Thought-Pourri: Everything Old Is New Again Edition

Gentle Reader, I hope that you find these Thursday news roundups as enjoyable to read as I do in putting them together. The one snag that I continue to have is that I find the term “Thought-Pourri” a bit too clever by half. If at some point this feature were to be converted into an email newsletter, which is something I’m thinking about, I’d like to find a snappier title. So the best Christmas gift you could send me this year would be some a suggestion for a better title that both fits with the purpose of this summary of news from the art, architecture, and design worlds, and that has more of a snap to it – just use the “Contact” form located on the site. Thank you in advance!

And so, onward to some news…

New/Old Argument: Aragonese Art

As Catalonia goes to the polls today – again – on regional elections ordered by Madrid, an interesting art story has slipped under the radar amidst all of the coverage over the question of Catalan independence. The medieval Monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena is located in Aragón, the region just west of Catalonia. In the early 1980’s the nuns moved out of their decaying premises, which had been several damaged by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, and found a new home in Barcelona; as part of their move they sold some of the art from their old monastery to the Catalan government. The works – which include several spectacularly decorated Gothic sarcophagi like the one shown below – were put on display for a number of years in a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida, but a few years ago, the Aragonese government sued to try to get them back; in 2015, a trial judge ruled in their favor. The Catalan government appealed, and although the appellate case is still pending, in the wake of the Catalan independence vote and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, the national police force was sent in and removed the disputed works from the museum.

Sigena

New/Old Building: Noxious Neo-Brutalism

Is Brutalism, a horrible abomination of architecture which has been (rightly) derided from its inception by people with good taste, making a comeback? Award-winning British starchitect Sir David Adjaye of the awful National Museum of African American History and Culture here on the National Mall, (or as I call it, the Sandcrawler from “Star Wars”) has just revealed plans for his first highrise tower in Manhattan, which will be located near the Brookyln Bridge. The 66-story structure will be clad in cast concrete, a material which no doubt will age beautifully in the filthy, polluted atmosphere of New York City, just like all of the other crumbling, horrible Brutalist-era buildings which it evokes. One of the highlights, if you can call it that, will be an interior spa and pool area which described as being inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome which, I suppose if you were color-blind and morbidly depressed you could very loosely claim to be the case, but quite frankly it looks like something out of “Blade Runner”, and not in a good way. (No word on whether Harrison Ford is personally to blame for either of these awful buildings.)

Brooklyn

New/Old Fashion: Romanov Riches

As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of the bloodbath known as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has just opened a new, permanent exhibition of 130 historic costumes, most of which belonged to members of the ruling Romanov dynasty. Located at the Hermitage’s vast storage and conservation complex in the north end of the city, the new displays features suits, gowns, and other clothing from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, among many others. Here for example is a ceremonial cloak and waistcoat worn by one of my favorite Russian oligarchs, Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825), who helped to defeat Napoleon.

Alexander

New/Old Resource: Fine Furniture

If you’ve ever been confused by the multitude of design terms used by museum curators, furniture retailers, and antique dealers when shopping or visiting museums and historic homes, you’re not alone. Even those of us who have at least some knowledge of the history of Western furniture can get a bit perplexed when, for example, a catalogue refers to a chair as “transitional” (what’s it transitioning into, a fridge?) While it won’t solve all such problems, a interesting new site (currently in beta) called British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (“BIFMO”) from the Furniture History Society and the University of London hopes to become a major online resource for those who want to learn their Thomas Chippendale from their George Hepplewhite.

cabinet

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Rome Don’t Cost A Thing: A Great Architecture Course From Yale

Yesterday afternoon, after many weeks, I finished a course at Yale University on the history and development of Ancient Roman architecture.

Well okay, not *really*.

I didn’t have to sit any exams, write any papers, or matriculate at Yale in order to take this class. Instead, I was able to watch a series of videos and read accompanying course materials from Yale art historian Diana E.E. Kleiner, Ph.D., covering the development of Roman architecture both in Rome itself and throughout the Roman imperial world. The lectures are a wonderful online resource, but they’re just one example of how you can use technology during your free time to educate yourself about subjects such as art, architecture, and design, without having to go back to school for it.

Dr. Kleiner is the Founding Director of Open Yale Courses, which provides a host of free, online courses to the general public. The closest analogy here is that it’s somewhat like auditing a class, when you don’t receive any credits or submit any work, but you’re very interested in the professor or the subject matter and want to gain greater knowledge for yourself. For me, that’s always been the most enjoyable sort of class: you’re there because you really want to be.

In this particular course, Dr. Kleiner gives an overview of the history and development of Roman architecture, from the misty legends of Rome’s founding by Romulus, all the way through the reign of the Emperor Constantine and the subsequent transfer of the imperial capital to Constantinople. There are 23 lectures in total, and each is well over an hour long. I’ve been watching them in half-hour installments during my lunch breaks for the last couple of months, although you could certainly binge-watch if you wanted to.

Nero

From the 200-series course number, my guess is that this class was designed for college sophomores, so don’t presume that the material is so specialist in nature as to be over your head. Dr. Kleiner does assume that you’ve at least heard of people and places such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, the city of Pompeii, and so on. But that being said, she does take the time to not only explain political and social history, but also to reinforce what she teaches. She makes a point of regularly recalling terminology, characteristics, and individuals who are important in Roman history, particularly with respect to the design and function of buildings.

Even if you are reasonably well-versed in art, architecture, and design, there is a great deal to learn here, and much to take away. For example, one strand of the course examines the evolution of Roman wall painting through four distinct, identifiable styles. After presenting the material, it’s not left by the wayside never to be referred to again. Rather, we come to see how sometimes, what at first only existed in an artist’s image painted on a wall, fuelled the imagination of later architects who executed these two-dimensional fantasies in three dimensions. Thus by the time the course examines the famous Nabataean cliff tombs in present-day Jordan – one of which is the site of the climactic conclusion of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” – we can understand how the architects combined local architectural methods and materials, as well as Greco-Roman classical design, under the influence of Roman wall painting.

Jones

Another area of knowledge which the student comes away with is an appreciation for the differences between Greek and Roman temple design, and how to recognize some of these differences more readily when encountered in everyday life. Many structures which we see on a daily basis such as government buildings, churches, and transportation centers, particularly in this country, are adaptations of Roman designs, but we regularly pass by them without thinking about what ancient buildings their architects were referencing. Dr. Kleiner’s course fundamentally alters the way that you look at such buildings, so that over time you gradually begin to appreciate the subtle differences between what might otherwise just appear to be one pseudo-temple versus another.

The First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia for example, which was built in 1795, incorporates the most important elements of Ancient Roman temple design: elements which we come to recognize as a result of Dr. Kleiner taking the time to point them and reinforce in our minds throughout the course. We can see the placement of this building on a high podium, with a façade orientation, and a deep porch with columns, all of which are characteristic of Roman temple architecture. At the same time however, thanks to the course, we come to appreciate the ways in which this building deviates from a standard Roman temple. For example, although it has the single staircase one expects on a Roman temple, rather than the wrap-around stairs of a Greek structure, this particular staircase is three-sided, which deviates from the usual Roman plan.

Bank

While I strongly urge you to consider “taking” Dr. Kleiner’s course, whether you enjoy studying architecture as much as I do or are just curious to have a better understanding of the buildings that stand around you, the most important thing for you is to take some action. There is a great wealth of material just like this available to you for free, online, 24 hours a day, from some of the best academics, experts, and commentators on the arts. All you have to do is Google it.

An often-repeated refrain on this blog over the years has been that you have a responsibility, as an educated adult, to continue to educate yourself long after you leave formal schooling behind. The onus is on you to make the effort. If you want to better understand the history and development of architecture in the Western world, this is a very fine place to start.

The Cats Are Alright: Historic Tails From Russia To Florida

Whenever a disaster affects a country, city, or even a single building, we naturally – and correctly – think first about the effect on human lives. But almost inevitably, we come across terrible stories about how people deliberately abandon their pets in cruel circumstances, such as leaving them chained up outside as a gigantic storm rolls in. So I wanted to share with you some good news for a change, involving two sets of my favorite species of domesticated animal, the felis catus, who live at two very important historic sites that recently came under threat.

On Friday, a small fire in the basement of the Winter Palace, one of the buildings that make up the legendary Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, got very little press in this country. This was partly because no works of art were damaged, and also because coverage of the impending strike of Hurricane Irma dominated American media. For art, history, and cat lovers however, the news was of immediate concern because, famously, the basement of the Hermitage is where the museum’s resident cats hole up, when they are not patrolling the vast corridors of the former Imperial palace looking for rodents.

Fortunately, despite reports that four of the Hermitage’s resident cats had been killed in the fire, it appears that all of the museum’s feline guardians are doing fine. First responders initially believed that four of the cats were dead, but it quickly turned out that they suffered severe smoke inhalation and needed medical care. They were taken to a veterinary hospital, and all are expected to recover. Here you can see one of the museum’s curators and a fireman taking one of the cats away for treatment.

Hermitage

The cats themselves are not a new phenomenon at the Hermitage, although they are not the descendants of the original fluffy residents. In 1745, the Empress Elizabeth specially commissioned that cats with good mousing skills be imported from the city of Kazan in Tatarstan, which was famous for the breeding of such felines. These cats throve in the cellars of the palace for the next 300 years, outlasting even the Romanov Dynasty itself, until they were lost or killed during Hitler’s siege of the city during World War II.

After the war, a new feline family was brought in to the Hermitage, and the offspring of these cats continue to live in the museum today. Like their cousins, the palace’s previous residents, they too have seen dramatic historic changes taking place in the world around them, such as the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Unimpressed by human overexertion, as cats usually are, they simply continue go about their business of napping in sunbeams, looking for people to pet them, and keeping one of the world’s greatest collections of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts free from pests.

Closer to home, authorities in charge of Hemingway House, the beautiful tropical villa of writer Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida, have announced that not only did the historic home withstand the impact of Hurricane Irma, but the property’s cats are all safe and accounted for. Although I don’t care for much of his work, I appreciate the fact that Papa H was a fellow cat fancier, as you can see below. The cats who presently live at the house are the descendants of the original felines which sauntered about the property during the author’s lifetime.

PapaH

Famously, Hemingway’s furry friends are not just ordinary balls of floof, but genetic curiosities known as polydactyl cats. Polydactyls, as the name implies, suffer from an unusual abnormality known as polydactylism – from the Greek “poly” meaning “many, and “daktylos” meaning “finger”. Many of the cats on the property have six or even seven toes on each paw, instead of the usual five on each of the front paws and four on each of the hind paws.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this story is the fact that, before Irma hit, the museum’s authorities called in reinforcements – in the form of the local Catholic priest:

On Thursday, after mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic church in Key West, the Rev. John Baker blessed the house, the Hemingway Home staff and the cats. Gonzales told our correspondent, Francisco Alvarado, that he felt sure no cat would lose any of its nine lives.

Who knows: perhaps St. Gertrude of Nivelles – patroness of cat owners and their purring charges – was looking out for these historic and unusual animals.