day (Gerda Wegener at the easel, Lili Elbe nude; Elna Tegner with accordion;
Gerda's publisher's wife, Mrs. Guyot with book), 1927, Gerda Wegener.
Devastated by her husband's death, Gerda married an Italian officer, aviator, and diplomat, Major Fernando Porta, who was ten years younger than she. They moved to Morocco where Gerda continued to paint, signing her work as "Gerda Wegener Porta." The marriage was rocky. She divorced Porta in 1936 after he swindling her out of a substantial sum of money. She returned to Denmark in 1938 where she held her final exhibition a year later. By this time however, her work was out of style. Having no children Gerda lived alone in relative obscurity, drink heavily, her only income that of selling hand-painted postcards. She died in 1940, just months before the Nazi's invaded Denmark.

Two Friends, 1921, Gerda Gottlieb Wegener


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Renaissance Cities--Bologna, Italy

Bologna's iconic Neptune Fountain located in the center of the city,
the work of sculptor, Giambologna, completed about 1567
Bologna--one of Italy's most important
cities during the Renaissance.
I've spoken of this before, and I shall probably do so again, reacting in disgust, despair, and dismay as to how inwardly focused Americans are when it comes to the world in which we live. That complaint falls across the line to include, culture, poli-tics, economics, geography, en-tertainment, and any number of other areas. For example, if you mention the Renaissance city of Bologna, Italy, the first thing Americans think of is lunchmeat. We've even destroyed any rela-tionship of this culinary favorite to its city of origin by coming to call in "baloney." I dare say, most Americans are only vaguely aware (if at all) that there even exists a city in Italy called Bologna. Yet this city is home to the oldest university in the world. Its artists, intellectuals, scientists, and educators are respected the world over, both now and in the past. Famed also for its covered walkways, the city boast the longest continuous arcade in the world (some four miles in length) leading from the city center and climbing up a nine-hundred foot mountain (okay, a fair-sized hill) some 666 arches to a monastery, parts of which are a thousand years old. The city itself is more than twice that old, the earliest settlements dating back to the Etruscans of pre-Roman times around 1000 BC.

Postcard views of Bologna's old city, its walls, its gates, its churches, it's arcades,
its fountain, even its own "twin towers."
le Due Torri
Like virtually every city of any size and of similar age on the Italian peninsula, Bologna has had a long, colorful, turbulent, and tragic history. Having been along the invasion route for every foreign conqueror and raider raining down on the ancient Roman Empire, the city has seen its share of war, death and destruction while having only brief periods of self-rule. And even during those periods, "peace" was a rare commodity as dozens of wealthy families fought little internecine feuds, battles, and wars among themselves for political and economic dominance. At one time during the 12th and 13th-centuries as many as 180 fortress watchtowers, each the home of a different wealthy family, dotted the maze of ancient Roman streets (and this in the days before elevators). The place looked like a medieval version of lower Manhattan (below). Today only about twenty still exist their upper levels long since torn down. Only two, the Asinelli and Garisenda Towers (referred to as the "le Due Torri") survive as soaring landmarks rising above the city skyline. Your eyes aren't deceiving you, they do tend to lean a little.

WW II bombs and urban development have eliminated all but a few such towers today.
Bologna has seven major churches dating from the Renaissance era when Bologna was one of several papal states ruled by the church after Pope Julius II (yes, Michelangelo's nemesis) conquered the city in 1508. One of them, San Petronio, was intended to be larger than St. Peter's in Rome until the city ran out of money (or the Pope put a stop to such foolish daydreams). It would seem they also ran out of money when it came to completing the facade of the church (below), begun in the 17th century, it remains less than half finished to this day. As many as four famous architects, Baldassarre Peruzzi, Vignola, Andrea Palladio and Alberto Alberti submitted designs to complete the project, but no one could agree on which one to choose, so they chose not to choose.

Bologna's San Petronio, begun in 1390 and named for a 5th-century local saint.
Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna
One or two other churches in Italy lack facades, but San Petronio is the only one with a half-completed facade. They may not agree on the outside, but inside each church the effect is nothing short of magnificent. Inside each of Bologna's seven churches, the Italian appre-ciation for Gothic interiors with Baroque dec-orations makes itself felt (below). The city's Bas-ilica of San Domenico is Romanesque in design but relies upon frescoes as well as sculptural works for it's embellishments. San Petronio is a little easier on the eyes, favoring lighter, masses, and the light and delights of Gothic stained glass over massive walls and immense, heavily adorned arches. Vignola was chief architect of the Fabbrica, which includes some twenty-two chapels, named for and paid for by the city's wealthiest families. It was a time when each of Bologna's powerful families bought their own chapel and built their own skyscraper.

The interior of Bologna's Basilica San Petronio
If you should visit Bologna on a rainy day, the city has you covered (literally). In the summer, Bologna tends to be a rather hot and muggy city, prone to long periods of rainfall and corresponding periods of drought. Each year since 1433 there has been a traditional procession down from the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca overlooking the city carrying an icon purported to be a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus painted by Saint Luke. Everyone knows you should never allow a painting to get wet--hence the Portico di San Luca--all four miles of it. The whole thing seemed like such a good idea to the Bolognese that they constructed another twenty-four miles of such covered porticos around and about the city. By the way, there's now a road up the hill, which replaced a cable car discontinued in 1976.

A pilgrimage not for the faint of heart (unless you have a car).
The Bolognese School of painting flourished in Bologna, during the Italian Renaissance beginning around 1500 through the Mannerist and Baroque periods to around 1700. Bologna rivalled Florence and Rome as the center of painting. Its most important representatives include the Carracci family, Ludovico and his two cousins, the brothers Agostino and Annibale. Later, Bologna was the home of several prominent Baroque painters such as Domenichino and Lanfranco, and eventually Guercino and Guido Reni, students at the Accademia degli Incamminati in Bologna, run by Lodovico Carracci. The Carracci studio sought innovation and invention, pursuing new ways to break free from traditional modes of painting while looking for inspiration from their literary contemporaries. The studio formulated a style that was distinguished from the recognized manners of art in their time. This style was seen as both systematic and imitative, borrowing motifs from the past Roman schools of art while at the same time pursuing a modernistic approach.

Wars, political infighting, an plague have been hard on the city,
but a surprising amount antiquity has survived.

If the upper map looks a bit strange, it's because I inverted it to
correspond with the modern-day tourist map just above.