28 February 2011

Precious vessels

The British Museum's excellent collaboration with Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects, is a good example of a successful multi-media project that achieves interesting and informative results. The 100 fifteen-minute lectures, broadcast on Radio 4 and podcasted on the BBC iPlayer, allow museum visitors to learn more about key exhibits. And if you're like me, they also encourage visits to particular collections to seek out items that might have otherwise been missed in previous visits.

Two such items were the focus of a museum visit with friends a few months ago, concentrating on the European collections. Both are luxury items in their own right, but aside from their decorative finery, the prime purpose for which they were designed was as containers of precious substances or objects. Item 40, the Hoxne pepper pot, was from Britain in the 4th century AD, while item 66, the Holy Thorn Reliquary, was made in Paris around the first decade of the 15th century. Each is a prime example of the consuming passions of the age in which they were made.

Spice up your life

The charming 10 centimetre high silver pepper pot in the shape of a wealthy Roman lady was discovered in 1992 in Suffolk, as part of the Hoxne hoard, a massive treasure trove of Roman gold and silver. The pepper pot shows an impressive quality of design in its construction. The likeness of the woman is well formed, with her hand firmly grasping a scroll and her hair deftly portrayed in detailed curls. The deftly-made lid on the underside has three settings: one shut, one to permit pepper to emerge, and a third to allow the container to be filled. The care and attention to detail of the pepper pot shows both the importance of the valuable spice in Roman Britain and the wealth of the person who had it made. Spice was a lifeblood of empire: it was traded from faraway India, transported to and consumed in all Roman lands, and it was a core element of many opulent dishes in the Roman diet.     

When the pepper pot was buried in Hoxne (pronounced 'Hoxon') the early part of the 5th century AD, Roman rule in Britain was crumbling - the failing economy was shifting from currency-based transactions to barter: Wikipedia notes that 'by 407 there were no new Roman coins going into circulation, and by 430 it is likely that coinage as a medium of exchange had been abandoned'. 

Around this time there was a power vacuum in Britain that made it difficult to hold onto personal wealth on the scale of the Hoxne hoard. In 402 AD the VI Victrix Legion, one of the two Roman legions defending Roman Britain, was withdrawn to Italy to fight the Visigoths. The other legion, II Augusta, followed to Gaul five years later, and the lack of protection was soon capitalised on by loot-hungry raiders. In 408 Britain was ravaged by Picts, Scots and Saxon raiders.  

At some point in the 5th century someone buried the pepper pot and the rest of their great collection of silverware, hoping at some point to return to retrieve it from its secret burial site. But they never returned, and the secret of its hiding place preserved the treasure for nearly 16 centuries.

Every rose has its thorn

In historian Kenneth Clark's seminal survey of European culture, the 1969 television series Civilisation, one object lovingly scrutinised from every angle and held up as an exemplar of high medieval art is the Holy Thorn Reliquary.  This 14th century French work is a riot of gold, silver, rubies, pearls and sapphires, and at its heart is the rock crystal chamber containing what was believed to be amongst the holiest of relics of medieval Christianity: a thorn from the Holy Crown worn by Christ at the crucifixion at Golgotha. The thorn itself was from the crown bought by France's King Louis IX from the Byzantine Emperor Baldwin II in Constantinople in 1239, and was said to have resided there since the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century. The crown along with a supposed fragment of the True Cross cost the King the enormous economy-depleting sum of 135,000 livres, which is more than triple the cost of the lavish Sainte-Chapelle built in Paris to house the relics. The crown itself, genuine or not, is now denuded of thorns, and resides in a 19th century reliquary in Notre Dame in Paris.

Probably made for Jean, Duc de Berry, around the late 14th or early 15th century, the Holy Thorn Reliquary houses a thorn plucked from the Holy Crown in the most sumptuous vessel imaginable. In addition to its bank-breaking collection of precious metals and jewels, the reliquary also boasts a host of finely detailed enamel figures, including the centrepiece behind transparent rock crystal: Christ himself, flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, with the thorn sprouting in front of him from a polished sapphire sphere. Below this, the reliquary tells its own story in a Latin inscription: Ista est una spinea corone / Domine nostri ihesu cristi ('This is a thorn from the crown / Of Our Lord Jesus Christ'). The British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, describes the reliquary's religious purpose as 'a sermon in gold and jewels, an aid to intense contemplation, and the source of the deepest comfort'.   

The reliquary is a extravagant symbol of piety in an age in which the wealthiest rulers spent vast sums on religious artworks. The Duc de Berry was the brother of the King of France, and so occupied an exalted position amongst the French nobility, but both of his sons had predeceased him, so he was particularly mindful of his place in history and he was perhaps also freed of the desire to retain his wealth to pass on to his heirs. Kenneth Clark believed that de Berry 'was peculiar because the arts were his whole life', and noted that his cruelly-taxed subjects might have welcomed a more modest container for the thorn. The magnificence of the reliquary is a grander example of high-status art than the Hoxne pepper pot, but it reflects the same intent: to display the status of the owner and their personal taste in extravagant housing for their precious possessions.

For more information about the Hoxne pepper pot and the Holy Thorn Reliquary, listen to the 15-minute Radio 4 documentaries on each object, linked in paragraph 2 above.

23 February 2011

New Zealand's darkest day

In the initial aftermath of the serious Christchurch earthquake the New Zealand emergency services have hurried into action, with civilian and military personnel doing their utmost to rescue those survivors who have been trapped in collapsed buildings.  The September 2010 earthquake in the same city fortunately did not result in any deaths because it occurred in the early morning, but yesterday's quake was much more damaging because it occurred during a weekday lunchtime in which the city centre was fully populated with locals and visitors.  At the time of writing, the unofficial death toll stands at 75 with a likelihood of a substantial increase in the figure as more bodies are uncovered.  

In the early reaction to the disaster commentators including the Prime Minister have suggested that this earthquake might be New Zealand's worst disaster, with the John Key quoted as saying 'This may be New Zealand's darkest day'.  The scale of the Christchurch disaster is unquestionably huge for a country as small as New Zealand, and the effects on those at the scene or waiting for news of friends and loved ones will be powerful and lasting.  But that doesn't mean this event, serious though it is, is the lowest ebb of the national psyche, or the worst disaster to befall the country.

Ever since the founding of the nation, part of the New Zealand national identity has been forged in the trials posed by disasters, both natural and man-made.  In the 21st century we often forget that as a young, growing country, New Zealand was a considerably more dangerous place to live in that it is today, with our modern health system and advanced disaster response techniques offering much greater protection than our ancestors enjoyed.  As our population has grown New Zealand has become a safer place, and with the shift in mass transport from ships to aircraft the frequency of major disasters seems to have decreased.  The comprehensive list at NZ History Online shows a multitude of major and minor disasters, with several taking more than 100 lives:

  • 1863: HMS Orpheus shipwreck, Manukau Heads, 189 dead
  • 1874: Cospatrick shipwreck, Cape of Good Hope (en route to NZ), 470 dead
  • 1881: Tararua shipwreck, Southland, 131 dead
  • 1886: Tarawera eruption, near Rotorua, c.120 dead
  • 1894: Wairarapa shipwreck, Great Barrier Island, 121 dead
  • 1931: Hawke's Bay earthquake, 256 dead
  • 1953: Tangiwai rail disaster, Mt Ruapehu, 151 dead
  • 1979: Mt Erebus air crash, Antarctica, 257 dead
The scale of these disasters is even more serious when you consider that for much of the period covered by the list, New Zealand's population was tiny.  For example, in 1874, the year of the Cospatrick disaster, the national population was only 345,000, and by 1886, the year of the Tarawera eruption, that figure had only risen to 620,000.  

Also, without wishing to diminish the significance of the terrible events in Christchurch, I think another day holds a much stronger claim to be 'New Zealand's darkest', and not just because one of my relatives died in that event.  On 12 October 1917, the first day of the doomed and ultimately futile Passchendaele Offensive on the Western Front in Belgium, New Zealand troops suffered a colossal 2700 casualties in a single day, of which approximately 845 were killed.  Given that New Zealand's population during World War I was only 1.1 million, a mere quarter of today's population, the dreadful impact of that bleak day is hard to imagine.  But it would take the deaths of over three thousand people to achieve a similar impact on today's New Zealand.  Of course we must fervently hope that nothing of the sort ever happens, because any major loss of life is a desperate waste that affects so many lives beyond those who are direct casualties.  

Perhaps if we take another look at our brief and sometimes troubled history we might gain solace from the fact that disasters like these are a part of every nation's history, and that with luck and dedication we might stand a better chance of mitigating future disasters.   

18 February 2011

Every picture tells a story

Earlier this week I paid a visit to one of the West End's most popular museums, but it's one whose merits often go overlooked by visitors to London.  The National Portrait Gallery on St Martin's Place at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, opposite the similarly overlooked statue of Edith Cavell and immediately behind the more famous and august National Gallery. Perhaps it's fortunate that the NPG is a little off the tourist radar, because its compact galleries could easily be overwhelmed if large numbers swarmed through its revolving doors.  I usually visit the galleries every week, particularly if I'm in nearby Leicester Square to see a film at the Prince Charles.

Every year I make a point of visiting the NPG for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait prize exhibition, which showcases notable examples of portrait photography, mainly from European and North American artists. The awards dished out to the panel's chosen few portraits are often interesting but irrelevant to the enjoyment of the material, because generally the standards are high (6000 entries are whittled down to an exhibition of 60) and everything is worth taking a closer look.  It has the benefit of being accessible in multiple senses of the word: the gallery is right in the centre of the West End, the works chosen generally avoid the worst excesses of pretentious flummery, and the entrance fee is only £2.

First prize in the 2011 awards went to David Chancellor's striking image of a 14-year-old girl riding a horse with a dead buck slung over the saddle, on her way back from a paid hunting expedition with her family in South Africa.  It sounds too good to be true, but the girl's surname was Slaughter. Perhaps this conforms to the award's expectations of quality: after all, Simon Bainbridge, editor of the British Journal of Photography, has pointed out in that magazine's November 2010 issue that the award is 'derided by many for its perceived preference for po-faced artiness and its obsession with images of sullen teenagers'.  But he also agrees that 'the prize provides a unique barometer of contemporary portraiture and our changing attitudes towards representation'.  And the Slaughter image ('Huntress with buck') definitely possesses a painterly command of light and offers a glimpse of a serene and proud moment for a young girl, which, to my mind at least, contrasts jarringly with the limp form of the expired prey.   

© David Chancellor / NPG

I also appreciated the third prize winner, Jeffrey Stockbridge's 'Tic Tac and Tootsie', which shows the hunched, defensive stances of two 20-year-old American sisters, who work the streets of North Philadelphia. They stare at the camera half-defiantly, half-warily, with bunched-up shoulders and hair tightly pulled back.  'Sullen post-teenagers' are also welcome in the exhibition, it appears.

Perhaps my favourite image was that of Amy Helene Johansson.  Her 'Unsafe Journey' was taken from the rear window of a speeding train in Dhaka, and captures the upwards glance of a woman riding on the carriage couplings while the tracks speed by underneath.  Lacking the price of a ticket, she risks certain death or cruel maiming, with only a single hand-hold to secure her position.  Several other pictures appealed too, like Felix Carpio's 'Wafa', a Syrian woman in a headscarf that was chosen as the exhibition  poster image, and David Brunetti's 'Jonathan', a portrait of a Ugandan teacher working at his desk in the warm dusk light.  

The only image I didn't warm to was the pointless exhibitionism of the second-place award winner, Panayiotis Lamprou's 'Portrait of my British wife', a casual depiction that was intended as a private image, but was later entered in the competition with her permission.  Perhaps it appealed to the judges by asking questions about modern concepts of privacy and intimacy, because it pushed buttons in that age-old argument about the dividing line between art and pornography, or simply for the shock value. From my perspective, it just felt out of place and left me cold.   

The exhibition remains open until Sunday 20 February.

16 February 2011

Obrigado Lisboa

Terreiro do Paco, Lisbon
Portugal was one of the last remaining territories in Western Europe that I'd not yet visited, but now I've finally corrected that long-standing error.  I can report that the corner of Portugal that I visited at the start of February was a real treat, and I can highly recommend taking a look yourself if you have the opportunity.  I confined my visit to a long weekend in Lisbon, seeking out closer-to-the-equator winter warmth  and hoping for plentiful doses of history and culture.  I was not to be disappointed.

Sexta-feira (Friday)

As I was flying on Easyjet to keep the costs down, the £83 return fare was very reasonable.  My outbound flight was from Luton, and I made my way by coach from Victoria to avoid the expensive train journey.  A couple of Portuguese girls, one with a heavy head cold, sat nearby and babbled and/or sniffed noisily en route, so I was able to pick up a little of the Portuguese accent, which is quite distinct from Castilian Spanish.  Sort of Russian-sounding influences in there somewhere.  The flight to Lisbon was a little over two hours, and crossed over the clear-skied north of Spain and the pretty wind turbine-flecked hills of Portugal on the way into the pretty capital.

At Customs the border officer was impressed with my new passport, showing off the hologram to her colleague.  I whisked through and out to the airport bus, which drops you in town in under half an hour for €3.50.  It was only the briefest of walks from the bus stop in Rossio square to my place of residence for the next three nights, the Lisbon Lounge Hostel, which is located in the heart of Lisbon's downtown Baixa district. 

Baixa - pronounced 'Bye-sha' - lies on the flat terrain between two proud hills, and is the site most strongly identified with the reconstruction of Lisbon following the calamitous earthquake of 1755.  A highly organised grid network of streets named after traditional professions was laid out, and the ruins replaced with a beautiful array of 18th century buildings linked with grand straight avenues.  The Lisbon Lounge Hostel is notable for regularly featuring in lists of Europe's top hostels.  It's in a great location and is very nicely kitted out, with numerous living areas to escape the crowds and plenty of comfy beanbags from which to admire the lively pop-art murals decorating the common areas.  And there was free internet and wi-fi, which I endeavoured to avoid during prime sight-seeing daylight hours!  
Lisbon Lounge Hostel mural
By the time I'd sorted out a bed (nodding approvingly at the individual lockers and handy pouch strapped to each bunk, so my glasses, mobile and water bottle could be close at hand despite having a top bunk), wandered around the waterfront as the sun set and eaten dinner, it was dark.  There was time for a further exploratory stroll, so I ventured along the Av. da Liberdade, a main shopping thoroughfare.  Small carts selling roasted nuts sent clouds of aromatic smoke billowing amongst pedestrians on their way home from the working week.  A surprising number of optometrists' shops indicated that Portuguese people must have rather poor eyesight or just be quite particular about their glasses.

On my patrol I had a peculiar little encounter.  A woman asked me the time, and turned out to be a South African traveller in apparent distress.  Spinning a tale of lost bags and no money that seemed convincing enough, she was fretting about getting her luggage from Air France at the airport.  Naturally I was a little wary, but I decided on balance that her story could be true and that I could afford to take the chance that she was genuinely in need.  I offered her the princely sum of €5 to get her out to the airport.  She said she'd drop the money off at the hostel over the weekend, but naturally this didn't happen.  I hate to think I'm a soft touch, but I think on balance it was a small enough sum to warrant giving her the benefit of the doubt.  I know that if I was in trouble in a strange city I'd welcome the assistance of a fellow traveller.
R. Augusta, Baixa

Sábado (Saturday)

After taking breakfast in the hostel kitchen, I set out for a busy day of sightseeing in Lisbon.  The day started out grey, with a silty layer of cloud obscuring the sun, but by 9.30am the sun had burned off the mist and the rest of the day was bathed in warm light under perfect blue skies.  My mission for the day was to check out the cluster of historic sites around the riverside district of Belem, some six kilometres downriver from the centre of Lisbon.  As it was a nice day I decided to walk, to check out the sights en route  My first stop, which was just down the road from the hostel, was the broad expanses of the Praca do Comercio, surrounded on three sides by the former palace of the Portuguese royal family and on the fourth by the Rio Tejo.  A grand triumphal arch acts as the gateway to Baixa and the focal point of the square.

Praca do Comercio

The Ascension, c.1515
Halfway to Belem I paused for an hour at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, the national art gallery.  Its exhibits were a mix of classical religious paintings and church artworks, with plenty of Jesuses and Marys in every shape and form.  In one painting of the ascension from 1515 that was obviously intended to be hung high on a wall and viewed from below, the only sight of Jesus is his flapping robes and bare heels as he's whisked into the scrubbed-clean clouds.  In another work he emerges hale and hearty from the cave in which he had been entombed, brandishing a natty staff with a prominent cross atop, while all around Roman soldiers dressed in 16th century armour doze fitfully, apart from one alert fellow who rushes off into the distance to spread the unlikely news.

Another highlight was the splendidly detailed triptych The Temptations of St Anthony (c.1500) by the superbly imaginative Dutch fantasist Hieronymus Bosch, in which a grotesque revelry of sinners and misshapen alien nightmare creatures swirls around Anthony, testing his faith to the utmost.  As with many of Bosch's works, it's the bizarre creations from the artist's psyche that really stand out, like the scythe-beaked bird on iceskates bearing a letter in its pointed beak, or the terrifying torso-less figure that sits expiring from the wound delivered by a cruel sword embedded in its featureless face.

Continuing my journey, and rapidly shedding layers as the temperature climbed, I walked under the towering Ponte 25 de Abril, the bridge that was originally named for Portugal's dictator Salazar, but was later renamed for the date on which he was deposed.  Soon I reached Belem itself.  From here in 1497 Vasco da Gama departed for his historic expedition to find the sea route to India, and following his successful return from the east Belem became the site of a superb monastery designed to show off the magnificence of Portugal in its heyday.  Construction of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos began in 1502 and took 50 years to complete.  Its status today as one of Portugal's finest buildings is thanks to its unlikely survival of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed so many other buildings.  Now it stands like a gleaming ivory palace beside the Rio Tejo, a testament to wealth once found and now mostly lost.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Before I entered the monastery I wandered along the waterfront to get a closer look at the jutting form of the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), a 52 metre monolithic concrete tower carved into the shape of a ship's prow, and displaying statues of many of the great figures of the Portuguese age of discovery, including Henry the Navigator.  The monument was erected by the Salazar regime in 1960, and definitely has an air of fascist or communist grandiloquence about it.

After this brief detour I returned to the western end of the monastery and entered the maritime museum contained therein.  While its collections pertaining to the great age of Portuguese discovery were rather more limited than I expected, I did enjoy inspecting a fragile wooden statue of the archangel Rafael that journeyed to India on da Gama's 1497 expedition and two follow-up trips.  And out the back of the museum a large modern hangar had been added to house a collection of royal barges and trio of historic seaplanes, including the vintage Fairey III-D open-cockpit seaplane named 'Santa Cruz', which completed the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922.  But due to breakdowns the journey actually took 79 days and the Santa Cruz was actually the third aircraft to attempt the journey, so it was hardly an unalloyed triumph.

Seaplane 'Santa Cruz'

My next stop was the national archaeological museum.  No photos were permitted inside, but it turned out that this was no major impediment because the collections weren't particularly riveting - a selection of Roman-era pottery fragments and gravestones, plus a few Egyptian antiquities.

Da Gama's tomb
Then I entered the main body of the monastery church, and was impressed by the calm, cool atmosphere amidst the clean-lined pillars.  On either side of the entrance sit the boxy tombs of two famous sons of Portugal.  I might not have heard of the poet Luis de Camoes, the author of the Portuguese national epic, but across from him is the tomb of Vasco da Gama himself, who died as the governor of Portuguese India in 1524.

A short walk along the river front later, I admired the splendid castellated Torre de Belem, a tower built in 1515-20 to defend the mouth of the river.  Modern city dwellers can now admire the tower from encircling riverside stairs and the adjacent park, just as sailors returning from South America or the Orient once admired it from the sea.

Torre de Belem

My last stop in Belem was the splendid Museu dos Coches, which is perhaps Europe's finest collection of historic coaches from the 16th to the 19th century.  The oldest one in the collection belonged to King Felipe III of Spain, who used it when he visited Portugal in 1619, at which time the Spanish crown also ruled Portugal.  There's also the sombre sight of the bullet holes in the door of a black landau that was carrying the King, Queen and the two princely heirs to the throne on 1 February 1908, when two assassins fired a fusillade of bullets into the carriage.  The King was killed instantly and the crown prince died shortly afterwards.  Ultimately this brought about the demise of the Portuguese monarchy - a republic was declared in 1910 after months of instability, and the last king (the second son, who became Manuel II) went into suburban exile in Twickenham in London.

Museu dos Coches
Once I'd returned to the centre of town and secured myself a meal, I wandered downtown exploring new areas, spotting for the first time the traditional ginjinha booths, the tiny cupboard-sized public bars where a couple of flat-capped and elderly male patrons sup the local sour cherry liqueur.  Soon enough I encountered one of the idiosyncrasies my cousin David, who visited Lisbon in 1994, had warned me about - a grandfatherly-looking gent sidled up in a public square and asked hurriedly if I wanted to buy some hash.  Nope, I said, and moved on, thinking little of it.  It turned out to be something of a local tradition: in my short stay in Lisbon I was offered drugs three times, including one highly dubious chap who even upped the offer to cocaine; I wondered if that one was actually an undercover cop.  An odd experience!

Domingo (Sunday)

Rembrant's Portrait of an Old Man
The main mission for Sunday was to visit the pride of Lisbon's galleries, the world-class collections of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.  This private collection was bequeathed by the fabulously wealthy oil baron of the same name, who chose Lisbon as his home for the last years of his life.  After his death in 1955 a splendid modern gallery was constructed to hold many of his greatest treasures.  And the treasures on offer are indisputably plentiful: Egyptian and Roman antiquities, sumptuous Chinese porcelain, and a prestigious selection of fine European art.  Highlights are too numerous to mention (check the website for a sample) but I was particularly impressed with the gravitas of Rembrandt's 1645 portrait of an old man, gazing passively into the light while his graceful hands caress his walking stick, and the intricate detailing of René Lalique's famous Dragonfly Woman corsage ornament from the 1890s impressed even someone as generally disinterested in jewellery as me.
Lalique's Dragonfly Woman

Rui Chafes, Durante o Sono
Located adjacent to the Gulbenkian was the associated modern art gallery, and before I headed back to town on Lisbon's modern and inexpensive metro system I spent an hour or so checking out the work on display.  I enjoyed the modern Portuguese paintings, which were generally vibrant and lively, but the remainder of the exhibitions tended towards the pretentious end of the art spectrum.  One exhibit bore the promisingly direct title Don't Trust Architects but spoiled the effect by waffling on in a pseudish style: 'The title of the exhibition is arguably provocative, but it is also an invitation to its antithesis'.  But I was impressed with Rui Chafes' wrought iron sphere Durante o Sono ('During sleep'), which supports itself on curiously slender tentacles.  

I rode the metro to its final stop at Santa Apolonia station on the waterfront, where I emerged into the sunshine and spent another hour visiting the nearby military museum.  No photos allowed inside, but I enjoyed the old-fashionedness of its collections, which focused on Portugal's role in World War I and also on the remnants of the nation's military heritage of the previous five centuries.  Plenty of cannons, breastplates, cavalry sabres and arquebuses to admire.  In the basement there was also the mammoth cart used to haul the enormous stones used to construct the city's triumphal arch in the 18th century; its rear wheels are at least ten feet high and it's as long as a city bus.

Then I climbed the hill through the oldest part of Lisbon - Alfama, the site of the city's pre-Christian Moorish settlement.  Lisbon's tiny old trams lumber and screech up the steep streets but I preferred to walk as it was such a nice day.  First stop was the city's old cathedral, the - which was founded on the site of the city's old mosque in 1150, shortly after the Christian reconquest.  

After an exploratory and semi-lost wander around the crest of the hill I made my way to the summit to explore the Castelo, which is ancient but heavily restored.  The city views from its ramparts are absolutely spectacular, and I loved the fact that the modern understanding of health and safety in tourist attractions clearly didn't apply in medieval castle building methods, because virtually every battlement or staircase featured ample opportunities for visitors to plummet to dramatic and smashy deaths on the decidely unyielding paving stones below.  There was also a good opportunity to fit in my all-important cat photos, because a small tribe of wiry felines were sunning themselves and keeping a wary eye on the tourists.  

View from the battlements of the Castelo

The only other notable incident of the day occurred when I was walking back down to the centre of town.  I was photographing an apartment building silhouetted against the dusk sky when a girl of about eight years of age, who appeared to be out walking with her grandmother, sternly advised me 'no foto!'  Using sign language I pointed out that I was photographing the building, not her and her grandmother.  They didn't appear to live in the building in question, as they kept on walking away from town, and I headed in the opposite direction.  As I descended the concrete stairs back to sea level the little sod threw a can in my direction.  Such friendliness!  I don't know what brought that on, but perhaps tourist photographers are a pain in the busy summer months.  I can assure you that everyone else I encountered during my stay in Lisbon was much more welcoming.  Hell, even the drug dealers.

Segunda-feira (Monday)

My last day in Lisbon involved a field trip to the outskirts of town, to the mountain retreat of Sintra, 45 minutes to the northwest by train.  Famed for its beautiful royal palaces, Sintra is a world heritage site, and February was a perfect time to visit.  In summertime it must be rammed solid with visitors, but when I arrived shortly before 10 o'clock there were few others around.  My Rough Guide quoted the words of Lord Byron, who was deeply impressed with Sintra when he stayed here in 1809:

[Sintra is] perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description natural and artificial.  Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the town and the Tagus ... it unites in itself all the wildness of the Western Highlands with the verdure of the south of France.

Byron had a bit more time at his disposal; as for me, there was just time to visit the three key sites of Sintra: the Palacio Nacional in the town itself, and the Palacio da Pena and the Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish castle whose crenellated walls grace the mountaintop of Santa Eufemia overlooking the town.

The Palacio Nacional's prominent and unusual twin conical whitewashed chimneys are visible through the whole town, and draw many thousands of visitors every year.  (It turns out they also make a great echo chamber, because they're hollow and you can stand underneath them, clapping away to your heart's content until people look at you funny).  The 15th century architecture features grand dining chambers and audience rooms with distinctive ceiling paintings, like the graceful swans adorning the Sala dos Cisnes and the cheeky flock of magpies on the ceiling of the Sala das Pegas, which were supposedly painted because the King was fed up with the gossiping of the ladies at court.  So magpies are gossipy?  The palace also contains the bedchamber in which the deposed and reputedly insane King Afonso VI was imprisoned for nine years until his death in 1683.  Plenty of room for frenzied pacing, luckily.

Sala dos Cisnes

Sala das Pegas

Sala dos Brasoes

Afonso VI's bedchamber

As I was feeling energetic I decided to walk to my next stop, the Palacio da Pena, thinking that it wasn't far from Sintra.  That just goes to show that a guidebook is only as good as the person who doesn't read it, because it turned out that the route I took was five kilometres long and involved a strenuous hike up steep and winding mountain roads.  I guess I was lucky that it wasn't summertime, because I probably wouldn't have been able to cope with the heat.  As it was I was rather shattered by the time I reached the pinnacle of Santa Eufemia some 50 minutes later.

The climb was definitely worth it, because the Palacio da Pena is a remarkable concoction: a fantasy mountaintop castle in the league of Prince Ludwig's extraordinary Neuschwanstein.  The palace is on a smaller scale than its German compatriot due to its smaller size and its combination of styles and vibrant colour scheme contrasts with the Bavarian castle, but both were built for German royalty.  The Palacio da Pena was constructed in the 1840s for Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Portugal's Queen Maria II.  Inside, the palace is a jumble of styles and densely populated with the clutter of Victorian-era royalty, because it has been left in the state in which it was outfitted when the royal family fled to England in 1910.  No photos were permitted inside, but the vibrant colours and fanciful design of the exterior were enough for me.  The amazing views across the surrounding terrain were also impressive, and I even experienced the pangs of vertigo clambering around a lofty but decidedly open-air battlement with a huge, plummeting drop below.  (My toes are itching even now as I write this).

Palacio da Pena

A triton guards the gateway

My last stop for the day in Sintra was the nearby Castelo dos Mouros, the ninth century Moorish castle overlooking the town.  It was captured by the Christians in 1147 and fell into disrepair until the castle walls were restored in the mid-19th century on the orders of the monarch.  Like the Castelo in Lisbon, the walls of Sintra's castle offer splendid panoramic views, and also like its Lisbon equivalent, they offer plenty of opportunity to accidentally fling oneself to certain doom.  There is a very real sense of being in a 'proper' castle as you clamber up the steep steps to the high towers and peer down the mountainside at the town below, and wonder how on earth the castle's defences would have been breached in the 12th century if the defenders hadn't surrendered.

It was finally time to head back to Lisbon after a great afternoon.  I walked down the steep and winding path through the mountain greenery back to Sintra, and took the train back to the city along with young mothers gabbling on their mobiles while their freshly-scrubbed babies goggled at the passing suburban scenery.  I collected my bag from the hostel and loaded the princely sum of €0.90 (NZ$1.60) onto my natty cardboard Lisbon metro card, and boarded a city bus to take me directly to the airport in under half an hour.  I needn't have rushed though, because the return Easyjet flight to Gatwick was nearly an hour late.  This meant over an hour standing in line at the boarding gate, because the seating isn't assigned and once a queue forms no-one wants to lose their place!  

It was a great long weekend in Lisbon, and I highly recommend a visit if you haven't been before.  There's plenty to do and see, the prices are low, the weather is great (at least while I was there), and the people are friendly with a good command of tourist English.  What more could you want?  And as for my map of Western Europe, now all that remains is Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and San Marino, but I wouldn't hold your breath for reports of a long weekend in any of those destinations any time soon...

14 February 2011

The Rood of Grace

From a discussion of the Reformation in England, and the debunking of idol-worship in the church:

In February 1538, a representation of the Crucifixion of Christ - the famous 'Rood of Grace' - at the Cistercian abbey of Boxley, near Maidstone in Kent, was jubilantly exposed as a fraud.  It had long been the object of virtuous pilgrimage, as the figure's eyes rolled, the lips moved and it could nod and shake its head, hands and feet.  This regular performance, undertaken strangely only when money was donated to the abbey, was believed by the faithful to be a recurrent and wondrous miracle.  In reality, that miracle was more one of medieval engineering: the monks caused the movements of Christ's effigy simply by secretly tugging on a system of wires, levers and pulleys.  [Henry VIII's minister Thomas] Cromwell's longtime friend Geoffrey Chambers jubilantly reported to the Lord Privy Seal that on plucking down the image he had found 'certain engines and old wire [and] rotten sticks, in the back of the same that did cause the eyes ... to move and stare in the head, like ... a lively thing and also the nether lip likewise to move as though it should speak'.  The abbot 'with other [of] the old monks' naturally denied any knowledge of the automaton, but were sent to London to be questioned by Cromwell, even though the abbot pleaded piteously that he was 'sore sick'.  

Chambers took the contraption to Maidstone market and demonstrated its workings 'to all the people there present, to see the false, crafty and subtle handling thereof, to the dishonour of God and illusion of the people'.  It was then taken to Westminster and shown triumphantly to Henry, who plainly could not decide whether to celebrate the fraud's exposure or lament at the deception inflicted upon his faithful subjects.  

On 12 February, the Rood made positively its last performance at Paul's Cross, outside the great London cathedral, when John Hilsey, Bishop of Rochester, happily smashed it into a hundred pieces.  The destruction revealed the figure to be made of 'paper and clouts [patches of cloth] from the legs upward; each leg and arm were of timber and so the people had been deluded and caused to do great idolatry by the said image of long continuance to the derogation of God's honour and great blasphemy of the name of God'.  The huge crowd of people that witnessed the Rood's destruction now laughed at 'that which they adored but an hour before'.  The 'rude people and boys' then joyfully hurled the remains of the automaton onto a bonfire.

- Robert Hutchinson, Thomas Cromwell, London, 2007, p.162-3.

01 February 2011

The tyranny of distance didn't stop the cavalier

I've recently been reading a great deal about the history of global exploration and cartography.  First up, I enjoyed reading Toby Lester's The Fourth Part of the World, about the famous Waldseemuller map of 1507.  This is a large world map that was famously purchased by the US Library of Congress for $10 million in 2001 because it's the oldest existing map to show the name 'America'.  In the case of the Waldseemuller map the name (which is taken from the feminised version of the name of an accomplished Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci) is actually applied to South America rather than the area of the present-day United States, but it shows what is probably the very earliest genesis of the name that came to be applied to the entire New World.

Lester's book then led me to seek out another in a similar vein.  The Anglo-Spanish scholar Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's 2006 book Pathfinders: a global history of exploration is a highly readable survey of the history of exploration from its earliest examples in antiquity through to the last ventures to obscure pockets of the globe in the early 20th century.  You might have heard of Fernandez-Armesto, who is a distinguished scholar in both Britain and America, in another context.  He was the historian assaulted and arrested for jaywalking in Atlanta in January 2007, in a clash of cultures that made headlines around the world.  Here he recalls the incident, and how it affected his understanding of America:

I learnt that the Atlanta police are barbaric, brutal, and out of control. The violence I experienced was the worst of my sheltered life. Muggers who attacked me once near my home in Oxford were considerably more gentle with me than the Atlanta cops. Many fellow historians at the conference, who met me after my release, had witnessed the incident and told me how horrific they found it. Even had I really been a criminal, it would not have been necessary to treat me with such ferocity, as I am very obviously a slight and feeble person. But Atlanta's streets are some of the meanest in the world, and policing them must be a brutalising way of life.

Pathfinders is an excellent read, and I thoroughly enjoyed its command of the historical material and the attention to detail it displays.  In particular, Fernandez-Armesto's valuable command of both British and Iberian sources enables him to provide a strong picture of the important Spanish and Portuguese exploration from the late 15th century onwards.  One particularly interesting passage discusses the exploration of the South Pacific following the expansion of Spanish rule in South America and the discovery of the treacherous but navigable Straits of Magellan.  In a section discussing this exploration, Fernandez-Armesto outlines the exploits of one captain and how far afield he travelled.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1532-92) was on the Alvaro de Mandana expedition of 1567 that sought the great southern continent of Terra Australis that European philosophers believed must exist in the south to counterbalance the Eurasian land mass in the north.  After a huge trans-Pacific voyage the expedition discovered and named the Solomon Islands in February 1568.  A decade later, after writing a major history of the Incas that was later lost to posterity, de Gamboa led his own Pacific expedition.  A major driving force behind the journey was the plight of the isolated Spanish colonies in the wake of the depredations of Sir Francis Drake's privateering raids on the coasts of Peru and Mexico in 1578.  Here Fernandez-Armesto discusses the intent and scope of the voyage:

Detailed charting of the complexities of the southern Chilean coast had to await the work of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, an uomo universale of exceptional talent as a navigator, historian, and propagandist - who, in 1579 to 1580, scoured the islands, swept the Pacific as far as the Chatham group, and worked his way through the the Strait of Magellan from west to east.  His voyages were part of an attempt to make the Pacific secure against incursions by English, French, and Dutch pirates by finding suitable sites for fortifications and naval bases [Pathfinders, p.223]
These details are impressive, given the challenges of navigation at the time, but the key phrase that interests me is the note that de Gamboa 'swept the Pacific as far as the Chatham group'.  This is certainly not beyond the capabilities of Spanish sailors of the time, given that the de Mandana expedition travelled further in 1567-68 and could have easily turned aside to the vicinity of New Zealand intentionally or accidentally if the prevailing wind direction had altered.

The Chathams are an isolated and small island group lying about 800km east of the New Zealand mainland.  According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 'William R. Broughton discovered the group in 1791 while en route to Tahiti in the British ship Chatham'.  Perhaps de Gamboa came across them during his Pacific wandering?  It's not as if there haven't been rumours about Spanish explorers reaching New Zealand before Abel Tasman passed by in 1642.  After all, there's the case of the mysterious iron helmet from the 1580s found in Wellington Harbour 'some time before 1904', although there is no evidence to link that artifact to Spanish travellers and as it displays little water damage it may well have been dropped into the Harbour at a much later date.  A similar helmet was found in the Kaipara Harbour and is apparently part of the collections of the Dargaville Museum, but I can't find a photo online.  Author Ross Wiseman in his book The Spanish Discovery of New Zealand in 1576 claimed that the Spanish explorer Juan Fernandez took an unrecorded stopover in New Zealand, although the available evidence is fairly unconvincing, and the fact that in another book Wiseman claims that ancient Phoenicians once settled in New Zealand encourages careful readers to take his views with a strong dose of scepticism.

While it may be an entirely fanciful notion, wouldn't it be nice to consider that de Gamboa might have beaten Broughton to the Chathams by over 200 years?  And in so doing, set back the date of the European discovery of the New Zealand islands by over 60 years?