Back next week…but don’t forget to celebrate the 68th birthday of one of the gods of the Comic Pantheon tomorrow (not John Cleese – we’ll have to wait until October for the dead parrot sketch):
March 28, 2011
March 27, 2011
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo died in Madrid on this date in 1770, having just passed his seventy-fourth birthday on March 5, a goodly age for the time.
Tiepolo died with his boots on, so to speak, working for the King of Spain on a ceiling fresco for the Throne Room. Every noble eye in Europe wanted to look up and see a Tiepolo ceiling – it’s amazing how many vast and highly detailed works the Venetian master was able to complete in his lifetime, both large canvases for the palaces that lined the Grand Canal and the more time-consuming frescoes that adorn walls and ceilings in Spain, Germany and churches all over Italy.
One of his first big commissions was for the New Residence of the Prince-Bishops of Schoenborn. The Schoenborns were old money in 1720, having been nobles since the late 14th century. Besides ruling their county – which made them counts – they worked their way up pretty high in the Church, hence the title Prince-Bishop. In 1720, Johann, Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg, won half a million florins in a oourt case, which gave him the equivalent of $2 million in disposable income.
Already dissatisfied with the palace he was living in, he commissioned the New Residence. He didn’t live to see it finished, but his brother Friedrich, also Prince-Bishop, saw it through to completion in 1744.
Twenty-four years is a lot of construction time, but you can’t rush a 400-room Baroque Palace. In 1753, Tiepolo was asked to ice the cake with frescoes, including one on the ceiling of the breathtaking entrance stairway. His work is the largest ceiling fresco in the world at more than 7,000 square feet.
The Residence is now a World Heritage site, representing as it does the quintessential Baroque palace. You can see more of it here.
The palace is used for educational purposes now, but don’t worry, the Schoenborns can still hang their hats at Schloss Weissenstein, which looks a lot the same. And happily for traditionalists, a Schoenborn – Christoph – is currently Archbishop of Vienna.
March 26, 2011
Ground was broken on this date in 1982 for a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, only two weeks after the selection committee had approved the winning design.
More than 1,400 designs had been submitted and all were displayed anonymously, so the committee would not be influenced by whatever they might know about the entrant.
Without that anonymity, it’s quite possible that a 21-year-old Yale student – female at that – would not have been chosen as the designer of the memorial.
Unfortunately for architect/artist Maya Lin, almost everyone hated it, especially the veterans of the war – they commissioned another memorial entirely. By the time the memorial was finished, she had endured an enormous amount of criticism – some of it quite vicious – for her simple, unassuming design.
But the years have proved her genius. The simple basalt slab, polished to a reflective surface and engraved with the names of all those who died between 1955 and 1975, has become a much-loved icon. So loved in fact, that a traveling Wall was created to bring the memorial to those who couldn’t get to DC - and that in turn prompted calls for more, so that now there are four half-size walls that travel the country.
The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial was the brainchild of a vet named Jan Scruggs, who started a fund for a memorial with $2,800 of his own money. About the design, Scruggs has said that it is more than a memorial: ‘It has become a shrine.’
March 25, 2011
One hundred years ago today, in the late afternoon, a fire started on the eighth floor of the Asch Building in lower Manhattan. Before it was out, 146 employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were dead, 129 of them women. Girls, many of them, still in their teens, immigrants not long off the boat.
At least 62 of the workers died jumping from the windows of the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, though many were on the one fire escape that buckled and collapsed and fell to the ground.
Those who survived had either made it to the elevator before it stopped running or to the roof. Among them were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the company, and their children, whom they’d brought to the factory for a visit. Two stairways were unusable, one because of flames, and the other because it was locked and the foreman with the key was one of the first to flee.
For 99 years and 11 months, the identities of six of the victims were still unknown. Then, in February, an amateur genealogist named Michael Hirsch released his report on the six unknowns and his list of names is now the definitive one. You can find the story here and a complete list of names here.
A lot of things changed after the fire, including the fire department, which had no ladders long enough to reach the top floors of the building. New York state became one of the most progressive labor states in the country and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) grew in strength.
Some things of course will never change – the owners were tried on first and second degree manslaughter charges and found not guilty. A civil suit followed, and resulted in fines of about $75 per victim. This was no loss for Blanck and Harris, as their insurance amounted to about $400 per person. Blanck was tried again in 1913 for locking the exit doors and was fined $20.
The Asch Building still exists. It was bought by a philanthropist named Frederick Brown, who donated it to New York University. It is a National Historic Landmark.
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Many happy returns to Gloria Steinem, Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Sarah Jessica Parker.
March 23, 2011
This was the date of the Academy Awards in 1949 – before midnight, Broderick Crawford had won Best Actor for his portrayal of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, Best Picture winner.
It was generally believed that author Robert Penn Warren had based Willie Stark on the notorious Huey Long, though Warren denied it. In fact, author Hamilton Basso probably came closest with Cinnamon Seed, a novel that in some cases changes the names of real characters by only one letter.
Basso’s Harry Brand and Warren’s Willie Stark are both pretty unattractive characters, which is too bad, since Huey Long was a real progressive hero, at least until he went mad with power. Governor from 1928 -1932 and Senator from 1932-35, Long was a supporter of FDR. But by the time he got to the Senate, Roosevelt was calling him one of the two most dangerous men in America (MacArthur being the other) and Republicans in Louisiana were forming their own militia to overthrow him.
Huey Long did amazing things for the oppressed of Louisiana – he fought Standard Oil and the plutocrats of New Orleans, he tripled enrollment at Louisiana State University, got the LSU medical school started, created work-study programs for poor students, got rid of the poll tax – which increased voter participation by 75% – built 11 bridges, and quadrupled the miles of paved roads in the state. He built a new Charity Hospital and gave kids free textbooks. At the beginning of the Depression, he was giving people jobs, ultimately 22,000 construction jobs that added up to 10% of the national total.
He took on the banks in Louisiana, imposing such strict regulations that while nearly 5,000 banks failed nationwide, only 7 failed in the state. Long hated the Federal Reserve and blamed it for the Depression.
Huey Long was born in 1893. That means he was governor at the age of 35 and a senator at 39. He accomplished more in seven years than any other American politician except possibly FDR himself.
But his is not an American story – only a Euripides could tell his story. With each of his stellar accomplishments, he became more power-mad until his blind drive to run the world ended in his death. Having had his chosen successor declare martial law in response to his opponents’ paramilitary organization, he was back in Baton Rouge in 1935 trying to get one of his enemies – a judge, as it happened – ousted by special legislation. Walking through the hall of the Capitol with his bodyguards, he was shot by the judge”s son-in-law. Long died two days later.
Long’s wife Rose finished his Senate term and his son Russell B. Long was elected to the Senate in 1948, the only senator ever to succeed both his father and his mother. Russell Long served 40 years, much of it as head of the Senate Finance Committee, well-known for his very conservative position on finance.
March 22, 2011
Today marks the anniversary of the transfer of the Emerald Buddha from Thonburi in Siam to the city of Bangkok by King Rama I in 1784.
It was Rama who – as General Chao Phraya Chakri - had liberated the Buddha from Vientiane in Laos five years before and when he became king, he had it installed in its own temple on the palace grounds, where it still lives. The Emerald Buddha was the palladium of Bangkok.
A palladium, btw, is not, as I thought, a big hall and the name of many movie theaters, but originally meant an image which protected a community. It comes from Pallas Athene, whose statue was stolen from Troy by Odysseus and Diomedes; in English, it came to mean any kind of safeguard.
It is also the season for changing the Buddha’s clothes. That is done three times a year in summer, fall and early spring – warm, rainy and cool weather clothes. The buddha, which is not emerald but jadeite. wears a wardrobe of solid gold.
His outfit is changed by the king, although that may not happen this year, as the king has been in the hospital for many months since coming down with the flu and pneumonia in 2009. He is Bhumibol Adulyadej, 83, also known as Rama IX. The king is the longest-serving head of state in the world and the longest- reigning king of Siam, with 65 years on the throne.
Rama IX has lived through 15 coups, 16 constitutions and 27 prime ministers, so the palladium seems to be working.
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The first enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall in America may have opened on this date in 1956 in Edina, MN – there seems to be some confusion over whether it was Michigan or Minnesota and when exactly.
But shopping malls have been around a very long time – the first was probably in Damascus- the Al-Hamidiyah Souq has been around since the seventh century. Isfahan got one in the tenth century and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul dates from the 15th century. Covered arcades like those in the Middle East began to appear in Europe in the 18th century – the Oxford Arcade of 1771 is still operating. Rhode Island got one in 1828 and The Arcade in Cleveland opened its doors in 1890.
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March 21, 2011
Johann Sebastian Bach, born 326 years ago today – what is there to say?
Well, let’s go with Charlie Mingus: ’What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach.’
(For more scrolling-score videos like the one below, go here.)
March 20, 2011
…but it’s always a good time to celebrate Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose birthday was yesterday. A Victorian phenom, even at a time when many gentlemen pursued science and literature, traveled to exotic climes and exerted themselves on behalf of the Empire, Burton was in a class by himself. His life was so packed with adventure that Wikipedia not only gives him ample biographical space, but has created a Richard Burton timeline.
Sort of an ‘army brat,’ Burton was the son of an officer who took his family with him to every posting – which explains how young Richard started learning a foreign language early. He had an ear and he picked up dialects as well as the formal tongue wherever he went – best guess is that over his lifetime he learned nearly 30 languages. As a young (early 20s) officer in India, he learned Hindi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Marathi, Arabic and Persian.
And he had a flair for the dramatic – assigned to the survey of Sindh, he liked to dress and speak like a native, traveling the area under the name of Mirza Abdullah, delighted when his fellow officers didn’t recognize him.
It was his talent for disguise that led to his first literary success – disguised as a Pashtun, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, the second non-Muslim ever to do so. Had he been discovered, it’s likely he’d have been murdered on the spot. He wrote up his adventure as A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855) and became an instant celebrity.
Burton worked for the Royal Geographical Society long enough to be the first European to locate Lake Tanganyika – it was on that expedition that he and his group were attacked and he took a javelin in the face, leaving him with a dramatic scar that can be seen in the Leighton portrait. He traveled in disguise again as an Arab merchant in order to find the forbidden city of Harar in Somalia. He ended up as a diplomat, posted at the end of his life in Trieste.
He translated The Arabian Nights and The Kama Sutra for shocked Victorians and he was working on the translation of the classic The Perfumed Garden when he died.
He married Isabel Arundell, who devoted her life to furthering his career, a task made more difficult by Burton’s ability to irritate and offend precisely those people whose approval he sought.
He was an amazing, multitalented, complicated man, just as Colonel Blimpish as any Victorian gentleman, yet simultaneously adventurous, forward-thinking and liberal in his attitudes towards the exotic cultures he encountered.
There is so much to know about him and a good place to start is here.. Many of his best-known works are at Project Gutenberg. And here is a bit of First Footsteps in East Africa, the story of his trek to find Harar:
The interior ofour new house was a clean room, with plain walls, and a floor of tamped earth; opposite the entrance were two broad steps of masonry, raised about two feet, and a yard above the ground, and covered with, hard matting. I contrived to make upon the higher ledge a bed with the cushions which my companions used as shabracques, and, after seeing the mules fed and tethered, lay down to rest worn out by fatigue and profoundly impressed with the ‘poesie’ of our position. I was under the roof of a bigoted prince whose least word was death; amongst a people who detest foreigners; the only European that had ever passed over their inhospitable threshold, and the fated instrument of their future downfall.
March 18, 2011
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum sits in a quiet, parklike setting on the Fenway in Boston. a leafy street that is also home to the Museum of Fine Arts. Very little foot traffic there, especially at two a.m.
That was the time a gang of art thieves broke into the little museum on March 18, 1990, overwhelmed two guards and stole nearly half a billion dollars worth of paintings.
Neither the thieves nor the art has ever been found.
Among the thirteen works of art were a Vermeer, a Manet, some Rembrandts, and a Degas or two. The Gardner was a jewel of a museum, modeled on the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice and its collection had been guided by Bernard Berenson. Isabella Gardner left an endowment for the museum and strict instructions that nothing in it could ever be changed or – a peculiar threat – it would all go to Harvard.
In the 21 years since the theft, none of the works has surfaced. The FBI, which was heavily criticized for their handling of the case, has kept all the works on their art fraud website – you are invited to call if you spot them.
The guards, btw, weren’t much help – they had been wrapped in duct tape and handcuffed to heating pipes and weren’t even sure how many villains were involved.
Theories about the robbery still abound. It was first rumored that the IRA was behind it, but that has been discounted over the years and focus has shifted to a criminal mastermind who might have organized it while still in jail. A great summary of likely perpetrators can be found here.
Are these great paintings stored in a warehouse somewhere? Or are they being enjoyed by some uber-rich art lover in a secret secure location? No one knows, but no one forgets – the Gardner has left the empty frames permanently on display to remind us all.
March 17, 2011
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Patrick btw either lived to the age of 106 (387-493 CE) or – more likely – was actually two people. Most legends refer to the Bishop sent to Ireland by the Pope to lead the populace away from paganism and into the Christian fold.
And, since post-glacial Ireland apparently had no snakes, one theory says that it was the serpent emblems of the Druids that Patrick actually got rid of.
It’s a good theory, but the facts don’t really support it, mostly because there are no facts. So very little is known about the Druids – who left no written records – that it can all be summed up in a few words: they were a priestly class for whom the oak tree was sacred.
There is not a scintilla of archeological evidence for their existence or practices and the only record of Druids is in the works of Roman historians. The Romans were the first to suppress the Druids and Julius Caesar, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder all mention them. The Romans found the Druidic practice of human sacrifice particularly repellent, but their belief in reincarnation curious.
They refer to a Druid as a ‘magus,’ an interpreter of omens and signs.
The word ‘druid’ is said to be derived from the proto-Celtic word for oak, and Tacitus describes Roman armies cutting down sacred groves. Augustus decreed that no one could be both a druid and a Roman citizen. He was followed by Claudius, who banned druidic practices altogether.
Druidry came back in the Romantic movement of the 19th century and then again in the 20th when Ross Nichols founded the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which still exists – you can become a druid in a year, rather than the twenty it took the first druids. Yiou can do it at home with CDs the OBOD sends you for $33 a month (my best guess at the price structure which is pretty vague).
My theory is that the metaphorical snakes were in fact any pagan, serpents in Eden.