Thursday, 29 December 2011

Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) - the Bauhaus Stairway and the Dessau Bauhaus

Bauhaus Stairway by Oskar Schlemmer (1932)

German born artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer is best known for his Triadic Ballet, in which the performers are transformed into geometric shapes. The work had its first performance in Stuttgart in 1922 and became the most frequently performed avant garde dance show of the time. 

The ballet was created at the Bauhaus, the influential school of art, architecture and design, which began its life in Weimar in 1919, before moving to Dessau, where it remained until 1932, and then dismantled shortly after. During this period it had been under attack from the far-right for its robotic and supposedly Marxist images. 

Schlemmer's painting Bauhaus Stairway is seen as his farewell to the Bauhaus. It depicts an ordinary day in the last year of Bauhaus in its modern Dessau building. In the picture we see the students walking up the stairs, away from us. Except, that is, for one figure, walking towards us, a symbol of hope, in sharp contrast to the stark realism in another depiction of the same event in the same year, Iwao Yamawaki's The End of Dessau Bauhaus, with its overarching brutality.

The End of Dessau Bauhaus by Iwao Yamawaki (1932)

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thomas Nast : Good old Mr Santa Claus!

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

So, it's that time of year again - Christmas! The supermarkets are serenading their shoppers with Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade, and John and Yoko's Merry Christmas (War is Over); the chirpy carol singers are out in the shopping centres with their joy and their bonhomie - except, that is, in the English town of Hemel Hempstead, where they've been banned for health and safety reasons (is it to protect them from us or us from them?); and the jolly Santas are filling their grottos with the sound of their merry, Yuletide laughter - though not the one that recently attacked his employer brandishing a knife.

The cult of Father Christmas most likely owes its origins t0 Dutch folklore and the figure Sinterklaas, anglicised into Santa Claus, and refined into his modern image by German-born American political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902). It was Nash that gave Santa his red coat and his chubby profile, and also, in the many illustrations that Nast did for the magazine Harper's Weekly, his opium pipe (?), which was the fashion at the time. (His contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, also liked to dabble in the opium dens of old London town, much to the disapproval of his fuddy-duddy associate and chronicler, Dr Watson.)

Thomas Nast cartoon
Nast was a friend of Mark Twain and shared his political views with him. He was an advocate for the abolition of slavery and an end to segregation. He was a supporter of the Republican Party until the 1884 presidential election when he switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party, and became a mugwump in the process (ooh, nasty!). But these things are insignificant compared with his iconic Santa Claus, without which our Christmases would have no more significance than getting drunk and behaving badly at the office party. 

Good old Santa!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Who was Moliere?

We're used to the controversial and sometimes provocative assertions that William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays that bear his name, so it's perhaps not surprising that there should be similar arguments d'outre Manche about France's own literary and theatrical hero, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Molière.

It all began in 1919 when French poet Pierre Louÿs became intrigued by what he percieved as the stylistic disparities in some of Molière's plays. He published a series of articles on the subject, before deciding that the great comedies (Tartuffe; Don Juan; The Misanthrope; The Miser) were not from the pen of Molière but were the work of Pierre Corneille, tragedian and author of El Cid.

He went further and compared the chronology of the two men and discovered that their paths had crossed on more than one occasion, leading him to affirm that 'Corneille dominated Molière's entire life'. He then posed the same predicable and indispensable questions about Molière that we hear about Shakespeare : Why did he leave no trace of his handwriting? Why have none of his letters to his family or to his friends survived? And Louÿs also wanted to know why, in 1644, did he adopt the pseudonym of Molière after a stay of six months at Rouen, the very place in which Corneille was living?

Fast forward to December 2001 and the publication of an article in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics by one Dominique Labbé, in which he compared sixteen plays of Molière and two comedies of Corneille using a statistical tool known as 'intertextual distance' which measures the overall difference in vocabulary in two texts in order to determine the relative difference in the occurrence of words. The lower the numbers are the more likely that they are the work of the same author. He concluded that the lexical difference in the plays was sufficient close to zero to prove that they came from the same hand, namely that of Corneille. He followed it all up in a book entitled Corneille in the Shadow of Molière.

Needless to say, Labbé's book upset many scholars. They pointed out that many playwright of the 17th century used similar vocabulary registers, and that in any case there are syntax and rhythm differences between the works of Corneille and Molière. Also the subject matter of their plays differed widely, Molière influenced by Italian farce, Corneille with heroic figures of tragedy and tragicomedy. And Corneille also went to great lengths to ensure intellectual copyright of his works.

As with Shakespeare, there may also be an element of snobbery involved. Both playwrights were provincial, both followed the lowly profession of actor, and both wrote bawdy comedies. Victims, perhaps, of their own uniqueness.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Viva l'Italia! (But mind your bottoms, ladies!)

Place Garibaldi, Nice.

Every nationality has its own quirks and characteristics. The Irish are famed for their songs and their storytelling; the French for their individuality (it is the reason there are so many political parties in France); Americans for their work ethic; Germans for their lack of humour (a little unfairly that one); and the British for their stiff upper lip and their understatement. (There is the story of the jet airliner crashing headlong into the sea from 30,000 feet, passengers screaming and praying, and the Englishman looks out of the window as one of the engines falls off and says: “The captain seems to be having a spot of bother”.) And there’s the Italians….

Italians are famed for their passionate and excitable natures (naturally!), and also for having the dubious distinction of being the goosing champions of western Europe, inspired perhaps by their recent prime-goosing minister Signor Berlusconi. If the European Union were to ever appoint a Minister of Sex, no contest, il Berlusconi is the one.

Italians are also a naturally expressive people. You can see it in their language which is so accentuated that you have really to open your mouth wide when you speak it. For this reason Italians speak with LOUD voices, so it follows they should be expansive too in their gestures when they speak. Mussolini, for instance. You may not have agreed with his politics, but he knew how to wave his arms around.

It must be the Latin temperament and the hot sun that makes them so effusive. On a busy street in Rome I once saw a motorcycle carabiniero come tearing along at 50 miles an hour, then suddenly turn his machine 90 degrees and come screeching to a halt in front of the oncoming traffic from the direction he’d just been travelling. No sooner had he stopped than he was off his bike and bringing the traffic to a complete stop. You can bet your life they don’t do that in Reykjavik.

I really like Italians. Ask them a question and they reply with a monologue that’s rambling and impossible to understand, but at least it’s not a grunt or a grumble, or worse, the discouraging word. There used to be a song about it - ‘Where never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day”. In the Nineteenth century they left Europe in their millions, not to escape the pogroms or the famines or the poverty, it was the discouraging word these huddled masses were fleeing from. Italy isn‘t completely free of it, of course, no-where is, it’s still there, along with its co-conspirators in low-mindedness: the half-baked look and the obsession with trivialities. But with Italians, at least, it’s not quite so institutionalised. 

I once stayed in a hotel in the musicians’ quarter of Nice, so called because the streets and squares are named after European classical composers, and was more than pleased that most of the guests staying in the hotel were Italian. Nice, in fact, is a popular holiday destination for Italians. At one time it was even an Italian city, when it was called Nizza. And one of the city’s most famous sons is Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy’s national hero, who was born there on 4 July 1807. His name is commemorated at Place Garibaldi.  

So Viva l’Italia! But mind your bottoms, ladies!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Nineteenth Century Photographs of Promenade des Anglais, Nice

The Promenade c1865-1895 photographed by Neurdein Frères.
Source: Cornell University Library]
La Prom in 1882 looking towards Hôtel Royal.
Source: Archive départementales des Alpes Maritime]
The Promenade in 1894 photographed by Jean Gilletta.
Source: Archive départementales des Alpes Maritime]
La Prom c1865-1895 with the old pavilion.
[Source: Cornell University Library]
View east along the Promenade in 1863 in this picture by Charles Nègre. In the background is Castle Hill. The artist turned photographer retired to Nice in 1863 and died in nearby Grasse, his home town.  [Source: Archive départementales des Alpes Maritime]

Friday, 9 December 2011

Exotic Botanical Garden of Menton (Jardin botanique exotique du Val Rahmeh)

Located in the Alpes-Maritimes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of south-east France, the town of Menton (population 28,833 in 2008) began its journey to international tourist status in the nineteenth century when it was 'discovered' by wealthy English and Russian aristocrats in search of a winter destination in which to idle away their privileged lives.

It is located close to the French-Italian border and is famous, among other things, for its many gardens, among which the beautiful Jardin botanique exotique de Menton, also known as Le Val Rahmeh, after the spouse of its first owner, Sir Percy Radcliffe, in 1905.

Lord Radcliffe created the garden on several levels, and brought there a large number of exotic fruit plants, such as Kiwi, avocado and banana trees. But the botanical aspect of the garden was introduced by a later owner in the 1950s, the exotically named Miss Maybud Campbell, who also added a second garden in which she installed a pond for water lilies, water hyacinth and papyrus.

In 1966 the garden passed into public ownership (French Museum of Natural History), and is now home to over 700 species of plants and trees, among which the Sophora Toromiro, the sacred tree of Easter Island, no longer found in its indigenous terrain. And for citrus fruit fanatics there is a bizarre finger-shaped lemon for them to drool over.

You'll find it in the sun and the silence of the Avenue Saint-Jacques, 06500 Menton. And just relaxez-vous !

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Restoration Playgoer - Samuel Pepys's theatre

Samuel Pepys portrait from 1666 by J. Hayls

When the London theatres reopened in 1660 after being closed for eighteen years by the Puritans during England's brief dalliance with republicanism, one of the first playgoers was the famous diarist, woman groper and Admiralty official Samuel Pepys. He was such an avid spectator of plays that he limited the number of times he would permit himself to go, in order to devote more time to his important Navy work, and to his constant battles with his arch enemy Admiral Sir William Penn, and incompetent colleagues Sir J. Minnes and Sir W. Batten, a knave and a fool respectively. He also enjoyed the theatres for the attractive women he saw there. On one occasion a lady accidentally spat on him, '...But after seeing her to be a very pretty lady, I was not troubled at it at all...'. [Diary entry 28 January 1661]

Despite his regular oaths to avoid plays, Pepys managed to visit the theatres on no fewer than 351 occasions during the nine years and five months of the Diary. He was a big admirer of Ben Jonson. On 7 January 1661 he saw The Silent Woman and thought it 'an excellent play'. He saw the play several times more, and also Bartholomew Fair, for the first time on 8 June 1661, when he described it as 'a most admirable play and well acted, but too much prophane and abusive'. Three years later he described the play as 'the best comedy in the world'. [Diary entry 2 August 1664]. Jonson's The Alchemist he liked, too, but was less enthusiastic about Shakespeare's plays. He thought Romeo and Juliet 'a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life...' [Diary entry 1 March 1662]. A Midsummer Night's Dream he described as a play 'which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. [Diary entry 29 September 1662]. And as for Twelfth Night, the very peak of the dramatist's romantic comedies and his most popular play in performance, he thought it 'a silly play, and not related at all to the name or day'. [Diary entry 6 January 1663]. But Shakespeare was redeemed with Macbeth, which Pepys thought 'one of the best plays for a stage'. [Diary entry 19 April 1667].

Scene from Twelfth Night (Malvolio and the Countess)
by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)
'A silly play' - Samuel Pepys

Women acted regularly on stage for the first time during the Restoration, among them Nell Gwyn, one of the king's many mistresses. She was a very attractive woman and so naturally Pepys's liked her very much, as he did two of the king's other mistresses - Lady Castlemaine and Mrs Stewart. On one occasion Pepys went to bed 'fancying myself to sport with Mrs Stewart with great pleasure'. [Diary entry 14 July 1663]. He called Nell Gwyn 'pretty, witty Nell'. [Diary entry 3 April 1665]. On the same day he saw a performance of a play called Mustapha, written by William Boyle, the 1st Earl of Orrery, with the Restoration's greatest actor Thomas Betterton. But the play, Pepys thought, was so poor, that not even Betterton could rescue it. He was more impressed with Lord Orrery's Henry V, which he called 'a most noble play...wherein Betterton, Harris, and Ianthe's parts are most incomparably wrote...'. [Diary entry 13 August 1664]. And he was impressed, too, with Betterton's Hamlet, 'done with scenes very well, but above all, Betterton did the prince's part beyond imagination'. [Diary entry 24 August 1661]

Pepys would often read plays on his way down the river to muster a naval vessel for an unannounced inspection. One play he read was Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass, but he certainly never saw the play since there is no record of a performance for 350 years since it was first presented in November or December 1616. On 7 July 1664 he bought a book of Shakespeare's plays.

Samuel Pepys led a very busy life. He was an Admirality officer, sitting on several committees, inspecting dockyards and vessels, serving as Justice of the Peace, running his own household, seeing to his extramarital affairs as well as flirting with any pretty women that came his way, maintaining his Diary and his Book of Tales, yet still finding time to see an average of around 1 play a week for the whole of the Swinging 1660s. And if his oath ever got in the way of his indulging his passion, he was well skilled at justifying it to himself, often in the most elaborate and convoluted terms, as in this Diary entry of 28 September 1664, apropos of a visit to the theatre as a guest of Lord Rutherford and another lord:

'And here I must confess breach of a vowe in appearance, but I not desiring it, and against my will, and my oathe being to go neither at my own charge nor at another's, as I had done by becoming liable to give them another, as I am to Sir W. Pen and Mr Creed; but here I neither know which of them paid for me, nor, if I did, am obliged ever to return the like, or did it by desire or with any willingness. So that with a safe conscience I do think my oathe is not broke and judge God Almighty will not think it otherwise.'

Thomas Betterton in the role of Hamlet (circa 1661)

Monday, 10 October 2011

Artists of the Promenade des Anglais, Nice

Promenade des Anglais (1892) by Edvard Munch

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is best known for his iconic work of anxiety and despair The Scream. But the artists also painted pictures that you'd want to hang on your bedroom wall or have as your screensaver, like his depiction here of Nice's beautiful Promenade des Anglais in 1892.

The famous walk has attracted many artists, the most notable of which was Raoul Dufy who lived for many years in the city. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted the promenade, as did less well known artists like Angelo Garino (1860-1945) in this painting below from 1922. The location is close to the Jardin Albert 1er with its fine esplanade and which once bore the name of le jardin Paradis (Paradise Garden).

Promenade des Anglais (1922) by Angelo Garino

German Max Beckmann (1884-1950) was another artist that was attracted to the charm of La Prom. In his work from 1947 called simply Promenade des Anglais in Nizza (Nizza is the Italian name for Nice which was once an Italian possession) we look down from the Colline du Chatêau, or Castle Hill, onto the broad sweep of the Bay of Angels below, with the dome of the famous Negresco Hotel clearly visible, though slightly exaggerated.

Promenade des Anglais in Nizza (1947) by Max Beckmann

Around the year 1938 Paris-born artist Pierre Eugène Montézin (1874-1946) set up his pallet on the promenade and painted his lovely picture Les palmiers sur la promenade des Anglais à Nice (Palm trees on the Promenade des Anglais). The artist loved the open air and the countryside and was still producing landscapes at the time of his sudden death on a painting trip to Brittany in 1946.

Les palmiers sur la promenade des Anglais à Nice (circa 1938)
Pierre Eugène Montézin
Other artists who painted the Promenade were Emmanuel Costa (born 1933); Belgian artist Gaston de Vel (1924-2010); Rose Calvino (born 1956); and doubtless many others, attracted by the light, the colours and the atmosphere of one of the most famous avenues on the Riviera. 

La promenade des Anglais à Nice (circa 1901) by Emmanuel Costa

Monday, 3 October 2011

Famous theatrical flops

Isabella and Claudio depicted
by William Holman Hunt
(1850). Shakespeare  leaves
it an open question whether
Isabella accepts the marriage
proposal of the duke-come-
fake-holy man.
Every writer has his or her flops, even the most renowned of them  all - William Shakespeare.  Measure for Measure, for instance, his story of a corrupt deputy, a phoney monk and a hysterical nun, placed among the Comedies in the First Folio but now regarded as a 'problem play' (along with Troilus and Cressida and the  ironically titled Alls Well That Ends Well). During the dramatist's lifetime the play has only one recorded performance, in 1604, when it was given before James I. It was revived in 1662 under the title The Law Against Lovers, an adaptation which included characters from Much Ado About Nothing, along with music and dancing. (Samuel Pepys saw the production and thought it 'a good play and well acted, especially the little girl's...dancing and singing, and were it not for her, the loss of Roxalana would spoil the house'). And in a 1699 version is was retitled once more, this time called Beauty the Best Advocate, with the most interesting bits (the low-life parts) removed.

Even worse for the poet was Troilus and Cressida, which does not seem to have been performed at the time he wrote it. It was staged during the Restoration in another heavily adapted version by John Dryden, who altered both plot and characterisation, as well as trying to 'improve' Shakespeare's 'ungrammatical' language. The piece was then ignored for most of the 18th century and for all but the last two years of the 19th century. But it was revived with much success in the 20th century and in the form that Shakespeare wrote it, demonstrating perhaps that the man was right all along, ungrammatical language and all.

These 'problem plays' immediately followed Hamlet and the timeless romantic comedies Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, and immediately preceded the great tragedies Othello, Macbeth and King Lear, which Punch once humorously described as a play about the difficulties of raising children in a damp climate.

(Left) 'King Lear and Fool in a Storm'
 by Sir John Gilbert.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Where did William Shakespeare live in London?

The disputed 'Flower portrait' of William Shakespeare now believed
to date for the Nineteenth Century
Where did Shakespeare lodge in London? On 15 November 1597 the Petty Collectors [of Taxes] for Bishopsgate stated in their accounts the names of certain persons who had avoided, for whatever reason, payment of their taxes. Among the names for St. Helen's parish (Bishopsgate) was that of William Shakespeare, assessed five shillings on goods valued at £5, the assessment made in October 1596 and falling due in February 1597. So we can conclude that sometime before October 1596 Shakespeare was living in the St. Helen's parish of Bishopsgate, perhaps near the church which is still standing. What we don't know, however, is whether he paid his five shillings taxes.

Our next sighting of the poet was again through the tax collectors when he was assessed thirteen shilling and four pence on goods valued at £5, the assessment made on 1 October 1598. On 6 October 1660 the amount due was still outstanding, and the Court of Exchequer referred the arrears to the Bishop of Winchester who had jurisdiction in the liberty of the Clink, an area on the south bank of the Thames in the county of Surrey. So we can see that Shakespeare had migrated across the river, perhaps following his theatre which had also relocated about this time. In his accounts for 1600-1 the Bishop reported the amount collected from the names of persons referred to him, including, one images, William Shakespeare. So near the end of the decade, possibly in 1599, the dramatist had taken up residence in the liberty of the Clink in Southwark in the county of Surrey.

Winchester House, the residence in Southwick of the Bishop of Winchester.
From Hollar's View of London circa 1660
How long Shakespeare resided in Southwick is not known, but we do know that no later that 1604 he was back in the city of London residing in the house of a French Huguenot by the name of Christopher Mountjoy in Silver Street in the Cripplegate ward. Mountjoy made ornamental headgear and wigs, and he employed an apprentice by the name of Stephen Bellot. In November 1604 Bellot married Mountjoy's daughter Mary, and in 1612 undertook a civil action against his father-in-law over the amount he alleged he had been promised as his marriage-portion or dowry. On 11 May 1612 Shakespeare was called to testify, and in his deposition stated that he had known both parties 'as he now remembrethe for the space of tenne yeres or thereaboutes'. This indicates that he could have been lodging in Silver Street as early as 1602. He was also asked to state his present address which he gave as Stratford upon Avon. 

One further house in London associated with Shakespeare is the 'Blackfriars gate-house' which he purchased in March 1613 from one Henry Walker 'citizen and minstral of London'. However, the very day after the sealing of the deed he mortgaged the gate-house back to Walker, so the purchase appears to have been purely an investment.

(Silver Street circa 1570 is included in the 'Agas' map of London and can be viewed at address

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mr Anonymous : Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604)

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
"Here's one I wrote earlier, guv".  [Edward de Vere]
So Hollywood has a new 'Shakespeare' movie coming out. Well, well, nearly 400 years dead and still good for business! The latest well-hyped offering is titled Anonymous and is based on the life of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (1550-1604), whom the film hails as the ‘true author’ of Shakespeare’s plays. This is the also the view of a handful of crackpot Shakespearean actors and academics, though it may have been thought that the fact that de Vere inconveniently died before many of the plays had been written (Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, Coriolanus, The Tempest) might have deterred them just a little.

One of the arguments they put forward against Shakespeare's authorship is that he did not attend a university and so would not have had the classical education needed to write the plays, many of which are based on stories from the Roman writer Ovid. But Shakespeare almost certainly attended Stratford Grammar School (the school records no longer exist, but Shakespeare's father was a town councillor and it was a 'perk' of all councillors that their sons were educated at the grammar school). They were called grammar schools because what they taught was Latin grammar, and once the boys had mastered the language all the lessons were in Latin. Among the books they studied was the works of - you guessed! - Ovid, and it is estimated that when the boys left the grammar school they would have had the equivalent of a classics degree from a modern university.

Shakespeare also seemed to reminisce on his grammar school days in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which we see a boy, appropriately called William, being given an amusing Latin lesson by his Welsh school master, called in the play Evans. It is known that when Shakespeare was a boy there was indeed a Welsh master teaching at the grammar school.

Shakespeare's dedication in
The Rape of Lucrece to his
patron, the Earl of Southampton
De Vere was a minor poet and writer of song lyrics. Among his lyrics was Come hither, shepherd swain, which was published under his own name: Earle of Oxenforde. So if he published poems under his name, why not plays, too? It is contended by his supporters that the writing of plays was regarded as a lowly profession and certainly not one to which a man of noble birth could associate his name. But Shakespeare also wrote poems. Is it not strange that the earl should acknowledge his authorship of his own trivia, but not of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which are regarded as poetic masterpieces?

The fact is that no one in Shakespeare's lifetime ever doubted that he was the author of the plays. Not the Stationer's Office, which approved books for publication; not the Master of the Revels, the booking agent for court performances of plays; not  his friends and partners in his theatre company; not rival dramatists, such as Ben Jonson, a man famed at the time for his learning and erudition (though like Shakespeare he had no university education). The authorship fashion only arose in the Nineteenth Century, over 200 years after Shakespeare's death, when the Victorians, in search of a national hero, lauded him as a universal genius and a man of family values (yes, it's a good joke!), indeed as a demi-god. But if you put someone up on a plinth in that manner then sooner or later someone's going to want to knock you off. The more so if there's money to be made (conspiracy theorists, publishers, film makers, Mein Herr academics, etc., etc., etc., etc.)

The film also casts de Vere as the incestuous lover of Queen Elizabeth, so it obviously has its tongue firmly in its cheek. But how many Oscars will it win, that is the question.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille

View from the Gare St Charles down le Grand escalier with the  basilica on the far horizon

Atop the highest point in the city, overlooking the Vieux Port (Old port), stands Marseille's most striking landmark, the majestic neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde.

Arriving in the city by train, your first sight of the edifice is from the top of le Grand escalier, the broad steps that lead down from the station to the city spread at its feet. From this viewpoint the basilica is a mere silhouette on the horizon, and between you and it, hidden in a cove, is Marseille's Old Port and the site of the original Greek settlement from circa 600 BC.

Descend the steps with their striking sculptures and follow the Boulevard d'Athènes until it reaches a crossroads with La Canebière, the famous road which English sailors in the early 20th century dubbed 'the can o' beer', by virtue of the large number of bars that could be found there. La Canebière leads straight to the Vieux Port, and then onwards and upwards to the 'guardian and protector of the city', the name given to the basilica by the good folk of Marseille.

Le Vieux Port with the basilica on the hill
The basilica was constructed between 1853-1864. Although not among the largest of Catholic basilicas, what distinguished it, aside from its stunning location, is the height of its statue of the Virgin Mary, which stands at 23.7 metres (approx. 78 feet) including the pedestal, and which weighs around 10,000 kilos. To get there it's either a hard slog up the steep streets, a tourist ride in le petit train, or a municipal bus ride on the number 60 from Cours Jean Ballard.

Looking out from the basilica towards the Château
d'If, the small island on the left
And once there the views are magnificent! You can look down onto the Vieux Port and onto Marseille's other basilica, the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille. You can see the fort of the French Foreign Legion with its images of Beau Geste. And looking out across the white statue of St. Veronica and the Passion of Christ you can see in the distance the Château d'If, the island prison of Edmund Dantès, the romantic hero of Dumas' classic novel of revenge and justice, The Count of Monte Cristo. 

Not to be missed also is the enormous vaulted crypt measuring 30.15 metres x 13.60 metres (99 ft x 45 ft) and which houses a multi-coloured crucifix dating from the 16th Century, and a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin with its golden mosaics. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

"Quick! Quick! The Mona Lisa. I'm double-parked!"

Whether or not the Louvre art museum in Paris is the best in the world is a matter of debate and local pride and prejudice, but it is apparently the most visited, and many visitors will be there for one reason only, to see it's most famous attraction, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

It was painted some time between 1503 and 1519 and is variously known as La Gioconda, La Jaconde, and Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Though now regarded as the most famous painting in the world, it was not generally known until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, since when its reputation has soared, and is now an unmistakable icon of western art.

In 1911 the picture was stolen and suspicion fell on two of the leading artistic figures of the time, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the painter Pablo Picasso. In the event the culprit was discovered to be someone much more banal, a certain Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee at the Louvre and an Italian patriot who wanted to see the painting returned to its native land. He was only discovered when he tried to sell the work to the Uffizi in Florence.

If you're planning on visiting the Louvre to see Leonardo's masterpiece please remember that many, many other people will have had the same idea, so don't expect to rub noses with the enigmatic Florentine lady. It's also very small, only 30 inches x 21 inches (77 cms x 53 cms) so those opera glasses may come in handy when you're peering at it from 50 feet distance.

"Out of the way! I've only got half a day and I've got the Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Centre Pompidou whatever that is still to do!"
[picture Wikipedia]

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Biker Babes Goin' Wild in Valence

200 kms from Valence a starlet poses at the Cannes Film Festival

A look at Valence (Drôme, France) from a political, economic and social standpoint, and definitely not dumbed down.

In order to respond to a mean, nasty, malicious and low-minded comment that this blog is dumbing down, we are now presenting this wholly serious posting on the French town of Valence, where I once spent 15 miserable hours due to the rain which never stopped the whole time, with the result that I left the place as ignorant as when I arrived.  So I'm now going back, digitally speaking, with the help of information and images graciously borrowed from the Internet, for a serious look at the socio-politico-economic activity of this important and vibrant community.

Anne-Sophie Lapix
We'll begin with the geography. Valence is a commune in the south-east of France and a prefecture in the department of the Drôme in the Rhône-Alpes region. It is the fifth most populated commune of the region with a population of 64,484 at the 2008 census. It is often referred to as 'the gateway to the South of France'. The current mayor is Alain Maurice of the P.c.f., the French Socialist Party, and the party of the beautiful Ségolène Royale, who I recently saw being interviewed by the ravishing Anne-Sophie Lapix. Mlle Lapix is a political science graduate, a trained and highly professional journalist and interviewer, with a sweet smile and a terrific pair of boobs.

Biker Babe contemplates 
what more she can do to 
help her community
The economic activity of Valence is primarily in the metal, textile, jewellery and agricultural sectors and many high-tech companies have facilities in the region. It has a highly developed transport infrastructure including a central train station which is served by the TGV high speed train from Paris to the Mediterranean. The city also has a popular bike sharing scheme. And in common with many continental cities, particularly in the south, there are lots of sexy, young biker babes wending their way through the traffic astride motor bikes and scooters, anxious to do their bit to ease their city's traffic congestion and thereby aid the economy of the community in which they live.

Ursula Andress, one of
Valence's most
famous non-natives
The commune has a lively and extensive intellectual and educational fabric which includes an engineering school, an Institute of Technology, as well as annexes to three universities, and various miscellaneous specialised schools. Among its most famous natives are Sébastien Chabal of the national rugby team; Bertrand and Guillaume Gille of the national handball team; and Jacques Tardi, comic strip artist. Not native to the commune is Ursula Andress, who was born in the Swiss city of Ostermundigen in the canton of Bern, and who gained overnight fame as Honey Ryder in the Bond film Dr No, in one of movie history's most iconic and memorable scenes in which she emerges from the sea looking stunning in a white bikini. 

The city also has a rich history, being ruled variously by Romans, Alans, Franks, Arabs of Spain, emperors of Germany and counts of Valentinois and of Toulouse. It has a cathedral with an apse that was rebuilt in the 11th century and consecrated in 1095. So it is a place with a fascinating past, but one which also has an active and important role to play in the present socio-politico-economic drama being enacted in the crisis-ridden world around it. So let's hear no more talk of dumbing down. This is a serious subject we've been discussing here. That's what we think, and Betty Boop does, too. Right, Betty?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Piccadilly Circus, London

Piccadilly Circus in 1896 with Eros
statue on the left

They used to say that if you stood at London's Piccadilly Circus long enough then you would bump into everyone that you'd ever met in your life. It is not only the centre of London (though technically this is the nearby statue of Charles I mounted on a horse on the south side of Trafalgar Square), in former times it was also regarded as the hub of the Empire.

Of course one thing that you won't find there is a circus, at least not in the modern sense of the word, viz. a travelling company of performers. It is a circus in the original Middle English sense of a rounded open space where several streets converge, and which comes from the Latin for 'ring or circus', with echoes of an ancient Roman arena for equestrian and sporting events.

At the centre is the Shaftsbury Memorial Fountain with its famous statue of Anteros, in Greek mythology the god of requited love, though  the figure on the fountain is popularly known as Eros, the god of sensual love, known to the Romans as Cupid. 

Beneath the circus is the Piccadilly Circus tube station which in 2006 celebrated its 100th anniversary. In 1986, along with Bond Street tube station, it was the setting for a video to promote Paul McCartney's record Press, and featured Macca walking around the station. It has since become a place of pilgrimage for McCartney fans anxious to walk in his footsteps and be McPressed.

But perhaps Piccadilly Circus's biggest visitor attractions are its neon lights and its atmosphere. There is common saying to describe a place which is very busy - we say that it is 'like Piccadilly Circus in here'. And with its crowds of tourists and Londoners nowhere is more like Piccadilly Circus than Piccadilly Circus. And if you haven't been there already, don't worry, because one day - you will!