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A Florentine Ornament

Continuation of: The Crown at the Piazza

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.

The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”– Alexander Graham Bell

All those days when David remained engulfed within the scaffolding following itsdelivery at Piazza della Signoria on May 18, 1504, it was guarded round the clock. Meanwhile, a case of influenza virus had broken out in Rome which quickly spread all through Italy and beyond. In effect, it lasted for several months and on its visit to Firenze, about 90 per cent of Florentines caught on to cough and fever while few died from it.

On June 8, 1504, David was placed at the Ringhiera – at the spot where until then Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes had stood (1). A few days ago, Judith was taken off its pedestal and temporarily set on the ground within the Palazzo where it remained until it’s installation in the Loggia on May 10, 1506.

According to a book, an Order to prepare the marble pedestal for David was given to II Cronaca and Sangallo only by June 11, few days after David was installed. This indicates that David was placed on a plinth and the Order for pedestal implied only additional reinforcement of outer casing to the plinth to sustain the weight of David already on it.

In the days following the installation and it’s unveiling to the public on September 8, 1504, Firenze had days steeped in religious and cultural tradition. They celebrated the Festa di San Giovanni (Feast Day of St. John the Baptist), their Patron Saint, on June 24.

On August 10, the Florentines celebrated Festa di San Lorenzo (Feast Day of San Lorenzo) followed by the folkloric event, La Festa della Rificolona (Festival of the Paper Lanterns) on September 7, then a recently initiated tradition observed on the eve of the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin when Tuscan farmers and mountaineers carrying lanterns gather at the Piazza (transforming Piazza Santissima Annunziata into a giant market for their produce) fronting the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Firenze to celebrate the birth of the Madonna by singing hymns.

All through these days, Michelangelo was engaged with the finishing touches to the sculpture which remained surrounded by scaffolding. While the work on the pedestal also progressed, it was reportedly during this time David was provided with the sling, tree-stump support, and a victory-garland.

During one of these days Piero Soderini (Piero di Messer Tommaso Soderini, 1450-1522)(2),Florentine gonfaloniere di Giustizia who held Michelangelo in great esteem,  thought David’s nose too thick and shared this observation with its creator. Giorgio Vasari relates about this occurrence in his book, Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori. Knowing that Soderini’s point of view from beneath David still within the confines of the scaffoldings prevented him from seeing properly, Michelangelo, who didn’t want to prolong a satisfactory response to the remark of Soderini who had contributed in no small measure to the development of Florentine art, mounted the scaffolding to the level of David’s head and pretended to chip away at the surface of David’s nose with his hammer and chisel while letting drop some marble dust concealed in the hollow of his palm. Soon after, leaving the surface of the nose untouched, Michelangelo looked down and said to Soderini: “Look at it now.”

Soderini appeared pleased: “I like it better. You have given it life.”

The unveiling of David was specifically done on September 8 which marks the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in whose honour Santa Maria del Fiore, the ecclesia maior of Firenze is dedicated – the edifice upon which David was originally meant to be put up.

In reality, the ecclesiastical and civic authorities have seen another righteous opportunity to honour the Virgin who is widely respected as a mediator between God and the Florentines – a belief once echoed by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) as well, and that, looking further back, one could notice that the cornerstone of Santa Maria del Fiore was also laid on September 8, in 1296.

Unlike the happy-with-his-triumph posture of the elegant and slender David depicted in the statues by Donatello (1386-1466) and in Andrea del Verrocchio’s (ca. 1435-88) clothed version of David holding a short sword at a negligent angle; the pose and composition of the David by Michelangelo heralded a stately grandeur and dignified solemnity.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520) came to Firenze in 1504 after the installation of the David – during the time when a galaxy of eminent artists were congregated there amidst an artistic atmosphere caused by the potent rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Raphael was one amongst the first to study the David (3) – the symbol of freedom and dynamism of the Florentine republic.

On a professional perspective, the sculpture looks different close up than it does when viewed from the ground. From the ground, one can see the rigid and turgid tendons of the neck – the sling resting on his shoulder – the forehead furrowed with threatening wrinkles, his flared nostrils and, that defiant look as David measures the distance of his antagonist – to throw the slingshot from the accuracy of his hand. At close up, the furrowed brows protrude from the forehead and there is variation in the gaze direction of the two eyes – all optimised for visual effect.

On that note, one could visualise Michelangelo’s great ability to look at things – of how he could take a thing in mind, turn it over and see so many facets and focused on the desired shape to carve out of the block of marble. A quote attributed to Michelangelo summarised his work: I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.”

While Michelangelo’s public sculpture remained outdoors for 369 years (4), by and by, it attained great prominence not only as one of the most historically and aesthetically significant sculptural works of the Renaissance but also turned itself into the second symbol of Firenze, next to the fleur-de-lis (giglio bottonato, the official emblem of Firenze).

With La Pietà in Rome and David in Firenze, Michelangelo’s pre-eminence was established as a sculptor. Even though he was accepting commissions for work even while working on David, (5), the latter half of 1504 saw Michelangelo, at the behest of Piero Soderini, embark on the creation of historical compositions on the wall of the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo Signoria (Vecchio) (6) where Leonardo da Vinci was already engaged in the design of another cartoon on the opposite wall.

As it turned out, this work was left unfinished by Michelangelo early in 1505 having opted to proceed for his second journey to Rome at the invitation of Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513, pope from 1503)

Earlier, on August 12, 1502 while the work on David was in progress, Michelangelo was given a commission to make a copy of Donatello’s David within six months. This bronze figure was meant for Pierre I. de Rohan (Pierre de Rohan-Guéméné, 1451-1513), son of Marie de Montauban and Marechal de Gié, who greatly desired to own it. Rohan was highly favoured at the court of popular King Louis XII (Le Père du Peuple/Father of the People, 1462-1515) of France. Naturally, Signoria was eager to comply since an alliance with France was considered of the highest importance for the Florentine Republic. 

During the next two years, while the bronze-casting of the statue was done with the assistance of special master, Benedetto da Rovezzano (Benedetto Grazzini, 1474-1552), unforeseen developments in France occasioned Pierre de Rohan to fall into disgrace having been charged with treason in 1504 after he became Duc de Nemours in 1503 as a result of his marriage with Marguerite, heiress of Armagnac and a sister of Louis d’Armagnac (1472-1503), Duc de Nemours.

Eventually, Florimond Robertet (1531-67), the Secretary for finance who was influential with King Charles IX (third son of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici) was afforded the mental pleasure as well as spiritual benefit from this sculpture. After 1566, Robertet placed it in the courtyard of his Château de Beauregard, near the city of Blois until more than a century later, it was removed to Château de Villeroy (Villa regis), Sète (Cette), owned by great art lovers Nicolas IV de Neufville (1543-1617), Seigneur de Vlleroy and his wife Madeleine de L’Aubespine (1546-96, poet and lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici), from where it eventually disappeared. The only evidence left of this sculpture is a fine pen-and ink drawing by Michelangelo

Besides Michelangelo’s tomb at the Franciscan Basilica di Santa Croce, scattered around his city of Firenze are several of his creations. And what tribute more graceful and intimate to the memory of Michelangelo could be conceived than to visit and appreciate the creations of Michelangelo in the delightful radiance of Florentine ambiance? Ascribed to his atelier are: David at the Galleria dell’accademia; the Medici tombs at Basilica di San Lorenzo; mallet and chisel works at the Casa Buonarroti and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; Tondo Doni in the Galleria degli Uffizi. Then, there is the site of his fortifications at San Miniato.

Although monuments, museums and galleries aren’t the only reason to visit Firenze, a stay in Firenze is incomplete without a look at the original David of Michelangelo. Its heightened reputation since its installationbefore Palazzo Vecchio overlooking the Piazza della Signoria, the center of political life in Firenze, has influenced successive generations – blazing a trail of appreciation amongst kings and emperors, dukes and marquise, knights and counts, scholars to the general public.

Of David’s influence, a book relates a diary entry of Ukraine-born ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) mentioning about how he allowed French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) to photograph and sketch him in nude to create a sculpture inspired by Michelangelo’s David. Then there were those who considered David a provocatively sexual portrayal of idealised male beauty. Sometime after its completion, Michelangelo was disgusted to witness a fig-leaf attaining a new use on a certain part of his David which remained unrectified until the early years of the 20th century.

A plaster cast (six metres in height) by Florentine cast-maker Clemente Papi based on the original statue of David presented by Leopold II (1797-1870), the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857 to Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria; 1819-1901) was outfitted with a plaster cast of a fig leaf of appropriate size and hung at a certain place with clips during early years.

Then again, not to anyone’s surprise, there were also those contemporary rivals who squared their shoulders and detested the talent of Il Divino.

Foremost amongst such high-handers of malcontent tracking Michelangelo quietly and silently as a snake sloughing off its skin, was Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560), son of a famous goldsmith and the prospective creator of Hercules and Cacus (Ercole e Caco), whose impending efforts to outdo Michelangelo Buonarroti would generally ricochet to strike back on himself – but that’s another story…. Jo

This concludes PART ONE.

Notes:

  1. Commissioned by the Medici as a metaphor of their rule in Firenze, Judith and Holofernes was a freestanding companion figure to Donatello’s David. The original is presently in Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio.
  2. Piero Soderini was appointed as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia for life August 1502 following completion of the regular two month period as Gonfaloniere.
  3. A Study of Michelangelo’s David by Raphael (during 1504-08) is at the British Museum in London.
  4. Although the sculpture was periodically taken care of and its surface waxed many times during its long exposure to all injuries of rain and frost, the left arm of David was broken by a huge stone during the popular riots of 1527. Giorgio Vasari relates how he and friend Cecchino Salviati gathered the scattered pieces, and the arm was restored in 1543 under the care of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), first Grand Duke of Tuscany. As related in a book, there is photographic evidence suggesting that David was slightly moved forward from its original position in early 1870s to align the pedestal with the new stairs of the Palazzo. Upon David’s removal to Galleria dell’accademia in Firenze on July 31, 1873, the space where it stood at Piazza della Signoria lay empty for almost 37 years.
  5. Due to lack of space, this series of posts cover only selected creations of Michelangelo in its chronological order. Thus, Madonna of Bruges (c. 1501-04) and some other works are omitted.
  6. The frescoes created by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci depicted Florentine victories in the battles of Cascina (Florentine victory over Pisa in 1364) and Anghiari (Florentine (League of Italian states) victory over Duchy of Milan in 1440). Michelangelo discontinued this work when he left for Rome to fulfil the commission granted to him by Pope Julius II (1443-1513) to do frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and to design the pope’s tomb. A fine copy from Michelangelo’s cartoon of Cascina by Aristotele (Bastiano) da Sangallo is at the Earl of Leicester Collection at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England and a Study for Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari is at Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Rise of the Brave Shepherd

Continuation of: M as in Michelangelo

Work is love made visible – Kahlil Gibran

From September 13, 1501 until the first half of 1504, Michelangelo was industriously engaged in sculptural works related to his Gothic treatment of David, the young shepherd from the tribe of Judah who rose to become a hero of Israel. It was also during the autumn of 1504 when the traditional trinity of great masters of that period: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520), were all present in Firenze. Think of that!

During the above span of time, three popes reigned over the Catholic Church in Rome. Following the death of Pope Alexander VI (Roderic/Rodrigo de Borja, 1431-1503, pope from 1492), Pius III (Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, 1439-1503) took over the pontificate on September 22, 1503. Sadly, his untimely death on October 18, 1503 marked his reign as the shortest papacy in the history of the Church. Thereafter, the ten year pontificate of Julius II (Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513) commenced on November 1, 1503 following the shortest conclave in the papal history.

Even as Michelangelo worked to create David in a specially constructed wooden shed expressly erected to shield his work from prying eyes, he was sporadically attending to prearranged contract works agreed in 1501 with (pope-to-be) Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini to execute fifteen small size marble statues of male saints, over a period of three years, to decorate the Piccolomini Chapel in the Duomo di Siena, the city where Cardinal Francesco was born.

Besides other works, Michelangelo was also preparing to work on Tondo Doni (Doni Madonna), his first panel painting, ordered by the wealthy Florentine Agnolo Doni (1474-1539) either for his wedding in 1504 to noblewoman Maddalena (1489-1540) of the powerful Strozzi family or for the birth of his first daughter in 1507.

Historically, the biblical hero David (c. 1035-970 BC) in the face of all odds had defended his people and governed justly as a king who helped found the eternal throne of God. He has been much honoured in the history of the Jewish people ever since his duel with Goliath which is narrated briefly in 1 Samuel 17 of the Old Testament. Erecting a statue of this heroic personality was considered as a bringer of good omen for the future of Firenze. David would also symbolize the reality that the rulers of Firenze would defend the Republic with courage and govern it conscientiously.

As the narration in 1 Samuel 17 goes, when war again broke out between the Israelites and the Philistines and they were confronting each other across a valley between Shochoh and Azekah in Ephesdammim, shepherd David, the twenty-three year old youngest son of the Bethlehemite Jesse had come forward and dared to accept the challenge of Goliath (the Philistine of Gath) to any one from the Israelite ranks to come out and fight him. In the encounter which followed, the giant Goliath of six cubits and a span in height encased in complete armour and wielding weapons fell to the earth after having been hit on his forehead by a smooth stone shot from the sling of David after which he had quickly severed Goliath’s head with the giant’s own sword.

Michelangelo’s preference for muscular young men evidently dominates his art since they appears to be his ideal for beauty. The initial sketch Michelangelo prepared depicted the brave shepherd David standing with his foot planted on the head of Goliath. This was found unsuitable owing to the inadequate size and quality imperfections of the block of marble which was already worked upon on by earlier sculptors.

To that end, the design and composition, proportion and orientation Michelangelo had in his mind for his David had to be remodelled which prompted him to prepare another wax model which became the catalyst for the profile of his sculpture of David which he created at the wooden shed at the courtyard of the workshops belonging to Opera del Duomo.

Given that David was part of a dozen of statues of prominent Old Testament characters originally intended for placement along the borderline surrounding the outside of the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, it has to be viewed from below. And so, some parts of the body featured in disproportionate size apparently don’t hang together.

I could imagine the attention given for the articulation and balance based on the classical contrapposto pose David should adopt and of the clothes he should wear or not. To suit the shape of the block of marble, the left arm has been bent to touch the sling on the shoulder as against the originally extended arm Michelangelo envisaged.

Here he has adhered to his life-long theory of ruling out add-ons to the block of marble. By making the slingshot barely visible over David’s shoulder, Michelangelo has implied that cleverness underlined the young shepherd’s victory rather than sheer force.

In February 1503, when the sculpture was half finished, the Consuls decided that Michelangelo be paid in all 400 golden florins, including the stipulated salary. A major concern then was the ambiguity in the location chosen to install the sculpture. The intended location had to be ruled out considering the feasibility of lifting such a mammoth figure to the height of the buttresses of the Cattedrale. Nevertheless, at a headlong pace, Michelangelo brought David to perfection and almost had the sculpture completed before the learned Consuls met on January 25, 1504 to finalize where David would be best installed.

Follow on: The Crown at the Piazza

Note: For close study, some images featured above pertain to the replica at Piazza della Signoria.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Florentine Mystique

Continuation of: The Greek Connection

Wherever you go, there you are – Confucius

Mindful walking during daytime is a pursuit we engage in whilst we are in Firenze. Such legwork on days of less tourist frenzy not only helps to face fewer hustle and gearbox but also inspires to look around through the eyes of Love. Getting out and about here would reward one the opportunity to reflect on the barometers of a community that was fashioned by this architecture of mediaeval characteristics – originated from the various strange phases of Florentine history.

Unlike passeggiata, the Italian tradition of taking an after-sumptuous-meal leisurely stroll for fun, socializing or for health reasons, an observant visitor on easy-going walks around the streets and piazzas of this City of Flowers proffer a distinctive Italian atmosphere and colour.

Since olden Italy was divided into small States and constantly at war with each other.  On that note, the dwellings of great families were generally composed of a double wall of strong stone masonry to turn them into strongholds. And so, some of the greatest architectural achievements in Firenze of that period were houses so outsize they were considered as palaces.

The mediaeval characteristics are much evident in Firenze’s piazzas, courtyards, gardens, open arcades, etc. Distinctive features of the buildings reveal deep-set windows protected by heavy iron grills, arches, porches, and curves that express feeling in design.

While the roof line below the terracotta is adorned with heavy, ornamental cornice, the walls are divided into sections with vertical pilasters and horizontal strips of mouldings. The street front has the popular round-headed windows while the ground floor windows, smaller in size, are appropriately defended with barred grills.

In the photographic viewpoint, there are fabulous shots of varied angles all around which includes after-rain puddle reflections and curious modern day sights.

There are numerous Tuscan Romanesque arches, frescoes on the walls, decorative street lamps, old horse tethering wrought iron rings on the walls, bas-reliefs on lintels, iron holders on the walls for torches to illuminate the street, etc (1).

In the architectural point-of-view, the kind of marbles, including Carrara marble, and other materials for construction and architectural adornment used all around here are of varying characteristics.

Of the two main types of sandstones, pietra forte, the fine-grained, brownish-yellow sandstone of considerable resilience is the primary material and used widely as well as in the construction of prominent edifices such as Basilica di Santa Croce, Palazzo Pitti, Santa Maria Novella, Palazzo Vecchio, etc.

At Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, pull focus and take another look up at the Cupola of Filippo Brunelleschi (1379-1446). Pietra serena, the silvery grey sandstone much favoured by Brunelleschi, is used widely there – particularly at the three girdling belts of the Cupola.

All this may seem rather nostalgic pictorials of old architecture and ornate details and may seem looking backwards. Better still, we understand Città di Firenze clearer as our perspectives evolve to the realisation that the splendour and flair of the past goes with you at every step in Firenze, which the illustrious Dante Alighieri praised as ‘La bellissima e famosissima figlia di Roma’ (3).

Follow on: M as in Michelangelo

Notes:

  1. Some of the cast iron piazza/park bench supports, lamp-posts, sewer covers, are still marked with Fonderia delle Cure – Giovanni Berta in Firenze (likewise in Rome), relates to the earlier century.
  2. Pietra serena: Mainly used as ornamental, art, architectural decorations, etc, pietra serena or pietra di macigno is an elegant variety of calcareous sandstone composed of sedimentary layers of different colour. Because of its good mechanical strength it is used also at Cappella dei Pazzi and Cappelle Medicee. The archives of the Opera del Duomo will be of much use to those interested more on this subject.
  3. La bellissima e famosissima figlia di Roma: Beautiful and famous daughter of Rome.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Greek Connection

Continuation of: A Procession of One

Each day is a little bit of history – José Saramago

Firenze, the name Florentines love to call their city in Italian is used by us only during our visits and in our writings. Like the ancient Florentines did, between my wife and I, we call it in its older and most beautiful form: FIORENZA, because she flourished exceedingly and was the Flower of all Italian graces. Fiorenza has music to it for those who listen in the pleasantness of old tradition. 

The imposing sculpture of Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus at Piazza della Signoria depicts Hercules holding the hair of Cacus, the giant kneeling in defeat before him, while he held a club in his right hand, the famous weapon he had cut for himself in the forest of Nemea.

I have always looked at this Renaissance sculpture in a wholesome way – certainly not in awe of it. Short of any pretention as a scientific expert on Arts or scholarly expert of Greek antiquity, I prefer to merit it as nothing less than an admirable work although it can be said that the artist’s projection of strength is mere bulk.

Conversely, in what I have scrutinized and thought of this sculpture aside from the comments and reactions of its onlookers I came across at the Piazza della Signoria, one can hardly disregard the many serious, biased, cultivated kind of art-writings from Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) down to our modern day scientific art critics which strengthen one’s conviction that the sculpture lacked that exceptional magnetism that could turn the heads of onlookers and fixate their attention on it. 

Although Hercules clad in the skin of the Nemean lion is a popular image; he is often represented naked as he is portrayed here by Bandinelli: a powerful upper body with rigid set of shoulders, short necked, head smaller in proportion to full muscular limbs, a curling beard which does not mar the serious expression from the general area of his face. One could note a similarity of those features on sculptor Giambologna’s (Giovanni da Bologna, ca. 1529-1608) Hercules slaying the Centaur Nessus (1599) displayed few feet away under the right-hand arch of the noble Loggia dei Lanzi (1).

Installed as a pendent to Michelangelo’s biblical hero David (popularly called Il Giganté), the naked Hercules parallels the stark nakedness of David who stood with his body’s weight resting on right leg, his gaze divulging an inner anticipation for the next course of action to take. Taken together, the nudity depicted here bespoke of the period when nude studies of male figures was the norm for gods, heroes and even renowned mortals.

Very early on, nude and partially nude artworks based on antique characters have shown their presence in Italy. It took wider popularity with the rediscovery of art of ancient Greece and Rome. In effect, the Greek sculptors’ main interest was to portray man at his idealized best since man was particularly considered as the noblest measure of all things to them – undifferentiated from the gods they conceived in man’s likeness. The representation of Gods, warriors and mortals in heroic nudity was the sculptors’ open admiration for the perfectly formed male body which is hardly a sensual aspect in the society of a time where athletes openly workout in scant clothes for events like Olympics.

Hercules being a favourite hero and symbol of the Florentine Republic, it’s hardly surprising to come across many such representations in Firenze. One cannot ignore the Trecento Florentine Seal which bore the image of Hercules since about 1281, as a testimony to the familiarity of Hercules in the Florentine culture.

Since we usually rent apartments for our Florentine visits in the vicinity of Piazza del Duomo or in the area between Il Duomo and Piazza S. Marco, we cannot avoid touching upon Piazza del Duomo almost every day of our stay in Firenze.

The group of ecclesiastical buildings which form the center of Firenze comprise of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo); the octagonal Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni) (2) and Campanile di Giotto (belfry tower).

Il Duomo was named Santa Maria del Fiore in reference to the lily (the emblem of Virgin Mary) in the red shield of the Republic, which indicates the tradition that Firenze was founded in a field of flowers. This edifice was built on the site of the cathedral dedicated to S. Reparata who, at the tender age of 12, had undergone martyrdom in Cappadocia during the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius in 3rd century AD. From 680 to 1298, she was the primary patroness of Firenze, following which the city was placed under the tutelage of Virgin Mary and S. John the Baptist. According to a legend, Santa Reparata itself was erected on the ground occupied by the parish church of San Salvador. Subsequently, when Santa Reparata was raised as the parish church, the Baptistery became pro tempore the Cathedral for a few years.

At Piazza di S. Giovanni, it’s delightful to remember Lorenzo Ghiberti’s (1378-1455) artistic works on the gilded doors of the Baptistery situated across from Il Duomo. Ghiberti most likely cast it in a process the French called, encirage, using the same enormous furnace in his workshop in Via Sant’Egidio, nearly opposite Santa Maria Nuova, where he had created the Northern Gates. Taking in the astonishing beauty of these celebrated doors of the Eastern Gates, Michelangelo once praised them as fit to be “the Gates of Paradise.”

On the southern side of the Baptistery was a representation of Hercules amongst the eight depictions of virtues belonging to the 28 gilded bronze reliefs on Andrea Pisano’s (ca. 1270-1348/9) bronze door, probably the earliest in Firenze (3). Another representation from the workshop of Andrea Pisano is the relief of Hercules and Cacus (Lower register No 2: Social Justice) on the eastern side of the Campanile di Giotto which supposedly occupy the site of a small oratory of S. Zenobius, the first bishop of Firenze. 

Follow-on: The Florentine Mystique

Notes:

  1. Loggia de’ Lanzi is so called from the Swiss lancers who were placed here by Grand Duke Cosimo I.
  2. Although the date of Baptistery is lost in uncertainty, legend has it that theedificewas supposedly erected in 589 by German-born Theodelinda (Theudolinde, 570-627), daughter of King Garibald of Bavaria and queen of the Lombards who was devoted to the Christian faith of the Catholics. In about 1229, works under Jacopo de’ Lapi took place to level the ground around Baptistery and replace the old brick pavement with stone. A book relates the occasion as: “At that time the Baptistery stood at a higher elevation than afterwards, and at the base were steps. Around the building were ranged Roman sarcophagi, which were used by Florentine families of distinction for internment, as well as for monuments, when the entire Piazza between the Cathedral and Baptistery constituted the cemetery of Florence.”
  3. Since December 2019, all three sets of bronze and gold doors of the Baptistery are displayed next to one another at the Sala del Paradiso of the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore after completion of the restoration project began in 1978 by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Firenze.

 (© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Grand Entrance

Soon it will be “Goodbye 2010s” to an eventful decade and on its wake will resonate “Hello 2020s” in spirits of fresh-found confidence. Despite the anticipations of the prospect of a flourishing brand new year, considering the shifts in attitudes, fixation on praising excess, awful incidents emerging around the world, etc, one can’t help feeling a quiver of anxiety about what have the wheels of fate in store. As the years roll by with an almost frightening rapidity in a fusion of happiness, apprehensions and solidities, experiences prove that there are instances when one could not help feeling like a hooked fish on the time’s line.

Now as we hold up five fingers, four, three, two …. to signify the final-run-down to the Christmas day, the tale of Christmas miracle cannot be aptly told without music. This time around, in our mind’s eye, we go to Salzburg – to that gem of the Austrian Alps of castles, fortresses, churches, museums, parks, and, of course, nature.

Some years ago, we had the pleasure to drive around and savour the enchantment of Austria. Vienna hosted us as the base of our domicile for this visit. A clear rival to Paris in the superiority and variety of its architectural decorations and every style of art, Vienna proffered us a good stroke of fun with the fortunate presence of our friends.

As I wrote in earlier posts, we drove or foot-marched over much of the city to set our sights on the fave haunts of the locals and also on out-of-the-way tourist spots not counting the 18th-century Schönbrunn Palace, the Museums, Wiener Staatsoper, the Burgtheater, Stephansdom, Café Sacher Wien and other coffee spots where no one knows how to make bad coffee.

Hoping to get some more inspiration and to make good of the plentiful time at our disposal, we had jumped in with both feet and visited places as far as Graz, Salzburg, and their vicinities. Without a glitch, those days were mostly bright and of clear blue sky. All the way the only shadow cast was from the trees.

Our trip to Graz was covered in the car and company of my old business friend in Vienna from my days in the Middle East. At Salzburg, we were driven around by Herr Rupert, a gentlemanly fellow who only wanted to please as he took us around. Rupert, as we know, is the name of the patron saint of Salzburg who founded the Abbey of St. Peter’s beneath the sheltering cliffside of Mount Mönchsberg in the center of the Old City. With musical luminaries as talented as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Herbert von Karajan gracing the annals of the city, the delight of music is so divine and tangible in the air.

Now back to Christmas – a little more than 200 years ago, Josef Mohr (1792-1848), an assistant priest in the sacristan of Oberndorf bei Salzburg wrote a new poem of Christmas flavour at his first parish in Mariapfarr, the village of his father where Josef had cut his teeth as a priest at a young age in 1815.

Although limited to a year, Josef’s clerical term out at Mariapfarr was in 1816 when Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), the Chancellor of Austria, won repossession of the Province of Salzburg for Austria from the Bavarian crown. The following year, Josef was appointed as curate to Oberndorf, about twenty km from Salzburg. It was a village of boatmen, wooden and stone houses located on the Austrian bank on the serpentine bend of the River Salzach (Salt River/Igonta). Originally a Roman settlement, Oberndorf was mentioned in the Salzburg chronicles as early as 1050.

It is said that a clergyman sees you at your best, a lawyer at your worst and a doctor as you really are. Having taken up residency in Oberndorf, Josef conducted his priesthood which enriched the life of that parish.

During the morning of the day Josef had written the poem, he was with his closest friend Franz “Franzl” Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), a village schoolmaster, song writer and church organist. Josef was attending a celebration in the school house of Franz in the village of Arnsdorf when they realised that there was no really great Christmas song. The Christmas is already right at their doorstep.

And so, the poem Josef wrote celebrates the greatest birthday of all time – illumines the holy night and the birth of a baby in a stable at Bethlehem long time ago. It held the vision of a baby so little and soft – pure as a white flame. Having grown up close to River Salzach, no doubt, Josef must be inspired by the legend of the statue “The Enthroned Madonna with Child” (about 1500) which is believed to be a work of miracles and supposedly washed ashore by the ice-drift in the River Salzach.

At Josef’s instance, Franz who lived in Arnsdorf and performed in the post of organist at Oberndorf since 1816, soon composed tune to accompany the poem in German verses which was named the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (Silent Night). A task he accomplished creditably, Franz’s composition, said to be done during the afternoon of November 24, 1818, was goodness set to music and his idea of perfection lauded the dictum that a good melody must be rooted in the nature of the human voice.

 

The song was performed publically for the first time during the Christmas Midnight Mass of 1818 at St. Nikola parish church at Oberndorf – just a stone’s throw away from the serpentine bend of River Salzach. The working partnership of Josef and Franz was extremely successful – an alliance that would subsequently unite their names famously for all time. Rendering the song as a duet in the plain rural dignity of that church, curate Josef sang the melody and played the guitar while composer Franz sang the bass. It was complemented by chorus of the resident choir. Undoubtedly, Josef and Franz didn’t want to face less than perfection in their song and it made a remarkable effect on the congregation of parishioners of that great Midnight Mass.

In such ready expertness, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” had to be first played to guitar accompaniment because the works of the church organ on which it was to be played at the church service was damaged useless probably by the gnawing mice and river flooding. Even though under normal circumstances guitar was not a medium in vogue acceptable to play a German song in the church service, the guitar had become a favoured medium since by that period the six-string guitar had replaced the lute completely and was of greater prominence on the European concert stages.

The work of Josef and Franz more or less would have been confined to the repertory of that parish and slipped into obscurity had it not been for Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, a one-off who came to repair the damaged organ. He took an interest in the song and sought a copy of its text and music to take along with him to his village in beautiful Tyrol in Western Austria which attracts many tourists.

No sooner had they heard the version of the song from the organ builder, the Strasser Quartette, famous for their beautiful singing of Tyrolese mountain songs, was won over by the full zenith of its charm. At length, they added it to their repertoire and performed widely on their concert tours as “The Tyrolian Song” due to its place of birth. It was often considered a folk song but without any known authorship of its poet or musical composer.

Although the Rainers, another singing group had taken “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” into their shows as early as 1819, it was later sung by the Strasser Quartette before the congregation at the great cathedral of Leipzig, Germany. The song remained unprinted until 1840. Some attributed its melody to Johann Michael Haydn (1737–1806) until the Royal Court musicians in Berlin, in their wisdom, enquired with the Abbey of St. Peter’s (Stift Sankt Peter) in Salzburg about the origin of the Christmas song “Silent Night”, believed to be by Michael Haydn of that Abbey. Through Franz’s son, this inquiry reached the ears of Franz who was then still alive while Josef had since deceased. It was nearing the end of 1854 when Franz set his claim to Berlin and soon after received credit for his creation.

In 1854, the “romanticist on the throne” Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia (Reign: 1840-1861), whose beautiful Queen consort Elisabeth (Elise) Ludovika of Bavaria who had been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, took great interest in “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” following its performance before him by the Berlin Church Choir. He delightfully ordered it be given first place in all Christmas programmes. Curiously, he was the first Emperor of Prussia to enter a Roman Catholic place of worship when, back in 1844, he attended the celebrations marking the completion of the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). From that distance of time, trooping ahead past events like its performance during the World War I front-line during the Christmas Truce, until today, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” was on a moving treadmill fuelled year on and on by popularity – casting a celestial spell upon all Christendom and in a multitude of directions.

During an interview in the early last century, the grandson of Franz produced a copy of the manuscript of “Silent Night” in his possession which he claimed to be a copy made by Franz Gruber in 1836. The original is no longer in existence. It was the oldest known copy and contained the original stanzas penned by Josef for which voices and instruments were arranged.

Presently, the Stille Nacht Kapelle, the memorial chapel blessed in 1937, stands on the site of the old St. Nikola Church which disappeared with time – perhaps consequent to the deadly maelstrom of floods of River Salzach in 1899 when most of the river-side houses were carried away. The year 1899 may be remembered by movie lovers as the year of birth of American actor Humphrey “Bogie” Bogart. He was a Christmas baby born on December 25th. The image of the old chapel can be seen, among other works, on the brochure of Stille Nacht Kapelle and as chocolate-box scenes.

The carols we always associate with Christmas are of very old religious lyric and musical idea. The combination of singing and dancing carols is undated since it existed among people from time immemorial. As one could think of the Christian tradition of the joyful hymn of praise “Gloria in excelsis Deo” the angels sung to the Shepherds, appreciating the Nativity story in a stirring age in our history, the popular mind could also reflect on the soft lullaby of the Nazarene maiden Mary as she lulls her new-born babe to sleep in a manger of that hamlet called Bethlehem (according to a book, the name Bethlehem signifies the “House of Bread“).

Fashions have changed – tastes have altered – the carols may go in and out of favour. Then again, together with the seasonal favourites “O Come All Ye Faithful / Adeste Fideles,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, the jubilant “Joy to the World”, etc, the soulful Christmas carol “Silent Night” has always sweetened the joyous effect in our home during the Christmas Eve.

As Christmastime shows up annually, we have had our moments in the festivities, feasting and jollities that goes along with it. In common parlance, the Christmas favourite lists: the living room dressed in the house’s finest, the Nativity crib, a brightly decorated tree to glisten and gleam with baubles, tinsel and fairy lights, the mistletoe, the Christmas stockings and gifts, the brass and silver brightly polished, the holiday table laden for sumptuous feast fit for a gastrophile at heart, the seasonal melodies like the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” to moon and swoon, to talk over old and new times with near and dear. All those Christmas traditions are perfect and nice to hold on to – and meaningful, too.

The concept of the illuminated Christmas trees in legends of Germany relates to the heathen belief that the new life energy developed after midwinter by all trees and sprigs should be taken into homes to radiate its power among all those who live there. Delightfully, there are other things also not to lose sight of – mind you, to ensure a certain period to reminisce and meditate about all things that one builds too high in one’s mind and to thank for our many blessings.

At this time, Christmas would seem funny here without snow. But we would overlook that – for it has always been so. Then again, certainly there will be melodies inspired by my wife from our collection of her native Weihnachtslieder to ensure this Christmastime will be one of enchantment.

A Merry Christmas full of Joy and Cheer

Jo & Carina

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Christmas Always Comes Up Trumps

Christmas is different from what it was more than 100 years ago… yet it is much the same. At length, Christmas celebrations have become more and more elaborate – hiked up by the gravitational pull of commercialisation that might even lead us to believe that Walt Disney invented Santa Claus.

But the traditional oldies are there to fall back on: the Christmas Eve, the traditional Holy Mass, shining stars, cribs in Nativity scene, Christmas trees, angels, decorations, greenery, fairy lights winking and blinking, carols, songs, dances, gifts, wining and dining, stuffed poultry and plum pudding, white-iced cakes, Christmas & New Year greeting cards…..and then there are the candles calling attention to the legend of medieval times when lighted candles were placed in windows as a welcome to the Christ child, to show that there was a place in the home for Him.

As I wrote in my previous posts, I have had many Christmas memories from my childhood and one of my few flights of fancy is to allow them to flood me every now and then – especially during Christmas time. They are like Christmas decorations saved from Christmas to Christmas, and more added each year.

The joy of those carefree Christmases! Still and all, Christmas was something inside me – a singing in my heart. As if Mr. Charles Dickens might call at any time, our ritual of Christmas does not change. Each year there is much the same routine. The excitement spread over weeks as the star is hung, the crib is made, the Christmas tree erected hung with baubles and other decorations, and friends and relatives came in to visit.

The clever old Santa, with rhythmic, booming sounds and a certain sense of dignity will show up in the evenings without his sleigh, his eyes, exuding geniality and delight, peeping through the eye holes on his mask. He was accompanied by dancers and singers few of whom can’t carry a tune in a steam shovel. It’s all very Christmassy.

One of the neighbours of our traditional house was a family with three men good with their hands and easy-to-make notions. They are linked in my mind with stars and cribs. Two-to-three weeks leading to Christmas Day, these men and some of their friends, real no-nonsense workers, devoted their afternoons to create very low-cost and small-scaled Christmas trimmings for selling locally.

As it drew near to Christmas and there was no school to worry about, I sometimes went over to watch them create stars and cribs using bamboo. Their vibes was so grand that they could all laugh at the same things. Once the bamboo was cut vertically into sticks of required lengths, both surfaces are buffed finely to obtain smooth texture before they are tied into shapes of stars and cribs. The roof of cribs was thatched with hay.

Most of their exquisite works, some even varnished for glossy look,  are sold at Michael’s shop at the junction by our street and in the evenings people oh’d and ah’d looking up at the cribs and lighted stars on display for sale.

One of the most amusing was a wonderful Christmas in the 70s when our family made a beautiful Christmas tree. It stands out most vividly in my mind. Approximately 6ft. tall, it was bedecked with all the delicate sparkle associated with Christmas decorations. Given that the pine and fir (species grown as fresh Christmas trees in Europe and elsewhere) were not readily available potted at that time, a similar species (possibly, Araucaria Heterophylla) was acquired.

Set upright in base made of wooden pieces, the plant was decorated with gold and copper paper, gold and red ribbons, sequins, bugle beads, gold streamers, crepe paper strings, cardboard cylinders, fairy lights, etc., to create that jingle-bells effect. Copper and gold was kept as colour scheme to indicate the sparkle of the festive occasion. Few years saw us using a tree with branches cleared off its leaves as a substitute when the right plant was unavailable. Always the charming note is that the decorated Christmas tree, ablaze with tiny lights, represents the spirituality of Christmas.

The matter of substitute mentioned above brings to my mind the letter of a woman published in an old magazine about her great-grandmother who was a colonist passenger in a ship from Europe bound for Australia more than 160 years ago. As the narration goes, everyone was looking forward to spend Christmas in the new land and ladle great helpings of Aussie hospitality.

But, sweet suffering grief, on the Christmas Eve all were disheartened to learn that the ship was still hundreds of miles away which meant – no Christmas tree. Then again, did anyone there hear the angels in Heaven sing? When the children gathered in the saloon for their gifts, they were surprised to find a little tree with real leaves.

Assuming that the ship will be delayed and Christmas would be spent at sea, the ship’s carpenter had made the tree. Upon sailing from Cape Town, he had sowed parsley seeds in a box filled with sand (from ship’s ballast) and sawdust. Having kept out of reach of salt spray, the crew took turns to water it using their daily allowance of drinking water. As Christmas neared, the parsley had grown luxuriantly. From the firewood the carpenter carved out the stem and the branches on which the parsley leaves were tied. The tree was adorned with tiny candles, tinsel ornaments and white sugar for ‘snow’. A Christmas tree was born!

True to the Christmas ideal, how wonderful the ship’s carpenter had made his finest effort and shared his decorated Christmas tree to swell the hearts of strangers and friends. Indeed, Christmas, just as it always does, triumph after all. Merry Christmas, Jo

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

A Winsome Sweet ‘17

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2The New Year’s Day 2017 has arrived with hopes – giving new courage and belief for a fresh start. The transitory period when the old year gives way for the new often kindles a curious manifestation of optimism in us and inspires hope for a “happy and better New Year” – free from the misfortunes of the year just gone by. Inwardly, this feeling is merely a repetition of the optimism that inspired us at earlier New Year’s Eves when it was wished that the ensuing New Year would bring its own heaven. Even though the year’s outcome was contrary to our expectation, yet again, when the clock struck the first note of midnight at the New Year’s Eve, and the bells ring, the fire crackers were lit, Auld Lang Syne was sung to be followed by other old, new, nostalgic medley of seasonal carols and songs, and toasts were raised, we take fresh heart to, once again, hope for the best.

New Year’s Day is the eighth day after Christmas and traditionally, bears the name “Octava Domini” (In Octavas Domini) in the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries. The first of January appeared as an ecclesiastical festival at Rome for the first time at the beginning of the ninth century, where it is called from the first Circumcisione Domini. The idea and date of this festival are derived from the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter II. 21), since eight days after birth, the Christmas child of Virgin Mary was circumcised and received the name Jesus, a personal name. The year ends with the birth and begins with the naming.

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This year’s crib in our house

The traditions and customs related with New Year’s Day were concerned with bringing good luck for the coming year. When the year dies out at the chimes of the midnight hour, and when the traditional toast and ubiquitous salutations of “Happy New Year” and “Good Health” resonate the air and people hugged, kissed and shook hands; whatever be the attitude of the body, certain thoughts in some of us would become silent prayers turned heavenward, thanking for the past years and hoping for the best times and good health. Holy Toledo! The truth is you cannot savour the joys of life without good health.

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It is also a time for New Year resolution – decisions intended to abandon a bad habit or adopt a good one in the New Year, most popular being the decision to give up smoking and to diet which are always updated as time passes by. According to a survey, two people out of three made such resolutions but most soon break them.

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Back in December 2013 we were in Bangkok for the festive season. There was political unrest in the country at that time between red and yellow shirts. But rather than let the tourism go haywire and celebration of people curtailed, the sensible local authorities, very efficient to cope with the matters of their positions and departments, did not clamp on any undue restrictions which was laudable.

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On that warm Saturday morning of December 2013, I was waiting to keep my appointment at one of my favourite Foot Reflexology parlours in Bangkok which I had managed to reach from my hotel with some difficulty. As many of you will know, Bangkok is notorious for traffic congestions, but since yesterday (Friday, 27th) the streets were unusually packed as the New Year revellers flocked out of Bangkok to their villages. A friend of the owner of the parlour, a middle-aged Thai was also in the lobby with me waiting for the arrival of his friend. A great conversationalist, he is known to me from my earlier visits. That was the extent of our acquaintance. Having known that I write about Bangkok, he wisely used my waiting time to give me a run through about some of the many traditions and customs of his land – most of which I had come to know over the years in some finery.

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9When our conversation touched upon Songkran festival (marks the start of the traditional Thai New Year which falls during April), he suddenly switched the topic to the hair style he would be getting at the adjoining salon either on 30th or 31st (specifically on Monday and Tuesday which he believed are the only good days for getting haircut!!) in time for the New Year’s Eve. At that time, his hairdresser would remove the red-shades from his natural jet black hair worn too long by Thai standards. Although I tried to avert the conversation from being nosy about his personal choice, he went right ahead and told that he is clearing the red shades for his elder sister who has invited him to her house for late dinner on the New Year’s Eve which he intended to attend, after cutting-short his own razzle-dazzle with his friends at the local pub.

8As assigned, he would be the “first-foot” to enter his sister’s household to usher in the New Year. This fairly clear-cut custom, which has many versions, is based on a Hogmanay (a New Year’s Eve in Scotland) tradition, and still kept up in some Far Eastern and Australian households.

It is believed that if the first person to cross the threshold of a house after midnight, when the old year ends and the New begins, is a dark haired man, a year of good luck will follow. Since her brother’s last “first-foot”, she had experienced lesser gale over the domestics. And certainly, once more the elements of specific gifts a “first-footer” usually brings which symbolised life, hospitality and warmth is in his consideration to take along with him.

For his sister, who displayed great strength and furious energy to go through the ritual of sweeping her whole house thoroughly on 31st of every December, the recruitment of her brother to make the necessary entrance at her house is rooted on her belief that it should be someone with dark hair and not of her household.

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Family ties are stronger at Christmas and New Year time – and louder, too. First of January is Global Family Day, too. Mind you, he would have his fun in her home ground – the whisky, the songs, the smile, the smells – and the mishmash of games: shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, Bingo, cards, and God knows what else. To reach her home at that time of the night without the bow-wow of stray dogs in her street would be a benefit since any stray dogs living in the premises on New Year’s Eve were particularly cleared because, according to his sister, they brought bad luck.

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People do strange things hoping for best things ahead. Not long ago, a European chef of Mandarin Oriental spoke about a Thai chef’s unbridled enthusiasm for anything associated with superstitions. The Roman belief that misfortune would come into a house by anyone entering with his left foot first, is a custom which is strictly followed with right foot by his family. They have a tradition to criss-cross certain rituals of the Thai Songkran festival also with the customs of New Year’s Day.  The ingredients they used in this respect, forming part of the ritual of bathing of Buddha statues during Songkran, consists of five bowls containing different-coloured floating flowers – each colour to represent prosperity in a variety of forms: Rose Red to bring a tranquil life devoid of obstacles; Marigold Orange to signify success and wealth; Anchan Blue representing strength to overcome obstacles; Pandan Green for peace without problems; and Jasmine White to symbolise a joyful life.

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The question about how a fairly intelligent and even moderately educated person could inwardly believe these superstitions – that number 13 is unlucky, or that one should not start a new venture on Friday, etc., in spite of its universal acceptance, is, how-do-you-say-it, much like a pyramid balanced in unstable equilibrium upon its point. Nevertheless, people do knock on wood; take a pinch of salt and throw it over their left shoulder; or refuse to walk under a ladder, and hope that, “touch wood”, this New Year would hopefully go down in memory as the year they moved into the house of prosperity, good health, peace, joy and all things of goodness – with the baggage of serious misfortune safely left behind. I remember the saying, if you must leave your old house and move to a new one do not take your old broom with you.

Thank you for riding with me during the past year. I raise a toast: Here is wishing my friends and readers a lovely, peaceful and prosperous new 2017. Jo

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

NOTRE DAME WILL STAND – Part II

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Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.”

Here at last, we are at the queue at Portail de Sainte-Anne and these lines from: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lobster Quadrille (The Mock Turtle’s Song) by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) had crossed my mind. To whoever was right behind me at the queue – there certainly was urgency to get into the cathedral.

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Once inside, we would soon realise that the timing of the visit to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris was perfect for us. Before we could explore the double aisles, various chapels, rose windows, the ambulatory, etc, our attention was drawn to the streams of music wafting from the central transept where, we soon found the Chorus, soloists and an orchestra in jubilant mood – practising a classical music concert. So that explained the urgency at the queue.

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In comparison with its length, the cathedral is extremely broad. Standing over the black and white coloured floor tiles at the west end, the interior appeared well lit though I could see a marked variation between the principal nave, the transept and the chancel.

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However, despite the changes made to provide more light to the tribunes, in gloomy weather, the cathedral can still appear sombre and even cavernous. This subject about the light reminded me of an entry I once read in the Duchess of Windsor’s (Wallis Simpson) memoirs: “….As the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) walked past, I (Wallis) overheard him mutter to his uncle, the Duke of Connaught: “Uncle Arthur, something ought to be done about the lights. They make all the women look ghastly.” (1)

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Good music often transports me into another dimension. Slipping into a wooden bench nearer the transept, we spent some time in glorious musical bliss while the 14th century Statue of Virgin Mary Holding the Christ Child joyfully watched over us as she leaned against the south-east pillar where an altar dedicated to the Virgin had stood earlier. This work is dedicated to “Notre-Dame de Paris” and the most distinguished of nearly 40 representations of the Virgin inside the cathedral.

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At every moment in the world, things change and the shape of things to come seldom announced its presence among us, but later on. It was as if fate had planned our visit to arrive here right on our schedule. Had we lingered longer by the banks of the Seine and watched the barges and bateaux mouches float silently along the river; or indulged longer to thumb through dusty volumes at the quayside bouquinistes’ stalls selling bouquins (old used books) and other special treasures, while enjoying the kiss of the sun from above; or idled more time away sitting under the candy-stripped awning of the open-air café on the chestnut-lined boulevard, with a lingering glass of red and a croquet-monsieur, relishing the general joy of watching the moving stream of pedestrians; – then, we might never have reached this cathedral to enjoy the musical treat on that day. Punctuality works! Carina always said Punctuality is indeed my first, last and middle name.

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I was too entranced in the music to turn around to look up the nave at the West end where, directly below the artistic upper West Rose window is situated the great organ (one of the three) – a marked feature of the Cathédrale. Rebuilt by Thierry Lesclope in 1730, enlarged in 1785 by Cliquot, and improved by Cavaillè-Coll, it is reputedly the largest organ in France, There is no need for me to look back at it now. I had endeavoured to study it during earlier visits and my mental picture of that area is clear down to the upper ends of the organ’s pipes obstructing the lower half of that Rosette.

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Presently the musical performance came to a close, and a wave of applause swept through the cathedral. Most of the crowd, as if signalled by an internal green alert, had started to head for the exit – possibly, in search of the sun.  We resumed our exploration along the far-stretching southern aisle, passing the great cylindrical columns rising to support the vaulted ceilings, their weights being shared by the external flying buttresses on both sides of the huge structure. On our right was the line of chapels forming part of the numerous chapels around the walls.

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I can well understand why Notre Dame de Paris has had a splendid acceptance. In its long course of construction, this edifice had to transit through the art movements of Romanesque and the Gothic, a progression that branded it as a transitional structure. The gauzy structure of Gothic architecture resulted in the rise of stained glass, the virtual elimination of solid wall space and transformed the walls as connecting space for windows. At that time, the thought crossed my mind that all this would be of professional interest to my second daughter Andrea, engaged with her studies in architecture back home.

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An important feature on the southern side of the slightly projecting transept is the Rose window. Now this is an artful creation of bold, simple trellis designs with an amazing arrangement of stained glass work. The most frequent background was a red trellis on a blue field. During an earlier visit, I overheard a local guide mentioning about the window’s primary colours to a group of American tourists, suggesting that “it is very drawable.”

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But if we observe it with a painterly eye, there is a revelation. We could see the predominant blue dissolves for different colours; and the window glows in pink and crimson tones. The colours had been there to be found all the time. When taken as a boy to Notre Dame, it was this rose window of the south which seized upon the imagination of the great architect Viollet le Duc (January 1814 – September 1879) and stirred his passion for Gothic. In “Paris; the Magic City by The Seine”, author Gertrude Hauck Vonne explains that situation: “While gazing at it the organ began to play, and he (Viollet) thought that the music came from the window – the shrill, high notes from the light colors, and the solemn, bass notes from the dark and more subdued hues.”

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2-013As we proceeded further ahead, we would notice that not only the nave, but the choir, possessed double aisles. To our right was the entrance to The Sacristy (formerly part of the Palais Episcopal) and The Treasury which housed many precious things. Before going around the magnificent semi-circular apse at the east end to the northern aisle, one could see the High Altar; the three large statues: the Descent from the Cross; Louis XIII, (both by Guillaume Coustou, 1677 – 1746) and of Louis XIV (by Antoine Coysevox, 1640 – 1720). The Ambulatory (pourtour) of the Choir was raised above the body of the church by three steps, both sides enclosed by a low grille in wrought iron with gilding. I could well imagine the magnificent set-piece of pageantry of various ceremonial occasions held here; and how the echoes of many “Te Deums” had resonated inside these old walls for victories long forgotten, and for those many long remembered.

The removable stones of the pavement close to the small organ on the north side of the choir lead to a subterranean burial chamber for eminent officials of the cathedral. Remains of a small Gallo-Roman votive pillar to Jupiter (which I had mentioned in the First Part) were discovered some six feet beneath the apse during excavations for this crypt during 1711.

Prior to the northern Rose Window, one could see the famous Porte Rouge (Red Door), a masterpiece that dates back to the 14th century. It derived its name from its painted doors.

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Corresponding with the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris on the south is a statue of St. Denis by Nicolas Coustou in the north. Although many of the treasures were destroyed by the Revolution, granted there is time and inclination to explore the interior, one could spot the intrinsic beauty of many things that were well made – the sexpartite system of alternating ground supports, the clearstory, the stone step, the various windows, moulding round the doors, an artistic door handle, the numerous sculptures, fine chandeliers, paintings of much value ,… and the flowers at the foot of the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris which seem, to some, suddenly glow as if they were lit from within.

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Having purchased a Médaille for Andrea from a counter at the west end, we walked out through the northern Portail ae la Saint Vierge. In the bright sunlight one could clearly see the splendid character of the ironwork of the outer doors.

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Curious tradition relates this to the skill and energy of the devil. Up above, the grotesque representations of Chimères and gargouilles or “Devils of Notre Dame” lurked on strategic locations of the cathedral, scowling down from their point of vantage upon the French metropolis – probably their mark of attention even reached our present hotel somewhat closer to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – one of the many hotels of Paris noted also for its number of French oils – impressionist, expressionist, and abstract.

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As we took leave of Notre Dame de Paris, I reflected on the staying power of this ornate feat of architecture – this edifice of a community’s tangible bygone days. Have I missed something here? Although individual escape from the present into the past has rarely been more widespread than it is now, there is another side of the coin of course. Recently the world has witnessed the cruel destruction of historical monuments to suit the ideologies of certain groups.

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In September 2016, The Telegraph (UK) reported the discovery of upto seven cylinders of gas tanks and documents in a specific language in an unmarked Peugeot 607 next to Notre Dame cathedral, sparking fresh terror fears. Condemnations and appeals against such ideologies were heard. Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, was the product of a similar protest and aimed to draw attention of his contemporaries to deter the destruction of existing architecture.

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By visiting and polishing up our love for noble monuments of the past, relating the stories behind their construction, understanding the masters who build them in their times, we not only comprehend the traditions, aesthetic and cultural history of an area but also of the high-values reached by civilization. Time is the most precious commodity I possess. I am glad that the hour glass of my life is also filled by precious moments like the favourite footpaths I have treaded in the course of my visit here – helpful journeys into the past which I am excited to make from time to time. And, hopefully, when I come back here again, I know Notre Dame de Paris will be here – waiting. Jo

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Notes:

  • Besides other improvements, the Cathedral’s lighting system was upgraded by late 2012 owing to a year-long 850th anniversary celebration.
  • For those in need of flowers for Notre Dame de Paris, there is a huge selection at Marché aux fleurs, Place Louis Lépine – Quai de la Corse near Cité Metro Station.
  • I am indebted to many publications dating from the late 19th century onwards, for useful background data;
  • This article is dedicated to my daughter Andrea Lalis Sebastine, the architect in our family.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)