Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Artifact: Vasa

The Vasa at Vasamuseet, Stockholm

In 1628, Sweden's nautical power was at it's prime. Sweden had joined the devastating Thirty Years War with Denmark and had an interest in controlling the upper part of the Germanic territories bordering the Baltic Sea while all the confusion was going on below. It was a pretty good tactic, to jump in while whole regions of lower Europe were being devastated and everyone was in disarrary, much like the shrewd character who sneakily sidles over and pockets the crown-jewels while the other thieves are rolling around in a discordant dust cloud.

King Gustavus Adolphus (a stunningly original name for a Swedish monarch. By the by, if you ever have to guess the name of a Swedish King, Gustav is a fair bet) was one of the most successful Swedish monarchs in terms of military victory having ruled throughout the entire war, and decided near the end of the fiasco to comission a military vessel - another warship as grand in its scale as his percieved victory.

He would not be there when his ship was launched however. The king was abroad when the beautiful and mighty vessel 'Vasa' left the harbour, and whilst upon it's maiden voyage out of Stockholm foundered less than a mile from its fanfare-surrounded point of origin and sank.

The extremely detailed stern and aftcastle of the Vasa

Due to faults in design from rushed planning, an insufficient and cricial lack of ballast, and a rather strong wind straight off the bat, the great ship was doomed to founder and after its precious bronze cannons were retrieved in the 17th century, was forgotten, lying on the ocean floor until discovered again by chance in the mid 1900's.

Luckily the freezing waters (and thus lack of woodworm) preserved the ship remarkably well, and today it sits in a museum for all to see, Stockholm's Vasamuseet. It's a definite to-do if you're visiting the city.


Monday, October 24, 2011

The Queen of the Adriatic - Part 1

The Piazzetta San Marco, Venice

Few cities on Earth rival the sheer splendour, history or mystery of Venice. It's piecemeal development has been shaped by numerous owners, and influenced by it's major role in the history of Europe over the last thousand years, from it's origins as a supposed fishing colony on swampy marshland, to a town built up by fleeing Romans, it has been slowly and at times turbulently transformed into one of the most beautiful cities ever built.

Though the city itself could be considered a relic and piece of art, within its labyrinthine twists and turns lie a number of artifacts the city has collected from both Italy and abroad, two of the most famous including the beautiful Horses of St. Marks, and the striking bronze statues of St. Theodore and the winged-lion (and symbol of Venice) sitting atop their columns. Today I wish to start this series by talking about one of these two columns.

In particular the lion of St. Mark may have more of a story behind it than initially strikes the visiting traveler. Very little in Venice originated in the city itself, the origins of its treasures as varied as the city's various historical custodians and this statue has lived a life in line with that past.

It is comprised of various different bronze pieces held together by metal braces. The wings, added by restorers, which were originally created to look like individual feathers (1) were later modified to become solid blocks. The body itself is argued to have come from Constantinople as a spoil of war and was originally a chimera, not a lion, which then had the wings added to fit the character of Venice's patron saint St. Mark. Preceding its life in Constantinople, the lion (or chimera) has a possible origin in Persia and it thought to have been created somewhere around 300BC (2). That's an old statue.

The tail is debatably the original, but if the chimera assumption is correct it has been modified heavily or replaced, the original would have been in the form of a snake (traditionally chimeras have the body of a lion, the tail is a snake, and to make things more uncomfortable and just generally perplexing also have a goat's head emerging from their back).

Looking closely at the face of the statue one can imagine that its original form was different, the face doesn't quite match like what any modern observer would call a lion though by historical accounts, lion's faces were rarely rendered very accurately in art (understandable as … well have you ever tried to sketch a lion's face up close?), but does have unforgiving traits for ancient depictions of the chimera. The 'Chimera of Arrezzo' is an Etruscan bronze sculpture currently housed in the Archaeological Museum in Florence which carries remarkable familiarities to the St. Marks lion sculpture, especially the shape of the ears and face.

The Lion of St. Mark atop its column in the Piazzetta

Under its front paws, the statue stands proudly on a book, which in other depictions of the lion of St. Mark can be seen front on and contains the text 'Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus'. This Latin phrase, translated to 'Peace be upon you Mark, my evangelist' is the line supposedly delivered to Mark by an angel (legend tells that St. Mark visited Venice before he died, and was told that the city would be his final resting place). The book cannot be seen when viewing the sculpture from below, but from the Doge's Palace alongside, or even St. Marks Basilica in the nearby Piazza it is clear.

The final piece of this puzzle of a grab-bag relic is the very pillar upon which it sits. Like the matching column a few meters away carrying St. Theodore, this granite monolith is supposedly another spoil of Venetian plundering. In any case it certainly wasn't made in Venice nor for the purpose it's now used for, and its origins extend from the island of Chios in Greece (which early on was one of the most prosperous of the Greek islands) to Alexandria.

The Alexandrian theory is generally favoured, as the style and material supposedly matches that used in royal and administrative structures in the ancient Egyptian city. How the pillars were taken is unknown, but the old Venetians had an eye for such things and when Alexandria was in social and financial decay due to the silting of the Nile and the Arab invasion they went in for the valuables. It was not a unique case, half of Venice could be built on stone columns from distant cities thanks to the city's bold sea-faring and militarised past.

The columns were of course transported by sea and found their way into the Piazzetta where they remain to this day. Originally they would have welcomed visitors who arrived by water, but with today's train station depositing entering tourists the city at the opposite end, their effect is somewhat diminished. Nonetheless, the statues and their platforms are still a beautiful sight to anyone lucky enough to see them.


1. Ackroyd, Peter. Venice Pure City p. 255/256
2. Freeman, Charles. The Horses of St. Marks p. 87/88

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Artifact: Sagrada Familia Façade

Not so much an artifact in the traditional sense, Spanish artist and architect Antoni Gaudi's master project, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is, in every other sense, a truly astounding piece of art.

The temple depicts hundreds of moving biblical scenes around and inside it's stone confines, but this one in particular, found in an apse on the north eastern face (the Portal of Hope) caught my eye for it's sheer blunt dramaticism. In it a Roman soldier lifts a child to be killed in a scene inspired by the passage 'Massacre of the Innocents' (Matthew 2:16-18), in which King Herod orders the deaths of Bethlehem's youngest male children - the bible is just full of feel good moments, isn't it.

Despite the dark subject matter however, the depiction is both powerful and (oddly) beautiful. The stone has been carved in a very stylised manner and appears almost to expand out of the surrounding rock organically, the colour and smoothness really give the scene additional strength, light and shadow playing off each other theatrically. The sword is conversely made of metal, and tears your eyes down with a real thrust towards that poor woman grappling desperately in protest.

For the sculptures which were to adorn the basilica, Gaudi chose real life subjects and coated them with plaster which he would later replicate to make the final stone pieces. The man playing the soldier was allegedly a rather tall man from the area who's granddaughter is alive today and recounts her pride at her forefather's immortalisation - despite his somewhat awkward role.

This image can be downloaded from by right-clicking here, and makes for a rather awesome background.



Monday, October 17, 2011

Towering Above

What is it about towers that fascinates us? Is it the ancient, religious notion that by reaching skyward we grow closer to God? Is it a show of cavalier, egoist mischief? Or perhaps the ultimate form of dramatic artistic expression?

This year the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in the city of Dubai (rather unsurprising), reaching a staggering 828 meters, that's 2,717ft - or 8,151 hands for those horse enthusiasts out there. Unsurprising because of the current sheer, unfettered - and largely oil-related - wealth lying scattered around the United Arab Emirates, although the structure itself is breathtaking.

This building is however scheduled to be outshone (at least where height is concerned) by the planned mega-structure in the works known as the Kingdom Tower, which will become a centrepiece of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and is due to be completed in 2017. This bizarre feat of human engineering and architectural implausibility will reach an unprecedented height of over one kilometre high, the first building ever to do so, and will include a slew of thornily complex mechanisms to ensure that the simplest of things, such as water, will be delivered to every floor (apparently the air conditioning system will generate so much condensation that the resulting water will be utilised to service the upper floors).

The Burj Khalifa (left) and the planned Kingdom Tower (right)

It's not all that hard to imagine that buildings will keep growing like our own cultivated super-plants up out of the Earth for the forseeable future. Humans have always taken that extra effort to make something which shocks and awes, the pyramids of Egypt and South America, the cliff Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the dubiously debated Tower of Babel which by biblical accounts landed humankind in it's current (deplorably?) multi-lingual state are all examples. Clearly wherever there is room for improvement, we will find a way, and at the rate technology is changing there appears to be no slowing down.

One of the possible causes for a stratification to occur however is of course, money. The Kingdom Tower is being financed by King Abdullah's nephew and the current wealthiest Arab in the Middle East, one Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (incidentally, Al's boat, the Kingdom 5KR is currently the second biggest Benetti yacht in the world. First place goes to the Reverie, a no-bars held luxury cruiser which I had the pleasure of seeing first hand on a recent trip to Italy. The Kingdom 5KR features in James Bond movie Never Say Never Again albeit using it's altered name Nabila). Yet like the pyramids, once the monarch disappears, they remain as a solemn reminder not so much of the person buried within, but the once great prosperity of the region they inhabit.

So, will the imposing precipices dotting the world have the same fate? Possibly. Our civilisation is the largest and could be the most stable in all of recorded human history if it continues on the current track, so it's hard to see it vanishing like the Egyptians' did, but if oil is to run out (and estimates put that at between ten to forty years - erm, goodbye cars) then the vast fortunes of many a royal Middle Eastern family will perhaps do the same.

At least one result could be that this money is spent with much more caution, and these buildings will cease to be made with such flagrant zeal. If you are familiar with the new Star Trek movie (J. J. Abrams 2009) that could be a depressing thought, as the buildings seen looming in the dusty horizon of Iowa a couple of hundred years from now will be a mere pipe dream.

In any case, the buildings of today aren't built with the same raw lastability of the pyramids or Buddhas. Anyone who has watched one of those ridiculously dramatic National Geographic pseudomentaries knows that our buildings today may last just a few hundred years, and after that, they'll all come tumbling down with exceptionally poor special effects to the earth from whence they sprouted.

Let's hope Hollywood is, like these crazy builders of the past and present, just hooked on exaggeration.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Artifact: Chest Plate

Tutankhamun is popular for a reason; the artifacts found in his tomb are just darned wicked. This skilfully crafted chest plate was one of those recovered items and shows the young king seated with a crook over one shoulder, handing an ankh (the ancient Egyptian symbol for life) to a winged blue goddess.

The piece is made from beaten and moulded metals, mostly gold, with semi-precious stones inlayed. Above the scene are cartouches containing the king's name, (not Tutankhamun, but one of his other five royal titles: Nebkheperure, which is rather a mouthful). Finally, over it all sit mirrored hieiroglyphs of a reed and bee which create the word Nesu-bity, used to describe a king as ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt.

It's a rather smashing piece certainly telling of the Egyptians' formidable stone and metalworking prowess. You can download it as a wallpaper/background from by right-clicking here.



Monday, October 10, 2011

Of This and That

"This goes here like that … and that's that" a doppish British accent on the television announced enigmatically - the concluding line of dialogue which marked the plating of a delicious looking dessert on a midday cooking program. Unsurprisingly, though the sentence was really quite basic it doesn't really sound too odd to English speaker's ears, despite the fact that ... well, the same word is used three times in rapid succession.

So why do we not generally care about the careless oddity above? Any other sentence using the same word three times would in to a native speaker's ears sound clumsy and simple, consider: I went to the shop and went in and went to the vegetables compared with I walked to the shop and went in and found the vegetables, we'd think the person were an infant - or drunk.

Generally, and especially in English as part of a received kind of snobbery from our forebears, we try to avoid repetition as we mature as speakers and gain a stronger command of the language. Yet with some particular terms, we tend simply to let this unspoken rule slide. This and it's associate that are two such examples, and in actuality, the usage of them is a success story which began over a thousand years ago, and is a remarkable example of the vitality and sticking-power of two of our most used words.

'This' and 'that' actually stem from much farther back than our closest linguistic ancestor Old English. As with many other languages today, Old English was a tapestry made up of many fragments borrowed and imported from other sources. Curiously, and also like many modern languages today, Old English assigned 'gender' to words, making them either masculine, feminine or neuter. Thus, both this (m. þés, f. þeos, n. þis) and that (m. se, f. sēo, n. þæt)* had three words each, which you could use depending on the gender of whatever it was you were describing. Thankfully for learners of English today, gender is essentially non-existent - and as anyone who has attempted German, French or perhaps (god forbid!) the devilishly tricky Polish will tell you, this is a good thing. Essentially, because we still hear traces of it when one speaks of their car, or their new speedboat, as in "She's a beauty isn't she" or "He'll go forty knots on a good wind". These are linguistic relics of our past, and are hardwired into us even though we don't generally realise we're using them. Despite this usage however, the gender has no real meaning or impact, we use him and her in these senses more to give the sentence texture.

Regardless, the import of these two words was powerful enough to have them slot comfortably into our top thirty most used words. It's estimated that that is the eighth most used word in our vocabulary, and that this sits at about twentieth, (incidentally, and to save you searching, the three most used words overall in English are currently: the, of, and and. Imaginitive, I know).

To trace the words back and find where the import occurred one needn't dig too hard. You can see obvious similarities in the modern German dies and das (this and that, pronounced: dees and duss), and also - given the Old English versions - in the Icelandic þetta and það (pronounced roughly: thetta and thath). The Swedish den (also: denna) and det (also: detta) gave up the þ ("th") in favour of a 'd', yet are still closely related to their Icelandic counterparts, and knowing all this, perhaps one might even see the connection in English with the Old Norse þessi and þat, which is in fact where the import of the words to English seem to have originated after the conquests of the Vikings between 700 and 1100AD.

These two words weren't the only two which English absorbed of course, but they are debatably two of the most successful. We use them in a range of situations, as pronouns (is this the right train? or can you show that to him?), adjectives (this one is the best, or I wanted to take that car home), adverbs (it was this big or there was that much to do) and of course for conjunctions (it is said that this is something we enjoy), and as in the last example, we even slot the two words next to each other quite often, especially in spoken language (I was thinking this; that we go there tomorrow).

The English language is rich with history and contains a deep and often untapped reservoir of words. Despite our supposed vocabulary of around 60,000 words, we only really use around 20,000 in everyday situations (see above), and with an active vocabulary that size it's surprising that the same words come up again and again. Yet within English there isn't really a good alternative to 'this' or 'that', we use them repeatedly, without reserve, and they cover such large territory that we couldn't communicate as effectively without them.

That's something that this writer finds rather interesting.


* Note that the masculine and feminine forms of the Old English that: se and sēo are more closely related to Celtic than the word we ended up using today. Presumably, the neuter version þæt was the most used form in the end as genders began to fade out of usage, and thus þæt became our current word for that.